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Written by Ng E-Jay
17 July 2013
The issue about trust in the government has cropped up recently. During the haze crisis, when people online questioned the efficiency of the government in distributing N95 masks to the public and the accuracy of PSI data posted on the NEA website, there were calls from some quarters not to engage in unnecessary criticism, speculation or politicking. ST columnist Rachel Chang described the reaction as a backlash against the naysayers (whom she claimed were engaging in destructive rhetoric).
The subject of trust was once again brought up by former NMP Calvin Cheng in his latest missive published in the Straits Times Forum Page. Calvin Cheng called on people to trust the government in a crisis situation and not indulge in speculation, which he said could hinder the government’s effort in crisis management.
However, trust has to be earned. Whether a government is trustworthy or not is a legitimate, and indeed, necessary question that we should ask during peace time. If a government has shown itself to be unworthy of our trust, then we must either vote it out of power, or compel it in some way to change.
When irregularities crop up in government administration, it is also the responsibility of citizens to highlight the discrepancies, alert the relevant authorities, and compel them to put things rights. To remain silent would be doing a disservice to the community and allowing possible errors or even injustices to be perpetuated. For example, during the haze crisis, when PSI levels crossed well into the hazardous region, people asked quite legitimately why construction workers were still made to work in the open and put their health at risk.
Even in a crisis situation, if the citizens see something being done wrong, the issue should be voiced in a constructive manner. Not to do so may worsen the situation.
Needless to say, every reasonable person would agree that in a crisis, unity is strength. Politicking must be put aside and people should not engage in acts that can potentially derail the efforts of those trying to save lives. That naysayers and other troublesome voices on the internet were swiftly criticized is in fact proof that the internet community is capable of self-regulation without the need for any nonsensical and ridiculous “Code Of Conduct” devised by the government.
However, not everyone who posted critical opinions were in the wrong. Besides posting constructive criticism or suggestions, in fact some netizens like Ravi Philemon helped the community by distributing masks. People like ST columnist Rachel Chang and pro-establishment spokesperson Calvin Cheng are tarring the online community with a single brush and looking at matters from tinted lenses.
Calvin Cheng asserted that a disturbing trend has emerged in which people question the government online rather than directly through the relevant agencies.
However, online criticism and online calls for government clarification become especially important when the government has shown in the past that it is often unwilling to entertain queries if those queries are hidden from public scrutiny.
The fact remains too, that people turn first to government agencies for aid and assistance, and then voice their opinions or their frustrations online when they find themselves stonewalled or denied in some way.
Rather than decrying the voicing of opinions and frustrations online, the focus should therefore be on improving government communications and on government agencies delivering both accurate information as well as concrete results.
Calvin Cheng asserts that the viral nature of internet claims can be destructive and hinder relief efforts during a crisis. That is certainly true if those claims are made with malicious intent, or carelessly articulated with no thought of the consequence.
However, keeping silent is not the answer either, when there are many legitimate questions that should be asked, such as when stop work orders will be issued, or whether hospitals are adequately prepared to cope with a possible surge in cases of respiratory distress, or whether N95 masks will be available on time.
Calvin Cheng’s assertion that “In a national crisis, our government has never been known to lie” smacks of grovelling sophistry.
The government is made up of human beings, and human beings lie. In fact, everybody lies (Dr House).
Even if the government has never lied in the past crisis situations, there is no guarantee that it would not do so in the future. To ask people to blindly trust the government as if it were infallible is probably the most dangerous idea that has ever been proposed.
It is not unthinking trust, but constructive ideas and actions, that will save lives in a crisis.
By giving netizens a false dichotomy between blind trust and engaging in destructive rhetoric, both Rachel Chang and Calvin Cheng have done us all a disservice. I call upon netizens to reject their stand and recognize that there is a middle path — the path of constructive criticism and action.