GE 2011 was not just an election that politicised an apathetic nation but a metamorphosis of our collective mindset. The invisible lid which held Singaporeans back from direct expressions of dissent in the past has burst open and we are no longer willing or able to restrict our discontent to a furtive mumble. Every issue now has political significance and conspiracy theories abound for the most mundane of events. From the closure of the NTUC branch in Hougang to the Town Council Management Report, alternative hypotheses have been put forth in place of straightforward “official” answers. The dam of distrust has broken and is flooding every level of society.
There are many reasons for this current tide of vocal criticism but I think the single, biggest contributing factor for this sudden overt manifestation of viewpoints can be best described by the Arabic proverb “the straw that broke the camel’s back”. It was not a single major incident that turned the tide but rather, an accumulation of being ridden roughshod over years that pushed people over the edge, such that seemingly inconsequential events ignited furious anger.
After years of controlled media reporting and the restricted dissemination of information, the age of the internet has arisen like a saviour of liberation. It is as if Singaporeans, once muted in disapproval, have finally found a voice. Now that it is raised, it can no longer be silenced.
This tide of critical censure may seem incomprehensible to both the government and people unfamiliar with the political landscape of Singapore but this information revolution has been a long time in the making. The longer you suppress a people, the bigger the explosion of dissent when it finally comes. Singaporeans who have felt repressed for so long have finally found a voice and the sound of that voice is so liberating that they are unwilling to let it go.
That ability to air what they feel is a sensation unfamiliar to most Singaporeans. In the past, a majority of Singaporeans kept any reservations they may have felt towards government policies to private discussions. Some would even cross the street to avoid an opposition party member lest he be linked to him in any way. Such was the climate of paranoia.
In the last few years, dissent seeped its way into the public conscience of Singaporeans and pervaded our lives. Slowly but surely, the disapproval for PAP high handedness crept onto the internet. Alternative news forums sprung up and took root. Word spread that such blogs and websites provided information not provided by the mainstream media and people logged on to get a piece of the action. This in turn linked them up to other like minded individuals and suddenly, people realised that they were not alone in their disapprobation. The popularity of these political blogs was contagious and as more people caught on, fear was chipped away. There was strength in numbers.
One lesson that any government should take out of this is that the repression of a peoples’ ability to express their views and the suppression of the mainstream media will never yield long-term results. Respect and authority must be earned. It cannot be forced. This is especially so in the age of the internet and the proliferation of social networking sites. This tide of information is virtually impossible to control and unless Singapore learns to release its mainstream media from the claws of government control, the lure of going online to search for alternative answers will be all too tempting. Press control is therefore a double edged sword. While the government can ensure a predictable mainstream paper, it cannot guarantee the contents of alternative news sources and if people mistrust their mainstream papers (as they do in Singapore), they will go in search of something else. While “the something else” on the World Wide Web might be enlightening or educational, it may also equally be misleading. So, if the government is afraid of “corrupting” influences, perhaps what it should do is to release its iron grip on the mainstream media so as to regain and rebuild the trust of the populace.
Singaporeans are now prepared and equipped to form an opinion and air their views in a way they have never done before. In the past, Singaporeans were non-confrontational. They are now willing to face up to what they feel is an affront to their rights. They are willing to be defiant despite facing authority. This can be seen by how Singaporeans have recently verbally abused government staff!
Although we do not know the context of this matter and rude conduct should never be condoned, this recent behaviour has shown that Singaporeans are no longer prepared to take perceived governmental highhandedness lying down.
Singaporeans nowadays are also savvy and adept at broadcasting their views to the public via the internet. For instance, when a HSBC staff occupied a reserved seat in the MRT, his photograph was taken and posted on the internet. Singaporeans have realised the power they wield by virtue of internet access and are now ready and equipped to use such power. Singapore is no longer the same and the government must accept that their tried and tested tactics of tight control will no longer work.
They must also accept responsibility for the fact that it was their iron grip of control that led to this outpouring of resentment in the first place. The PAP can either: 1) relinquish their need for utter control, 2) accept the responsibility of needing to be accountable to the people they govern, and 3) understand that repression will only lead to pent up anger that will boil over or face an uphill battle for votes in GE 2016. The greater the repression, the greater the eruption.
The tide has turned; it can no longer be stemmed. The PAP can either catch on and swim or be obstinate and sink.