By Andrew Loh
The People’s Action Party (PAP) Government’s recent proclamations about online anonymity are further signs of how confused, misguided and ill-informed our leaders have become.
This is perhaps synonymous with its directionless leadership in recent years, as evidenced by its own admission, during and after the 2011 General Election, that it had got some policies wrong.
But as we shall see, being out of touch has dangerous consequences for Singaporeans.
Its latest moves to rein in online criticisms are not only irrational but also hypocritical, resulting in the creation and enforcement of laws which are arbitrary, politically motivated and just plain idiotic.
But this was not always so, when it came to the Government’s attitude towards online criticisms. In the earlier days of the Internet, and specifically the (socio-political) blogosphere, the Government’s stance was always a dismissive one. The voices and views online are just insignificant noise, they would say. The Government’s favourite tool to use against this “online mob” was the mainstream media. And so, most of the time, we had articles – on quite regular intervals – being churned out by the hound dogs of the Government mouthpieces. Bloggers, in particular, were the favourite punching bags.
But as the blogosphere developed, and more Singaporeans started expressing their views, together with the advent of social media such as Youtube, Facebook and Twitter, the voices of the disenchanted became louder, and were even being picked up by the mainstream media, both local and foreign.
And in 2009, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong made a rather unusual concession about those who inhabit the online space.
“But even in the Internet,” he told Channel Newsasia in an interview, “there are places which are more considered, more moderated where people put their names down and identify themselves.”
Even during the election itself, PAP MPs were even praising bloggers, calling them (and the people of Singapore) “the real check on the PAP”.
“My fellow Singaporeans,” its candidate Denise Phua told the rally at Hougang, “I learnt that even without the opposition, citizenry who have higher expectations and demands would have stepped in, to shape and influence government policies and programmes. If you don’t believe this, go and check out the views of ex-NMP Siew Kum Hong, Calvin Cheng, Paulin Straughan, Eugene Tan and even bloggers like Mr
Brown, Kin Mun. They do not have allegiance to any specific political party but they together with many Singaporeans who have minds of their own – the people are the real check on the PAP (and even on the Workers’ Party).”
But the results of the general elections changed everything.
Being a party which is “paranoid”, as some minister said not too long ago, it was no surprise that the Internet, with its independent citizen journalists doing a better job than their mainstream counterparts, became the target to control of the establishment.
The contest for cyberspace had begun.
Still, the Government started off, post-GE 2011, with attempts to engage its critics and online commentators. There were behind-the-scenes sessions over tea and dinner. The PM even opened the Istana and invited online personalities to visit. Bloggers’ views were sought by Government agencies, researchers and even its mainstream newspaper mouthpieces.
There were few among the blogging community, however, who felt the Government was genuine in its so-called engagement attempts. Many whom this writer spoke to felt these tea sessions were more like lectures from ministers who seemed too eager to want to explain, sometimes even with powerpoint presentations, how right or correct government policies are.
By 2012, however, the PAP Government had all but given up and threw in the towel. In its place were the old knuckleduster tactics of control – legal threats, attempts at discrediting its critics through its mouthpieces, and the introduction of new legislations.
The Prime Minister, for example, issued a letter of demand to blogger Alex Au on the 4th day of the new year this year. It was the precursor to further legal threats or actions against several websites and individuals throughout the year, with the latest attempt to haul Mr Au to the courts for contempt of court charges by the Attorney General in November.
The most significant manoeuvre, of course, was the introduction of new Internet regulations by the Media Development Authority (MDA) in June.
It should be noted – with significance – that two ministers had failed to adequately explain the new legislations or new rules for operators of websites.
When asked by The Online Citizen (TOC) why it has not been asked by the authorities to register, since it clearly fulfilled the requirements under the new rules, the reply from the MDA was simply: TOC does not qualify.
When asked again, the same reply was offered: TOC does not qualify.
The aim: total control, no matter how irrational, or how inexplicable.
The Government was willing to risk looking like an idiot – it didn’t matter. What did was that it had control.
TOC remains gazetted by the Prime Minister’s Office as a “political association”, even though its owners and editors see it as nothing not much more than a blog.
New websites such as The Independent (Singapore) and Breakfast Network are now being asked to register under the new Internet rules. The Independent, however, recently indicated that its editors and owners have been asked by the MDA to sign and agree to terms which are onerous on them.
It is believed that the terms include giving the Government unprecedented access to information about the website and its operations.
The latest attempts by ministers to rationalise new laws or rules to govern online discourse centers on the issue of anonymity.
“It is not a laughing matter,” PM Lee said about the alleged attacks by hacker group Anonymous on government websites. “It’s not just anything goes, and you’re anonymous, therefore there’s no responsibility. You may think you are anonymous. We will make that extra effort to find out who you are.”
Law Minister K Shanmugam, speaking on the issue of online anonymity, said, “Put down your name. Nobody’s talking about freedom of speech. You can express whatever comments you want. But just identify yourself. I can imagine that they will be uncomfortable if they want to talk, say untruths, if they want to bully.
“But if they are attacking policies, if they are expressing their views on policies, why should they be uncomfortable in any event?”
This is another about-turn from the earlier comments by its own MP, Baey Yam Keng in 2007 who said, “The identity is not important. It is the message that is important.”
The PAP Government’s current abhorrence towards online anonymity also runs counter – some say it is hypocritical – to what it had itself done in 2007, and even today.
In 2007, the Straits Times reported that the PAP “has members going into Internet forums and blogs to rebut anti-establishment views and putting up postings anonymously.”
The report revealed:
“One activist who is involved said that when posting comments on online forums and the feedback boxes of blogs, he does not identify himself as a PAP member.”
And even today, supposed members of the so-called “PAP Internet Brigade” can be seen postings comments on blogs and social media platform – anonymously.
What do all these twists and turns, change of tunes, and seemingly contradictory positions and statements tell us?
It says to Singaporeans that the PAP government is:
- Unsure of what it is doing when it comes to engaging Singaporeans online.
- It is willing to create, introduce and enforce irrational legislations which its own ministers are unable to explain clearly and convincingly to the public.
- It is a Government which is not interested in letting things grow organically and allow Singaporeans the space to let things develop on their own, despite suggestions of this from various quarters.
But most importantly, to this writer at least, it is dangerous that Singaporeans’ space for free expression is being curbed by an ill-informed and misguided Government which seems bent on wanting total control even when it is unable to explain and be accountable to the people of Singapore.
In fact, it is bent on having control even on irrational grounds, and even if it means it has to do the very thing which it is accusing others of doing – itself being anonymous online.
Is it any wonder then that in recent times there have been talk that trust in the PAP Government has been eroding?