By Andrew Loh
Since Ravi Philemon posted those fateful remarks by his friend on the availability of masks during the haze period, much has happened.
Minister Yaacob Ibrahim pointed him out in Parliament for attack, questioning him – and other “prominent members of the online community” – if they were helping to “spread” rumours or “even create them”.
Dr Yaacob’s attack was then followed by at least one report in the Straits Times which reported that “many observers agreed it was right to call out such behaviour”, and a letter to the same newspaper mentioning and indeed accusing Ravi Philemon of being “irresponsible”.
Former Nominated Member of Parliament, Calvin Cheng, also wrote a letter to the Straits Times on 16 July. Mr Cheng wrote:
“I believe blogger Ravi Philemon's explanation to be bona fide, and that rather than having malicious intent, he was putting the allegation - that none of the Government's nine million N95 masks was for the public - into the public domain for the Government to clarify the issue.”
Mr Cheng, however, added:
"Instead of putting out allegations on the Internet to be clarified, one should have directed the claims to the NEA, because the viral nature of the Internet means that such untruths could spark further panic and mask-hoarding, making the Government's job even harder."
It would thus seem that actions such as that which Mr Ravi is alleged to have engaged in, was rather serious, that it went viral, read by many people, had the real potential to cause “panic” among the public, and required a minister to raise it in Parliament and launch into an attack on such an individual.
But what are the facts?
First, the post in question was made on Ravi’s personal Facebook page.
Second, it was not posted or reposted (as far as I know) on any other websites or blogs.
Third, the post in question was made on Saturday, 22 June 2013.
Fourth, even today – 3 weeks after it was made – it has received a mere 24 “likes” and 28 “shares” on Facebook. (According to this site, Singapore’s Facebook subscribers stood at almost 3 million in 2012.)
Fifth, the content of the post was not untrue – that the masks were not meant for the general public, as the Defence Minister confirmed in Parliament on the 9 of July.
Sixth, Ravi’s post wasn’t the only one questioning the availability of the masks. On the Straits Times’ own portal, STOMP, the following were posted (in the page itself as a news report, and NOT in the comments section) on 21 June when the haze was at its worst level of PSI 401:
"This is unlike what Minister Vivian Balakrishnan mentioned on TV, that there are 9 million N95 in stock now, enough for everyone... I like to ask our minister where I can get mask for my two aged parents and 5 year old nephew?" - Ivan.
"Where are the stocks promised made by our Ministry of Health that by yesterday evening there will be stock?" - Wu Bian.
"So it says these masks are available, but try going to the various pharmacies. All we see is 'out of stock' from near all of them. At a time of such acute need, we can't seem to buy them from anywhere. This is not how you manage a crisis." - Stanley.
Seventh, the government has so far only accused certain netizens and “prominent members of the online community” of “spreading rumours” or not speaking up against such rumours during the haze period.
Eight, STOMP’s reach is declared – by its owner, Singapore Press Holdings – as “1 million – unique audience”, and “71 million monthly page views”. (See here.)
With the above facts, the obvious question is:
Why is the government making such a big deal about Ravi Philemon’s Facebook post when:
- It obviously did not go viral. In fact – and this is a fact – the post was hardly shared. 24 ‘likes’ and 28 ‘shares’ after 3 weeks is nothing even close to it going “viral”.
- What the post said – that the masks were not intended for the general public – is not untrue, as the Defence Minister himself later confirmed in Parliament. The masks in fact were reserved and stockpiled for use by healthcare workers in the event of another flu outbreak.
- The government has kept a total silence on the posting on STOMP which openly and clearly questioned Minister Vivian Balakrishnan and the Ministry of Health’s promise that masks would be made available. This is even more serious considering that STOMP’s reach goes into the millions, as SPH itself says. It thus had even more potential to cast doubts on what the government and its ministers say, which is essentially what Dr Yaacob is taking issue with, with Ravi Philemon’s re-posting of his friend’s remarks. Ravi Philemon’s 24 ‘likes’ and 28 ‘shares’ does not even come close to having such far-reaching influence as STOMP does.
In an earlier article, I laid out the sequence of events with regards to the accusations against Ravi Philemon. (See here.) If one were also to peruse Ravi Philemon’s Facebook page, one would see that he too had helped disseminate useful information with regards to the haze, including reposting a post by Mr Cheng advising people to stay indoors. (See here.)
Given all the facts, one can only surmise that there is a political agenda behind the recent spate of attacks on the online community. How else could it be – when the government blows things out of proportion – and attack an individual - and then use his alleged action in “spreading rumours” to justify new regulations for the Internet?
It all seems too calculated and coincidental.
The attacks on Ravi Philemon smacks of an over-the-top attempt at character assassination, and those responsible for such behaviour should be ashamed of themselves – especially given recent comments by the Prime Minister about “right politics” and remarks by another minister about “clean politics”.
It is time to stop making a mountain out of an ant-hill.