Amidst the brouhaha, there is a small silver lining in the Government’s call for an Internet Code of Conduct. Our rulers are getting nicer. Think about it, they could have just banned the Internet or pass new regulations and laws to curtail negative “undesirable” online comments, or “invite” a few outstanding netizens for tea in an ice-cold room. Growing up in a tightly-controlled country, we are familiar with their chop and chop hard style whenever they see a budding problem just like how they implemented numerous fines (earning Singapore the moniker ‘Fine City’) and banned the sale of chewing gum over the years. And yet now, they are asking netizens to “lead the way” to come up with an Internet Code. Isn’t that all nice and civil? What a welcome change!
For those who have been distracted by the high cost of living issues and totally missed this new burning COC issue, let me recap. Since GE2011, hordes of loyal Singaporeans have been speaking up on politics, thanks to the internet and no thanks to the many aggravating issues that affect our lives. This unprecedented storm of online discussions on sensitive issues coupled with criticisms of the ruling party and polices sparked concerns among our leaders. Recently, Yaacob Ibrahim, Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts, called on the online community to develop an internet code. He said this code of conduct is to ensure a “safe” (for who?) online environment and he wants the online community (bloggers, moderators, owners of socio-political sites etc) to come up with a code outlining what is acceptable behaviour and what is not.
To facilitate the thinking process on the internet code, a group of people including selected socio-political bloggers, academics and reps from the Media Development Authority were invited for tea recently by the Institute of Policy Studies. Most bloggers and owners of socio-political websites have since responded to this code thingy with something close to “bugger off and leave us alone” (my summation of what I have read).
I can understand the Government’s call for national harmony and the desire to stem xenophobic comments but how much of this call for an internet code is motivated by the ruling party’s desire for power-protection and to muzzle public criticisms?
As a blogger and commentator on socio-political issues, I relish my online space and thank God for the internet. Like my fellow Singaporeans who were born and raised here, we have had enough of suffering through decades of silence. For years, most of us, except for the bravest, kept our political views to ourselves, followed our leaders obediently and quietly accepted all laws and policies even those that were highly questionable (just think how much money we could have saved the nation if we had spoken up earlier on the ministerial salaries!).
We tried not to stick our necks out not because we didn’t care but because we were afraid to care too much. We had to deal with the deliberately cultivated veil of fear hovering over us. Till today, many Singaporeans still have that fear that something bad might happen if we criticise the government too loudly. Real or otherwise, our fears include getting a dreaded cold-room tea invite, of losing our public housing upgrading, of being sidelined in public housing ballots, of losing our jobs, etc, etc.
And hence, many of us became like the three proverbial monkeys – we covered our eyes, closed our ears and zipped our lips – when it came to political issues in our homeland.
BUT with the advent of the internet and social media platforms, a whole new universe opened up for us! The internet has become our refuge, our release and our salvation in many ways. Here, we found our voice and rekindled our fire. Here, we were pleasantly surprised to meet thousands of kindred spirits who understood our pain, our angst and sorrows and our dreams and hopes for our nation. Here, we can truly express what we feel without fear (or at least much less fear). Here, we get to nurture our spirit, mind and soul, to think about and discuss issues that affect our lives. Here, we get to hear a rich diversity of views and ideas – the good, bad, ugly, the half-truths and the facts. More importantly, here, we get to evaluate and decide for ourselves what is the truth without being fed massaged self-serving “hard truths”.
The internet has also debunked some myths and done wonders in developing our people. For the longest time, our young have been condemned as an apathetic ignorant lot and our people have been dismissed as daft and apolitical with little interest in current affairs. GE2011 fuelled by the internet and social media changed it all. It brought out of hiding all the frustrations, passion, emotions and talents that I never knew existed! I saw, read, heard volumes of discussions among the young, middle-aged and elderly on national issues that matter to them. I read many well-written frank essays and insightful commentaries and comments online that explored all aspects of issues unlike the prosaic stuff that we have been fed by pro-government MSM.
Most importantly, I witnessed the coming together of the masses in a vocal heartfelt way for our nation, something not seen since the country became independent under one party rule. All these new developments encourage creative and critical thinking (skills which some have lamented that locals lack). They bode well for the development of our people and for true patriotism and love for our country.
Personally, I am delighted and inspired by this incredible flowering of passion, thought and emotion. All this was made possible largely because of the free realm of the internet where we could bare our souls. And it is for these reasons, among others, that I am totally against having an Internet Code of Conduct which, if introduced, would likely dampen our metamorphosis from cocooned citizens to full-fledged active thinking Singaporeans.
The internet has been around for over a decade. But it was only over the past couple of years that many more Singaporeans have taken to using it actively to comment on socio-political issues. We have taken only baby steps in this area and we are still finding our feet and learning how to exist in this new online world. Our Government should not keep interfering in every aspect of our lives including in our online space. To insist on doing so can retard the people’s growth and the natural order of life. Sure, there are many extreme views online, including xenophobic ones, that can be negative for our society, but will muzzling them make the negativity go away? Isn’t it better to have all views out in the light so that the Government is aware of the ground feel and hence do a better job of governing and addressing the issues? Moreover, there are also laws and a criminal system in place to take care of those who veer into taboo grounds.
We are already living with so many out-of-bounds (OB) markers in “real” life here. It would be foolish and tragic for our nation’s and people’s development if the Government were to try to control our free space online too. The Internet is like the birth of a new universe which will keep growing at a pace way beyond anyone’s imagination. It is impossible and impractical to try to contain and control it. The only smart thing to do is to learn to accept and understand this new universe, harnass its benefits and grow with it.
Meantime, let’s open our eyes, ears and mouth – say NO to COC and tell them to bugger off and leave us alone.