Yawning Bread. May 2006

Legislator wants to "manage" political expression on the internet




Denise Phua deserves a prize. She is the first parliamentary backbencher to get two articles in Yawning Bread to her name. The earlier article was Politicians should be judged by their public statements.

On 23 May 2006, the National University of Singapore Society (NUSS) organised a forum -- unfortunately, I wasn't free that evening, so I didn't attend -- where academics, observers and various party members gave their take on the recent general elections.


'Today' newspaper picked up one point made by new People's Action Party (PAP) Member of Parliament Denise Phua and headlined it. You can see their article in the box on the right.

The Straits Times also had a story on the forum, but gave a general report on what each speaker said. It did not mention these points made by Phua that were reported in 'Today' newspaper. Instead, the last paragraph of the Straits Times report - the only one devoted to Phua's words - said,

Ms Phua argued that the PAP had delivered on its promises and would continue to ensure Singapore's growth. She said it could also provide its own checks and balances, but acknowledged that it could do a better job managing how the public saw it and "show its softer side".

-- Straits Times, 24 May 2006, 
'Political awakening seen in GE'

In other words, she echoed Lee Kuan Yew's belief that there was no need for an opposition in Singapore, as the PAP had "its own checks and balances". That being the case, the PAP's priority was not so much to listen to the people, but to spin its public relations.

Now that I have set the tone, let's look at what 'Today' reported.

Is there enough political IQ to do a politician's job?

Phua said she was stunned that the majority of comments made on the internet were anti-PAP. One cannot but ask, where has she been for the past 10 years? Did she not even peep into the online forum run by the Young PAP? It's the PAP's attempt to engage younger voters, but even that forum contains anti-PAP talk.

Perhaps she has not been surfing to political sites at all prior to the election -- which itself begs the question of how she was even considered politically ready -- yet even Singaporeans who are not net-savvy know, from coffee-shop talk alone, that the greater part of political discourse here (outside of the government-controlled media) is robustly, vehemently, anti-PAP.

Has she been waltzing through life paying no attention to political talk in the streets? Has she never had a political conversation with anybody in her life, at work, among friends?

This suggests that she belongs to the set known as the "politically apathetic Singaporean". Beyond lack of interest, one fears she may not even have the instincts to know how upset many Singaporeans have been through the years about PAP policies and their style. Does she have appropriate listening skills? Is she sensitive enough to political feelings?

Yet she's a member of parliament now. Presumably, the cabinet will depend on feedback from people like her while formulating policies. One wonders, what kind of feedback she will provide when her political IQ seems so undeveloped?

Does she have any inkling about what an "open society" is?

In his first major speech after taking office, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong outlined a theme for his stewardship - that of opening up Singapore. There is no reason to believe that he is anything but sincere about it, though of course, there is the unsettled question of pace.

But an open society by necessity includes a more open media. Yet Phua said, following her expressions of shock at encountering heavy criticism of the PAP on the internet, that the PAP should "manage this channel of communication."

That sounds awfully like censorship. Why should it be "managed" just because the medium didn't carry enough professions of love and undying gratitude?

Her instincts are illiberal and antidemocratic.

The foreign investment baloney

'Today' newspaper mentioned that the reason she was concerned about so much anti-PAP talk on the internet was because "cyber-traffic goes out to the world." She felt that "a foreigner reading about elections in Singapore would only have a chance to hear one side of the story - that too, a somewhat skewed one." 

Why is what a foreigner thinks about our elections so important to her?

The Chinese-language evening newspaper Wanbao may have given the answer. Phua claimed that voting for opposition would scare investors away. An academic in the audience, according to Wanbao, then stood up to tell her that she could not be more wrong. All the developed industrialized economies, being robust democracies, have regular change of government. And many have economies that are stronger and more stable than Singapore's. Clearly foreign investors do not shy away from them. 

Denise Phua's line -- that voting for the opposition means instability, which means scaring away foreign investors -- is not new. It is a frequently-aired PAP line. What isn't clear is whether she's just mouthing the words as required out of party discipline, or she actually believes them.

If she actually believes them, then people should ask themselves, what understanding  has she about the dynamics of foreign investment? If she doesn't believe them, but mouths the claim anyway, then we should what the PAP meant when they said that their candidates were free to voice their honest opinions, and are even capable of playing the role of "checks and balances" in Parliament.

What about thinking skills?

She complained that on the internet "the coverage was not balanced." Does she think there is a master editor sitting on top of the World Wide Web ensuring that every sentence said against the PAP should be balanced by another sentence for the party?

Surely she knows (or am I giving her too much credit?) that the internet is but an aggregation of individuals each saying what he thinks. If 85% of netizens think one way, then 85% will say it that way.

On what basis would anyone expect the outcome to be "balanced"? What thought processes would lead one to think that the result should have been "balanced"? Perhaps she expected blogging opinions to reflect voting behaviour - majority pro-PAP.

If so, any thinking person would know that such an expectation requires a huge starting assumption, which is that blogging and online forum participation is just as likely from pro-PAP and anti-PAP sides.

That, by her estimation, 85% were anti-PAP would signal that the assumption is not true. Instead of analysing why that is not true, she expressed shock and dismay and reached for the censors' button.

She really should put on a thinking cap before speaking at forums and thus avoid sounding foolish. One possible reason may be that net-savvy people tend to be pro-opposition, thus dominating internet voice. This however begs the question, why that should be so.

Another possible reason is that there is a divergence between opinion expressed on the internet and voting behaviour. People say one thing and vote the other way, in which case, why? Which reflects true opinion better?

* * * * *

This brings me very reluctantly to the topic of voting secrecy. I have been half wanting and half not wanting to touch on this subject, but I guess things are moving inexorably in one direction. So, "coming soon".

* * * * *

The PAP likes to boast that it has "quality" candidates. Lee Kuan Yew said it again recently in Seoul. "Singapore has a political system which .... throws up good leaders," he said. See the article The misuse of the state. Looking at the things Phua has said so far, one really has to wonder.

Nearly every observer I ask tell me they think the PAP has a desperate time looking for candidates prior to each election. "Scraping the bottom of the barrel" is how many put it. I guess this theory isn't going to be discredited soon. 

Yawning Bread 


24 May 2006
'Today' newspaper

PAP must address 'negative Internet'
by Derrick A Paulo

She was a new face representing the People's Action Party, but when Ms Denise Phua surfed the Internet during the recent General Election, the tone of the postings stunned her.

They were overwhelmingly slanted against the ruling party.

"I know that something has gone wrong when more than 85 per cent (of the traffic) writes negatively about the PAP," she said at a post-mortem of the GE organised last night by the National University of Singapore Society.

"This is something that the PAP would do well to take into account ... and to manage this channel of communication," she added.

Ms Phua stressed that she was not dismissing the views posted on the Internet nor even disagreeing with them. Her concern was more that the coverage was not balanced.

Nowhere, for example, was it mentioned that this particular GE was not a snap poll or that the Opposition had the freedom to hold rallies of its own. But given the fact that cyber-traffic goes out to the world, Ms Phua felt that a foreigner reading about elections in Singapore would only have a chance to hear one side of the story that too, a somewhat skewed one.

Again, she mentioned that her party would do well to think about this medium.

One member of the audience pointed out that if the Internet was skewed in one direction then, surely, the local media had gone in the other direction, giving far more coverage to the ruling party.

Perhaps, rebutted Ms Phua, this was on account of the fact that the PAP had fielded far more candidates in the GE than the Opposition and the coverage was a reflection of that.

Dr Chee Soon Juan, secretary-general of the Singapore Democratic Party, objected not merely to the extent of coverage that his party had received in the media, but also to the tone of it. He said that even the photographs of his party's candidates used in local newspapers were "not flattering". Someone from the audience mentioned that Dr Chee sounded more "reasonable" than the image he had formed of him. "That is because what you read about me is a relentless campaign of character assassination," said Dr Chee.

A member of the audience observed that the local media, during the recent GE, had been more balanced than in the past.

Another issue that cropped up related to voting secrecy. Mr Perry Tong from the Workers' Party acknowledged that he had no doubt whatsoever that the vote was secret and it was "as good as impossible" for someone to find out how an individual had voted.

Political scientist Dr Ho Khai Leong then said he was surprised that the Opposition had not used this fact to their advantage to persuade more people to vote for them.

But Dr Chee said the fears did exist.

"And even if people's fears are irrational, you still have to address them," he added. 




  1. More commentary on this bit of news can be found at SgElection06, Mr Wang Bakes Good Karma, and Singabloodypore.

  2. A fuller report from someone who was present in the forum can be seen at NUSS forum: Post-mortem on the 2006 general elections

  3. Chee Soon Juan's (Singapore Democratic Party) speech at this forum can be seen here. It makes for compelling reading, as to what goes on behind the scenes during elections.