Howard Lee /
In the aftermath of the general election, you would have seen continual efforts by the ruling People’s Action Party to discredit and cast suspicion on the intent and quality of the online media.
We should have guessed, then, that this would culminate in the National Day Rally being, once again, an opportunity for the Prime Minister to continue in the establishment’s “rage against the machine”. (For those who missed it, here is the segment in all is glory.)
But for those who thought it was no different from the rhetoric spewed out over the years, here’s some food for thought:
- PM specifically mentioned a no-mention, something not lost on Ng E-Jay (yes, no more mee siam mai hum)
- No shameless plugging for the “old-new” media channels or REACH, but there are now places online where things do make sense
- The lunatic fringe has become bona fide cowboy towns (trust me, it’s an upgrade)
Nevertheless, what has continued is the painting of a bunch of losers running loose online, doing verbal damage to the national narrative of productivity and progress, and generally making themselves a dismissible nuisance on the side of the authorities.
“I won’t repeat any, lest you believe it is true”
As Ng E-Jay has suggested, if there was such an obvious degree of untruth in any statement made online, shouldn’t the Rally audience, and also the wider television audience, be able to call the bluff immediately?
But let’s put to test two examples, one of which the PAP would claim to be a ridiculous untruth, the other a plausible half-truth:
- There are homeless people in Singapore who are living in tents on our beaches
- The inaugural Youth Olympic Games did not do justice to its supporters, nor to the budget it was supported with
Now, your views? Which do you think is the half-truth?
The point of this exercise is really to prove that much of our online ramblings, on TOC and beyond, are not about laying claims to facts. They are often opinion pieces, just as much as this article is. They are attempts at opening debates, with tones ranging from queries to harsh criticism, about the way things are and should be.
In many instances, netizens have made it a point – nay, their mission statement – to challenge the purported truths published by traditional media, which usually spew little more than cookie-cut approvals of politicians’ speeches and media releases. At times, traditional media makes the statement “the Elected President is a rubber stamp of the ruling party” look like a kindergarten essay topic.
Online media has served as the voice of the voiceless underdog, to flag out failings in policy to address the interests of the marginalised, to break from the national narrative about everything being okay. Sometimes, it seeks redress, but mostly, it seeks wider awareness.
To chastise online media without even acknowledging its diversity and purpose is to sound lazy at best, ignorant at worst. PM would have better credibility if he had simply said, “I can’t really pay attention to online media because… it’s too complicated.”
“Those who wish to engage the government online should, erm, stop the speculation and just drop us an email”
But it could have finally dawned on PM that previous efforts to ring-fence the online world have failed, particularly as a reflection of ground sentiment. Similarly, the recent relaxation of rules to allow online electioneering, and colonise more of cyberspace, has fallen flat on its face.
Put simply, the ruling party has lost the online momentum, and the constant changing of positions (I still remember another Rally when PM defined Facebook as the place where we put our photos online, and our photos make friends) has basically left it breathing the fumes of online platforms that have stayed true to their intent and causes they champion.
I have written many times that the online world, as much as any newspaper readership, is about honesty and building communities. We cannot build communities when the rules are not set by the collective that participates. We cannot associate with communities that constantly shift their interests and positions. And we cannot be honest with communities that always have something to sell, political ideologies included, more than a willingness to tune in to the conversation.
My guess is that the ruling party realises this, and even the mainstream media is hard-pressed to do something to salvage its own slowly disintegrating readership, most evident from their attempts to give more coverage to opposition parties during the general elections. The old fortresses within which the political elite can control the conversations are no longer tenable.
To some extent, PM seems reluctant to finally admit that there are pockets of cyberspace where “people recognise that these places are reliable, where you can have an open debate… and if you go there, you know that, well, to start off with, it will make some sense; whether it is right or wrong, you have to consider, but it is not rubbish.”
Where are these online oases? We might never hear again from PM about these, but to some extent, the segment gave the impression that it would not likely be the same controlled spaces that the PAP is used to.
More exasperating is PM encouraging the government to go into these channels and try to convince people about their policy positions. It sounds like a rally call for more Young PAP astroturfing activities. But it also suggests that the PAP has yet to learn from the general elections, and still thinks that online engagement is about convincing rather than listening.
“So tell me, are you feeling lucky, punk?”
In review, the ruling party can no longer claim to be the sole contributor of truth. It cannot control the online world, and the safe havens it has created can no longer provide shelter from the tirade that threatens to bring down every door. But to openly acknowledge that it is now open to the diversity of views online is to open an administrative can of worms that will take a few deep ministerial pay cuts to realise.
So, the last trump card: Insinuate that the online world is still generally as criminal as it can possibly be, try not to draw further attention to the issue, and come up quickly for air.
Interestingly, the cowboy town metaphor is both a compliment to online media, and a shot in PM’s foot. Compliment, because we are finally acknowledged to be no longer a wilderness of vagabond voices, half-crazed and leprous. We have formed actual townships – lawless in relation to the status quo of ideology, always shooting from the hip, fearless of the authorities, but hey, we have group identities now!
Shot in the foot, because with such clear congregations of online communities, the ruling party still finds it difficult to monitor and engage?
“Want to contribute? Start a committee, submit a proposal!”
To build further on the lawless, anti-establishment-makes-you-destructive narrative, PM chose to clearly state examples where positive contributions to society do not take an online form. Proposals for the KTM railway and hardworking-boy-makes-good stories were included for good measure.
I have absolute respect for these people and what they have done. But I fear they have been used as political tools to show society in self-help, without fair recognition that many online rants are not demands for privilege, but indignations against policies that disadvantage some or all Singaporeans. A small representative voice that has reached their wit’s end about what they can do and are seeking what they feel is the ultimate stand to make things better – a change in policies.
Too easily, the ruling elite has once again forgotten, or chosen to forget, that the online world is made up of real people with real problems, who simply chose not to go to the much white-washed traditional media to voice their angst, or those of their fellow citizens. Scratch a little of each netizen, and you will find each a citizen no different from the people at face-to-face interactions, perhaps more opinionated, some volunteering for their special causes, but all believing in making this nation better. The tone online is never destructive – it only matters how much of this field of ideas the political elite wish to tap into to make them constructive and progressive.
At the same time, our country is facing extraordinary circumstances, both locally and globally. What we will need is the next breed of ideas to get us though the next crisis. PM has instead opted not to tap on the qualities of the online world – energy regardless of age, cross-pollination of ideas, flagging out small problems before they become big, and offering diversity in solutions, crazy as some might be. And by now, you would have read other articles that dissect the bread and butter issues of the Rally, adding value with each cut and criticism.
The way forward?
I have written excessively for such a small segment of the Rally. But I write this because continuing to marginalise online voices as noise will not make us go away. We form part of our nation’s narrative, possibly the most honest narrative of them all to date. It is also the voice that is closest to source – the citizens that we hope our elected representatives are genuine about serving.
So in the spirit of being constructive, I will share my views on a few key points on the lessons that should have been learnt from the general election about online engagement. If TOC is one such pocket of online reason PM suggested, I hope that some bright eye and listening ear will pick this up and do justice to Singapore netizens.
- Forget about going online to explain policies that are long overdue for an overhaul, and in principle have failed to demonstrated a “Singaporeans first” outlook. Take stock, and be ready to kill sacred cows.
- Do not listen to grassroots leaders and policy makers who tell you “it is all okay, we just have to explain it better”. It is NOT all okay, and the results of the elections should have told you so by now. You cannot believe those who prefer a status quo that does not benefit our people.
- For every policy change or new policy implemented, go online, reach far and wide, and LISTEN, don’t TALK just yet. Understand that cyberspace cannot be ‘conquered’ by force or by power, but by ideas and the willingness to reason, be open and share.
- All views, online or otherwise, anonymous or not, should be considered. Value the idea, not the person giving it. We do not have the universal authority on all ideas, but someone out there might just have the right one.
Images from TODAYdigital