By Choo Zheng Xi/Managing Editor
I believe there is a moral difference between two forms of civil disobedience.
The first is a tradition of civil disobedience which comes from a conscientious position thoughtfully arrived at and which draws attention to specific injustices.
The other is an anarchic civil disobedience which has no clear objective, causes or threatens to cause harm to innocent third parties, and is conducted by persons who do not believe strongly enough in the positions they take to put a name to their ideas.
This form of civil disobedience appears to be the weapon of choice of someone calling himself “The Messiah” supposedly from the Anonymous collective. I find myself unable to agree with his methods and ostensible objectives.
Alternatives to The Messiah
There are people and movements in Singaporeans that are willing to challenge the status quo and go to jail for their beliefs.
Dr Chee Soon Juan has actively broken public assembly and speech laws and been to jail to draw attention to the lack of freedom of speech in Singapore. He has stood up for what he’s believed, put his name on the line, and done time in jail to make his point.
Whether you agree with the wisdom of what Dr Chee has done is up for debate, but few in Singapore would call him a coward.
Others too have taken the Government on without having to resort to anonymous and illegal hacking.
M Ravi has come up against the State in our Courts of law and chipped away at its aura of invincibility. He’s challenged the mandatory death penalty, contempt of Court laws, and the discretion of the Prime Minister to call a by-election.
Activists for the #FreeMyInternet movement have protested against the new internet regulations robustly and openly, protesting at Hong Lim Park and lobbying their Members of Parliament by putting policy proposals on the table.
Where was The Messiah when these battles were being fought, by real people with real names who made real sacrifices to participate in different movements to make Singapore a freer, more open place?
What are the objectives, who are the targets?
It’s easy to romanticize an ill defined “David vs Goliath” narrative. The message of The Messiah taps into a primal desire to see a re-balancing of society away from the powerful in favour of the powerless.
But at some point the question needs to be asked: what does The Messiah believe in and what are his/her objectives? Who does The Messiah’s online vigilantism empower and is the net value of such empowerment offset by the cowing effect it has on individuals and institutions that The Messiah targets?
Let’s be clear: taking Government websites down has consequences that affect ordinary Singaporeans.
Threatening the cyber-security of Government websites on which hundreds of thousands of ordinary Singaporeans rely to tender for business, check their CPF balances, pay their bills through is making the wrong people bear the brunt of perceived mistakes in Government policy.
The cost of increased cyber-security and any remedial action that needs to be taken to mop up after a hack will be borne by taxpayers. The people who maintain and fix these websites are ordinary individuals who have little say in policymaking.
Basically, in The Messiah’s narrative, the convenience and digital access of Singaporeans is collateral damage in a war against the Government.
The Government isn’t The Messiah’s only target. Regular people who fall foul of his/her amorphous moral code are potential victims of The Messiah’s vigilantism.
Accompanying The Messiah’s Straits Times hack was a list of demands and statements.
First, The Messiah called for a Straits Times reporter to apologize for a misleading article, resign, or to be placed on his/her “to do” list. Presumably, this involves becoming a moving target for The Messiah’s cyber-reprisals.
In another demand, The Messiah threatens the vet who put Tammy the puppy down, informing her that “you are fucked” and threatening to “attack you in ways you least expect”. It alludes to a digital invasion of her private life, promising to make their attack “a touch more personal”.
The Messiah also continues to threaten City Harvest Pastor Kong Hee, whose case is being tried in our Courts.
I don’t believe that institutions in Singapore are so dysfunctional and broken that we need an online mob to ride to our rescue, hack Government websites and threaten unpopular individuals with reprisals, regardless of how intensely I disagree with them.
In all the cases The Messiah is threatening to intervene in, there are existing remedies against the “villains” whom the enigmatic figure is threatening.
Kong Hee is being dealt with in Court, his private life and his wife’s is already subject to intense public scrutiny. Dr Esmee Koh, the vet who put Tammy down, is facing a barrage of netizen rage on her clinic’s website.
In all the above cases, what additional value does the threat of a cyber-attack provide apart from terrorizing the individuals and institutions targeted?
Do the ends justify the means?
In any case, before anyone cheers for The Messiah, perhaps we can pause to consider: do we really want to live by the dictum that the ends justify the means, regardless of circumstance and context? What if we were the hapless and unpopular individuals on the receiving end of The Messiah’s wrath?
I’d be the first to say we need more public debate and physical protests about internet regulations being too restrictive, defamation laws being too protective of political figures, and contempt of Court thresholds set too low.
By all means stand up and be counted, as over 2,000 people who turned up at Hong Lim chose to at the #FreeMyInternet protest.
But I believe there’s absolutely no reason to condone the threat of cyber-attack against our Government nor to condone any form of anonymous cyber-lynching of unpopular individuals.
For free speech to mean something, we need individuals who are brave enough to step forward and have their names counted.
One brave person putting his or her name to a view which he or she believes in is a far more effective safeguard against autocracy than the legions of Anonymous The Messiah threatens to unleash.
Zheng Xi’s views are his own, and should not be taken to represent those of any movement or organization he belongs to.