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Singaporeans not more open to public surveillance but less resistant to it

Watchful eyes at every block

daniel gohNational University of Singapore (NUS) sociologist Daniel Goh says that he does not think that Singaporeans are more open to public surveillance compared to people in other societies around the world, but instead they are less resistant towards the idea of being surveilled upon.

This is in response to questions posed by local newspaper, Straits Times (ST) in regards to the CCTVs installed around Singapore, which police say will cover every Housing Board block by end of 2016.

When asked by ST on his opinion, whether Singapore society is particularly accepting of public surveillance compared to other societies like the UK, where governmental CCTV cameras have been met with resistance. Prof. Daniel Goh said that Singaporeans would also want their privacy protected as much as possible but just does not put much thought to it and offer less resistance towards the idea of being surveilled upon.

He gave three factors to why Singaporeans do not resist as much as other societies do. Namely, the lack of an entrenched political culture emphasising civil liberties and citizen rights, independent civic institutions and the sense of ownership for public spaces.

"Thus, I don’t think Singaporeans welcome or worry about surveillance cameras; we just don’t think about them.", wrote Prof. Goh.

On the other question of whether is it that Singaporeans have higher levels of trust in the government or care more about safety than privacy.

Prof. Goh pointed out that most citizens in modern urban societies also trust their police force but still resist against public surveillance. Therefore ruling that out as a reason why Singaporeans offer much less resistance to the surveillance cameras to their counterparts in other societies.


Sociologist, Daniel Goh's reply to ST's questions in full

I don’t think Singaporeans are more open to public surveillance. I think we are naturally uncomfortable with surveillance and would like our privacy protected as much as possible, as are other citizens of modern urban societies. My educated guess is that the lack of resistance in Singapore is due to three factors.

First, we do not have an entrenched political culture emphasising civil liberties and citizen rights, unlike countries like the UK, which has a history of many centuries of civil society and the citizenry fighting for freedom against despotism. On the contrary, we are very used, perhaps too much so, to governmental intervention and oversight in our lives.

Second, linked to the previous point, we don’t have the independent civic institutions that could raise consciousness, to get people to become aware, thinking and adopting opinions on such issues. Even if there are opinions, we lack the same institutions to give convincing genuine feedback to the government and to express general resistance to the proliferation of surveillance cameras. Surveys, by the way, have a built-in response bias (especially demand and social desirability biases) when it comes to politically charged and public issues in Singapore, and won’t give us accurate results.

Third, linked to the too much governmental oversight in our lives, especially since four-fifths of Singaporeans live in public housing estates, our notions of private and public space are quite different. The lack of a sense of ownership for public spaces, which are seen as common areas under the management of governmental authorities rather spaces belong to us as a collective, means that we often surrender our privacy (of images of our bodies, of information regarding our identity and movement, etc.) to the same authorities without much questioning. At the same time, we become over-protective of our privacy at home, and thus some authorities needing to conduct checks inside apartments or even just to conduct household surveys have encountered difficulties in doing their job.

Thus, I don’t think Singaporeans welcome or worry about surveillance cameras; we just don’t think about them. Sure, I think Singaporeans generally trust and respect the police force, but so do most citizens in modern urban societies of their police forces. So that doesn’t explain why Singaporeans offer much less resistance to the surveillance cameras to their counterparts in other societies.