The Age of Petitions, and it’s hardly democratic

Petition HuiHui citizenship

By Aloysius Chia

Not one month goes by where no petition is written about some current event or another.

First, we have the petition to remove Tim Pei Ling as a Member of Parliament.

Then, we have the petitions in support of and against the repeal of 377A.

Afterwards, petitions for MDA not to censor a film.

Now, to take it to the extreme, a petition to revoke Han Hui Hui’s citizenship.

What’s next? A petition to remove petitions as a means of petitioning?

Let’s be blunt about this. A petition is an attempt at sanctioning another idea, event or person, without recourse to reason, argument and debate.

It is an attempt at using force through numbers, in order to change the course of events. The objective could be to maintain the status quo, such as the petition not to repeal laws; or it could reflect a desire for change, such as to bring down an organisation or website.

But a petition to revoke another person’s citizenship is taking it to another level.

On what basis and reason should we do so? By sheer numbers?

That’s like a group of youngsters playing at the playground who didn’t like one girl who was too rough, and deciding to sanction her by keeping her out of it altogether.

By sheer numbers it worked.

Is a petition representative of a large majority of the population?

Given the fact that there are so many who do not use computers at all, and even if they do, do not take part actively in such petitions, or may not even see them, or did not care about them, how can anyone say that petitions are representative, or democratic?

How about the possibility that someone signs a petition twice using two email accounts and identities online?

Or the fact that there are those who have seen it, but have not read much about the debates from various points of views, yet decide to throw their names into the fray?

Online petitions give a semblance of democracy, but it is not, because it does not attempt to reach out to all and mobilize people to vote. There is no threshold for majority. There is no agreement on what the issue is all about. Only numbers matter, and even so, not clearly in opposition to what.

Numbers don’t tell much about whether doing something is right or wrong, reasonable or not. They don’t hold up to the test of reflection, or the challenge of other ideas. Online petitions merely represent sentiments taken to a group level in a group of people who more or less already feel strongly about the issue.

Does a petition allow you to say ‘No’? How then does it represent those who disagree with it?

By all means the petitions that are proliferating are a testament to the state of our democracy. Petitions are reflective of those who feel and want to act about social issues (rarely are there any economic related petitions out there). It reflects a desire for active democratic participation.

But truly active democratic participation requires a lot more work than a click of a mouse and typing some paragraphs. It requires the organization of groups; effort at mobilizing and encouraging people to vote; translating discussions into many languages, and a press that is free enough to reflect various points of views. More importantly, it requires respect among all for the outcome of the vote, and a respect for other people’s decision in their choice of vote.

Democracy is hard work, because it cannot be detached from the larger social system that requires the activity of all.

Online petitions, on the other hand, as much as it may be a part of democratic culture, do not require much work to have it posted online and shared among various people. Due to how easily it can be posted, it can be made public on short notice, and the momentary feelings that surge outward just as quickly are reflective of the little thought that has been put into it.