Written by Dr Wong Wee Nam
18 Jan 2009
He who knows his own side of the case, knows little of that.
— John Stuart Mill
In April 2006, just before the Singapore General Election, the PAP government decreed a ban on political podcasts. The reason given by the Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts was that “the Internet is ubiquitous, fast and anonymous”. He was concerned that rumours could be spread on the Internet and “once a false story or rumour is started on the Internet, it is almost impossible to put it right”.
In my response to the ban, I wrote a letter to the forum page of the Straits Times. In it I said:
“Firstly, how can something that is so chaotic and disorganised ever be an effective mill for a credulous rumour? Secondly, anyone who has read an Internet political discussion would know that any posting of half-truths and untruths will be met by responses from many other netizens to put the facts right. There is no need even for the Government to try and counter them with rational arguments.
An old Chinese adage says: The more one debates, the stronger the truth will be. We should, therefore, allow more freedom for debate rather than try to control it, if we want to arrive at the truth.
In fact, rumours are more effectively spread through coffee shops and wet markets. Have we ever considered registering these places as political sites or banning campaigning from these places during elections?
Lastly, if there is a really widespread rumour, I have no doubt that our responsible and effective media would be able to help squash it.
Internet blogs and political discussions, even with their rubbish, allow participants to think about national issues. They have become the discussion coffee shops for the modern Singaporean.
Therefore, in an already-apathetic population it does more harm than good to the nation to try and control free discussions there.
At the moment there is fear among the general population to discuss politics. The Government’s anxiety shows that this fear does not reside just in the citizens. If we want to build a participatory and inclusive citizenry, we need to remove this fear of participation. The Government can do this only by removing its own anxiety and imposing lesser control.”
Two days after my letter was published, the then Director, Corporate Communications of the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts replied. One of the concerns was that during the election period, “irresponsible comments online can influence the results of an election. It is also difficult to rebut false information effectively because the election period is short. Therefore, the regulations aim to promote accountability and responsibility in election advertising during this period.”
I disagreed with this concern and gave my reasons in another letter:
“Firstly, it is not difficult to rebut false information effectively just because of the short election period. Any assertion on the internet, false or not, can be rebutted in a few seconds.
Given the minimum nine-day campaigning period, there is surely ample time for a political party to rebut its opponents. Furthermore, there is nothing in the law to say that the election period cannot be lengthened to allow enough time for rebuttals.
I also fail to understand why the ministry should be concerned about the difficulty in rebutting false information. During an election, the political parties are the combatants and we should leave the worrying and rebuttals to them.
It is they who should decide what is irresponsible comment and what is false information and rebut them and let the voters decide which view to believe.
Secondly, the statement that “during this election period irresponsible comment online can influence the results of an election” also puzzles me.
During an election, all political parties and their supporters try to influence the result of the election. Isn’t this what election campaigning is about?
A comment made in the coffeeshop or at election rallies can also influence the result of an election. If we are so afraid that comments can influence an election result, why allow campaigning at all?
This fear is also unwarranted. President George W.Bush’s re-election with an increased majority in spite of film-maker Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 shows that even a box-office winning film does not win elections.
As far as the election is concerned, the government’s duty should only be to make sure that it is conducted fairly and honestly and that there is law and order.
It is time we shed this instinct to protect our people and trust them to make their own decisions.”
Strangely this letter did not appear in the main stream media where the debate took place. Instead it was published in the online forum which, ironically, was a medium that the government thought was not a place for serious debate. However, it did have the effect of depriving the readers of the main stream medium from following the debate further and also the government from needing to respond.
Almost 3 years later, the government has decided to ease the ban on party political films and subscribe cautiously to e-engagement. This small change of mindset is probably the result of the lessons learnt during the 2006 General Election. At that time, even with the decreed ban, political commentaries flooded cyberspace, photographs that captured the real situation on the ground appeared the moment they were taken and speeches at rallies made their way onto YouTube. All these made a mockery of the ban and the authorities now realise it does not make any sense to continue with such stringent measures to tame an uncontrollable medium.
However, for those who hope to see a more liberal and freer political climate with the new amendments, it is not time to celebrate yet. Until the amendments are fleshed out, it is not possible to know their implications. However, looking at the government’s response to the recommendations made by the Advisory Council on the Impact of the New Media (AIMS) in the report “Engaging New Media:- Challenging Old Assumptions”, we can see that a lot of discretionary powers will be given to the authorities. The leash may be loosened but it can be pulled back anytime. In other words, the government still wants to have control.
However, it is not going to be easy to pull back the leash. In 2006 the netizens were just learning to use the new media. Next time round, they would have become more experienced and creative. Thus, no one will be able to monopolise and control the political debate and rightly so.