The People’s Action Party government has essentially given up on engagement. This change of tack is becoming clearer by the week as more and more instances arise where ministers and members of parliament go out to bash citizens trying to raise issues or comment on current affairs. Staircase railings, face masks and who-knows-what small thing emerging tomorrow are considered serious enough issues to roll out the government’s big guns.
The impression one gets from recent events is that they have concluded that engagement is a “been there, done that and it’s brought us nothing but grief”.
Post-2011 general election, it was supposed to be the new dispensation. However, after the stinging loss at the Punggol East by-election, and shockwaves from Barisan Nasional’s loss of the popular vote in Malaysia’s May 2013 general election — it got only 5,237,699, (or 46.5%) of the 11,257,147 votes cast for parliamentary seats — it must feel that not only will engagement produce no benefit, a livelier online scene is positively dangerous to their continued rule.
The promise of engagement has only encouraged Singaporeans to speak up, complain and criticise more loudly, the PAP must feel. Where are the polite words, respectful nods and humble suggestions for improving governance that engagement was supposed to bring?
Just the other day, I was speaking to friends, saying I am much more pessimistic about Singapore now than I was ten years ago. Then, there was the feeling that we could be on the cusp of change. Now, I think it is clear that the PAP cannot stomach the idea of a new, different Singapore. If we want change, it will need a very hard fight, because the prospect that there will be a new kind of PAP is receding rapidly. The party will use its entire might to prevent change.
Of course, I am not referring to any kind of change. Some changes that are not politically threatening to the PAP will occur, e.g. in the business scene and in many aspects of social life. But when it comes to political liberalisation and greater respect for human rights — and as a consequence, a fairer distribution of power and wealth in society — as well on matters of accountability (GIC and Temasek Holdings, anyone?), I am in a very dark mood right now.
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Turning specifically to recent moves to intimidate blogs and social media, which are the primary means of citizen expression today, where we may have all gone wrong is to have been too keen to speak of “citizen journalism”. I have always been wary of the term myself, but it has only been the last few months that I discerned why I feel the way I do.
Individuals’ use of new media has much less resemblance to professional journalism than to humans’ age-old way of speaking to each other. Look at how really we use new media, jettisoning any preconceived notions. We share tidbits of information and point to intriguing or suspicious-looking data. In our quintessentially human way, when something doesn’t come out looking the way we expect it to, we speculate on why it might be so. We offer hypotheses for testing by our social circles. We raise questions, assign blame and sometimes offer lengthier opinions. Or we make entertainment out of it (political satire). This is how humans talk, around the water-cooler, at the cocktail bar, in the kitchen as we wash dishes.
And this is exactly how we have used new media. The government, however, sees indiscipline, chaos and a steady erosion of their control of the agenda.
But we should celebrate the way we use media. Our curiosity, instinct for speculation, ability to frame questions and test various explanations are precisely the skills that drove Homo sapiens up the learning curve. Our ability to make fun of self-important rulers is what keeps us going on in the face of great odds.
Calling all this activity “citizen journalism” is to misapprehend it. And there’s been no greater fool than the government.
In small ways here and there are clues that our government sees new media through this lens — and worse, it’s a distorted lens because they know of no other kind of journalism except a compliant one. The reference model is itself a faulty one in addition to being irrelevant. As a result, it keeps misdirecting itself whenever it tries to grapple with this beast (for surely, it sees new media as a beast). It imagines organisation and hierarchy where there is none. It expects a devotion to accuracy and professionalism when the average guy couldn’t care less about it whenever he feels an urge to speak. It demands seriousness when people want to be entertained.
Our government is obsessed with licensing. But as attempt after attempt shows, it cannot sensibly draw a line anywhere without provoking ridicule. And that is simply because you can no more licence blogging and social media than you can licence people for water-cooler, cocktail-bar and kitchen sink chat.
Last year, Minister Yaacob Ibrahim inflated his sex doll named “internet code of conduct”. Some people were aghast. More laughed. Most ignored him. Codes don’t work unless there is organisation, and as far as internet speech goes, there simply isn’t.
Internet speech is not a bigger, more democratic form of journalism. It is human interaction at electron speed.
Still wearing its blinkers, the government is appalled by the prospect of inaccuracies, untruths, wild accusations and merciless disrespect (to the powers that be) the new age brings. It thinks Singapore will be worse off for it.
It is wrong. It is the exact opposite. A livelier speech scene helps Singaporeans develop the critical faculties that we have sorely lacked for a long time. Just as no one is truly healthy until he catches the flu or a stomach bug every now and then, so there is no immunity to misinformation until people have seen enough chaff to sort wheat from it.
In saying that internet speech is inherently disorganised, am I suggesting that the government will fail in its efforts to clamp down on internet speech? No, I am not. There is a real chance it will succeed, which is why recent events are so discouraging. While specific measures may not work as intended, the cumulative effect of many licensing schemes, threatening headlines carried in the mainstream media and defamation suits can well change the climate. Fear can be induced all over again.
Totalitarian states did manage to chill even casual speech among citizens. People never knew who was watching or listening in; they had no way to anticipate what price they’d have to pay for any transgression, so they self-censored.
In the same way, a determined PAP can blanket Singapore again with fear.
But that raises an important equation. Every success for the PAP is a defeat for Singapore. Singapore has no future unless we have a thinking, inventive, spontaneous people. To disinter a ghost from past rhetoric, we have no natural resource except our people, though this line needs to be updated. Once, “people” signified obedient hard work, but with industrialisation and mass production behind us, “people” must mean brains, courage and the human spirit.
As the PAP tries to beat these out of us in order to perpetuate its rule, it’s becoming clear that our collective future must mean beating the PAP back. If the PAP succeeds, Singapore dies.