Monday, January 18, 2010

Is this the end of the cyber cold war?

Last week, while watching one of the US New channels – can’t remember which one now – I came across a speech by Senator Dodd who was announcing his retirement from the U.S. Senate. Sen. Dodd served 35 yrs in politics and is the current U.S. banking committee chairman that has helmed highly televised senate testimonial hearings surrounding the financial meltdown.

What struck me was his calm dignity and honesty when he declared “I am a Democrat and very proud of my party’s contributions to the vitality and strength of America”. But that was not the line that really resonated with me. Halfway through his speech he affirmed “I believe in bipartisan solutions, but I also believe you can only achieve those results with vibrant, robust and civil partisan debate”.

Then I began to think of Singapore. But I wasn’t thinking about how partisan debate has evolved but rather how the Government’s attitude towards alternative opinions and viewpoints emanating from new media sources has changed. Which naturally leads to the question: “Are netizens still automatically viewed as engaging in partisan debate every time a critical comment on a government initiative is made?”

Let’s look at some pivotal events in the last 3 years. Recall the Brown-Bhavani saga in 2006 where the government’s threshold of tolerance was tested when a semi-anonymous blogger “crossed the line” by bringing satire into mainstream media. The response was unbendingly harsh and forced the removal of Mr Brown from the TODAY team.

The key statement in Bhavani’s diatribe was this: “If a columnist presents himself as a non-political observer, while exploiting his access to the mass media to undermine the Government's standing with the electorate, then he is no longer a constructive critic, but a partisan player in politics”. The bottom-line was a warning to all to stay within your own realm whereby you cannot affect public opinion.

However, this implicit drawing of a cyber OB marker proved to be only a temporary truce. In 2007, rather than risking an all out open war, the PAP opted to rebut anti-establishment views by putting up postings anonymously online. It was as if the Brown-Bhavani saga, and the failed attempt to ban political videos during the 2006 general elections, was analogous to World War I & II. The next phase announced by then Manpower Minister Ng Eng Hen, represented a Cold War of sorts, where enemies are known but not clearly defined and propaganda is the name of the game. As MP Baey Yam Keng infamously put it, “The identity is not important. It is the message that is important.”

So with some help from the PAP Internet Brigade, the Internet would be left to self-regulate itself. But as with the real Cold War, there were periods of prolonged calm and of high tension. The calm was encapsulated in a 2007 paper by the Advisory Council on the Impact of New Media on Society (AIMS). The paper, entitled “Engaging New Media – Challenging Old Assumptions”, signaled a promising paradigm shift in relations between warring factions of anonymous critics (whom were increasingly identifying themselves)and Government spokespeople (whom were increasingly anonymising themselves).

But high tension is never far away, and the Government broke its “silence” in early 2009 (after tucking their heads between their thighs for the Mas Selamat Fiasco, Town Council Loses, CDC bonuses, Government lapses ... etc). Seizing on an event that had nothing to do with “online critics” in the first place, then Senior Minister of State (Information, Communications and the Arts) and current acting “Minister of Propaganda”, Lui Tuck Yew chided netters for not policing comments that voiced elation over the assault of MP Seng Han Thong by one of his constituents.

He went on to say:

"I do not think the community itself has done enough to rebut some of these unhelpful comments delivered by fellow netizens.

'It is a squandered opportunity for a higher degree of self-regulation. It would have been an example of the genesis, of the first steps, towards a more responsible, greater, self-regulatory regime.

'But many of those responses were not rebutted or answered, and I think it is not healthy for some of this to remain on the Net unchallenged, unquestioned and unanswered.'

So we blew it; at least in the eyes of the PAP we did. But even a seasoned PAP minister, our Foreign Minister no less, struggled to engage in a less traditional platform. Naturally, 2009 shaped up as a tension filled year, with 2010 promising much of the same.

So imagine my surprise when in the turn of new year, NTUC’s Deputy Secretary-General and PAP MP Madam Halimah Yacob wrote in to Temasek Review to civilly clarify what she felt was inaccuracies in an article on a speech she had made. You can read more about it here.

Did this gesture signal the end of the Cold War and a thawing of hostility between new media agents and Governmental officials? Before I could answer that, the cynic in me questioned whether this engagement was sanctioned or a mere PR slip by an MP eager to protect her good name? If the former, then we should hope to see a future of vibrant, robust and civil debate over alternate media platforms. If the latter, well, MP Halimah should be expecting a call to tea sometime soon and we best prepare for more of the same.

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