By Dr Wong Wee Nam
03 June 2013
On the 12th of August 2004, a young man confidently declared that “We will continue to expand the spaces which Singaporeans have to live, to laugh, to grow and to be ourselves. Our people should feel free to express diverse views, pursue unconventional ideas, or simply be different. We should have the confidence to engage in robust debate, so as to understand our problems, conceive fresh solutions, and open up new spaces.”
With these words, he was sworn in as Singapore’s third Prime Minister. At that time, this speech did not immediately raise the hopes of those Singaporeans who were looking forward to living in a less stifling political atmosphere. Nevertheless these Singaporeans did not dismiss the declaration outright and preferred to wait and see.
The eight years that followed showed some progress. But the pace was so slow that even up till this day, the fear of the government is still there and not a lot of people have the confidence to engage in robust political debate.
The state of our press is a reflection of how far we have come. Sad to say, for years, it has continued to hover at the bottom of world rankings, and this year, it has even moved a few rungs lower. On the Reporters Without Borders benchmark, it fell from the 135th place to the 149th. The Freedom of Press Report by Freedom House ranked it at 153rd, down three rungs. What is the press trying to do by staying at the bottom of the class? It appears as if it is trying to mock the vision that the new Prime Minister had shared with the people in 2004.
If you are trying to look for diverse views, unconventional ideas, robust debate and alternative opinions, you are not likely to find them in our mainstream media.
A friend who had left Singapore before 2004 came back for a visit in 2011 during the height of the General Election. He thought Singapore had been transformed into a freer state. He observed that people were no longer afraid to stand for elections. They were not afraid to attend opposition rallies and have their photos posted on Facebook. The voters were openly saying they were going to vote for the opposition.
However the credit for such a change in the political climate cannot go to the PAP. Singaporeans need to be thankful to the Internet. In a short space of time, the Internet has suddenly provided Singaporeans with a platform for alternative views, different perspectives, and lots of information that was once shielded from the immature minds by the nanny state through a controlled media.
With the Internet, Singaporeans suddenly began to share their feelings about the high cost of living, realize that the prices of houses were moving out of their reach, fear that they could no longer afford healthcare, and get angry that they were being squeezed out of their jobs by cheap foreign labour. The poor were getting poorer and many did not even have a livable wage. Suddenly, the astronomical wages of ministers became common knowledge.
“I had this feeling that something was wrong with this country but I thought I was wrong,” someone said just before the GE. “I dared not say anything because I thought I was the odd minority. But with the Internet, I suddenly realized I was not alone. There are so many people out there who share the same problems and beliefs. Then I felt brave enough to voice my opinion freely.”
As a result of the Internet, the PAP cannot continue, with the help of the state-controlled media, to appear indispensable and flawless. As a result of the Internet, all the faults in government policies are straightaway exposed by the many experts who surf the cyberspace. With the growing influence of the Internet as a source of information, opinion and news, there is no doubt it affects the credibility of the mainstream media.
Who would want to read sanctioned articles in the official media when bloggers give you alternative viewpoints everyday and posters give you all kinds of opinions in the social media every minute to reflect?
There is no question that the Internet has leveled the political playing field somewhat. From 2011, the PAP has suddenly become less formidable and more vulnerable.
The signposts of citizens’ dissatisfaction are there for them to see. In the 2011 General Election, they lost a GRC for the first time and had their majority reduced significantly in almost all constituencies. Following that, they lost the Hougang and the Punggol East by-elections, the latter once considered a very safe seat for the PAP. Their preferred candidate also won the Presidential Election by the slimmest of margins and garnered only slightly more than a third of the total votes.
The other ominous signs are the two rallies at Hong Lim Park in February and May this year when huge crowds turned out to protest against the White Paper on Population. This is the first time Singaporeans turned up in such numbers to demonstrate against something.
Is the PAP worried? There are indications to show that they are not feeling secure. Bloggers have been asked to take down their postings and apologise under the threat of defamation suits. An opposition politician, Vincent Wijeysingha, was sued for defamation and had to pay damages. A journalist, Ms Lynn Lee, was interrogated for hours for making a video interviewing two SMRT drivers who had been involved in a strike. Lately, a cartoonist, Leslie Chew, was arrested and is under investigation for sedition.
Nowadays there is also no attempt to be discreet about surveillance by the plainclothes police. Recently they went around openly filming people who had gathered in Hong Lim Park to show their support for the Malaysians who felt cheated by their own election results.
The most recent sign of an insecure PAP government is the latest legislation to license online news sites. The Media Development Authority has reassured Singaporeans that this is not meant to control the bloggers and the Internet.
What then is the intention? Dr Yaacob Ibrahim, Minister of Information, hit the nail right on the head when he told the BBC, “I think it is important for us to ensure that they (ordinary Singaporeans) read the RIGHT thing…”
In short, the idea is to control what Singaporeans should read. Ensure we read the RIGHT thing? Who does the minister think Singaporeans are? Kindergarten kids? Surely Singaporeans are mature enough that there is no need for them to be taught how to suck eggs?
In the principle of Tao, it is said that “The more restrictions and prohibitions in the empire; the deeper will the people sink into destitution.” (天下多忌讳，而民弥贫). The more overt the laws and decrees; the more prevalent will be the thieves and brigands.” (法令滋彰，盗贼多有).
The Internet acts as a good feedback for any government. Any government should, therefore, emulate the following: “The Sage is without a fixed mind (prejudiced mind), and takes the opinions of the people as his own opinions (圣人无常心，以百姓心为心).
By trying to ensure people read the right thing, the PAP government is just trying to go back to its old ways in a new world. It will just end up as a futile exercise.