Could socio-political bloggers be the answer to PM Lee’s call?

PM Lee notes the prevalence of 'cowboy towns' in cyberspace in his National Day Rally speech on Sunday. (Getty Images)
PM Lee notes the prevalence of 'cowboy towns' in cyberspace in his National Day Rally speech on Sunday. (Getty Images)

By Cherian George

Lee Hsien Loong has called for online spaces where Singaporeans and the government can engage in more balanced, open and rational debate on issues. In the Prime Minister's National Day Rally speech, he noted the prevalence of "cowboy towns" in cyberspace, circulating "ridiculous untruths".

"But there must be places… where people recognise … are reliable, where you can have a open debate, where different views are expressed, but it's balanced, and if you go there you know that, well, to start off with you can assume that it will make some sense," he said.

He did not say how such spaces could form, or whether the government intended to create or facilitate such sites. Until recently, it has been pushing its official feedback portal, REACH, as the best place for citizens to engage the government. Last night, however, Lee made no mention of REACH, perhaps acknowledging that no official site can counteract the anti-government storm in cyberspace.

Mainstream news organisations should have a better chance at creating neutral, moderated forums. They start off with significant advantages, including the largest audience base and the resources to manage such sites professionally. But their success at creating credible online discussion platforms will depend on how much freedom they are granted by the government. Netizens are not likely to forget how Today axed Mr Brown as a columnist after the government voiced its displeasure at one of his pieces.

The most effective solution would be bottom-up projects, created independently by established bloggers with street-cred. Could Singapore's socio-political bloggers, for so long seen as a thorn in the government's side, be the answer to the PM's prayers?

The idea is not as far-fetched as it may seem. Privately, several independent bloggers have voiced unease at the ugly mob behaviour that swamped cyberspace during the general election. The experience has sparked internal discussions about how best to manage readers' comments, in particular, since that's where irrationality has run riot.

There are also established bloggers who are no longer content to converse only among the converted. They want to widen the online debate so that it does not attract only anti-government voices. (I've made a similar point in an earlier piece.)

Don't be surprised, therefore, if you see some of Singapore's influential independent bloggers creating new platforms for national debate in the coming months, either by developing new websites or by reorienting their existing ones.

But even if they build them, will government sympathisers and spokesmen come? One thing that will have to change is the PAP's politics of intolerance, which has contributed to the polarisation of debate in Singapore. Its "with-us-or-against-us" philosophy has kept establishment types away from pluralistic spaces. (The classic illustration was the PAP's refusal to take part in The Online Citizen's multi-party forum before the general election.)

For example, the typical establishment individual would probably refuse to contribute an article to an independent medium that also carries opposition party voices. In Singapore's political culture, he would assume that any such medium would be blacklisted by people at the top, and that anyone who cooperates with it would be guilty by association. Or, perhaps it is simply that most establishment spokesmen lack the confidence to engage in debate on a truly level playing field.

So allergic has the establishment been to bloggers that, as recently as 2009, public universities were compelled to distance themselves from a workshop organised to promote responsible blogging, originally planned with their support.

Thus, PM Lee's wish for open, balanced and reasonable online spaces requires a cultural change on the part of the establishment as well. The government will need to find within itself the capacity to respect the role of independent websites as convenors of Singapore's online politics.

Unedited transcript from PM's National Day Rally speech:

Engagement online, I think we need to learn to do it better. It's not easy to do, but it's important because the digital media is continuing to grow in importance. Five years ago, Youtube was insignificant. Facebook didn't exist. All you had was Mr Brown. Today, Mr Brown has a lot of competition. We in government have a lot of competition, and we have to be able to operate in that space.

It's not easy because it's anonymous, it's chaotic, it's unfiltered, unmoderated, and so the medium lends itself to many negative views and ridiculous untruths. Any number of them. I won't repeat one because otherwise you may misunderstand and think it's true. But if you just open at random you will see them.

And we have to do our best to counter this, to prevent untruths from circulating and being repeated 5, 10, 20 times, from leading people astray, and after a while, you've heard it so often, you can't remember where you saw it, but it must be true; but it's not.

So our ministers have to get better at this and you know many ministers are blogging now, Facebook; and they have to communicate in a different medium, and convey nuance policy, intentions, explanations, in a more personal way, engaging people. But it's not just the ministers, the government as a whole has to be more active and adept, engaging Singaporeans online.

We can't be in every corner of cyberspace because there are a lot of cowboy towns out there. But there must be places which grow where people recognise that these are places which are reliable, where you can have a open debate, where different views are expressed, but it's balanced, and if you go there you know that, well, to start off with you can assume that it will make some sense. Whether it's right or wrong, we have to consider but it's not rubbish.

So we've got to get there, be in cyberspace and use it constructively to explain issues, to shape opinions, to rally support, and to make Singapore work better.