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It has been two months since the Advisory Council for the Impact of New Media on Society (AIMS) released its report. Its report was standard government fare except for a major point that has got everyone talking: the need for the government to engage netizens on their own turf.
By Arixion.

An extreme suggestion for an extreme age

Arixion / Youth Writer

It has been two months since the Advisory Council for the Impact of New Media on Society (AIMS) released its report. Its report was standard government fare except for a major point that has got everyone talking: the need for the government to engage netizens on their own turf.

A number of netizens wonder what the aim of MICA in convening AIMS was. The more extreme of them – at Sammyboy and Sintercom - believe that this is a conspiracy by ISD and MICA to conquer the last free space in Singapore – the Internet. As for MICA, the banning of podcasts during the last General Elections stirred up considerable ire amongst netizens.

Even those who are not “into” podcasts find the mechanism of MICA somewhat outdated. Only the maverick component of “Arts” saves MICA from becoming a replica of Ministries of Information in countries like Israel, Saudi Arabia and China. Information Ministries cut off “undesirable” information. How is “undesirable” defined? Some aspects, such as pornography and hate speech, are clear, but others – like party political broadcasts– are a grey area.

Make MICA independent

The best way for the government to show its sincerity towards e-engagement – and no, P-65 bloggers just don’t cut it – is by granting independence to MICA.

The newly-independent MICA should also absorb a number of other government offices: The Elections Department (ELD), the Registry of Societies, the Registry of Births, the Registry of Deaths, the Registry of Marriages, SingStat and Reach.

On Censorship

Does this sound too extreme? Here is why it is not:

Daily inflow of new information is too high. The only way for traditional censorship to work is by instituting increasingly coarse-grained categories. However, these categories prevent dialogue on new concepts by reinforcing societal prejudices e.g. homophobia.

As categories become wider, the temptation to flout the rules is greater. I remember my friends screening the Passion of Christ (M18/R21) during recess in secondary school.

There is more likely to be unjust censorship when categories are wide. Remember the furore over the lesbian scenes initially cut out from The Hours on grounds of public morality?

What E-Engagement Really Is About

Information Management, in its traditional sense, is becoming less feasible to implement. In the Information Age, information management will be less about restricting the flow of information, and more about redirecting the flow of information through appropriate channels.

The role of an agency like MICA should be to aid in the networking and linking of information sources, rather than block out “undesirable” sources, especially political commentary. Blocking political commentary creates the dangerous situation where the elite gets increasingly distanced from the ground. What results is a façade of peace and happiness covering a simmering mass of resentment, waiting to blow up.

The government seems to classify political comments into three categories: the “official” comments in the print media like The Straits Times and Zao Bao, the grumblings at coffee-shops and of taxi-drivers, and online commentary. The first group the government endorses and at least gives an ear to. Whether it provides active response is another question. It ignores the second group. It has traditionally ignored the third group, but the AIMS study has elevated the position of the third group.

Playing the national interest card, and subject to government intervention, Singapore’s traditional media have tended to shy away from direct criticism of the government. The few journalists and contributors who attempted that were summarily removed from their posts. The most recent individuals were Michael Backman (TODAY) and blogger Mr Brown (contributed to TODAY). When one reads editorials in the local papers, one gets the sense that they criticise everybody but our government officials, who are usually quoted as if they give sage advice. The result is that the first group creates an unrealistic confidence in the government.

Members of the second group are individuals who view policies from the prism of their own lives. They are overlooked because they supposedly lack the big picture that the first group is argued to possess. However, it is precisely because they speak from real life experience that makes them worth listening to, and their sentiment would be an accurate gauge of sentiment on the ground.

AIMS recognized members of the third group as people with valid concerns. The traditional pre-AIMS view of the online population was a cacophony of voices in cyberspace, or mainly comprising grouchy middle-class youth. Perhaps that was an accurate description in 1998, but within the last decade the makeup of the cyberspace population has drastically altered. Senator McCain is not the only senior citizen in the world with a web presence.

E-engagement is not really about engaging a new group of people – this is one of AIMS’ mistakes – but about trying to engage a group of people who have always been existent, but been continually sidelined by the traditional approach to information management.

Restructuring Our Information Management Apparatus

This is where the rest of the assembly comes in.

Firstly, we have REACH, the re-named Feedback Unit. Aligning REACH under an independent MICA would enable it to better facilitate active dialogue between government and citizens. Netizens and other citizens would better respect the objectivity of an independent agency. The agency itself would also be able to police the quality and availability of feedback replies, so that events such as the recent Herb Garden incident would not occur.

Secondly, we have SingStat and the Registries. Given our government’s overwhelming dominance in most political sectors, giving SingStat official freedom will provide it with a higher degree of credibility.

The role of the Registries is record-keeping. By divorcing the Registry of Societies from the executive arm of government, it can untangle its bureaucratic function from the political arena: register all Societies first, and then leave it to the politicians to decide if they should be de-registered.

Thirdly, we have the Elections Department (ELD). The ELD would gain much more local and international credence if it were an independent agency, rather than a sub-department of the Prime Minister’s Office. It could maintain a level playing field without bothering about partisan obligations.

Out of Elections, the new ELD can also dedicate time to educating the public about representative democracy. (For instance, how about having the ELD run student council or prefectorial elections?)

Beyond the above, an independent variant of MICA would give individuals and NGOs access to the legislative branches (parliament) and the executive branches (cabinet and ministries) of the government, as well as to each other.

Conclusion

These are certainly radical ideas, but the end of product of their implementation will be enhanced national pride, an end to our classic political apathy, and the aligning of our societal institutions to the new forms of the Internet Age.

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About the author:

The writer is currently in National Service. He was formerly from Raffles Institution and Hwa Chong Insitution (College Section). He fancies himself a seasoned armchair critic. (He prefers the sofa though.)

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