Big Brother in cyberspace – anonymously

“He (Mr Brown) should come out from behind his pseudonym to defend his views openly.”

– Press Secretary to the Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts, K BHAVANI in a letter to TODAY newspaper July 3 2006

“The identity is not important. It is the message that is important,”

– PAP MP Baey Yam Keng, Straits Times, Feb 3 2007

The above quotes from government officials perhaps sum up the dichotomy of approaches by the government to different media.

Ms Bhavani’s comments referred to “opinions which are widely circulated in a regular column in a serious newspaper” which “should meet higher standards.” Mr Baey’s comments, on the other hand, referred to the government’s stance on online communications.

What should one make of this seemingly confusing and contradictory message that the government is sending out to singaporeans? Perhaps a closer look at the issue will throw up some answers.

First, a look at the PAP’s wider strategy

From the moment STOMP was set up, it was apparent that the government is moving into the internet in a big way. Word has it that STOMP was set up with a few million dollars. That’s a lot of money for a website. It was followed by Minister of Foreign Affairs, George Yeo, getting onto the blogging bandwagon, as it were. The much-lauded PAP post-65 MPs’ blog – P65.sg – was launched with much publicity. Youth.sg was set up as the government’s channel of reaching out to younger Singaporeans. Finally, Singapore Press Holdings bought the Hardware Zone website for a cool $7 million.

As can be seen, the government has been taking steps to make its presence felt on the internet.

The use of the mainstream media

The one huge advantage that the government has on its side is the mainstream media. And they have not shied away from using it to advertise and promote their cyber activities. STOMP – being owned by SPH which runs all of the mainstream papers – is advertised daily in the Straits Times. Minister Yeo has also been in the news for his blogging – the last time only a few weeks ago on the tv programme Blogtv. And of course, the P65 MPs are given extensive exposure in the mainstream media as well.

The use of the mainstream media to promote the government’s agenda is one which all other bloggers and netizens do not have, including the opposition parties.

“Quiet counter-insurgency”

The Straits Times (Feb 3 2007) reports that the government is “mounting a quiet counter-insurgency against its online critics”. This initiative is driven by no less than 2 sub-committees under the main “new media” committee chaired by Manpower Minister, Ng Eng Hen. One of the sub-committees is also headed by a minister – Minister of State for education, Lui Tuck Yew. It is thus quite apparent that the government (and the PAP) takes online views seriously, in spite of what they may have said about it in the past.

What would grab the reader of the Straits Times report (which is widely regarded as being a government mouthpiece) is the use of the term “counter-insurgency”. It conjures images of a government sending in its foot soldiers into cyberspace to perhaps put down, neutralize, destroy, annihilate or incapacitate those that they see as “insurgents”. For, is this not what you do to “insurgents”?

Immediately, the stance is that there is something to “counter”, something to put down. That bloggers and forummers who express a different view to the government’s or the PAP’s are “insurgents”. This attitude of seeing cyberspace as a “war zone” is counter-productive, in fact. If it is the PAP government’s aim to engage the online community, adopting the attitude of seeing their critics as people to be “countered” will alienate the PAP in such a community.

Question of anonymity – changing the dictates

It is also rather troubling to hear the PAP government now say that “the identity is not important. It is the message that is important”, when less than a year ago, blogger Mr Brown was publicly criticised and taken to task for writing under a pseudonym satirically criticizing the government.

It was also not too long ago that the Straits Times Forum Page required letter writers to provide personal particulars – such as full name, NRIC number, address, etc – before their letters are published.

One would conclude from these examples, that anonymity is something which the government frowns on. Yet, it is now reported that the government itself “has members going into internet forums and blogs to rebut anti-establishment views and putting up postings anonymously.”

Or are we to understand that anonymity is only seen as acceptable on the net but not in the mainstream media – and this according to government dictate? Are we suppose to subject ourselves to what the government says is acceptable and what is not – and to abide by the government’s changing stance?

Why are online views important to the government – and the PAP?

Looking at the seriousness with which the government is approaching online communications, the question to ask is “Why does the government suddenly take such views so seriously?”

There are several reasons:

1. The fear of losing control over information – and its dissemination and “distortion”. In a city as open to technology as Singapore, it is unavoidable that information – and its alternative sources and forms – will increasingly have a larger impact on society.

2. Voters. As a political party, the PAP is no doubt looking ahead at the increasing number of tech-savvy voters who have access to alternative sources of information, particularly the internet. Currently, 66% of homes have access to the internet. This number will become higher as Singapore wires up further.

3. Young Singaporeans. A look at the numbers may explain why the government is concerned about Singaporeans, especially young Singaporeans, being exposed to non-mainstream or anti-government views. Net usage is highest among 10 to 15 year-olds, some 90%. Half of all Singaporeans between 15 to 19, and 46% of those aged between 20 and 24 blog or podcast on the Net. In absolute numbers, these runs into the hundreds of thousands. Thus, politically, this is a group which the government cannot ignore.

4. Opposition parties. The Singapore Democratic Party and the Workers’ Party have been active in using the internet to further their agenda. The WP in particular, directly or indirectly (perhaps even unwittingly) benefited from exposure through the internet in last year’s general elections. Any space or platform which benefits the opposition will attract the government’s and the PAP’s attention.

5. As PAP MP Denise Phua once said, the internet is “85% against the government”. If the internet, as it is believed to, grow further, in terms of number of users, 85% being anti-government is an alarming statistic – at least where the government is concerned. Thus, it has to be “managed”, to quote Denise Phua again.Lastly, any space where the government’s voice is not the loudest is well, unacceptable to the authorities – as can be seen in the government’s involvement in all and every aspect of our lives.

Leveraging/leveling effect of alternative media

Another reason is perhaps the leveraging effect that the internet has vis a vis the mainstream media, no matter how small or inconsequential presently. This was most well-exhibited during the elections when Alex Au’s picture of a WP rally made its rounds online – and even reaching the front page of a Malaysian newspaper. Subsequently, the mainstream Straits Times in Singapore had to publish it as well, else it would have further lost credibility among Singaporeans – they published the picture 3 or 4 days after the rally, and arguably under pressure from the internet.

Also, the posting of videos and pictures on blogs of opposition parties’ rallies revealed the self-censorship (some would say state censorship) of the mainstream media where such videos and pictures were conspicuously absent. This allowed netizens room, ironically, to provide what the mainstream media could not.

Simply put, the media in Singapore – being the government’s only trusted tool to propagate its agenda – must be protected from any external leveraging effect. In this, there is no compromise.

Engagement as opposed to “countering”

What is also unfortunate is the mindset within the government of “countering” rather than engaging Singaporeans online, which could have been borne out of the misplaced idea that “85% of the internet is against the government”. It could simply be that those who are against the government are more vocal than those who are not and thus giving the impression that “85%” of them are anti-government. But even if it is, what the government should be doing is to engage netizens and not “counter” or “manage” them.

My view is that most bloggers on the internet are – by and large – sensible and not out to ‘topple’ the government, as opposed to what the term “insurgents” might suggest. Indeed, there are, as far as I know, only a handful who are blatantly (and even unreasonably) anti-government or anti-PAP. And if they are hardcore anti-PAP Singaporeans behind such blogs, would it be necessary for the govt to ‘’manage’’ them anyway, especially if they are of a small number? Wouldn’t it better for the net and fellow bloggers to “manage” them instead of Big Brother?

This is not idealistic thinking or wishful imagination. The Wee Shu Min saga displayed the net and bloggers’ ability to critique what is deemed as unacceptable views. The recent spat between owners of the blogsite Singapore Election and fellow bloggers like Aaron Ng and Singapore Patriot also showed that there is room for debate and the sorting out of differing views.

The debate on the hanging of Nigerian Iwuchukwu Amara Tochi in Singapore also provided an insight on how the net can offer opportunities for “wrongful” views to be corrected by fellow bloggers.

Thus, the government should take the internet for what it is – a marketplace where all sorts of goods (views) are sold but trust that the consumers know what are good products and what are not. The government’s role should solely be to provide the infrastructure for this marketplace, not unlike what they do for the real markets where we buy our vegetables and other goods.

The government should not be covertly whispering into the ears of the “consumers”, telling them which stall has better produce.

Instead of sending in the “counter-insurgent” squad, the government should instead be open about its presence and engage the internet community non-anonymously and non-covertly.

Intrusion into sacred space

Perhaps the discomfort, to put it mildly, of netizens regarding the latest revelation about the government’s presence in cyberspace, is because it is seen as “Big Brother intruding into and desecrating” what is seen as singapore’s and singaporeans’ one and only sacred space left. A space where Singaporeans can speak freely and not be subject to the government’s dictates.

A space which, in view of the revelation of “counter-insurgents” being sent in, is no more sacred or free.

The government’s counter-argument (forgive the irony) could perhaps be that no one owns the internet, or the space that it provides. Thus, there is no justification to not “allow” or wlecome the government’s presence.

Having said that, what really irks and puts off netizens is the way the government is going about it – with anonymous postings which runs counter to their own pronouncements on credibility and “standing up for your views” openly.

In short, it could be seen as hypocrisy.

The ultimate solution

Ultimately, the solution to what the government sees as the propagation of anti-government, anti-PAP views will bring us back to the issue of the mainstream media. It is because the mainstream media is so blatantly pro-govt (or at least that is the impression), that alternative views have gone online.

In the past, these differing views were only expressed in hushed voices at coffeeshops and within the confines of one’s home perhaps. Now, with the easy-access and the proliferation of communications technology and its tools, no longer are people restricted to hushed whispers or total silence.

And if the mainstream media does not reflect what is authentic views from and of the ground, then these views must find themselves an outlet – and this is where the internet is so prized by citizens.

Credibility vs authenticity

The government must also shift its insistence of views being credible or accurate to one where views are seen as authentic, whether they are anti or pro-government – and the mainstream media must reflect this.

For in accepting that differing views are authentic (thus, honest and sincere even though they may not be factual, accurate or even credible), the process of genuine engagement can then begin.

There is a simple reason why credibility should not be a main requirement: Ordinary citizens cannot be expected to provide “credible” views necessarily simply because ordinary citizens, unlike the govt, do not have access to all the information on any or every particular issue or topic. Neither do ordinary citizens have access to unlimited sources and resources for their facts and figures.

As PM Lee himself once said, it does not matter if we have differing views, the important thing is that Singaporeans have a view. Indeed he said:

“Some people are afraid to speak up for fear of saying the wrong thing, or being taken to task. But for debate to be fruitful, it has to be rigorous and not held back out of concern for egos and sensitivities.” (DPM Lee Hsien Loong’s speech at Harvard Club, Straits Times, Jan 7 2004).

And in his National Day rally speech:

“In fact, if we agree all the time, something must be wrong with us.”

And therein lies the attitude the PAP should adopt in this effort to engage (and not counter) Singaporeans.

Sending in “counter-insurgents” anonymously reflects the lack of confidence of the government, the uncertainty of its members in debates, and the antagonistic stance that the government has chosen to adopt right from the start.

How does this equate to the same government’s declaration of an “open and inclusive society”?