SINGAPORE (AP) — Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong posting Instagram photos? Interesting, but not unusual. He does it all the time. But Singapore’s leader posting them from inside the White House, on the official presidential residence account? Now that’s a different story.
Lee, who is on a state visit to the United States, posted a photo of himself lounging on a floral sofa at the president’s guesthouse on Tuesday, with the caption: “Stay tuned today as the White House and I do a mutual takeover of our Instagram accounts!”
Essentially, it meant Lee took over the White House account and had the freedom to post any picture he wanted. Ditto, the White House with his account. Local media reported that the swap was to last a day.
Many followers of the official White House handle — exceeding 2.5 million — greeted Lee with words of welcome.
“Welcome Prime Minister Loong! I hope that you enjoy our country as much as I enjoyed being in yours. I hope to go back one of these days,” Samantha Kelly posted.
Some who posted questioned Singapore’s bans on chewing gum and graffiti, often cited as examples of the city state’s notoriously tough laws that include sentences such as caning for vandalism and the death penalty for drug smuggling.
Singaporeans understandably chipped in to express their pride. Perhaps they felt that Lee, an avid photographer, would be delighted to showcase his snapshots on a larger stage.
Back home in the wealthy island nation of 5.5 million people, Lee has a much smaller audience — 239,000 followers on Instagram, with whom he often shares scenes from diplomatic meetings, community events and leisurely treks. These generally garner positive responses from even the country’s circle of critical shutterbugs. He also has 354,000 followers on Twitter and nearly 1.1 million on Facebook.
After his first picture on the sofa, Lee shared four more, one of which was captured at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
“It’s a big honor for us to celebrate how far our peoples have come together,” Lee wrote on another snapshot, which captured delighted onlookers at an arrival ceremony.
“In the U.S., I have encountered our citizens all over the country,” he said. “It’s a good reminder that our ties are not just about government or company business, but thrive in the hearts and souls of our people.”
On Lee’s Instagram account, White House administrators documented preparations for the state dinner hosted by President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, which the Singaporean leader attended with his wife, Ho Ching, and other officials. One photo was of the two leaders and their wives.
Despite Singapore’s small size — it’s about half the area of Los Angeles — the nation has a disproportionately important relationship with the United States. The two are key trading and security partners. The city state hosts more than 3,500 U.S. companies, and its armed forces often conduct joint exercises with the U.S. military. The two nations are also part of the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement.
“For the U.S., it is a creative outreach effort to assert its soft power through social media,” Eugene Tan, an associate law professor at Singapore Management University, said in an interview.
“Indirectly, it’s a powerful statement that the U.S. is a friend that can be trusted,” he said. “This against the backdrop of the unsettling U.S. presidential election and the U.S.-China rivalry, most significantly in East and Southeast Asia.”
Lee got some good press on Facebook, too. One Singaporean, Francis Chew, commented on Lee’s Facebook page: “Good to see sustaining friendship with the U.S. and for the better. God bless you and have a fruitful trip!”
Citizens had good reason to celebrate Lee’s U.S. trip, given that the last visit by a Singaporean prime minister to the White House was in 1985 — by Lee’s father, the late Lee Kuan Yew. That was during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, when the internet as we know it today didn’t exist, let alone Instagram.