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It is a norm practised in other countries, like the United States, for people to ask others to send template responses and petitions to their Congressmen, to express their view or stand on an issue

Engaging Singaporeans in new media: focus on the issues

By Leong Sze Hian

This article has been updated with an edited version.

During a recent REACH forum, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that feedback obtained online needs to be assessed "critically and carefully", and that it is easy to mount online campaigns. [1]

Citing the leadership tussle by Singapore women's group AWARE last year, Mr Lee noted that he had received numerous emails from opposing camps, but many of the messages were identical and had obviously been copied from a template. He raised this example as an instance not of independent feedback, but of an organized campaign designed to compel the government to act in a certain way.

But is this really as nefarious as implied by Mr Lee?

There is a natural tendency for people who believe strongly in an issue to create a particular template for supporters to use in lobbying the government toward their cause. In fact, this is common practice in countries like the United States, where special interest groups would ask their constituents to send similarly phrased letters to their congressmen expressing the group’s stand on a certain issue.

Using a pre-designed template rather than writing a personal letter from scratch may seem like a lazy way out, but it is a convenient tool for supporters of a particular campaign or cause who are unable to express themselves well in writing but who also want to join in and get a slice of the action.

In short, when people use a template, it does not necessarily mean they don’t care, or are merely displaying a herd mentality. The government therefore should not be overly distracted from the issues at hand simply because there are people doing this.

I agree with Mr Lee’s statement that “the government cannot make decisions simply based on the volume of emails supporting or opposing a particular situation”.

The government should rightfully make decisions based on the merits of the issue, instead of the volume of emails received.

Mr Lee also said that the government must also be cautious of what's called "Astroturfing" campaigns, in which groups fake identities and orchestrate online movements.

He went on to cite another example – the presence of recent emails circulating, criticising the government on property prices. Mr Lee said upon verifying the emails, the names, phone and even IC numbers attached turned out to be fake, and concluded that the campaign had been a covert attempt to pressure the government for personal benefits.

I would like to ask Mr Lee: exactly how many names and phone numbers were found to be fake? 1? 10? 100? 1000?

People using fake identities are inevitable in the online world where, due to oppressive government action, many individuals are still operating in a climate of fear.

Can you blame people for hiding behind pseudonyms, when the government repeatedly sues for defamation?

Perhaps the Reporters Without Borders Open Letter to the PM ("Media watchdog calls for halt to libel actions", ST, Mar 27), and the recent successful defamation suit awarding US$114,000 against the International Herald Tribune (IHT) speak for themselves in this regard.

I think common sense will tell us that someone who circulates an email criticising the government on property prices may be quite reluctant to use his or her real name or phone number.

What we need is to do more to help allay the fear of expressing oneself freely. Isn't this one of the fundamental reasons why we have channels like REACH in the first place?

To encourage true feedback and criticism, the people must not be fearful of expressing themselves freely.

Maybe the editors and writers of theconlinecitizen are arguably the exception rather than the norm in the Singapore online sphere, in having real faces in our numerous past public events, names and contacts.

My stand is the government should focus on the problems and challenges confronting Singaporeans rather than becoming distracted by so-called Astroturfing campaigns and using that as an excuse to avoid addressing the underlying issues.

For example, after all the widespread debate, analysis, commentary and feedback on the issue of property prices, how has the government responded to the concerns raised? Have they done an adequate job addressing the needs, fears, and aspirations of the younger generation? Or have they consigned these to mere Astroturfing campaigns that deserve no further consideration?

I support the Government's stand that it should not be pressured by online campaigns that are manifestly a covert attempt by special interest groups at pressuring the government for personal gain which does not represent the interests of Singaporeans in general.

However, when the issues raised have the potential to affect the livelihood or standard of living of a significant number of Singaporeans, the government should take a more nuanced approach and not merely sweep such campaigns under the carpet.

In other words, focus on the message and the issue, regardless of the perceived intent or motive of the sender, whether fake or otherwise.

In the final analysis, isn't this perhaps the best way to engage Singaporeans in the new media?

P.S. Anyone who reads this is welcome to circulate it with your real name and phone number!

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References:

[1] Channel News Asia, “PM Lee on govt's approach in engaging S'poreans in new media”, 27 March 2010.