Why doesn't the govt get it?

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Cherian George

Q and A: From the Prime Minister downwards, nearly every government leader has only harsh words for the discourse on the Net. Why does the government still keep harping on the negative aspects of the Internet? Academic Cherian George answers this and other questions on the government-Internet showdown posed by P N Balji, editor, The Independent Singapore.

Q. It has been about 15 years since Singaporeans have taken to the Internet seriously. How do you see the growth of this medium as a platform of expression?

A. In Singapore, it has clearly made communication more democratic. It has lowered the regulatory and economic barriers that used to prevent publishers, writers, filmmakers and artists from reaching the public. Of course, if you want to make money from your content, that is still not easy. But if you are happy to share your work for free, at least you have the option to do it now. Pre-internet, even if you wanted to give content away, you couldn’t, because the regulations and the costs kept you out of the public sphere.

The other big thing that has happened is of course social media. Pre-internet, we used to have these sorts of conversations in the coffeeshop, or with a taxi driver, or after work, sharing information and opinions within our circles. ‘This government is damn one kind, and by the way the laksa I had was damn shiok.’ The urge to share is nothing new, but social media have grown the frequency, intensity and scale of our talk-cock sessions exponentially.

Q. What role did the social media play in the results of the GE 2011?

A. We can safely say that the contest between Tin Pei Ling and Nicole Seah in Marine Parade GRC would have played out very differently if not for social media. Although she won, Tin was probably the biggest casualty of the new online politics in 2011; and Seah was the biggest winner, even though she lost.

Beyond that, the impact of social media was probably over-hyped. Let me put it very simply. If the technology was stuck at 2006 levels, or even 2001 levels, would the PAP’s vote share still have slipped by several points in 2011, and would the Workers’ Party still have won Aljunied GRC and retained Hougang? I think so.

The PAP was punished because it dropped the ball on too many policies that matter to Singaporeans. I don’t think Singaporeans needed Facebook, YouTube or Twitter to tell them that public transport was overcrowded or public housing overpriced, that the country was overflowing with too many foreigners, or that public officials were overpaid. Sure, social media helped people vocalise their unhappiness, and this may have had some effect at the margins; but social media didn’t invent the public unhappiness.

I think the real effects are more long-term. Singapore’s political culture has been transformed by the internet. Pre-internet, the government used to demand respect based on rank, by invoking Confucianism or Asian Values. But the internet allowed Singaporeans to talk to and about their officials as equals. And it has allowed other Singaporeans to observe this and to see for themselves that roof hasn’t fallen down – we can speak about our officials frankly, and investors don’t flee and we don’t revert to fishing village status. Gradually, over more than 15 years of this, we now basically have a new political culture, one which I think is far more resilient and healthy because it is openly skeptical of power.

Q. The government has yet to come to grips with how to deal with this medium. Why so?

A. Intellectually, I don’t think there is anything the government doesn’t grasp. They have done enough studies, they have scenario planners, in-house experts and consultants. No group in Singapore has invested as much quality brainpower into this as the government has.

The problem is application. I think it is genuinely difficult for the PAP’s heart to act according to what its head tells it. One of the pillars of PAP dominance was its ability to set the agenda by getting the cooperation of a small number of gatekeepers in the establishment media, and by forcefully keeping everyone else out of the game. Suddenly, there are many more new players and the old legal, political and economic carrots and sticks don’t work. The government has had to find new ways to shape the agenda. It has been moving in the right direction, but on the spur of the moment, or when it feels provoked, the old instincts are triggered, like a reflex action that it can’t help.

External factors also influence the government’s choices. In the mid-1990s, all the tech gurus and industry leaders were saying that the internet was about freedom. Singapore had to go along or risk putting off high-tech investors; hence its “light touch” promise, which it actually lived up to it for several years. But then 9/11 came along and the West began prizing order more than freedom. So, you were less of a pariah now if you started introducing internet controls.

Fast-forward to 2013, and we see the US, the supposed champion of internet freedom, engaging in mass surveillance and going after whistleblowers. I don’t think it’s pure coincidence that other governments are now much less shy about showing their true feelings about online dissent. China and Vietnam, for example, have been talking tough and trying to introduce some pretty outrageous controls. Singapore hasn’t gone to their extent, but I think you will see the government hide its impatience less than it used to. So, partly because of this global mood, the government’s adaptation to the internet era may be slowed.

 Q. What should the government do?

A. I assume that it wants to remain in power and fairly dominant. This is a realistic target, but it must moderate its expectations. It cannot dominate to the extent it used to, and if it tries to be domineering, it will slide faster.

First, it must have confidence in itself that it can win debates fair and square, without recourse to unnecessary force. Second, it must have confidence that democracy works, and that the majority of Singaporeans would support a government that does the right thing in the right way. Third, arising from this confidence, it must relax its grip on the mainstream media and allow professional journalists to do their job of fearlessly serving the public interest. And fourth, stop using laws like defamation or contempt against critics when you could persuade more people by simply engaging the debate. Basically, never pull rank online. Win respect by being right, repeatedly.

Like I said, none of this is new. I have heard the same ideas from individuals in the establishment, who believe such reforms would be very good for the PAP. The problem is that, to some in the PAP, these steps sound like a softening, or even a surrender. To them, the hard line seems more reassuring in the short term, even though it is self-destructive in the long term.

 Q. What is it about the Singapore’s Internet community that you don’t like?       

A. Well, to a large extent, the Internet community reflects the good, bad and ugly of the offline world, so any comment about the online world is usually true offline as well. Except that when it’s online – whether it’s racism or obscenity or any extreme behaviour – it is more visible and shareable, so there is a higher tendency for people to fly into a moral panic and then blame the Internet for what they don’t like.

So, personally, when I encounter anything upsetting or troubling online, I’m inclined to discount it and not assume that it spells the end of civilisation. Having said that, I think it is accurate to say that there are certain aspects of online interaction that are worse than their offline analogues.

People in online discussions sometimes behave worse than they would offline. Please note that I am not passing judgment based on my own standards. I am saying that some people don’t live up to their own offline standards when they go online. They show a mean-spiritedness, a hatefulness, towards others who express ideas or comments they don’t like, in a way they wouldn’t in face to face settings.

Look at the personal attacks that go on, and not even anonymously. Some are people I know, and I know they wouldn’t talk that way in, say, a real-world discussion. Singaporeans even behave better in a football stadium, where it is socially acceptable to be act more tribally. At Jalan Besar, we may curse the referee, jeer the opposing players – but we don’t abuse the visiting fans, not even Malaysians, to the point of xenophobic hatred, until away fans just stop coming. But that’s what we are doing online: creating enclaves where the environment is so hostile to those who think differently, that they just shut up or stay away. I’ve yet to find an offline equivalent.

I’m looking at this from the perspective of deliberative democracy, which prizes inclusive and open debate. Make no mistake, the number one obstacle to that is still the PAP system’s intolerance of opposing political views. But I don’t think the answer is to counter intolerance with intolerance, at the opposite end of the political spectrum. Unfortunately, that is what’s happening.