Friday, March 6, 2009

Online Civil Disobedience in Singapore

Thursday, 05 March 2009

That there has been online civil disobedience is a fact. Vivid evidence of it has been present with the blog positing of articles and rally pictures in particular during GE 2006.

Yet during the Institute of Policy Studies forum “Getting Their Hands Dirty: Recent Developments in Singapore’s Political Blogosphere” on 4 March 2006, its researchers, in particular Ms Tan Simin, went out of the way to persuade the audience present that what we have now in Singapore is “online civic participation”.

Weighing in, IPS director Ong Keng Yong, who intervened and spoke at length during the Q&A when discussion heated up surrounding the term online civil disobedience. He said “online civil disobedience” should be countered least it is picked up by bloggers and the media and its use by them becomes widespread.

However, choosing not to acknowledge that in the context Singapore’s internet regulation that online civil disobedience has taken place and is perhaps even ongoing is to ignore that there is a problem with the current state of regulation governing the breath of online political expression.

The term online civil disobedience is important because to some extent because the regulation surrounding online political expression is still unclear, many sites and bloggers maybe still operating illegally.

For instance, during the initial period of Think Centre in 1999, several of its online activities were investigated and its members administered police warnings for their online political expression. The fact that there has been no wide spread current governmental persecution of new online actors does not make such acts legal or illegal.

Thus it was not surprising that among the registered attendees included representatives from the Strategic Planning and Development and Policy and Operations divisions of the Ministry of Home Affairs as well as from the Public Communications Division of the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts.

The crux of the review by IPS was to understand the political blogosphere landscape and to speculate its potential to make an impact on Singapore’s politics. Hence, the emphasis was equally on anonymous sites and bloggers in particular with high hit sites such as Wayang Party Club.

But the sub text that emerged from the presentation was that there is some ambiguity over the legality of these expressions in Singapore’s political blogosphere.

What is also important is that IPS researcher Mr. Tan Tarn How clearly acknowledged that anonymous bloggers are in reality only blogging in pseudonymous because governmental agencies in Singapore have the technical capacity to find out the identity of such bloggers or already know their identity.

There were several themes in the IPS seminar that came up that are worth highlighting here which give an indication on how the researchers view Singapore’s political blogosphere:

1. There was an attempt to suggest that anonymously run sites’ content may not be authentic or reliable.

2. Even sites that were not run anonymously were admonished for not being fully “professional”.

3. In the IPS sample, there is a clear attempt to avoid analysing or including political sites or sites of activists.

4. The term “online civic participation” is actively promoted while trying to simultaneously negate terms like “activism” and “online civil disobedience’.

The IPS forum apart from providing an insight into research on the political blogosphere in Singapore also provided and insight into the research culture and choice of analytical terms promoted within such institutions and among some of its researchers.

Online civil disobedience is an important concept to mull over because in Singapore’s short internet history, it possible to make the claim that online civil disobedience is a precursor to the current offline civil disobedience which is organised with the help online mobilization tools.

Trying to water down such terms does not help sharpen our analysis of the emerging political blogosphere and its political impact in Singapore.

Dr. James Gomez is presently Visiting Scholar, Department of Political Science, Keio University, JAPAN.

Seelan: James had also informed me that I had been mentioned in the forum as an example of a local 'activist blogger'. Visit his newly launched blog at Check out TOC's report of the event here.