Governments around the world recently had to request that Google block access to a YouTube video that was seen as anti-Islamic. Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia were among the countries who did it. This isn’t the first, and won’t be the last time that countries make such requests to Google.
Facebook now has nearly one billion users and if taken as a country, has the third largest population in the world, after China and India. Even America, with the third largest country population in the world has only one-third the population of Facebook. Facebook has been used by many to successfully advocate on causes and to even act as a driver to overthrow governments, such as in the Middle East.
Apple and Samsung has recently been suing each other to the dump. But Apple has been suing every other mobile company big enough to threaten it. Patents have become the new law. But what does Apple care? With a market value of more than $650 billion, Apple is now the most valuable company of all time and it easily ranks as one of the world’s top 20 countries, if measured in terms of country GDP. It has enough money to throw around and still be a force to be reckoned with.
Google and Facebook are now major political players, even if the companies might not be keen to position themselves as so. They are definitely no lightweight in the corporate sector and not in the online sphere, but they have become heavyweights in the political arena as well, so much so that China found Google to be so much of a threat that China has blocked access to Google in China, and some Android phones as well. More than 1 billion people search on Google every month, so Google definitely has the number of people to rival China.
Countries have to negotiate with Facebook and Google if they want something done. It is no longer a simple matter of a country demanding that their rights be respected. Citizens of countries have also finally found effective ways of engaging the online medium in a way that have have powerful influences. Facebook, YouTube and Twitter was a powerful tool used by President Obama to engage with the Americans in the 2008 elections, and it has continued to be so in this upcoming elections. The Gangnam Style video has become the most-liked YouTube video with more than 2 million likes and this can only do wonders to South Korea’s cultural reputation.
In Singapore, the General and Presidential elections were also keenly fought on cyberspace, as netizens took to blogs, Facebook and Twitter to cause PAP’s greatest upset since independence. PAP won only 60.14% of the votes and lost 6 seats to the opposition.
What this has shown is that companies which control the Internet have become power entities on their own right. Governments cannot do without the Internet, so their survival is also caught up in the survival of Google and Facebook. Countries cannot afford to belittle Google and Facebook, because of their citizens’ stake in these companies. Citizens now no longer have singular citizenship. We have the formalised citizenship with our countries, but we now also hold the informal citizenship that Facebook, and to some extend, what Google has provided us. Unwittingly, Facebook and Google have become our safe havens.
In recent times, we are starting to question the relevance of democracy, as governments which are democratic fail economically, and where countries which are economically enviable are not necessarily those which are democratic. At the same time, governments are being overthrown, and replaced by weaker governments, where the people continue to protest and are just beginning to realise their power.
We are now in an influx where people are beginning to realise the power that they hold sway over their governments, where they still do not understand how this power can be used in their physical lives, but yet they have control of the Internet, in more effective and successful ways than their governments have. We are now operating on two parallel universes, in the physical world and online, where what we learn online will inadvertently shape how we regain our power from our governments in the physical space.
Governments have been slow to respond to the evolution of the Internet, bogged down by their ideas that the Internet might be too casual for governmental functions, and have thus rendered it irrelevant for so long, that their ignorance and resistance has started to bite them in their bums.
Former Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew had said that, “Singapore is what it is today because of globalisation”. Singapore was able to take advantage of its natural geographical location and size to become an international hub, to attract physical investments to our island.
However, no country has understood the impact that the Internet has over its people and economy, and have not learnt how to turn the globalisation of the world to their advantage on the Internet. How can countries start to use the Internet to redefine their engagement with their people, and engagement with one another?
PM Lee had said that “we have to prepare for the risk scenarios” against the “trend of rising nationalism”.
Countries need to understand how they can redefine themselves in cyberspace, to compete directly with Facebook and Google on their turf. Facebook and Google have successfully redefined the online sphere, without the burden of a country which is bogged down by traditional ideals. They have been able to attract citizens which find their open and free approach to communication attractive, and by their citizens being proactively engaged, Facebook and Google have been able to tap on their citizens’ constant engagement to improve themselves.
If countries want to stay relevant, governments need to dramatically change the way they view the Internet, not as just a portal or space they use, but as a space where they belong, and where they can recreate themselves on. Countries need to exist in cyberspace in as real a way as when they are in physical space, and use their imagination to stake out claims over cyberspace to expand their existing mass. They have to start reclaiming land on cyberspace.
Beyond looking at ourselves as just a hub, Singapore needs to reinvent itself to become a key online stakeholder, so that not only do we serve as a physical financial and business hub, the services that we offer online also become keenly sought after, that we become an online hub as well, rivaling Facebook and Google. Singapore is best positioned to do that, because of our youth and size, which as much as it is a liability, is also an asset – we are held back by nothing.
In a way, Singtel and its acquisition of online applications, such as Pixable, represents a model for which Singapore can adopt. Whereas Facebook and Google develops and offers services to individuals, Singapore can identify services which businesses keenly require online, and develop an online service hub with integrated online business needs.
As PM Lee had pointed out that “the trend of rising nationalism” will increasingly result in countries being less engaged with one another, the online space is not adversely affected by this threat. More so, the engagement online will only continue to increase exponentially. This is unexplored terrain which will provide new opportunities for countries, especially those without their own hinterland and domestic market. Countries which are not held back by cultural or historical baggage can take advantage of the Internet and social networks to further their survival, through reducing their reliance as being defined politically as a country, to becoming a service provider. As we move into the knowledge economy where innovation and services become key, countries which redefine themselves on the online sphere to position themselves as service providers will have an added cushioning online. The debate a few years ago centred around whether the online medium will have longevity, but the question is no longer about this – the question is about whether citizens will adapt to the online medium in a way that will further their needs and how companies, and countries have to keep themselves on their toes to accept these changes as the norm, and change with them. In a way, we are only starting to see what democracy should have really been about.
Singapore is well-poised in the new world order to take advantage of the online medium, because of our lack of nationalistic, cultural and historial baggage.
Oh, and what about Apple? Apple has developed a very tight strategy centred around its ecosystem. There are easily more than 100 million people using Apple products right now, and if so, this would make it nearly a hundred times bigger than the most populated country in the world. Apple has created a cult-like following where Apple users vigourously defend it and swear by its products, even if the products aren’t seen as being technologically as advanced as other comparable products, in terms of features. The common complaint laid upon Apple is that Apple has too tight a control over its system. Yet, its fans are bowled over time after time by their innovations. Apple has perfected a strategy of control and yet provides enough options for its users such that their users do not see themselves as being denied their rights, in that sense. Apple knows what the user wants, is focused on delivering in terms of service, and exerts pressure on itself to deliver a tight and smooth experience for the user.
Actually, it sounds like Singapore, don’t you think? But if Singapore wants to be an Apple, the government needs to reinvent Singapore to ensure that it provides a lot more options and deliver a smooth experience for these options. Even as Apple wants to control what it delivers to its users, year on year, it provides more features, knowing that its users would demand more. But yet, it does not offer as many features as its competitors. In a way, it has managed to achieve a balance as to what to offer, and not, and to balance it with epitomised marketing which renders users like puppies. Wait, but Singapore is doing this too? So, what is wrong? First, the government has lost its art of reading what features its citizens would like, and it might have lost balance, and provided for less than what it should.
Another area that Singapore needs to greatly improve on is in creating beauty and experience. People are vain. And Apple has managed to make use of it to great effect. They give their users something pretty, make their users feel good, enhanced the brand image of their product to such an extend that this make their users feel prettier just by carrying their products. Then again, isn’t this what Singapore wants to achieve? Yes, but Singapore isn’t making it pretty enough.
This is where South Korea has a massive advantage in. In South Korea, it’s all about looking pretty and that is why there is a huge domestic market which drives its fashion and cosmetics industry. At the same time, the South Koreans believe in creating beautiful experiences, which thus lead to a cultural industry fixated on developing these experiences, such as through their TV dramas and places of interest i.e. palaces, fountains, among others.
The only question is this – does Singapore want to be as controlling as Apple is? But that’s a trick question. Apple isn’t controlling. It might appear that Apple is controlling, as compared to Google/Android. But what Apple controls are the processes, and not just any processes, but the processes which provide a tight and integrated experience. Also, Apple controls that which they feel threatened by from the outside, and not from the inside. Singapore’s mistake is that we also protect from the inside – the government protects itself from its citizens instead of focus on controlling the processes to create an experience for its citizens. The mistake that the Singapore government makes is in focusing on creating an experience for other people – tourists and foreigners. If it takes a page from Apple, it will realise that once you create an experience for your own people, others will be so envious that they will come. To be fair, the government has begun to realise this and has started embarking on this – such as with the beautifying of the river at Bishan Park.
So, what does this all mean for Singapore? It means that the Singapore government needs to find its soul again. It needs to learn to see beyond money-tinted eyes to really see what people wants, and to be bolder in their approaches, to create more for its people, to achieve that balance.
It means that the Singapore government has to reinvent itself to take advantage of the Internet, to become a services hub not only in the physical space but also in cyberspace.
It means that the Singapore government needs to learn to see beyond just being pragmatic, to realise that beauty and vanity has its place and time. When people start looking pretty, they start taking care of themselves, they start being passionate about themselves and about things that matter. And they will be part of the solution to create a life that they want.
A follow-up to this article can be found here.