This article is a continuation of Part 1 of this article.
Copying Successful Online Movements for Public Mass Control
It seems that in recent months, the government is beginning to move along in its new approach more decisively and speedily – by targeting the law at individual Singaporeans. This can be seen in the numerous cases that have already cropped up just in the first 4 months of 2013 alone, be them threats or arrests of individual Singaporeans.
Yet, all this while, the government is acting on a new two-prong strategy:
- First, identity whatever Singaporeans are doing online to successfully rally themselves, and curb their abilities to use them, and
- Second, transfer these successful ‘methods’ for the government’s own use.
What do I mean by this? You can see the government use this in some aspects – in the sector of non-governmental organisations (NGOs), for example, the government had identified NGOs which are not in line with their wants and they would create new organisations to render these NGOs not in their favour irrelevant.
Recently, the Migrant Workers’ Centre was created by NTUC and SNEF to counter the increasing vocalness of Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics (HOME). So, this strategy of the transference of ‘successful’ methods and rendering the original organisation irrelevant is a strategy which the government has honed for decades now.
Thus the use of the law to penalise individual Singaporeans is a step towards first crippling key influencers. Thereafter and concurrently, the government would create new influencers or embodiments of the influence to shape the discourse it wants to hear.
Our National Conversation: Luring Online Discussions to A Controlled Setting
Thus Our National Conversation was created. Since people want to talk online, that being the prevailing mindset of the government, let’s bring it to fore and control the discussion.
It was a strategic move to appoint only PAP politicians to lead the discussions. Why would PAP allow the opposition members to lead discussions if this would dilute their power? The Worker’s Party had understood this and had thus refused to partake or comment on this national conversation. For the first half a year since its inception, the government might have adopted a more broad-based approach towards the discussion. The government explained that it was because it was the first phase of the conversation and they had wanted to leave the conversation open before they streamlined the topics for discussion.
More likely, the government had only recently finally found its footing on how to use this conversation more effectively, and had learnt that they could use the conversation to skew the discussions in areas that they want to control, and to shape these discourses aligned to government-sanctioned perspectives. Would independent opinions surface from these discussions, even as they are beyond the government’s comfort zone? Most likely not, or they might be nipped.
Revamping the Resident’s Committee: Taking Back Control from Online Communities
Recently, the People’s Association announced a revamp of the Resident’s Committee (RC) to develop them into “clubhouses for residents” where Singaporeans would be able to “develop their own programme theme” and form “interest groups”. Again, this revamp is motivated by the success of online Facebook community spaces and of replicating these spaces onto existing national structures, such as the RCs and community centres (CCs), where the government would be able to enact their control in a tighter manner.
Yet, in all these replication efforts, the government’s approach has been to transfer a tried-and-tested online proof of work onto what they perceive as tried-and-tested mortar, or physical structures and spaces. But will such replication work? The mindsets that people adopt when using online spaces are very different to how Singaporeans would relate to one another in physical communities, such as RCs. Also, many Singaporeans actually consider the RCs irrelevant and believe them to be relics of governmental control. It is widely believed that the people who join the RCs do so because of the monetary benefits that they could obtain from such membership.
However, the government’s aim isn’t for people to adopt the same mindset when coming to RCs, for example. Online, you are free to express yourself and think, even. RCs’ aims are to curtail your thinking from point-of-views that are politically endangering to PAP – RCs are a controlled space for self-regulation.
The Government’s Failure at Reclaiming the Online Space
Yet, it becomes clear why the government has chosen to replicate online communities and conversations onto physical structures. They simply could not, and do not know how to replicate these communications and conversations online. Yes, they did try. They tried to set up Facebook pages. They enlisted their supporters to comment favourably about them on online forums and Facebook discussion pages. Gradually, they realised that they simply couldn’t keep up with the deluge of feedback and ‘complaints’ and started deleting commentaries deemed unfavourable towards them. I recently had my commentary deleted on MP Lee Bee Wah’s Facebook page and blocked from commenting, simply because I raised a valid logical point. Such is the defense of a political party which has become so used to silencing alternative viewpoints that their ability to listen has become severely impeded.
Source: Lee Bee Wah’s Status Update (where did my comment go?)
What the PAP has come to realise is not only that they were slow to realise the enormous advantages in the use of the Internet and the possibility of a community, however informal, that can be formed on the Internet, they had also been unable to silence alternative viewpoints as they could through the Forum on The Straits Times and Voices on the Today newspaper. Online discourse simply takes on the life of the free people. If one might position this new portal of communication, the Internet is a realisation of the true power of democracy that had previously been denied the people.
Shifting Priorities Back to Mainstream Media and Physical Community Spaces
Precisely because the PAP is thus unable to carve out its own niche on the Internet, Plan B has thus become to reduce mention of online discussions in mainstream media, to refocus efforts back onto mainstream media and to prop up physical structures and spaces such as RCs and CCs to complement the power of mainstream media.
Essentially, the government has decided that the efforts to control the Internet isn’t well worth it’s time and since they are not able to compete on that platform, they hope that it would languish by their efforts to cripple the influence of key Internet personalities, by using the law. By disabling the power and influence of the Internet, the government would then be able to re-consolidate its hegemonic rule over the people by using the tools of mainstream media and community spaces – the RCs and CCs.
Will it work? Will sidelining the group of Singaporeans who are vocal online work? Will drawing clear demarcations between the Internet and the physical world delineate Singaporeans into two groups, where the government would hope that the Singaporeans in the physical world would form big enough a counterforce against the Internet, which would then eventually vote for them and maintain their power work, while hoping that their traditional efforts at defining discourse in the traditional mainstream would continue to work?
It is clear that the government has evolved with new control mechanisms, based on replicating successful online methods onto their traditional forms of control in the physical structures and spaces – perhaps not new, but a newfound determination at going back to their ‘basics’ of traditional control.
The idea that ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ seemed to have failed, according to the government’s analysis. In the new analysis, ‘if you can’t beat them, go back to what you are good at and beat the shit out of them’. The government would be betting on two things to happen – that the Singaporeans online would self-destruct and that they would also disrupt the key connections online and weaken the strength of the Internet.
Singaporeans: Stepping Up To The Plate
Naturally, if Singaporeans are aware of the government’s motives, this would mean that the key influencers would need to continue to spearhead intellectual and reformist discourse, and that more Singaporeans with strong convictions should evolve themselves into roles of influencers so that the Internet connections that have been formed can continue to be pervasive and a force to be reckoned with.
Compromising the People’s Intellectual Faculties for Political Control
It is perhaps, most unwise for the government to relegate the Internet to the twilight zone when the Internet is itself the most powerful tool that Singapore would need to rely on as Singapore moves into the knowledge economy. But even if the government were to adopt this approach of limiting channels for discourse, this wouldn’t be new, once again – our education system is a prime example.
In the limitation of the education system which constricts discussion of individual rights and in the prolonged prevention of protests and demonstrations for decades, Singapore has managed to create a pool of Singaporeans who are perceived as docile, mild and somewhat lacking in their passions, and most importantly, innovative and creative entrepreneur abilities. As much as Singapore is continuously ranked as one of the most innovative countries in the world, it would be known that such innovative vigour arises from institutionalised frameworks which facilitate the innovative abilities of multi-national companies who are based in Singapore, rather than a reflection of a genuine ground-up innovative spirit that is borne within Singaporeans.
The stagnation of the growth of the Singaporean mind and the compromised intellectual faculty of Singaporeans would thus not be a new phenomena, but a conscious effort by the government at ‘dumbing’ down the population to exact control of the people – ironic considering the eugenics policies of the 1980s which had intended to create ‘elite’ Singaporeans. Yet again, Singapore is caught in an interesting bi-polarisation between meritocracy and the growth of an elite population, and the aim of smothering the minds of the large group of Singaporeans.
Singaporeans: Regaining Control and Resilience By Way Of The Internet
Of course, this isn’t a zero-sum game. The government lost out when it underestimated the immense potential of the Internet and the people rallied themselves together, in ways more dynamic than they could have ever imagined. They unleashed an inner dynamism that they had kept dormant, having censored themselves in the rein of control for decades, only to regain an inner resilient to finally fend for themselves and their own lives. This will only continue.
The constant tug-of-war between the government and the people would continue to be played out amidst a planned dichotomisation of spaces by the government, juxtaposed against the natural social evolution of the integration of spaces, through the intellectual inquest of the people. It is clear which will eventually win out – the people. Yet, the ongoings of Singapore is only a micro-reflection of what is being played out on the global arena. The interplay between a democratic people and capitalistic governments, both premised on the ideologies of free, would eventually result in a transition from a free political economy to a free social community.
In the next part of this article, I will explore the new ways in which the government and the peoples in Singapore could move towards a common understanding of one another, and how the interplay between democracy and capitalism is at the root of the divisive thinking that’s brewing in Singapore, and indeed, around the world.