While nothing concrete has been said which means that this could be pure conjecture on my part, I cannot help but feel that in connecting the dots, one thing is clear. There are seemingly idiot proof signs that the People’s Action Party (PAP) government is taking strong signs to clamp down on online information, dissent or criticism.
The government has approached the issue of online information by raising concerns to “fake news”. A few incidents that occurred this year gave strong indication that the government has a heightened awareness over online content that it struggles to control. Concerns over the online arena are already a few years into the making. It becoming a serious bone of contention probably really began in the lead up and aftermath of the the general elections in 2011 (GE 2011).
In that landmark election, we saw the Workers’ Party (WP) take a Group Representation Constituency (GRC). The marked change in that watershed election appeared to be the use of social media by opposition politicians to raise their own profiles and spread their agendas. Looking at things from that point of view, it comes as no surprise that the government would try to harness the pros of the Internet for their own purposes while trying to limit its use for the competition. That would after all be natural. However, what comes up as potentially unfair is not that the Peoples’ Action Party (PAP) would try to compete but that the playing field isn’t level.
The PAP controls many aspects of Singaporean life. They are the dominant power in Parliament and have been since the beginning of the country. They heavily influence the social elements of life ranging from the Housing Development Board (HDB) flats that most Singaporeans live in, to the Peoples’ Association that organise grass root activities for citizens to the trade union (NTUC).
The prevalent provider of news, The Straits Times is also heavily criticised for allegedly being the mouthpiece of the PAP. In these instances, control is maintained through provision and “guidance”. This has worked to a large extent. The basic needs of the people were met. However as Singapore continued to prosper, its citizens began to travel and to lead globalised lives. Their needs evolved. They wanted civil liberties and rights. They wanted ownership and the freedom to question. Before the advent of the Internet, these desires remained piecemeal. With social media, like minded people were able to connect, spawning the possibilities of a movement. Therein lies the problem – how do you regulate this?
Singapore is not a big and self sufficient country like China. It cannot ban Facebook and create its own Weibo. It needs its “international city” image and the trappings of democracy to be an attractive place to do business. It tried to flex its muscles to exert control over Facebook by requesting that it delete an article that had been shared on its forum by the now defunct States Times Review which alleged that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and the Singapore government were being investigated for the 1MDB scandal. While the article was questionable to begin with and has since been debunked, Facebook refused to comply. It deemed that the content was not a danger to life or democracy which were the only times in which the social media site would remove content. I would speculate that the refusal to comply must have been publicly embarrassing to the Singapore government.
While legislation to regulate online content had already been under discussion, I wonder if this refusal to comply by Facebook hastened legislation to be put in place. Particularly since the notion to have social media platform operators to comply to the demands of the government has already been brought up during the Select Committee Hearings for Deliberate Online Falsehoods earlier this year.
Senior Minister of State, Edwin Tong, who sits in the Select Committee of DOF, has announced that a bill on deliberate online falsehoods could be tabled as early as the first half of 2019. once a bill is tabled, it still has to be discussed in Parliament before it is passed as law. However in the Singaporean context where one party holds super-majority of the parliament seats, it is likely that once a bill is tabled, it will most definitely be passed in the following month with no amendment made despite strong disagreements from the MPs, even those from PAP. One such clear example is the Population White Paper bill which was heavily contested and protested against but yet still passed.
From a Select Committee which publicly humiliated known critics of the government to speculations of regulation in November this year, we now have the possibility of a new raft of laws just shy of a year! Is the government moving quickly because of the upcoming election which is pretty much confirmed to be next year? Even if not, its actions could suggest otherwise. If so, is it fair for the dominant party to make laws that could arguably help its own party in elections? Is that a misuse of power?
One thing rather concerning is Tong’s statement with regards to the bill being enacted to safeguard “electoral integrity”. Is it electoral integrity if the laws are being rushed through to ensure that no one is able to criticise the authorities come election time?
More disturbing is the notion that this could be a deliberate attempt to wear down the “competition” using a mixture of psychological warfare and potentially self serving legislation to increase the incumbent government’s chances at continued control. The German Nazis have coined the term “Zersetzung” which is a form of psychological warfare used to silence political opponents by repression through a variety of means. Chillingly, this bears some eerie resemblance (even if it is just a coincidence) to what we currently have.