Southeast Asia’s Twittering Heads of State

SE Asian leaders are becoming increasingly savvy with social media. The results have been positive–mostly.

“Hello, people of Indonesia. I have joined Twitter to exchange greetings, views and inspirations. Nice to meet you.”

With these 140 characters, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, or SBY as he is known, joined the Twittersphere on April 13. After two weeks of tweeting, SBY has gained more than 1.7 million followers and cemented his status as the most popular Southeast Asian leader, at least in terms of the number of Twitter followers.

SBY, whose term will end next year, seems to be enhancing his social media presence. Early this month, his government launched the @IstanaRakyat Twitter account to document his official activities. Aside from Twitter, Indonesians can send SMS messages direct to SBY. And for the old fashioned, SBY accepts letters via snail mail to P.O. Box 9949.  

SBY’s initial tweets referenced the Boston bombing and political reforms in Aceh. Interestingly, he also tweeted summaries of the main points of his speech at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore about the achievements and priorities of his administration. He claimed that his leadership inaugurated a "transformational decade which made Indonesia’s trillion dollar economy the largest in Southeast Asia

He also tweeted his advice to Arab Spring countries: “Muslims in Indonesia are comfortable with democracy and modernity. This may well offer valuable lessons to Arab Spring countries.”

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SBY is not the first Indonesian politician to capitalize on social media tools in an attempt to influence public opinion, but his entry into the world of Twitter affirmed the growing significance of the Internet in Indonesian politics.

If SBY wanted some pointers on how to effectively leverage Twitter, he could turn to Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, who has been actively using the ubiquitous microblogging site since 2008. Malaysia has two million Twitter users and Najib is the most popular personality of the lot, with more than 1.5 million followers.

Najib does not simply post his thoughts on domestic issues; he also interacts with Malaysian netizens. He once used Twitter to invite his followers to watch a live broadcast of his favorite football team. And when Korean singer Psy of “Gangnam Style” fame performed in Malaysia, Najib clarified on Twitter that no government funds were used in the public event. He has also hosted several meetups and other offline events with his Twitter followers.

Najib even described the May 5 General Elections as Malaysia’s first social media elections.” Unlike in the previous 2008 election, Najib’s party has been aggressively reaching out to communities in cyberspace to campaign.  

If Najib needed some tips on how to use social media to score a victory at the polls, he can ask Philippine President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino, who boosted his chances by mobilizing online voters in the 2010 presidential elections. After winning the elections, Aquino maintained his high social media profile and now has more than 1.4 million Twitter followers. For good measure, Aquino also keeps several Twitter and Facebook accounts.

In one instance in September 2010, Aquino directly answered a Facebook critic who criticized the president’s supposed inefficiency and some of his cabinet choices. In his reply, Aquino pointed to progress and asked for more time before judging the results.

While SBY, Najib and Aquino have been relatively adept with social media, the transition to Twitter was not so smooth for Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, who was forced to delete her Twitter account in 2011 after it was hacked and used to send a number of tweets that were critical of the Thai government.

Overall, Southeast Asian leaders have made good use of Twitter and other social media tools to communicate directly with their citizens. Of course, Twitter will not instantly raise public approval ratings, but it can give leaders a tech-savvy image, which could raise their appeal with the younger population. The upcoming elections in Malaysia could offer another case in point.