Watching politicians like the PAP government at work is fascinating. One learns a lot about how to manipulate people through the use of spin statements, cleverly framed messages and strategically orchestrated public relations exercises.
As the techniques and examples are too numerous to go into detail, I shall just discuss one today – that of framing issues without putting them in context.
Framing Issues Without Context
This tactic is highly popular with the PAP and their network of supporters. It often states the position that they believe in and is framed in such a way that it tries to skew public opinion in their favour without giving the context and full facts of the situations.
An example of framing without context is a recent argument that this Government loves to use to defend the huge influx of foreigners and new immigrants in recent years. They defend it by asking with a pithy soundbite – “Why are you objecting now when our forefathers were all immigrants?” – as if this reason alone justifies their overly lax foreigners policy. They conveniently fail to place it in context that Singaporeans are not against foreigners and that we are only now objecting to the large numbers that have suddenly crowded this small country to the point where only half our the total population today comprises citizens who were either born and/or grew up here.
Their shabby argument also fails to mention that Singapore was a young trading colony with a small population back in the pre-independance days compared to now when we are a developed nation with a core group of true blue Singaporeans with our own national identity. And to compound the problem, Singapore has become one of the most densely populated cities in the world!
A more recent example of framing issues without context was when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong directed a loaded question to a group of 19 people (mix of bloggers and some people who had commented on his Facebook page) whom he had invited for tea last week. At this occasion, he asked all of them what they thought about online anonymity, an area of deep concern to the government. When some bloggers explained the need for anonymity, he apparently pressed them with followup questions such as asking if he/she “thinks it is desirable to Not have anonymity”?
Note how he has framed the question in a close-ended way that pushes one to answer Yes or No. How would you have answered in that situation with your cup of tea in one hand and a tart in the other? When put in a tight corner, (such as face-to-face with the top man of the state at a formal tea in the Istana) one is likely to be pressured to answer in a polite and politically correct way (especially in an Asian context) i.e. don’t disagree openly, nod your head, smile and keep mum or mutter some comment that’s vaguely in agreement.
The state-controlled media (Straits Times even ran it as a Page 1 lead report) reported on this tea party (designed to make PM look good and which was well executed I might add) the very next day and they all dutifully reported that most of those who attended the event “felt online comments should not be anonymous”.
Where was the context of that anonymity question and the answers that were given by that group of people? I was frankly disappointed that our PM had actually asked such a question which was very likely planned in advance by his team of counsel to try and influence the online community.
By asking such a shallow question, one wonders if the PM’s attitude to an open national communication has really changed and just how much he and his team really understands of the changes in today’s digital world. The internet is here to stay and in the online world, there will be all kinds of comments, the good the bad and the ugly. A smart government deals with it instead of lamenting about how it works and trying to control it.
Like it or not, there will ALWAYS be anonymous commentators who may have valid reasons for not using their real identity to comment. Instead of accepting the world as we live in now and learning how to deal honestly with issues raised by netizens, why is our country’s leader asking people a moot question like whether it is desirable to have anonymity online? Is he planning to ban anonymous comments? Can he?
The government has always been using the local major media to try to influence and frame national issues that worry them and to consolidate their power base. Earlier this year, Leslie Fong (who used to be the chief editor of ST) wrote a commentary lambasting anonymity be it online or in forum letters published in newspapers. Leslie said:”I had long been uncomfortable with the practice, which went against my conviction that public discourse in Singapore should be guided by openness, transparency and accountability. There should be no exception unless identification posed a real threat to life and limb.” The irony here is that for the longest time, the Straits Times under Leslie and his predecessors had welcomed and published anonymous letters. However as the criticisms of the PAP government became more vocal, this rule was changed, sometime around the late ’80s I believe, to deter and reduce critical letters.
And in Sunday Times today (2 Sept), the newly-annointed Chief Editor Warren Fernandez wrote a commentary which again echoed the government’s stance on online discussions. Warren said: “Honesty is in especially short supply in some online discussions…Armed with a megaphone and a mask, they are quick to hurl abuse at anyone with a view contrary to theirs. They attack their opponents in vicious and vitriolic ways, seeking not just to counter arguments, but also to flame others into submission.”
He went on to add that “lamentably, the result is often that other commentators, including some journalists and even politicians are put off and choose to stay out of the fray, giving rise to a form of political correctness that reflects and amplifies, the views of a vocal minority.” Warren also concluded that we will have to be sensible, truthful, courageous and civil if we are to have a proper national conversation on important issues…failing which Singapore will go to the dogs (or something along these lines).
Truth, Courage and Civility? Warren’s commentary is framing the issue without context and smacks of hypocrisy. It is funny how they do not see the irony behind their words as they fail to reflect on their own behaviour which has long been biased in favour of the ruling party.
We seldom hear or see any of the Ministers, the MIW supporters nor any mainstream media giving a fair and full analysis on sensitive major issues nor have they tried to explain why there is a proliferation of anonymous comments and bloggers writing incognito on Singapore’s politics. For the truth, one often has to read online to piece together the full picture and context of the issues. Blogger Lucky Tan for example gave an excellent rebuttal to our government’s stance against anonymous commentators and he placed the situation in context which none of the major state media has done.
To understand why many people choose to be anonymous when commenting on state politics and the government, one has to delve into the issues and look back into our country’s history. For one, Singapore is a tiny island country where you can drive from one corner to the other in half an hour (minus the traffic jams). Here, we joke that we have just two degrees of separation (instead of the usual six) where we would usually know someone who is related to a mutual friend or family or your boss or the government etc.
Lucky Tan mentioned that the political economy of Singapore is such that the influence of the PAP extends well beyond government as there are TLCs, GLCs and network of companies that depend on these for their existence. He cited the example of Andrew Kuan who had been interested to be a candidate at the Presidential elections in 2005. Andrew was subsequently systematically humiliated via the MSM by his ex-employers who came forward one by one to release confidential data about his work performance.
Indeed, most of us who have lived and worked in the system here for a while will be fully cognizant that the PAP network is so well established that it goes all the way across and deep into the grassroots via organisations operated by the People’s Association, quasi-government related bodies and committees and pro-government supporters in the business fraternity. Just consider the tens of thousands of people employed at the vast empire spawned by government-controlled NTUC trade union group which operates all sorts of
profit-oriented businesses under the guise of social enterprises. NTUC owns leading chains that include property developer Choice Homes, food court operator FoodFare, supermarket FairPrice and NTUC Insurance. And it runs numerous pre-schools and eldercare centres. How many of these companies’ employees would dare to risk their livelihoods by speaking up openly against the union or the government?
Our country’s small size coupled with the G’s Network would make any sensible person living in Singapore (unless you are in the pro-MIW camp) very, very cautious about making his or her political views known openly. A PRC-turned-Singaporean friend once told me she was surprised when cautioned by locals here about criticising the government. In turn, she told them that they have more freedom in China where the people can comment freely on the government and their policies.
There is also our political history to reckon with. The climate of fear, when it comes to politics here, was brought about by the highly intimidating ex-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and some of his PAP cronies. The people still shudder when they recall examples of how highly vocal public critics of the government were dealt with harshly over the years since PAP came into power. Some critics were brought to heel by being jailed, shamed in the MSM or threatened with lawsuits or were sued and made bankrupt. Some were even forced into exile.
Loud vitriol was often cast at such critics none other than by LKY and some Ministers. Vitriol btw is defined as “harsh or corrosive in tone, an acerbic tone piercing otherwise flowery prose, a barrage of acid comments”. Does this not remind us of how LKY often speaks (‘Live & Repent” is one of the milder examples) and even now, how some of the more aggressive MPs behave when attacking Workers Party MPs in Parliament?
When we look back at how some ex-political candidates like Andrew Kuan, Francis Seow and Tang Liang Hong and even currently active opposition politicians like Chee Soon Juan and Chiam See Tong have been subjected to much viciousness and vitriolic abuse by the PAP Government, one wonders how the MIW and their supporters have the cheek to now diss online commentators as a bunch of uncivilised “cowboys”. For evidence of bad behaviour, there are YouTube videos of Parliamentary sessions showing some of these Ministers at their nasty best such as LKY rudely and arrogantly cutting off Mr Chiam every time he tried to speak.
The “bullying terrorisers” are now getting a dose of their own medicine as they are subjected to a plethora of growing criticisms online and offline. But let us put this in context too – the criticisms are but words which cannot hurt as much as the use of power by those in power.
And to put things in further context, I am not supportive of vulgarities, threats and abusive comments being hurled at anyone. But I understand that it is human to be passionate and emotional sometimes and I accept emotional expressions and rants as part of this free New World of the Internet where all sorts and all forms of views exist. After existing in silence for so many years, Singaporeans are of course, delighted to have the Internet as a saviour of sorts where they can finally release their pent-up views and emotions and voice their opinions on the country without fear through anonymity.
I hope that PM Lee and the rest of the Ministers can see this too and accept the new paradigm. Instead of trying to rein in the emotions and anonymity, our Government needs go deeper to understand why there is so much pain, anger and frustration expressed in online comments on hot-button national issues. If they can address the heart of each problem, they will be able to defuse the anger and with it the vitriol.
As to the matter of anonymity in online comments, I personally do not see it as an issue so long as it doesn’t bring harm to anyone. But if the Government wants to encourage more Singaporeans to speak up using their real identity, then they need to work on their own internal paradigm shift to create a kinder, more democratic government, and a fairer system in Singapore.
Meantime, I do believe that more and more people will speak up openly eventually as we become more courageous to confront and slay the demons that attempt to strike fear in us. There is strength in numbers and we can work together to rip apart this unhealthy cloud of fear that hovers around us.