In the past week, Prof Cherian George wrote several articles on his site criticising some developments in online politics in Singapore which he described as “worrying”. These articles, naturally, generated some backlash online online.
One of these article was a call for a code of online conduct for all political parties, published on 10 May. The other was on the inconsistencies of the government’s responses to online falsehoods and harassment which he said reveals a worrying level of partisanship. Specifically, this was about a pro-PAP Facebook group claiming that several Singaporeans of being China-agents working against Singapore, including PAP backbencher Inderjit Singh who had served as MP for the Ang Mo Kio GRC from 1996 to 2015.
In his latest post on 17 May titled “Notes from the Field“, Prof George said that engaging individuals online who have become worked up over his articles revealed a pattern of commenters trying to change the subject away from the matters he had raised in his articles instead of addressing them directly.
“No, this isn’t what ownself-check-ownself is supposed to look like,” Prof George called out.
He continued, “Rather than quickly deny, disown and limit the damage from what’s apparently a rogue skunkworks unit, the PAP seems content to perpetuate the impression that its radical fringes will be given free rein to police insiders who inch out of line.”
Pointing this out has infuriated PAP loyalists, said Prof George. These people then swarmed online to attack other non-PAP critics as well, all the while avoiding talking about Mr Singh.
Sharing a comment from Facebook by one Bhas Kunju, Prof George agreed that such smear campaigns are carried out to distract and immobilise critics, so they wouldn’t have the energy or time to focus on more meaningful issues.
The other lesson the professor said he learned from this exchange what about “just how toxically partisan” the political discourse here has become.
The Professor pointed out that while some amount of partisanship is inevitable in a multiparty democratic system like Singapore, it is a serious problem when citizens are only able to view debates through party-political lens.
Words and actions of a ruling party carry more weight than that of the opposition
Prof George went on to focus on what he calls the “nub of the hardcore PAP loyalist counter-arguments”. This argument is that pro-opposition trolls are as bad as pro-PAP ones. Prof George noted that a pro-PAP blogger has emailed him a sample of the “vulgar and xenophobic” messages he has received from anti-PAP sources.
The professor then responds to this in three ways.
The health of the ruling party should matter
First, he takes on the personal argument. He said, “ I have to point out reluctantly that I have a long history of calling out idiocy and abuse on the opposition side of cyberspace,” adding that he has been “trolled” by pro-opposition types far longer than pro-PAP types.
He then set out some examples of his calling out the opposition over the years including his focus in the past five years on how to improve the PAP.
“If we want a better Singapore, working for a better PAP must be part of our total strategy,” said the professor. He acknowledged that a stronger opposition is also important but that doesn’t mean that the health of the ruling party is of no consequence.
“We need to improve the PAP in case the opposition doesn’t develop into to a viable alternative,” he said.
Prof George explained that this was the premise of his 2017 book, Singapore, Incomplete: Reflections on a First World Nation’s Arrested Political Development.
However, he highlighted, “Hardcore opposition fans, naturally, do not like this way of thinking.” Citing his past experience with opposition trolls during the 2011 election where he criticised the misogynistic attacks on the PAP’s young new candidate, Tin Pei Ling and with TOC back in Dec 2011, after he pointed out that the site — previously helmed by Ravi Philemon — had unfairly triggered a witch-hunt against another PAP backbencher by misquoting him.
The ruling party is held to a higher standard
Moving on to the second point of a structural issue, Prof George said that in a democracy, “words and actions of a ruling party matter more than the words and actions of the opposition.” This is especially so in Singapore where it is unlikely that the opposition will come into power anytime soon, he added.
“It is correct that we demand higher standards from any ruling party, because that’s where real power resides,” said the professor.
“Our Constitution is based on this principle, that ruling parties have special obligations. Which why Lee Hsien Loong is answerable to Parliament in ways that Kenneth Jeyaretnam is not,” he explained.
A standard of self-regulation is crucial
The third argument he raised was on the question of values and ethic. Prof George said that the best organisations in every sector set their own standards and brand themselves by a set a values.
“They don’t benchmark against the average, let alone the lowest common denominator,” he said, stressing also that they don’t engage in “whataboutism”.
“When it’s pointed out to them that they are being associated with bad behaviour, they don’t say, “But what about our competitors? They are even worse.” No. If they are not responsible for that bad behaviour they disavow and clarify,” he said.
“If they are responsible, even indirectly, they accept responsibility and take swift remedial action.”
He used the example of football clubs rejecting and distancing themselves from fan who have behaved badly. He also noted that socially responsible media organisations do the same by turning off comments on topics that they know will bring out the worst in readers who might leave abusive and irrelevant comments that would “taint their brand”.
Prof George said, “Compared with football clubs and media organisations, it is much more important that political parties pay attention to the reputational damage caused by their hardcore but misguided fans and followers.”
“Political parties set the tone for our democratic life. The serious ones should be eager to clean up their act.”
Even so, Prof George noted that it is unsurprising that some people would be quick to say that calls for ethical behaviour is the same as censorship. He added that the worse objections are often from the worst abusers.
“Therefore, when I called for voluntary self-regulation about a decade ago, I was derided by anti-government forces. Now it’s the turn of the vocal, nutty minority of pro-PAP netizens,” said the professor.