'It's time for an internet code of conduct – for readers'

By Cherian George

Singapore sometimes seems like a metropolis in search of a kampung spirit. And I don’t mean in a good way, like being caring and considerate – if you’ve seen how Singaporean drivers respond to an ambulance behind them (they don’t) you’d realise that when Gotong Royong 101 was being taught in kindergarten, they were probably absorbed in mental sums and other essential skills to get ahead of the pack.

No, the kampung spirit that we Singaporeans are cultivating is instead a kaypoh-ish petty-mindedness; a small-town mentality that tells us that no event is too trivial to turn into a national issue.

You may have heard of that classic formulation of headline news: if it bleeds, it leads. But since Singapore is not a particularly violent society, our scandal-seekers have had to make the most of the merely unpleasant. Their twist on the newsman’s mantra is: if it offends, it trends.

And with the internet, there’s no shortage of anti-social words and actions to dissect and discuss if you are so inclined. So, instead of limiting yourself to gossiping about what you saw through the window of your neighbour’s home as you walked by, you can peek at hundreds of thousands of Facebook walls where people obligingly make fools of themselves.

Thus, Singapore – one of the world’s great entrepôts and financial centres, with dreams of being a cosmopolitan world city like New York or London – works itself into a tizzy over inconsequential internet indiscretions of insignificant individuals almost every week.

Our mainstream media are contributing to this provincialism. But independent news websites play the leading role in setting the agenda, bridging the gap between more private sections of the internet and the more public web. Since they do not have the resources to investigate official malfeasance, our citizen reporters seem to have latched onto the formula of doing investigative exposés of individual idiocy.

And so we find ourselves being served a steady diet of news concerning the silly things that random persons happen to be doing online. Welcome to kampung Singapore.

With the F-U-gate scandal, we’ve reached a new low. A 17-year-old junior college kid flames the deputy prime minister and it becomes a national event.

Has our fascination for the frivolous gone too far, I wonder. After this latest controversy, Yahoo! News asked me if it was time for an internet code of ethics. Perhaps it is. But not the kind of code you think. I think it’s time for readers to exercise more responsibility. Here’s the kind of thing that could go into an internet consumer code:

We, as responsible consumers of the internet in Singapore, pledge the following:

  • We will finally wake up to the idea that the internet contains all the wonder and weirdness of the world, and we’ll stop reacting to the less pleasant stuff as if it is the end of human civilisation.

  • We will remind ourselves that teenagers are – like they always have been and always will be – basically daft. We’ll leave it to their parents, teachers and peers to set them right, and award them amnesty till they are 21. We'll try not to circulate the stuff that they’ll regret saying and doing when they are adults, and we’ll certainly avoid publicising their names.

  • We won’t exploit private individuals’ online mistakes as ammunition in our battles against groups we don’t like. Whether we want to prove that the internet should be censored, or to embarrass the political party that they belong to, or to tarnish the immigration policies that brought them here, or to show how intolerant some religious groups are, or how immoral some sub-cultures are, we won’t crucify random chaps who did something silly online.

  • If we think there’s nothing good on the internet, we will go read a book. If we think there’s both good and bad, we’ll try to help the good go viral and let the bad sink into oblivion – instead of the reverse.

  • We will use our smarts to decide what we really need to get worked up about. We’ll treat trolleys on buses as entertaining trivia; and focus more attention on climate change and Millennium Development Goals, on Syria, Sudan… and, all right, Euro 2012.

Cherian George is the author of Freedom From The Press: Journalism and State Power in Singapore, a new book about the country's media controls. This comment was first published at cheriangeorge.tumblr.com.