~ By Cherian George ~

Singapore sometimes seems like a metropolis in search of a kampung spirit. And I don’t mean in a good way, like being caring and considerate – if you’ve seen how Singaporean drivers respond to an ambulance behind them (they don’t) you’d realise that when Gotong Royong 101 was being taught in kindergarten, they were probably absorbed in mental sums and other essential skills to get ahead of the pack.

No, the kampung spirit that we Singaporeans are cultivating is instead a kaypoh-ish petty-mindedness; a small-town mentality that tells us that no event is too trivial to turn into a national issue.

You may have heard of that classic formulation of headline news: if it bleeds, it leads. But since Singapore is not a particularly violent society, our scandal-seekers have had to make the most of the merely unpleasant. Their twist on the newsman’s mantra is: if it offends, it trends.

With the Internet, there is no shortage of anti-social words and actions to dissect and discuss if you are so inclined. Now, instead of limiting yourself to gossiping about what you saw through the window of your neighbour’s home as you walked by, you have hundreds of thousands of Facebook walls where people obligingly make fools of themselves.

So it is that Singapore – one of the world’s great entrepôts and financial centres, with dreams of being a world city like New York or London – works itself into a tizzy over inconsequential internet indiscretions of insignificant individuals almost every week.

Our mainstream media are contributing to this provincialism. But independent news websites are playing the leading role in setting the agenda. Since they do not have the resources to investigate official malfeasance, they seem to have latched onto the formula of doing exposes of individual idiocy.

Readers like me who subscribe (for now) to RSS feeds of the likes of Temasek Times in the hope that they will tell me something important that the mainstream media aren’t,  find ourselves receiving a steady diet of news concerning the silly things that random persons happen to be doing online. Welcome to kampung Singapore.

With the F-U-gate scandal, we’ve reached a new low. A 17-year-old junior college kid flames the Deputy Prime Minister and it becomes a national event.

Has our fascination for the frivolous gone too far, I wonder. After the latest controversy, Yahoo! News asked me if it was time for an Internet code of ethics. Perhaps it is. But not the kind of code you think. I think it’s time for readers to exercise more responsibility. Here’s the kind of thing that could go into an Internet consumer code:

We, as responsible consumers of the Internet in Singapore, pledge the following:

  • We will finally wake up to the idea that the Internet contains all the wonder and weirdness of the world, and we’ll stop reacting to the less pleasant stuff as if it is the end of human civilisation.
  • We will remind ourselves that teenagers are – like they always have been and always will be – basically daft. We’ll leave it to their parents, teachers and peers to set them right, and give them amnesty till they are 21. We won’t repeat the stuff that they’ll regret when they are adults, and we’ll avoid publicising their names.
  • We won’t exploit private individuals’ online mistakes as ammunition in our battles against groups we don’t like. Whether we want to prove the case for more censorship, or to embarrass the political party that they belong to, to tarnish the immigration policies that brought them here, to show how intolerant some religious groups are, or how immoral some communities are, we won’t crucify random duds who did something silly online.
  • If we think there’s nothing good on the Internet, we will go read a book. If we think there’s both good and bad, we’ll do our part to help the good go viral and let the bad sink into oblivion – instead of the reverse.
  • We will use our smarts to decide what we really need to get worked up about. We’ll treat trolleys on buses as trivia; and focus more attention on climate change and Millennium Development Goals, on Syria, Sudan… and, all right, Euro 2012.

TOC thanks Cherian George for his contribution, this article first appeared on his blog. Cherian George is an Associate Professor at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, Nanyang Technological University and an Adjunct Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies.