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
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,
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.
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?
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.
'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.
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?
* * * * *
* * * * *
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