Is the Internet Brigade allegedly under PAP working OT to undermine alternative parties?

Is the Internet Brigade allegedly under PAP working OT to undermine alternative parties?

A Workers’ Party (WP) candidate’s (Raeesah Khan) past tweets were reported to have borne the “(promotion) of enmity between different groups on grounds of religion or race” via two police reports filed over the weekend of 4 and 5 July.

The reports filed were against her over tweets she posted on Feb 2018 and 17 May 2020 which criticised preferential treatment of “rich Asians and white people” and discrimination against Muslim leaders in comparison with mega-church leaders who are Chinese. She has since apologised publicly for her past comments on 5 July. 

One wonders however, if the police reports and online attacks directed towards her the work of the “Internet Brigade (IB)”, allegedly formed by the People’s Action Party (PAP), accelerating in overdrive in the wake of the General Elections (GE) 2020?

According to a Straits Times’ (ST) news article on 3 Feb 2007, the PAP was allegedly “mounting a quiet counter-insurgency against its online critics (because) it was necessary for the PAP to have a voice in cyberspace as there were few in the online community who were pro-establishment”. This was shared by Baey Yam Keng in the interview with ST then; Mr Baey is contesting in Tampines Group Representation Constituency (GRC) in the upcoming GE.   

The IB was formed after the 2006 GE, as part of a “new media” committee helmed by Ng Eng Hen, previous Minister of Defence, who will be contesting in the Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC in the upcoming elections. 

It has two sub-committees: one strategies the campaigns, co-headed by then Minister of State (Education) Lui Tuck Yew (who has retired from politics in 2015) and member of Parliament (MP) Zaqy Mohamad (who will be contesting in Marsiling-Yew Tee in GE 2020). 

The other is led by Mr Baey and MP Josephine Teo (who will be contesting in Jalan Besar GRC in the GE 2020). Called the ‘new media capabilities group’, it executes the strategies. Besides politicians, there were 20 IT-savvy party activists who were involved in these committees.

Mr Baey said the committees “aim to observe how new media is developing and see how we can use the new media as part of the overall media landscape”. The question that drives the campaigns is “how do we facilitate views that are pro-party and propagate them through the Internet?” he added. 

One of the techniques for execution is “activists (not being) too obvious about it,” he elaborated. 

“That’s the only way it can work, otherwise it comes across as “propaganda. The identity is not important. It is the message that is important.”

One of the activists shared that “when posting comments on online forums and the feedback boxes of blogs, he does not identify himself as a PAP member”. 

Under this broad principles framework, the IB’s modus operandi can be stretched as long as it achieves the agenda. 

The committees do not necessarily need to promote the PAP; they can also lower the status of alternative parties by undermining their reputation, image, or credibility and qualification of candidates. This strategy would automatically “elevate” the standing of the PAP just by comparison in the aftermath.

There was one post from a pro-PAP supporter, Abdul Malik Mohammed Ghazali, who claimed he was “one of the first to leak out and viral screenshotted (Raeesah’s twitter) account”. 

He added in his post that he hopes her “part in the GE comes to an abrupt end” and this would be “the PAP’s first walkover victory in GE 2020”. He also wondered out loud if the WP and her would get disqualified in contesting for Sengkang GRC because of her actions. 

He cautioned that it’s best for “Ms Raeesah to step down or (her father) would be next”. Her father is Farid Khan, another public figure who is the president of the Singapore Malay Chamber of Commerce and Industry and an ex-presidential candidate in the 2017 presidential election. 

He ended by saying “thanks to the many unmanned sources (for) helping to provide the information as well”. At the bottom of his post he added hashtags “#RevengeforIvanLim” and “MajulahPAP”. 

In the ST’s news article, it wrote that according to an Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) study conducted in 2006, the members and supporters of WP were the most active “among the opposition parties, (and) post regularly on forums online”. Perhaps that’s why there is more opposing activity against them online by the PAP’s IB.  

What’s ironic to note is Mr Malik used to be against the PAP and joined the Singapore Democratic Party in 2011, wanted “Dr Vivian Balakrishnan and the PAP to “burn” in 2010 for their work in the Youth Olympic Games, and was previously jailed for insurance fraud.

But now in this supporter’s post, it reflects quite clearly that his actions were politically motivated in the hopes that it diminishes the chances and credibility of the WP, and somewhat a vendetta to equalise the crusade “debacle” that led to the withdrawal of Ivan Lim. 

His “internet vigilantism” is not a solo act: a few have made a name for themselves for being an active part of the PAP IB.

TOC has been accumulating and keeping receipts of some hardcore PAP supporters’ activity on social media. Mr Malik had been involved in at least two other IB social media activities in the past that were contentious.

In the list, Jason Chua Chin Seng, whose Facebook page “Fabrications Against PAP” was recently taken down by Facebook on 28 June, is another such activist. His page was taken down because the account was found to “violate Facebook’s policies based on its behaviour,” its spokesperson said. FAP was known for its strong pro-PAP posts and sentiments, and speaking out against alternative parties and their supporters too. Mr Chua was also issued a warning by the police in 2017 when he violated Cooling-Day rules and posted politically-motivated messages in the Bukit Batok by-election. 

Joseph Tan and Ed Sim, two other activists in PAP’s IB on the list, have also been tracked to zero in on alternative parties on their Facebook.

Joseph Tan and Ed Sim at a PAP convention

Recently, a Facebook user by the name of Surya Kumar threatened a citizen, Bryant Wong, for publicly speaking out in disfavour of Ivan Lim, accusing Mr Wong for “causing severe pain and distress to Ivan’s family”. Turns out, Mr Kumar has been active as a member of PAP IB for a while.  

These handful individuals may make up a minority of the PAP’s supporters, and those who flagged out Ms Raeesah’s tweets. Some of them who have criticised her tweets may be supporters of the WP, but unrelatedly had an issue with her words. Case in point is her tweets did harbour seeds that had the potential to grow into a hotbed of racial and religious tension among Singaporeans. And secondly, contesting candidates who step into politics have to be and will be held accountable for their past actions and comments, as similar to what happened to Mr Lim. 

Objectively and fairly, therefore the same can be said of the actions of the “internet brigade” surrounding the “Ivan Lim fiasco”, of whom most likely were supporters of alternative parties; although some, who has had real-life experiences with Mr Lim, may support the PAP and genuinely do not want this person to be a standing candidate in an election, and perhaps in a party they support.  

The contrast between these two IBs therefore is: does PAP have an organised and systemic brigade managed by smart politicians with resources and financial means, while the alternative parties’ IB may be just alternative parties and strangers coming online to counter the PAP, but with no structure or leadership, and coordination and facilitation depend solely on initiatives going viral? 

It definitely is effective, as evident by many movements that originated from social media taking flight. It is supported by the IPS study which “found that younger and better-educated Singaporeans relied on information from the Internet when shaping their voting choices at the GE 2006”. Social media has vastly advanced and expanded in the last 14 years; it would be logical to believe that it has enhanced exponential influence on the way information is consumed and spread among people. 

But – the PAP’s IB has a digital weapon that the non-PAP IB doesn’t- the POFMA.

To date, since coming into effect on 2 Oct 2019, 35 POFMA orders have been issued from then to 5 July 2020. Most of which were given to dissenting voices and alternative online platforms and political parties. It has not once been used on a statutory board, government agency, or PAP members of parliament. It may seem this goes for PAP supporters as well. 

With the POFMA guarded under the sole jurisdiction of the government, an alternative voice can be suppressed and censored. But, an online proponent of PAP may not warrant the same possibility of receiving a POFMA since they are targeting critics and defending the PAP. Therefore, the PAP’s IB may be more bold in their comments, and spirited in their online behaviour without fear of consequence.

Some of the things the PAP IB claims and states as facts, are falsehoods against alternative voices and opinions. Some of the things the IB claims about PAP, may also be falsehoods, bordering on defamation. Why were no POFMA issued in these instances and to these groups of individuals? Isn’t the purpose of POFMA to protect against online “fake news”? Or is it just protection against “fake news” about PAP?

If the PAP does have an IB, are they more advantageous and efficient in its campaign execution for the GE 2020 due to its resources and privilege? But judging by the inherent tools and characteristics of social media that can be capitalised on, perhaps it is a fair-playing ground to alternative parties too; but perhaps the PAP will always have a leg up because they capitalise on the same social media too, on top of their added advantages.  

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