There’s been quite a bit of chatter on the topic of anonymity ever since Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong popped his question to his recent tea-party guests on whether it is desirable Not to have anonymity online.
Some bloggers like Lucky Tan, Asingaporeanson and yours truly Jentrified have written on this issue of anonymity and discussed multiple perspectives that had been conveniently ignored by PAP and the mainstream media.
More thoughts crossed my mind today on why the government is so keen (or desperate) to remove anonymity online and why I think we must have it even although we can technically be tracked by sophisticated software if the authorities wish to flush us out.
Why is the PAP Government so against anonymity online?
Why does PM Lee and the PAP government find it “not desirable” to have online anonymity here? They are not against it because it is wrong or illegal but because they know what the power of the internet can do to them and their power base (Just think “Arab Spring” and how it came about). With internet, you are dealing with huge volumes of people speaking up all over the world, often at the same time in an infinity of realms which makes it hard for any government to fight against criticisms levelled at them and at state policies.
The beauty of the internet when aided by the catalyst of anonymity is that it expedites the growth of public awareness and online discussions at an unbelievable rate. And the more that people know and talk about national concerns, the more disadvantageous it gets for dictatorial regimes.
Internet is an extremely powerful form of communication, an unrivalled tool for sharing information and a great way to level the playing field in power tussles. Politicians can only control what they can see and what they know while it is difficult to fight “phantoms” in cyberspace. There is a saying that he who is in the light is disadvantaged while he who is in the dark has the edge. Obviously then, a government like the PAP that is on the receiving end of much criticism will want to know who are their foes and who are their friends.
Another reason that has been postulated on why PAP wants everyone to use their real identities when commenting online is that Big Brother wants to monitor and possibly punish overly vocal or prominent critics, which may well happen if we look at their appalling human rights track record.
BUT, it is very hard to track and punish when dealing with the large number of anonymous persons online. They would need a great deal of resources and man hours to monitor all the numerous comments and track all the people who comment online (and the numbers are growing fast with every passing hour). There is refuge and strength in numbers after all. But that said, I would assume that they monitor the prominent and influential bloggers (yes I reckon possibly even Mr Brown). One wonders though, why is tax-payers money being used for their monitoring work and to pay their spies.
Persecuting a tough politician like Chee Soon Juan is also just not the same as cutting down the little man or woman in the street. Any bloodletting of the latter group or of popular bloggers like Molly Meek will bring about a public uproar against the government. And they know it.
This is why they are taking the soft approach by trying to influence public opinion against anonymity instead (what better way to do this than over a cup of tea and a scone in the Istana?). They have taken the high moral ground, by calling anonymity “undesirable” in the name of transparency and whatever else suits their cause. But they have not been successful because they haven’t given a convincing case against anonymity nor have they given reasons for people to speak openly.
By identifying the commentators, they will know who their supporters and critics are and who are the middle-of the-ground moderates. This makes it easier for the government to classify these people and to plan their counter strategies (such as knowing who to invite for tea parties – moderate and friendly bloggers and impressionable layman).
Why Online Anonymity is Desirable in Singapore
Blogger Asingaporeson had asked me in my previous post what I thought about anonymity. He thinks it’s a cyber myth as there is sophisticated software to track users these days be it on our smart phone or on our computer.
He is absolutely right that with the technology today, no one is truly “invisible” and I am sure the authorities know who we are if they want to dig up our identities. But I still think anonymity is essential at this infant stage of Singaporeans learning to speak up for their rights. It is also necessary because of our country’s tiny size and how the PAP-connected system works so unfairly here. With anonymity, Singaporeans can take some comfort that what they say will not be ripped apart by their mother, father, boss, clients, colleagues etc. At the very least, they don’t run the risk of being ostracised or losing a job for commenting on the government and state policies if they are anonymous.
With anonymity, it encourages more people, in controlled countries like Singapore, to think about national issues, to care about their country and to speak up. So what’s so undesirable about that? Everything starts with baby steps and we have to learn to speak up anonymously first before we can plunge bravely on into the open.
Of course, things may change if PM Lee officially declares the death of the Internal Security Act and if he gives us his personal assurance that no man or woman who speaks up will be tarred, feathered and quartered.