Donaldson Tan

Last week, Alicia Wong reported on TODAY that from as early as June 2009, government ministries and agencies have been seeking social media intelligence services for monitoring online sentiments related to their scope of work.

According to the PAP Government’s tender portal Gebiz, the tender requirements included round-the clock social media analysts to evaluate online sentiment and periodical reports on branding, reputation health and trends.

It is hardly surprising that reputation health is among the key indicators for measuring online sentiment. Just not too long ago, Acting Minister for Information, Communication and the Arts Rear Admiral (NS) Lui Tuck Yew condemned New Media for being adversarial and one-sided. He also remarked that the content on New Media is not credible. If one were to believe some online sites, “we are probably one of the worst Third World countries around, with an inefficient and corrupt government, and the whole place is a mess,” he noted.

Don’t be fooled

We should not fool ourselves into thinking this online surveillance reflects a turning point of the PAP Government’s attitude towards New Media from apprehension to friendliness. It was blogger coverage during the GE 2006 that broke new ground in the local media scene and facilitated competing Opposition coverage from the mainstream media. There were not only acts of defiance against Election Advertisement Regulations, but also challenges against OB markers by the online community. Today, the OB marker that “requires one to be a political party member in order to act political” no longer stands.

Since GE 2006, the PAP Government has consolidated its power despite the emergence of New Media. The Private Security Industry Act 2007 outlaws investigative journalism on political figures and their family members. The Public Order Act 2009 has not only made one-man protest illegal, but also boosts the arbitrary power of policemen. The recent amendment to the Films Act also outlaws the filming of illegal activities such as outdoor political events without permits. Films about alternative historical accounts of Singapore remain banned. Registered political websites still cannot post articles during General Election.

In retrospect, the PAP is operating from a position of strength to engage New Media as both the government and a political party. The ruling party recently announced its very own 50-member New Media team headed by YPAP Vice-Chairman Zaqy Mohd. In a dialogue session at the PAP Convention 2009, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said, “And if we see things that are not correct on websites which are respectable and reliable, then we have to be there to put our point of view so people will be able to know the facts and to respond to it.” How this will be implemented remains unclear.

Surveillance is not engagement

This online surveillance also acknowledges that there is substantive coverage on social, political and economic issues of the day whether named or anonymous critics authored it. While the estimated readership of popular New Media entities such as The Online Citizen remain very small compared to the Straits Times Online on a normal day, New Media readership actually rockets during times of crisis. For example, during the AWARE Saga, excessive traffic caused The Online Citizen’s web server to crash several times intermittently, while relevant articles achieve views as high as 12,000 per day.

However, this online surveillance also reflects the PAP Government’s somewhat organisational inertia to engage New Media. After all, the PAP Government, despite having in-house teams to monitor feedback from Mainstream and New Media, still prefer to outsource the online surveillance to the private sector. For a government that does not entertain online petitions, online engagement is surely a big step to take, thus it is not surprising if its online initiatives are driven by the ease of use, and not by the desire to communicate the thought process and justification behind public policies.

As pointed out by Ms Tania Chew, the head of 360 Digital Influence Consulting at Ogilvy Public Relations, social media is not jut a channel to push a message but also a free flow exchange of ideas online. Websites such as REACH are based on popular online forums whereby users can interact among themselves by posting comments on topics set by the administrator. However, interaction between policymakers and REACH users remains very limited. Information flow is still pretty much one-way, i.e. top-down.

In May 2009, REACH hosted an online chat with Manpower Minister Gan Kim Yong and REACH Chairperson Dr Amy Khor. One participant complained that both politicians kept on reiterating official government positions without properly addressing why these positions were adopted. When Manpower Minister Gan Kim Yong disagreed with the participant, he did not even specify why he disagreed. He also ignored specific queries. While such manner of participation may frustrate participants, it also demonstrates that the PAP Government is outside its comfort zone in engaging online.

A similar pattern emerges at the Ministry of Health Blog. While the posts there are written in an informal tone, the blog is essentially a top-down dissemination mechanism as there is zero interaction between readers and policy makers behind the website. The commentary thread is disabled while the content is about public health advisory in general. The only form of interaction between readers and the policymakers behind the blog is the poll section, which is set by the blog administrator. Reader-driven content does not appear to be a priority on this blog.

All is not lost

However, all is not lost. An alternative feedback mechanism exists. Time to time, each Ministry releases draft bills for public feedback. For example, the Ministry of Education (MOE) conducted a public consultation exercise on the Private Education Bill from 1st to 21st July 2009 whereby members of the public and stakeholders were invited to submit their comments and proposed amendments to MOE by email or fax. However, this mode of feedback is very formal and requires some degree of understanding of the underlying issues behind the draft bill and access to relevant statistics to make a recommendation. And the Ministry still sets the agenda.

Clearly, unless the incentive is as big as winning a landslide victory at the General Election, the PAP Government appears to lack any drive to engage the public pro-actively in deliberating on public policies. The old ways of involving technocrats in special feedback groups for policymaking remains entrenched. This includes policy advocacy at the PAP Policy Forum that is only open to PAP members, and the appointment of resource panel members from the Civil Service and the private sector in Government Parliamentary Committees.

Big Brother is monitoring online sentiment and Big Brother does not want to involve you in policymaking unless you are either competent or you may make him lose power.

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