Sunday, June 25, 2017

38 Oxley Road - The Battle for the Narrative

38 Oxley Road – The Battle for the Narrative

The 38 Oxley Road saga continues to hog the headlines in Singapore. This is not in the least due to the fact that Lee Hsien Yang has deliberately chosen to release information in drips and drabs to keep the pressure on his brother – Lee Hsien Loong.

(Once again I must caveat that this is not a political blog and we do not side with either party. The purpose of this blog is to understand the battle of the narratives which is an important aspect of crisis communications.)

Since this saga began slightly more than a week ago, Hsien Yang’s end game and his narrative have become increasingly clear. Hsien Yang wants the political destruction of his brother Lee Hsien Loong and he has adopted three main narratives that target Hsien Loong’s power base – "LHL lies", "LHL abuses his power" and "LHL practices nepotism". To Hsien Yang, it does not matter who he hurts in the process. All that matters is that Hsien Loong must be destroyed.

To that end, each and every post (message) that Hsien Yang, Lee Wei Ling, and family have released tries to build upon these narratives. The key messages that Hsien Yang and his team have been pushing are:
  • LHL has said different things to different people about his thoughts for 38 Oxley Road
  • a secret ministerial committee was formed to stop the demolition of 38 Oxley Road
  • the members of the committee were not revealed to him or Lee Wei Ling
  • Ho Ching falsely represented PMO in lending items NHB when she had no official appointment in the government
  • Lucien Wong was appointed Attorney General as a reward
Hsien Yang is a brilliant strategist. Even his father Lee Kuan Yew described Hsien Yang as being extremely shrewd. By constantly repeating the above messages (supported by “evidence” in the form of redacted and piecemeal email correspondence), Hsien Yang is brilliantly playing on the emotions of Singaporeans. Hsien Yang is targeting perceptions that some Singaporeans (rightly or wrongly) hold about Lee Kuan Yew’s era of government. Unfortunately, such perceptions still abound and carry over to the government of the day even when it no longer exists.

Hsien Yang’s strategy is thus highly effective as it targets existing vulnerabilities in the target audience and uses the psychological operations (PSYOP) technique of themes and messages. In themes and messages, messages are consistently fed to the target audience alluding to the theme. Done correctly, the target audience will cognitively piece the messages together and eventually self-derive the theme. As the theme is self-derived, acceptance is strong and near impossible to dislodge. The power of this technique is that the messages do not need to be based on truths.

38 oxley road psychological operations narratives

In contrast, Lee Hsien Loong has adopted a strategy of restraint and message of facts. This is perhaps due to his desire not to drag the family name through the mud, but it is more likely due to the fact that his actions, as an individual, cannot be separated from scrutiny as the actions of the Prime Minister. Hsien Loong’s is thus in a no-win position. His decision to address Hsien Yang’s accusation openly and transparently in Parliament is his only available course of action. Until then, Hsien Loong has no choice but to ride out the asymmetrical attacks by Hsien Yang and hope that level heads will prevail in Parliament.

For now, all we can say is that Lee Hsien Yang is winning the battle for the narrative. Let’s see what happens on 3 July 2017. 

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