Well, the email invitation came as a surprise. I was at first sceptical, thinking that it was another one of those email hoaxes or spam. You know, someone with nothing better to do than to send out fake stuff. But the email address said “.pmo.gov.sg”. And it was an invitation to have tea with the Prime Minister at the Istana. Tea? That word, for those who may not know, has a particular meaning or connotation in Singapore, especially when PAP politicians ask you out for a cuppa. The PAP, of course, is known for its “tea sessions” where it susses out potential candidates for the elections.
“Can’t be,” I thought to myself. “They would be so way off the mark with me.”
But an invitation from the Prime Minister? Well, honestly, you don’t say no. Moreover, it is a chance to visit the Istana and speak with the Prime Minister himself. So, I said yes.
As it turned out, it was a very cordial, friendly, easy tea session with 18 other guests the PM had invited, from among the followers of his Facebook and Twitter accounts. At 3pm sharp, the appointed time, PM Lee walked into the room where all of us were gathered. Also there were Acting Minister for Manpower, Tan Chuan Jin, and MPs Zaqy Mohamad and Low Yen Ling (whom I was meeting for the first time).
We spent quite some time chatting about social media, with the guests asking the PM whether he reads all the comments on his Facebook page (he said he tries to), whether he uses it to communicate with his ministers and MPs (he said for that he has emails), and whether online chatter is representative of the wider public’s views (he said sometimes it is).
But the main worry or concern he has about social media, from what I gathered, was the tone of discourse, and in particular the issue of anonymity. “Andrew, what do you think?” the PM asked me, referring to whether I felt anonymity should be allowed. I replied that it is hard to monitor if anyone was a real person, or to verify their identity even if they provided their names and email addresses. “These too can be faked,” I said. The PM didn’t take that as an answer and probed, “But do you think it is desirable to not have anonymity?” (I can’t recall the exact words he used but it was along this line.) “I am not sure, to be honest,” I said. I had in mind instances where I had been approached by well meaning people who have genuine views, intelligent views, to share but who would not want to be identified. There have also been cases where information given to me would not see the light of day if the person who gave it to me were required to be identified. Anonymity is not all a bad thing, although I also understand that some have used this for more sinister ends.
“Even if you have a law which requires everyone to put down their real names and email addresses, you will still have those who would act in unbecoming ways,” I said to PM Lee. “Yes, you will still have those,” he agreed. So, I do not think it is a simple matter of requiring people to adopt real identities when posting online.
“You run publichouse (PH),” PM Lee asked me again. “Do you do it full time?” The question caught me by some surprise. Not because he asked me if I ran PH full-time but that he knew publichouse and that I was with the website! In my head, I went, “Oh dear.” I answered that I don’t do it full time now as I have other projects as well.
The PM didn’t really give his own views on the matter of anonymity as I suspected he was more interested in hearing our views which was a good thing, I thought. Indeed, he spent more time listening than speaking. That is not to say he didn’t speak much but I appreciated his taking time to listen more.
After about half an hour with the first group – the 19 people were split into two groups, with the PM and Ms Low talking to one and Mr Tan and Mr Zaqy speaking to the other – PM Lee went over to the other group. “We were talking to the prime minister about online anonymity,” I said to Mr Tan as he took his seat with our group. Mr Tan said he himself isn’t sure if the proposed code of conduct for the Internet will work. I concurred with his views. He expressed his concerns about how the young may be influenced by online behaviour.
“As always, Minister,” I said, “the young learn through examples.” I explained that instead of a code of conduct or regulations to rein in what is perceived as undesirable behaviour online, what we should do instead is to have more examples of netizens engaging in dialogue. The best way to learn to speak with each other is to see how others are doing so. “We need more people talking to each other,” I said. I also explained that this was one reason why Ravi Philemon, some blogger friends and I decided to start the Online|Offline forum and record them for distribution through Youtube. It’s to show people that we can disagree – even with Government MPs – but do so respectfully, and how to engage in dialogue.
And this, I feel is the crux of the whole matter. There will always be those who will be “cowboys”. My position has always been that if such behaviour is so serious, then the law should step in. If someone is going around saying a particular race should be terrorised, or a particular MP should be assaulted, or someone is stalked incessantly, then yes please let the law step in and deal with such people.
But these, I would say, are the minority. By and large, netizens are not uncivil but we need to move beyond trying to regulate and rein in. We need to step forward and engage in discourse, and to do so unafraid. I mean, if we are afraid of even talking to each other – and do so openly – then there is something seriously wrong with us, isn’t there?
And those who support the Government, let them speak up too. There is nothing wrong in that. If you support a particular policy, speak up. You could be doing others a favour – those who might actually benefit from the policies.
Speaking for those you care about does not mean only speaking up for policies which you feel are wrong.
It is just as important to speak up for policies which you feel are right too.
I hope the Government will ponder on the issues with regards to social media and stay its hands when it comes to more regulation.
“All these that is happening online could be the birthing process or birthing pains,” I told the prime minister. “Maybe,” he replied.
I think we need more time to let things settle and for more people to have the courage to speak up when they see something wrong, or when someone behaves in unbecoming ways; and also for those who are supportive of the Government or its policies to speak up too.
The visit to the Istana was a good one. At the very least, I appreciate the time PM Lee took to speak to us, given his very busy schedule.
It also perhaps showed how we can go about talking to each other, even as we may not agree on all things.