October 19th, 2011
Amy Khor, chairman of REACH, has encouraged the Government to engage netizens on sites that “allow for reasoned and constructive debate and gain traction”. “Netizens themselves who desire rational discourse should support such sites or else start them,” she said.
Khor’s speech in Parliament also reflected the PAP’s alarm at the appeal of less rational websites – an alarm that may result in new legislation.
Citing a REACH survey, she said that it was “worrying” that only 62% agreed that with the statement that the “anonymous and chaotic nature of the internet often lends itself to negative views and ridiculous untruths, which can distort reality”.
She read this to mean that there is a “bias toward online extreme views which are more tantalising than pro government or ‘balanced’ views”.
But, is it quite possible that the reason why many Singaporeans do not agree that even irrational postings “distort reality” is that these Singaporeans are confident about their own ability to discern the wheat from the chaff – and not because they prefer the chaff, as Khor suggests.
It is of course true that a high proportion of online discussion (like offline conversation, let’s not forget) is ill-informed and irrational. There also seems to be no shortage of cowards who enjoy slinging mud from behind their shields of anonymity at anyone who doesn’t share their violent allergic reaction to every word uttered by the PAP. I’ve been on the receiving end of such attacks and it is not pleasant.
Yet, as ugly as these anti-social elements can make cyberspace, we’ve seen little evidence that, all said and done, they have caused actual harm.
The tenor of the GE campaign may have alarmed those who prefer stability and – since politicians are only human – would have certainly hurt the PAP’s feelings. But, in the end, the results of the GE (a “win-win-win” result, as Tony Tan called it) reflected the wisdom of the crowd. It showed that we are a sophisticated, astute electorate that can grasp what is in our long-term interests – not the fickle, impressionable horde that the government seems to picture as it contemplates tighter regulation.
AMY KHOR ON ONLINE ENGAGEMENT
Extract from the speech by Amy Khor during the Parliament Debate on the President’s Address, 17 October 2011. Amy Khor is the Chairman of REACH, the Singapore Government’s feedback unit. The full speech is found in her Facebook Notes.
We are at the threshold of a new era in Singapore’s political scene. We have a younger electorate with higher expectations, and who are more outspoken. They represent a new generation of voters, who are unencumbered by the past. For good or for ill, this is likely to be the norm for Singapore.
Sir, the recent two elections, the GE and PE, have shown that politics is becoming more polarising and that an increasing number of Singaporeans want their voices to be heard.
Opposition politicians will in all likelihood challenge many policies. If so, they are doing what they set out to do, but this could make for a more fractious political scene.
In this context, to keep to the vision which President Tan has articulated, we need to approach differences and debate in a spirit of dialogue and civility.
Criticism must be welcome, because it will sharpen policies. But criticism must also be responsible and constructive, with the view to improving policies, not merely scoring political points. Hence, debate, and not just in Parliament, but also in personal dialogues, in any and every platform, but especially online, needs to be rational, sensible, well thought-out and meaningful.
Smoke and noise will only befuddle, and not enlighten.
But for broad based intelligent and responsible debate to occur, the government will need to step up its engagement efforts both online and offline.
Indeed, in the REACH NDR survey, more than 8 in 10 (83%) feel that the government as a whole should be more active and adept at engaging Singaporeans online. A similar percentage (82%) also desire reliable websites where people can have open debate and express different but balanced views.
But what is worrying is that only slightly more than 6 in 10 (62%) agree that the “anonymous and chaotic nature of the internet often lends itself to “negative views and ridiculous untruths, which can distort reality”. This seems to suggest that there is a bias toward online extreme views which are more tantalising than pro government or “balanced” views.
Online engagement will increasingly become more important with the growing number of digital citizens. It is simply impossible to engage on all sites. The government could engage on sites which allow for reasoned and constructive debate and gain traction. Netizens themselves who desire rational discourse should support such sites or else start them. They should not be afraid of being labelled “pro government.”
Of course, engagement must go beyond mere solicitation of feedback to follow up action and co-creation of programmes, where possible. The government through REACH and other platforms have attempted to close the feedback loop in this manner, but it must strive to do even better as expectations for engagement rise.
But while policies continue to be refined, there are always fundamental values, and basic principles which we should adhere to. The same REACH survey on responses to this year’s National Day Rally show that 76% of the respondents agree that Singapore should maintain its basic strategic directions instead of veering towards populist policies.
Despite the sound and fury of both the GE and PE, I find these responses very heartening. Because they indicate that Singaporeans by and large do not expect major policy shifts which may endanger our long term survival.
Note: Emphases (bold text) are in the original.