Regulations will not solve the problem of distrust

~ By Shermon Ong ~

Recently, there has been much debate over the Code of Conduct (COC) proposed by the government, ostensibly something that will informally regulate the conduct of online discourse, especially political discourse. Socio-political sites and bloggers will be expected to adhere to this COC and weed out any behaviour contrary to this COC. Predictably, and rightly so, there has been a huge uproar online over this proposal as various sites, bloggers, forums and netizens view this as but another tool wielded by the government to clamp down on political discourse, especially those that are critical of their policies. This proposed COC, however, misses the underlying issue that the government should resolve – that of distrust between the citizens and the government.

The distrust was not built up over the period of days, weeks, months or even years. Rather, it was a series of actions spanning back decades that destroyed the trust that citizens had in the government, especially when it came to political discourse. Over the course of the years, citizens have seen some opposition political figures being sued for defamation over discourse that is political in nature. These defamation suits were mostly found for the claimants, who were mostly members or ex-members of the ruling party. The substance of these decisions is not the focus of this article. Rather, even if we allow the fact that some, if not all, of these suits are justified, to the average citizen, these suits are perceived to be tools used by the government to clamp down on the political discourse. To them, they will ask, “How can I trust that the government will not sue me for defamation if I make political statements?” Other than defamation suits, citizens will always perceive the threat of the Internal Security Act (ISA) hanging over them, especially with the 1987 Marxist conspiracy arrests still relatively fresh in their minds. This series of actions has, as Mr Siew Kum Hong rightly pointed out, contributed to a repressed political climate in Singapore, especially when it came to political discourse.

This situation experienced a paradigm shift when the advent of the Internet and social media allowed the common citizen to express his/her views on the Internet freely, especially under the cloak of anonymity. Socio-political blogs and sites sprung up to give their views of various governmental policies with the space that was previously not afforded under the mainstream media. Forums were abuzz with comments from netizens over issues. More importantly, the vast majority of these views were anti-government. The government did not know how to react initially to this new phenomenon. Suddenly, they faced a torrent of criticisms that were always simmering underneath the surface but were released with the advent of the Internet.

The distrust was set in further when The Online Citizen was gazetted by the government (effectively perceived as an attempt to neuter the site), threatening of legal action against the only editor of Temasek Review Emeritus who was brave enough to step forward, labelling the cyberspace as a ‘cowboy town’ etc. Now with this proposed COC, is it any wonder that it is perceived as a further clamp down on space for political discourse in Singapore by citizens?

Regulation to address distrust?

What the government has failed to realise is that the torrent of anti-government voices online is due to distrust and no amount of regulations is going to solve that. In fact, such regulations are blunt tools that will not only fail to solve the underlying issue of distrust but also serve to deepen the distrust, worsening the situation. It is not disputed that the government or members of the government has the right to enforce its legal rights via defamation suits, regulations or even the power to use the ISA. However, the fact that they can use a tool does not mean that they should use it. After all, when solving a problem, one has to look at nature of the problem and its underlying issues before utilising the most appropriate tool and such tools are definitely not appropriate for solving distrust. Also, one can only wonder how regulations can be enforced effectively against online entities that are amorphous and possess the cloak of anonymity or even extra-jurisdictional powers which will render such regulations toothless?

Another effect of the COC is that those who will most likely be compelled to adhere to it are the prominent socio-political sites and bloggers who have bravely stepped out and identified themselves. These sites and bloggers are precisely the ones who offer a more balanced view as compared to others who may be less prominent but anonymous. If the government has always been encouraging of “constructive criticisms”, then they should allow these sites and bloggers to continue functioning without undue interference, be it COC or other regulations. In the online world, being tacked with a “Government-approved” stamp is most certainly a death-knell for any site or blog. By making them adhere to the proposed COC, one can only wonder how long more will these sites and blogs remain prominent and who will take their place. Is the COC going to be an overly strong weed-killer that kills not only the weeds but good plants as well? There is no guarantee that those who rise to fill the void won’t be even more extreme.

Lastly, the COC is an example of the distrust the government has towards the netizens. It is a worry that the netizens won’t be able to self-regulate and a paternalistic approach is needed. However, in the recent racist comment case by a Singaporean girl, the netizens’ response has been one of criticism. Also, it is not uncommon to find on some socio-political sites moderate voices that decry certain extreme and unjustified views. Granted, these voices may be in the minority but this shows that netizens are able to discern what kind of discourse that transgresses the baseline, such as racial or religious views. Even in a cowboy town, there are informal codes of honour and the sheriffs of yesteryears regulate with a light touch, knowing that such informal codes help to ensure some form of consistency in behaviour.

Distrust is not something that can and should be solved with extra regulations or legal tools. The latest proposed COC is an example of a government that fails to recognise the underlying issue of distrust. Distrust can only be dispelled with its converse – trust. That takes years to build up through words backed up by solid action on the part of the government. The government would do well to adopt a softer PR-centric approach instead of resorting to blunt tools that do not solve distrust. In the Shared Values White Paper released in 1991, the government talked about the “concept of government by honourable men (君子)… who have the trust and respect of the population, fits us better than the Western idea that a government… should always be treated with suspicion unless proven otherwise.” Perhaps, it is high time for the trust to be reciprocal and two-way, that the government trusts and respects its citizens and should not always treat them with suspicion unless proven otherwise.