Singapore’s Public Spheres – Between Keyboard Warriors and V for Vendetta in Hong Lim Park

The newly announced requirement for online news sites with more than 50,000 viewers a month to put up a bond, and to comply within 24 hours to remove any content that Media Development Authority finds objectionable, marks yet another encroachment into the public spheres of Singapore.

The move reminds one somehow of the 1980s, when all major newspapers were incorporated under the control of a single Singapore Press Holdings, following PAP’s loss of one seat to the opposition in 1980, with WP’s J.B. Jeyaretnam capturing Anson in a by-election. How would it augur this time for democracy in Singapore?

As it is, Singapore as a city-state has been conspicuous as a bonsai showcase of cosmopolitan life, but one hardly known for providing public places for freedom of speech and assembly. Anywhere downtown that resembles a public square is usually reserved for commercial activities of sales promotion, while the location of Hong Lim Park as Speaker’s Corner seems relatively isolated and apparently not very hip.

This marginalisation of the public sphere works to place Singaporeans in a mental loop that is hard to break free from. Surely the young and trendy Singaporeans would prefer to congregate around Greek-God-like posters of A&F in Orchard Road, and shop for cheap but fashionable outfits from H&M, made in Bangladesh it may be? Why travel in the direction of Chinatown where you may only find old men carrying their miserable bird cages, when life in Singapore already calls to mind the misery of a bird cage? Don’t we all need an escape from a boring life, where every other locality in Singapore seems like the exclusive territory of People’s Association?

A similar effect may be intended with the latest control over the social media this time, which has managed to sneak through the back door by gazetting it under the Licensing Regime, without public consultation or parliamentary approval. The new rules will serve to deter bloggers in Singapore from discussing social and political issues, and encourage people to blog about facial cream or their pet dogs instead.

This would presumably help create a ‘safe’ environment for the ruling party’s continual domination in Singapore, free from criticisms. All they need to do would be to stage a little ‘national conversation’ before asserting that they are working as ever to the best interest of the people, be it in the wage scheme or the population policy or the land use in our country. We may not find the precious little information to contradict them anymore.

The question is: would this be a miscalculation on the part of the PAP government? Will the same tactics that worked before Singapore’s first economic downturn in the 1980s work again now, with the new generation of electorate? Or will it lead to further distrust of the regime and force Singaporeans in the direction of civil disobedience, into more creative spheres of resistance?

The assumption seems to be that online voices of dissent reflect an anti-government sentiment that is purely irrational, and the only way to deal with it is to stamp it out before it spreads further like a disease. Well this is an inaccurate picture that they are seeing with their blinkers on, which may just lead to their own tumble. A good 40% of Singaporeans are not ‘anti-government’ as such. They are simply against the government being anti-democracy and anti-community. Does the regime want to push on with a de-humanising approach of treating the electorate as fools, and see how they react?

As post-GE2011 surveys have indicated, cost of living and job situation have been major concerns among voters. Smear tactics as perpetuated with the help of local press do not seem to work well anymore. At the end of the way, would people really be so interested in the sex lives of MPs, ministers, law professors or activists, when bread and butter issues are at stake? Would digging that little dirt alarm Singaporeans so much that they would run back into the arms of authoritarian rule immediately? You can only fool some people some time, not all the people all the time.

In a way, the secret ballot has made cowards of many a Singaporean. Hence there are those who would vote for the sake of upgrading in their constituency or for rubbish-clearing by the town council, instead of for how the economy will be run in the whole country. But how much upgrading does one really need before the bubble bursts? What we need is a more open society where people can stand up for their own political orientation in debates on the common good of Singaporeans as a whole.

Lest we forget, the PAP rose into power because it was a progressive party back in the 1950s. Today people just assume that going on strike is un-Singaporean, or that street protest is unheard of. But the PAP itself would walk down the streets with a banner in those days. Things changed of course. In the words of our first Culture and Foreign Minister S. Rajaratnam in 1969: “We started off as an anti-colonial party…”

The 50s of course belong to a chapter in history that is still recovering from collective amnesia and whitewash, and scaremongers would still cite chaos at the time to scare the chicken back to the fold. But there is clearly a new spirit of awakening among Singaporeans now, which may yet be steered in a positive direction. One aspect may be an ‘anti-globalisation’ consciousness – at least, that is how I would prefer to characterise the ‘fashion punk’ who was carrying the banner ‘Singapore for Singaporeans’ in the February protest against the population white paper, instead of dismissing it as ‘xenophobia’.

‘Globalisation’ is of course a very complicated word, and what we must realise is that it is not a matter of a ‘tidal wave’ coming to our shores, but a many-headed monster which includes the roles played by our trade unions and our manpower ministry in their peculiar practices. It is also a matter of the state ideology, down to the claim by some politicians that there is no local identity in Singapore as such, apart from the belief in meritocracy or the ‘Confucian ethics’ of diligence – as if Confucius said 2,500 years ago that you don’t really need a university education for self-improvement, you just need to work overtime for better pay.

So what is a ‘real’ Singaporean? Let’s just say that one does not need to prove himself or herself as Singaporean by citing how differently a person from another country would behave. If ever there are ‘real Singaporeans’ as such, I would say it should refer to people who truly care for Singapore as part of a community. It would include people who may sound ‘subversive’ to the authorities, but really have the interests of Singaporeans at heart. Unfortunately, it is exactly such a sense of community that is being targeted by censorship.

Hence this latest instrument is indeed a test for us. Should Singaporeans not sense a foreboding of what this will mean for each and every citizen? One just needs to reflect a little more to learn from history: in the 1960s, the ISA came for the Chinese-educated who were ‘communists’, people kept silent, because they were not Chinese-ed; in the 1970s, the ISA came for the English-educated ‘communists’, people kept silent, because they were not leftists; in the 1980s, the ISA came for ‘communists’ who were supposedly embedded in Catholic church, people kept silent, because they had nothing to do with the church or the social activism; in the 2000s, the new excuse for ISA was the threat of terrorism identified with Muslim extremism, people kept silent, because they had nothing to do with such terrorism. And now, will people say it doesn’t concern them, because it is only the bloggers who will be affected? Who will speak for the people then when the bloggers are gone?

The defeatist attitude may say that there is nothing one can do, because there is no democracy in Singapore anyway. But that is simply mental slavery. One has to recognise that there is at least some semblance of democracy, at least a symbolic space for voices of dissent – Hong Lim Park is such a space, and judging by the latest trends, it will become the ‘fashion’ of true-blue Singaporeans.

Will the internet remain such a space too? It is now up to us, to express ourselves or share the opinions in whichever way we can, to make our presence felt. Think on what it will mean for yourself, your loved ones and for fellow Singaporeans. Think on many future generations of Singaporeans to come – assuming of course, that Singapore as a nation is not auctioned away in the global market soon. Get up, “Stand up, for Singapore”, shall we say?


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