The Singapore government has long had the practice of writing to the foreign press to reply to and defend itself against articles that have been written about it. Most recently, Prime Minister Lee’s Press Secretary has written to The Economist with regards to PM Lee’s pending defamation suit against blogger Roy Ngerng.
Not too long ago, another member of the government also wrote to the South China Morning Post to rebut its coverage of an article written by renowned Singapore author, Ms Catherine Lim.
The government of Singapore has every right to give its side of the story to any news outlet. Robust debate and engagement should be encouraged. Indeed, it is only through a publicly available exchange of views that concerns the public may have on various issues can be flushed out. Open dialogue protects the public’s “right to know” which is a crucial ingredient to any functioning democracy.
However, it would seem that the Singapore government only deems it necessary to engage with more traditional and established forms of media. Based on the government’s track record of responses to the media, it would seem that it has either chosen to ignore the reality of the Internet or is completely not up to speed with the changing trends of how people get their news. Neither of these scenarios are very reassuring to me.
For a government to effectively govern, it has to have its fingers on the pulse of the citizenry. It has to be connected with the general populace and understand its needs. To be out of touch signals either incompetence or unwilling – both are not traits any elected government should possess. It also hints at a lack of foresight, yet another undesirable trait.
Perhaps then the government is choosing not to respond to the many online bloggers who have asked questions of it because it doesn’t wish to legitimise the online community. Many of its harshest critics have after all come from the sphere of the Internet. To engage with it would be to acknowledge not only the critics but to justify their existence as a bona fide news outlet in its own right as opposed to a naughty child that just needs a smack every now and then to keep it in check.
The approach of being more circumspect with the more established print media by giving them the privilege of a formal reply while ignoring most online news outlets save for the occasional stick of discipline to make it toe the line is a short-sighted approach that can only leave the government short-changed.
The world is changing and for any government to stay relevant, it has to acknowledge this fully and make the necessary adjustments.
I am not talking about restricting the Internet through laws such as the MDA regulations or defamation suits against recalcitrant online bloggers with a large following. I am talking about changing the way it communicates with the public and recognising the Internet as a force for positive political development.
Beyond Facebook pages and professional webpages, the government needs to respond to online articles the same way it would revert to The Economist or The South China Morning Post. For instance, it could have responded directly to Roy Ngerng’s post correcting all the alleged errors without the need for the matter to go before the courts.
Why didn't PM Lee take this simple step, completely within his means, and instead choose a course of action that basically lands his government in a position where it has to defend him with even more letters?
The world is changing day by day. Books are being read on Kindle. All major established news outlets have webpages on top of print. Groceries are being ordered online as I write (or type, shall I say) and banking transactions are carried out on the Internet every second of the day. Our daily lives are increasingly being conducted online beyond just social media.
The government needs to be cognizant with this fact whether it likes it or not. The people of Singapore are growing to expect a digitally engaged government and many aspects of the government administration already make use of online capabilities. There is no reason why this cannot be extended to political debate as well.
Its refusal to do so will render it obsolete in time if it doesn't catch up fully with the digital age. And doing so does not mean to simply use the technology, but to adopt the modes and attitude of engagement that its citizenry are used to and expecting of it.