The Internet takes on an important function in maturing democracies with an under-developed civil society. Citizens see the cyberspace as an important avenue to perform checks and balances. This have led some to call for a rethinking of the rules of engagement.
A couple of years ago, Singapore’s Minister for Information, Communication and the Arts called for the crafting of an Internet code of conduct. Attempts to regulate the cyberspace through the suggested “netiquette” and the recent passing of the MDA regulations to legislate online news were met with disagreement on the part of the netizens. About 1,500 people registered their discontent against this new implementation and an Internet Blackout Thursday saw more than 130 bloggers trading their web pages with black screens carrying the slogan ‘Free My Internet’.
The complexity of the issue is compounded by the ambiguity as to whether social networking sites such as facebook represent the private or public sphere. Comments posted on personal capacities are often shared among hundreds or thousands of people. With this development, the phenomenon of public lynching on the Internet is becoming more common in Singapore. The cases of Amy Chua’s comments on the Malays, a PRC Chinese student’s remarks on Singaporeans, Anton Casey’s observations on the poor and Dr Aljunied’s views on homosexuality are some examples.
Consequently, the opportunity to engage deeper on contentious issues such as race, nationality, religion and social class are lost due to the manner in which these discussions have placed too much emphasis on the personalities. Surely, the strategy of removing or silencing the protagonist cannot be a better alternative to addressing the root of the concerns in open discussions. More important questions such as who represent these views, how pervasive these views are, and who are discriminated, remain unanswered. If there is one rule of engagement on the internet, it is this – every contentious point should be engaged in a civilized and respectful manner, regardless of age, hierarchy or any other social divisions.
An accompaniment to the culture of public lynching is the culture of online petitions. The petitions against and for Dr Aljunied circulating online over the last week denouncing or championing their professor is neither the first nor will it be the last that we will see. Certainly, for every social group that feels aggrieved, there will be another that feels validated. Such is the complex cosmopolitan society that we live in today.
However, if university students were to start petitioning against every disagreeable point spouted by their professors, the university will lose its critical edge and become an undesirably monotonous place. These points of views should be debated in a mature, open and inclusive manner taking on board views from all sides.
The problem with the culture of public lynching is that living in a state where there are many punitive measures to sanction the citizenry against making contentious comments that may potentially cause public disorder, it will be more convenient to slip back to an era where people are governed by a culture of fear and not speak on critical issues, anxious that they will tread on the wrong side of vague OB markers. This will surely retard Singapore’s progress and quest for a more consultative society.
Written by Kamaludeen Mohamed Nasir
Kamaludeen Mohamed Nasir is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the Nanyang Technological University. He is the author of The Future of Singapore: Population, Society and the Nature of the State (Routledge, 2014).