The authoritarianism of the Internet?

“Let’s face it, many of us in our lifetime will never achieve what Tin Pei Ling will do in her one-term as a Member-of-Parliament. Certainly not armchair critics who rant and rave but do nothing to help the less fortunate in society.”

On the Internet, it is anathema to say what the author above, Terence Lee, says, especially about one such as Ms Tin Pei Ling, PAP MP for Marine Parade GRC – and lightning rod for all and sundry during last year’s elections, and even now.

To praise her with such apparently unbridled enthusiasm exposes one to being flamed alive by netizens.

Similarly, I also wrote a report, in February, on Ms Tin’s MacPherson Cares fund scheme to help the needy. (Ms Tin is MP for the MacPherson precinct.) Shortly after, I received feedback from some who chided me for the report – for giving her undue and undeserved publicity, even though I explained that the scheme was one worthy of support. I mean, she is helping the elderly and the needy and I could not, for the life of me, figure out what could be so wrong with that.

Which brings me to the point of this article – speaking up against the flow of public opinion or populist sentiments.

It is a point which former Transport Minister and MP for East Coast GRC Raymond Lim highlighted in his recent speech at the Civic Forum at Fengshan.

“It used to be said that there is a climate of fear which deters people from speaking up against government policies. Today, the pendulum has swung the other way. What is worrying is not that it seems to be open season on the government but that ordinary people are worried that if they speak up in support of an unpopular policy or against a populist view; they are immediately pilloried and flamed on the Net.”

A good example of this is the recent incident involving Dr Cherian George. He had voiced his disagreement with The Online Citizen’s handling of the incident involving PAP MP Seng Han Thong’s remarks about SMRT staff’s ability (or inability) to speak English. (See here and here.)

Cherian is an adjunct senior research fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies (NUS).

What followed after his original article was posted on his website was quite surprising (or maybe not, on hindsight), with him being threatened (as I am told) and flamed rather viciously by netizens, with some calling him derogatory terms.

More recently, Cherian again waded into the pool with his views about the episode involving TR Emeritus and threats of legal proceedings from PM Lee Hsien Loong. And again, Cherian was pilloried and slammed by netizens. This prompted former Nominated Member of Parliament, Siew Kum Hong, to come to Cherian’s defence. (See here.)

It is on the one hand disconcerting to see netizens being so irrational, while on the other it is also instructive for those who want to know what to expect when one goes against the grain of popular sentiments.

But should this make one afraid to speak what one feels is right? Should one fold up and take refuge in a corner, and to mind one’s own business from now on? I don’t think one should. I hope Cherian won’t – and in fact, I know he won’t be deterred from speaking out. If he did, we would all be the lesser for it, for Cherian has much to offer the blogosphere.

“By all means speak up when you think the government is wrong or could do better,” Raymond Lim said in his speech, “but also speak up when you think it is right even though the vociferous crowd is on the other side. If you concede this civic space, not speaking up for our collective interests; then our society will start to fragment as populist voices and special interests will slice up our common welfare.”

I agree with this and yes, I will be flamed as a “PAP stooge”. But it does not matter. For the reason we speak up, as I am sure others will agree with me, is not because we are pro-opposition or anti-PAP, or pro-PAP and anti-opposition. To view it as such is to be myopic and juvenile. It would be to see the world through the stark contrast of black and white which the world isn’t.

We speak up because there is a more important reason than whether we are pro-this-party or anti-that-party. That would be missing the woods for the trees entirely. We speak up – whether to support a policy or not – because our concern is our nation, our society. And if a policy is beneficial, we should support it. If it is not, we should speak up against it.

This is what even opposition parties, like the Workers’ Party, have said and done as well. Indeed, the WP praised the recent Budget as a “pro-people” one. And what is wrong with that? Absolutely nothing.

The wider point here is that we, as netizens and bloggers, must be able to accept different points of views, if we truly believe in freedom of speech and the right of each one to express himself as he sees fit – without us resorting to name-calling, issuing threats, and denigrating or hurling personal insults and attacks just because someone holds a different view from us.

And indeed, if we do feel a policy or an idea is good for our nation, then we should also not be afraid to speak up for it. In doing so, we would be lending our voice to it which may result in someone somewhere – such as those who cannot speak for themselves or the needy – eventually benefiting from it.

“What we need more of today is a greater concern and emphasis on the national interest and less on individual interest,” Raymond Lim said. “If we don’t, we will be lesser for this. If we are all standing in very different positions, viewing things through individual lenses, then it will be difficult to agree on what matters most. It will be difficult to come together as a society to take actions to secure a better future for all despite short-term pain. Then this beautiful city of ours will surely suffer as a House divided cannot go forward.”

For those who, no matter what, support a particular political party, they will continue to do so and perhaps nothing will change their minds that the PAP is bad/good, or that any opposition party is the worse/better. But for those who are non-partisan or who are open to diverse views, perhaps it would be better to look at policies rather than political parties, and judge each of these from there.

Indeed, this is the position of the Workers’ Party – that it will support policies which are good for Singapore, even if they these policies are from the PAP.

In the end, however, if we – hand on heart – find ourselves holding back from speaking up against popular sentiments (whether they are against or for certain policies), then we have to ask ourselves why. Why are we afraid? Is it because there are those who would flame us? And should this fear stop us from expressing ourselves?

In the past, Singaporeans were afraid to speak up because of fear of the government.

It would be most ironic if today we fear speaking up because we will be flamed by some on the Internet – by the very proponents of free expression, those who accuse the PAP Government of strangling the voices of the people. We would have replaced one form of authoritarianism with another, one which judges that a different view is effectively a crime in thought.

That indeed must never happen.

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9 thoughts on “The authoritarianism of the Internet?

  1. Singaporeans should wake up from their dreams. I been to many countries for years and i assure you there won’t be another Singapore. The Government has provided a good system where all Singaporeans has equal rights and clean.Do not take things for granted.

    1. Insider

      you are in error, the comments has been closed and i had provided reasoned counter arguments but was not published within TOC and TRE

  2. Hi Loh,

    Thanks for this pragmatic albeit ‘boring’ read. Nothing stirs up emotions more than inflammatory and bias remarks, looking beyond ‘cyber bullying’ or ‘flaming’ we need to dig deep and reveal the more sinister under currents pushing an agenda. Some of these agenda is a sustained strategy to promote an selfish cause, some are just thoughts shot off into cyberspace, without a care of concern about the consequences.

    People vie for attention all the time to justify their existence, just as much as you and i justify ours with our posts and entries. Some seek immediate gratification with shallow ‘pot-shot’ remarks, and off hand, casual remarks caused more harm than one can imagined.

    Because the internet encourages anonymity, one can say all they want to say, good or bad, with having the discouragement of being caught or held accountable. This is the new reality, one which is as wild or wilder as the wild wild west.

    Alas, you’ve spoken your piece, but it will change nothing. people will continue to be irresponsible, irrational and emotional, all about the things that least concern them.

  3. Sometimes reading comments online make me despair for Singapore. But I just remind myself that the media landscape is developing, and as with all growing things there are going to be many problems and creases to be worked out. There will always be trolls and flamers on the Internet. But I hope that as we continue to progress and continue to have more access to information and opportunities to come to our own decisions, more and more people will begin to open their minds to both sides and move beyond the regular dichotomies.

    1. Kirsten, I agree with you totally. Which is why I am against any initiative to gag the Internet in any way – be it a code of conduct, or as Hri Kumar says on his blog, to introduce new laws. I think we all just need to be patient and have thick skins.

      If it is a genuine case or incident of injury, however, there already are existing laws to deal with this.

      Hri Kumar’s blog post: http://hri-kumar.blogspot.com/2012/03/internet-freedom.html

  4. This is patronizing and condescending. The PAP likes to say we forge our path. So why compare with other countries??

    Have you examined why the Internet community is the state it is today?? I place the blame squarely on the PAP and SPH – both the epitome of opaqueness and modern subliminal propaganda techniques. Now if the Straits Times has some decency, it should stop being the lapdog of the PAP and start twisting news to portray PAP critics in an unfavorable light.

    You know and I know where the loyalty of people like Chua Lee Hoong and Warren Fernandez lies. Pls tell them to come down fr their bully pulpit and stop haranguing us with their lapdog reporting.

    Today we don’t even know who are these people who write in to Forum supporting the PAP and criticizing the Opposition. We don’t know how the letters are selected and who selects them. There is a total lack of transparency not helped by the fact that the editorial is so pro-PAP.

  5. Well said. I too have been a victim of flaming for speaking against popular opinion.I’m a firm believer of being critical of whatever has been said on various media and my personal philosophy borders on the idealistic notion of objectivity, but that doesn’t mean I’m anti-PAP or anti-TOC or anti-TRE. I just feel that there is more to a report than what an author might say, and while you won’t get that kind of criticism from people when you dissect say, a Straits Times article, if you provide a counter perspective on a TOC or TRE article, you’re likely to get flamed.

    Perhaps if a study is done on the demographics of dissatisfied Singaporeans on the Internet, more might be understood about the strong anti-PAP culture online, which is interesting since that level of dissatisfaction doesn’t reflect on our voting percentages.

  6. Sticks and stones.

    The Internet is what it is. There will always be trolls. There will always be assholes. There will always be people with a differing opinion.

    But that is the whole point of the Internet, you can say whatever you want, anonymously if need be, as long as it is not of a threatening nature.

    In fact the honesty is refreshing. Without it, would we know that quite a lot of Singaporean maid employers are hypocrites and racists? Would we know that a sizeable number of Singaporeans have incredibly unjustified prejudices against PRC people and other foreigners? Would we know that some PAP supporters (and opposition supporters as well) are certifiable?

    I think the Internet is great as it is. If only people would learn not to believe everything they read on it (or anywhere else for that matter), the Internet can only increase the depth of human knowledge.

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