Raymond Lim and the Internet

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By Zach Isaiah Chia

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What former Minister Raymond Lim said at his book launch last Friday deserves unemotional scrutiny. As the Internet opens a new world of  uninhibited expression, it is important for Singaporeans to have the “courage  to stand up to those who would tear society asunder”, he said. It was more important to “speak up and stand up for what you believe in”. He said it was “worrying that people who support the government [are pilloried and flamed]”.

It is important to understand why Singapore has come to this point of  political abuse. It is only natural that when a society is bottled up for so long and when the lid is finally lifted, the citizenry will give their two cents work on everything and every person. This is the price the government is paying.

The pendulum has swung the other way for sure. This correspondent asked Lim if this was just the teething phase of a forced opening up that was happening in Singapore. He responded that “social sorting” on the Internet was prevalent and people would drift to sites that vocalised their views.

But is the Internet a purveyor of extreme views?

It generally becomes extreme when the public does not have an opportunity to express their views freely. The Internet is not a democracy. It gives the illusion of one because everyone has a voice. Actually, a hierarchy of voices exists and some voices are more influential than others.

A significant number of these influential bloggers are very rational in their discourse, even if their criticisms are cutting. Then there are public personalities such as Tommy Koh and Ngiam Tong Dow who are  viewed with equal measure of respect on both sides of the divide. They are viewed as independent intellectuals.

But the problem is that the government views nearly every one who has opposing thoughts with suspicion. What is their agenda? That is a question that is still asked in the corridors of power.

The climate of trust and openness needs to be built. It is only when such openness is nurtured, that a more balanced discourse will take place, views better covered and the vitriolic minority will be relegated to the sidelines.

Lim was arguing for calibration and he is right to want that.. But for the National Discussion to self-calibrate, even flourish, in the online world the government must come to the conclusion that the Internet is not going to go away. Ways have to be found to accommodate and embrace the thoughtful voices, even if they are not pro-government. Once that happens, the so-called extremism in the Internet will be pushed to the fringes.