Friday, 22 September 2023

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The Gloves are off and The Net is cast

By Jen

The double whammy news announcements of the major cabinet reshuffle and the setting up of the Media Literacy Council in Singapore has caught many people off guard and gotten everyone buzzing. I am not going to go into an academic and detailed dissection of the two announcements as these have been covered by other online platforms and some bloggers.

Instead, I will like to share my views on the implications of these moves. Amidst the noise, many of the more forgiving souls would have been hit by an epiphany  today – that for all the ‘nice’ overtures made by our government to try to persuade us into thinking they are listening and changing to be a kinder, better government, the truth appears to be that nothing much has really changed.

To project a softer image, we have, over the past year,  been inundated with numerous pix in the media of smiling/laughing ministers hanging out with the grassroots residents (especially Mr Kee Chiu);  the sudden proliferation of ministers’ Facebook pages (including our PM);  and many ministerial comments and speeches peppered with well crafted words like Singaporeans first, caring, understanding, engaging and listening to the people. Hopes were raised and even among the cynical, some were cautiously optimistic that a more democratic society with more civil liberties will emerge.

The reassuring clucking noises and highly public outreach gestures are now all looking like mere sugar-coatings to mask real intentions.  Despite all that has happened post GE 2011, the signs point to one thing – that beneath the velvet gloves rules the iron fist still.  Indeed, there were signs that showed this, such as when certain ministers like Khaw Boon Wan and Chan Chun Sing would assert now and then it is not so much that the government’s policies are wrong but it is about stepping up the government’s “engagement of the people to communicate” the need and reasons for their policies (read it’s not them who are wrong but it’s us who are dense and who need to understand).

The latest announcements of restructuring some of the ministries, especially setting up the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) and the Media Literacy Council (MLC) is the strongest signal yet that while its outward approach and style may have softened a tad,  nothing much has changed in this government’s mindset and attitude. It is clear that its intention is not to loosen but to tighten and expand its iron grip on the people who have become increasingly vocal and assertive (horrors – the sheep are awakening and exercising critical thinking!).

And to think just a couple of months back, I had commented that the government was trying to be ‘nicer’ with its bottom-up approach in asking the internet community to set an Internet Code of Conduct (CoC) instead of taking the usual ‘ban this and that’ approach. And just a few days ago, MCI’s minister Yaacob Ibrahim was still talking CoC at a student dialogue. And while this is CoC proposal is still very much in the air….tada….we get hit by the Media Literacy Council (which sounds like some fancy title for a council to rule the online universe)

On the MLC, anyone who has worked on a committee knows just how long it takes to form one and to get it going, let alone an important national council involving many public leaders. On this basis, we can conclude the MLC was not born overnight. It would have taken many months to form this council, set its agenda and stage the public announcement.

So what does this mean? That while the government was making nice by publicly inviting the internet community to self govern and set its own CoC, the official machinery was quietly cranking up ways to tighten the noose on the internet behind the scenes?  War strategist Sun Tzu would certainly have approved of this “catching the enemy by surprise”  manuever.  So much for sincerity to make nice.

CoC, as I see it now, was not meant to be the nice solution to promote civility online. Instead, if successfully implemented, CoC would have been part of a powerful tactic used in tandem with the MLC to constrain and control the growing potency of the online voices. Squeeze bottom-up and from top-down. Clever.

But CoC and MLC are just two ways to maintain control. The other way is through propaganda and moulding of people’s thinking.  On this, the government should get A++ for their efforts. The mind-shaping activities have been going on for years but of late they have been getting more aggressive. There appears to be more student dialogues, many more pro-government websites and FB pages have surfaced to push the government’s messages and there are more new national and community schemes reaching out their tentacles to “educate” the young and old to be more “discerning” of what they read online and of views critical of the government and policies

There’s even a “good character” award (with cash rewards) introduced at the schools this year by the Ministry of Education. The interesting thing is what the education minister said at the launch of this award – that this scheme is not just for character building among the young but it is to “ultimately, prepare them for a world of unknowns…It is more about how to process information, discern truths from untruths, connect seemingly disparate dots and create knowledge even as the context changes…”.

The national education and social education and so-called character building programmes and activities reach out to the very young from the time they are in primary schools (or is it from preschool these days?) and some of what they teach is questionable and one-sided. Some lessons are clearly biased towards MIW, they do not give the full story and they do not encourage critical thinking.

As an observer, the velvet gloves are surely coming off to reveal the omnipresent knucklebuster below. The battle for the people’s minds (and votes) has gone up a few notches with the forming of the MLC and the restructuring of three ministries.  Speculation is rife among citizens and netizens on the restructuring agenda. Some of the aims may be to fast-track its three golden boys to become full ministers one day, which is fair enough, and some of the changes may benefit the community which is good.  But the more pertinent question is how much of the restructuring is driven by the motive to support the MIW-controlled government and their policies, to muzzle dissent and to strengthen their power base?

Take for example the creation of MCI which used to be Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts. In setting up a more focused MCI, Prime Minister Lee said: “MCI will oversee our efforts to improve public communications and engagement, which are more important in the age of social media and a more active citizenry.” This makes it clear that MCI’s priority is to help the government improve its communications and engagement with the people and, more than likely, to run a tighter ship in managing the people and the public’s views of the government.

Sure, some would say it is fair game when you are in power to use that power to do things your way and to your benefit to some extent.  But the question then is how far do you go with this especially when one has absolute power? As the saying goes  “Power corrupts, Absolute power corrupts absolutely”.

Anyway, a cold wind is blowing and I am starting to feel a chill both in the online and offline realms.  The invisible net has been cast and the screws are tightening.

But is it too late to clamp down as the Pandora’s Box has been opened? People everywhere are becoming more informed, more aware and more vocal and also more active in causes in an increasingly open and engaged world.  Singapore is no exception.

Even here, in this tightly controlled little red dot, we can see the changes and sense the spirit growing – that passionate spirit to stand up and do something for what we strongly believe in.   I am hopeful that this spirit will keep us straining at the leash and striving for a better and more democratic future for Singapore.

It is hard to tame the spontaneous spirit of cyberspace and, I believe,  it will be even harder to tame the spirit of the people.

Our defense is in the preservation of the spirit which prizes liberty as a heritage of all men, in all lands, everywhere. Destroy this spirit and you have planted the seeds of despotism around your own doors.”

Abraham Lincoln


TOC thanks Jen for her contribution, this article first appeared on Jentrified Citizen.


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