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How President-elect Tharman’s ‘ong lai’ rolled into hearts and minds of voters

President-elect Tharman Shanmugaratnam receiving a pineapple from a supporter at Taman Jurong Market and Food Centre on Sept 2. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

SINGAPORE - The humble pineapple, which Singaporeans associate with rolling good fortune into new homes and with hospitality, became an unlikely star at the recent presidential election.

To both voters and marketing and branding experts, President-elect Tharman Shanmugaratnam’s use of the tropical fruit as a symbol of his campaign was a “brilliant” and “clever” choice that resonated with people across age, race and background.

Throughout the nine days of campaigning, Mr Tharman, 66, was met with chants of “ong lai”, which means pineapple in Hokkien, and “huat ah!”, a Hokkien expression for prosperity. He also surprised drinks stall worker Ng Boon Ping with a pineapple during a walkabout at Lau Pa Sat.

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At an election meeting at Pasir Panjang Power Station, some supporters turned up in outfits with pineapple prints; one even wore a pineapple brooch.

By Polling Day on Sept 1, Mr Tharman had become synonymous with the fruit – his supporters turned up at Taman Jurong Market and Food Centre bearing pineapples while bursting out into “ong lai” cheers.

Keeping it simple and easy to remember

When Mr Tharman unveiled his election symbol on Nomination Day, he said that he chose it as the pineapple is a “propitious and welcome” symbol for many people here. He paired the symbol with the tag line “Respect For All”.

Political science undergraduate Maximilian Oh, 23, said that Mr Tharman’s symbol was memorable, as it was different from the usual political logos that voters might be familiar with.

“(It) suited the ‘non-political’ nature of the election. It was a neutral logo that represented Singapore society, not the candidate or his beliefs,” said the National University of Singapore student.

Aside from the pineapple symbol, what stood out for communications consultant Geraldine Wee, 44, was Mr Tharman’s tag line.

“Cost of living, mental health issues… people are generally unhappy, angry and looking for someone else to blame, so ‘Respect For All’ resonated with me,” she said.

Marketing executive Rebecca Tan, 25, thought the pineapple was a “really great choice” that could connect with Singaporeans of all races. She noted that even the “ong lai” cheer became a slogan in itself.

“The other logos (from the other candidates) were safe, but you couldn’t really do much with them. (While they) had significant enough meaning, it sounded a bit like fluff,” said Ms Tan.

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Former GIC chief investment officer Ng Kok Song’s symbol was an open hand, with a heart in the middle of the palm. His tag line was “United For Our Future”.

Mr Ng, 75, said that the “five fingers symbolise the various races in Singapore”, and the palm signifies that while people might come from different races and religions, “we are one palm, we are one country”.

The third candidate, Mr Tan Kin Lian, 75, chose a symbol with four figures – representing the major ethnic groups in Singapore – reaching out to a flower.

The former NTUC Income chief executive said his logo represented hope for a better future, and he chose the tag line “Bring Back Trust, Give Us Hope” for his campaign.

Dr Dianna Chang, senior lecturer of the marketing programme at the Singapore University of Social Sciences’ School of Business, said that the use of a “common, affordable” fruit made Mr Tharman’s logo tangible.

She said: “People like the logo because pineapples are accessible to ordinary people, which most voters are. This allows the candidate to connect with people and lowers the power distance a political candidate is often associated with.

“It also suggests that, eventually, it is the everyday life that people care about, not promises that are far from life.”

Keeping it simple helped Mr Tharman’s symbol edge out his competitors “hands down”, said Ms Jane Chang, innovation lead at WE Communications Singapore, who noted that Mr Tharman picked a “versatile symbol” that is not only a popular ingredient in Asian cuisine, but also relevant to Singaporeans of all ages.

Dissecting the voter groups, she said: “For younger audiences, due to the simplistic nature of the pineapple and how it exists as an emoji, it is easy to make memes and viral-worthy content.”

“For more mature audiences, it is a symbol already associated with luck and prosperity, and with it being so accessible to purchase, it is an icon of uncomplicated optimism,” added Ms Chang, whose 2012 undergraduate research thesis explored the impact of graphic design on political campaigning.

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Thumbs-up from the other camps

Even supporters of the other candidates gave their thumbs-up for Mr Tharman’s tropical fruit symbol.

When assessing the three candidates’ logos, a 29-year-old voter who chose Mr Ng at the polls, picked Mr Tharman’s logo as the most memorable.

The software engineer, who wanted to be identified only as Jiale, said: “I forgot (the other two) logos, which were generic. Mr Tharman’s choice of pineapple was a talking point.”

A freelance art director, who voted for Mr Tan, said that he did not know what his campaign symbol was, or what it stood for.

“Mr Tan’s tag line felt like he was running in a general election, and sounded like he wanted to be an opposition party leader. I didn’t feel like it was something a president would say,” said the 34-year-old.

Another Tan Kin Lian supporter, a 59-year-old blogger, said that his flower-and-people logo was “attractive”, but “unfortunately, it can’t be eaten”.

Reflecting on Mr Tan’s slogan, he also said: “Trust and hope are good to have, but they are abstract concepts, not really necessary to keep some people’s property prices rising.”

A tailored approach

Mr Erwin Nah, creative director at Ogilvy Public Relations Singapore, said that Mr Tharman’s choice of using an unadorned, clip art-style pineapple was “surprisingly roguish” in a playful, even mischievous way, especially when put next to the logos of the other two candidates.

He said that Mr Ng’s and Mr Tan’s logos contained messages that needed to be explained, or required a voter to interpret their meanings on his own.

In contrast, Mr Tharman’s logo came across as a “friendly, balmy, comforting icon” that is recognisable in Singapore’s culture, and relatable on a personal level too, said Mr Nah.

“We each have a story or two about rolling pineapples across our new homes or offices. In using the pineapple, Mr Tharman linked his campaign to voters’ identities as individuals, that he is like us, he understands our unique needs and he wants to help us ‘huat’,” he added.

Mr Jackson Tan, creative director at multidisciplinary agency Black, said Mr Tharman’s pineapple logo was “refreshing and unexpected”, and differentiated him from the other candidates.

However, using a fruit symbol may not work for every candidate – whether in the recent election or in the future, should anyone try to replicate Mr Tharman’s success, said Mr Tan, who designed the SG50 logo.

Mr Tan noted that Singaporeans were already familiar with Mr Tharman’s persona, credentials and background, which was why they could connect the dots and link his logo and tag line to him.

“This approach may not work for every candidate, and could actually go the other way. It could make them look unprepared or they may be mocked for being amateurish,” he said.

“You need to ‘tailor’ the right shirt for the person.”