Power and the lure of corruption in the Internet age

By Ghui

Massive changes in the social structures and political landscapes of the world are occurring. From the Arab Spring to the Occupy Wall Street movement to the protests in Hong Kong, there seems to be a global phenomenon to shake up the status quo.

This in itself is not surprising. The world has always had a pattern of social upheavals in its history. What however is unprecedented is how quickly things seem to happen in this day and age. The rise of the Internet has revolutionised the spread of information in a way that traditional holders of power have not anticipated. While those who see their influences challenged may view this development in a negative light, it is undeniable that this development has given the general public more ammo to push for accountability.

social_media_0Giant conglomerates and entrenched governments who were used to having traditional print media under its sway are now confronted by the fluid nature of emails, blogs and websites. The instantaneous nature of this new online medium has made the flow of information much harder to monitor while simultaneously giving investigative journalists and whistle blowers a much wider platform that spans geographical borders.

The LIBOR rigging scandal and more recently, HSBC’s secret Swiss Bank accounts were all exposed in part due to email and/or online data. The Internet enabled mass media was then able to broadcast these fallouts on such a large international scale and at such a rapid pace that any attempt at cover up would be severely limited.

Closer to home, the once supreme former Chief Minister and current Governor of Sarawak, Abdul Taib Mahmud has been disgraced for his alleged nepotism, corruption and cronyism in no small part due to the tireless efforts of journalists aided of course by the far reaching powers of the Internet. Najip, Malaysia’s Prime Minister is continually questioned for his alleged role in the murder of Mongolian citizen, Altantuyaa and the excessive spending of his regime, amongst other things. Even the more discreet alleged enablers of the government machine are starting to face scrutiny.

Our island nation of Singapore is not immune to the influence of the Internet. It has certainly given opposition parties a forum by which to reach potential voters. It has also given social and political commentators a platform by which to raise pertinent issues. Most of all, it has given regular Singaporeans an outlet by which to ask the questions they never had a platform to ask.

People walk past mock gravestone during protest against new licensing regulations in SingaporeThe powers be are not unaware of the strengths and pitfalls of this new development. They have harnessed it for their own benefit but also taken steps to try and limit its influence. The raft of online media regulations, the detention of cartoonist Leslie Chew and the law suit against blogger Roy Ngerng can all be construed as evidence of the authorities trying to regulate the influence of this new form of mass media. Whether these steps are taken to protect hapless ignorant Singaporeans or to protect its own position is anyone’s guess and certainly the subject of another article.

I certainly have nothing against the rich or those in power. I do however believe in accountability. Those in power should use their power to benefit society as a whole and not misuse their privilege to unfairly advance their own positions and that of their families as Taib is being accused of doing. In a startling revelation that has come about on the not much reported law suit between Tufail Mahmud, brother of Taib against his former business associates in Singapore, Tufail Mahmud actually confessed to tax evasion. This is certainly not how power should be discharged. To borrow a quote from Voltaire (and Spiderman), “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Perhaps, unfettered power makes it too tempting for human beings to lose control of their greed. It is clear from the sheer number of despots that have milked the system since time immemorial that most human beings fall prey to the seduction of greed and limitless power. This predictable human weakness is why any system must have checks and balances in the form of media freedom and robust opposition. No system and no power structure should be overly entrenched. To borrow another quote from the esteemed Voltaire, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely”.

What certainly is clear is a global desire to change the social order as we know it. With widening income divides, recessions and the multitude of corrupt practices perpetuated by governments and conglomerates coming to light, the discontent of the multitude of average Joes aided and abetted by the Internet are in epic proportions on an international scale.

While the elites of the world might not care about how the general populace lives, they must not fail to be cognizant to the fact that their way of life is bound to the rest of the world. Pushing the boundaries too far without regard for the effects of their actions on the “rift raft” which makes up the majority of the world can have disastrous consequences. The French Revolution and even the Cultural Revolution were, to a certain extent, all results of flagrant excess and nepotism by the haves, with too little regard or awareness of the have nots.

The hunger for transparency has made Julian Assange and Edward Snowden household names.

We are a small country with the trappings of great national wealth. Yet, we are not immune to the social and political changes that are taking place in the wider world around us. What would we like for the next 50 years? Remember, we all have a stake.