Engaging with the digital age and its real victims

By Ghui

The digital age has certainly opened up many fronts for attack. From the People’s Action Party being criticised, to bad behaviour being named and shamed, to affairs being ousted and corruption scandals coming to light, the Internet is certainly (almost) fair game for all.

In a country that seeks to espouse the values of meritocracy, the Internet should certainly be embraced given that as long as you have access to it – and most people do in Singapore – you can be a part of the online community. You can engage, discuss, debate, criticise and be criticised on a more or less even playing field.

There are of course those who hide behind the skirts of anonymity to mount stealth attacks. While denied the satisfaction of a face to face defence, victims of such stealth attacks are still able to rebut and reply point on point.

Personally, I have always taken the view that the public should be given more leeway than politicians. I do not mean that politicians should be attacked for no rhyme or reason in their personal capacities but I do feel that when airing their views on a particular policy, individuals should be given the freedom to be more expressive and emotional. This should not extend of course to the politician’s private life but the general sentiment I believe is that they should cut the Singaporean public some slack when it comes to criticism on government policies.

To a certain extent, politicians are public figures and like it or not, democracy is a system that encourages politicians to be scrutinised somewhat. How do I cast my vote if I do not know what you stand for? To understand what you stand for, I will need to observe you in your function more carefully. That is not to say that politicians do not deserve privacy. Certain issues such as those concerning their families should be strictly out of bounds. If these are criticised in a bid to goad that given politician, this would be below the belt and should be regulated.

Anything apart from matters such as these and especially those related to government policies should be pretty much free for all and the politician under fire can equally return volley with his or her own Facebook postings, articles, Tweeter feeds etc.

How the PAP chooses to move into the digital age will very much determine its own sustainability and survival.

It is in that vein that I would like to applaud Mr Hri Kumar in his attempts to move with the times and engage with his constituents. Given the whole Roy Ngerng debacle, Mr Kumar knows full well that CPF concerns were at the forefront of his constituents’ minds and organised a CPF discussion for residents of his constituency. Non-residents such as Kenneth Jeyaretnam were also in attendance. Given that Mr Jeyaretnam is a very high profile opposition leader who is also a noted intellectual, I am heartened that Mr Kumar attempted to engage and answer Mr Jeyaretnam’s questions. While I was disappointed with  Ngerng’s notable absence, I will not speculate on why he was not there. I simply do not know enough to comment on Ngerg’s absence.

While there have been critics to Hri Kumar’s performance, the point I wish to make is that he at least cashed in on public sentiment on this issue and made an attempt to engage. While he could have been more prepared, I cannot fault him for not knowing all the answers. If he does take away the points Kenneth Jeyaretnam raised and reverts after finding out the answers, I would be happy enough with that. As an MP, he is the voice of his constituents. His role is not to know everything but to be a representative. If he is able to effectively act as a conduit between his constituents and the government, he would be doing his job.

The public nature of the CPF discussion and the proliferation of technology has however highlighted a trait that is present on both sides of the PAP and non-PAP fence. Both sides do not seem to know where to draw the line.

I do not like to generalise but for the purposes of this example, please indulge me. At the CPF discussions, an unwitting heroine of sorts was born. She is Ms Rene Yap, the 76 year old ex-school teacher who begged the government to return her CPF. She has now become the symbol of critics of the PAP-endorsed CPF system.

Then you have the Cheong Sam lady, identified as Ms Yee Mei Lin, a grassroots leader who has been caught on camera making unflattering hand gestures about the CPF lady. To a largely unsympathetic public, Ms Yee has come to symbolise the dismissive and high handed nature of the PAP.

All of these may not at all be true. These two ladies are just two individuals who happened to be put in that situation but like it or not, they have now been thrust into the limelight perpetuated by the relentless Internet machine. This is when the line needs to be drawn. These two ladies are private citizens. Views that they may not hold are now being attributed to them as different sides use their image as a banner to rally towards.

Fabrications against the PAP (FAP), a Facebook page set up by pro PAP supporters have lambasted Ms Yap and published her address exposing her to possible danger in the wake of revelations that she lives in a landed property. Mr Kumar himself had a part to play when he revealed the vicinity of where she resides. Why was there a need to publish her address? Apart from sheer malice and childish tit for tat, I cannot see any other reason for revealing this information. This is a violation of CPF lady’s privacy and this ought to be punished.

The same can be said of online vigilantes who have published details of Ms Yee’s address, job and photographs. While I understand the public’s intention to punish her for her rude behaviour, this should be limited to what she did at the CPF session that day. There was absolutely no need for details of her private life to be aired for all and sundry. It is neither necessary nor reasonable.

This public naming and shaming online is what our government should be regulating as opposed to a focus on purported defamation of other high profile public figures who have other means of defending themselves.

While the Internet is a viable tool that should be utilised, as a country we need to think about issues such as the awareness of individuals to being filmed at public events and the publicising of such material. We also need to consider appropriate action to prevent private details such as work addresses and home addresses from being revealed. This is especially for private citizens without recourse to personal security or an army of lawyers.

The real victims of Internet bashing are not the politicians. They are individual citizens who may not be media savvy and who have not signed up to be scrutinised in this fashion. More focus should be put on protecting private citizens such as these two ladies, as opposed to concerns about Singaporeans reading the “correct” political content online or politicians being defamed.