“What do you think of online anonymity? Do you think netizens should make
anonymous postings?” - PM Lee.
anonymous postings?” - PM Lee.
It was reported in the Straits Times:
“Participants at the session said PM Lee had asked for their opinions about
online anonymity. Most felt that online commentators should not be anonymous.”
“I feel there are circumstances where the person’s identity needs to be
protected, such as whistleblowing on a wrongdoer.” - Andrew Loh.
I don't blame the participants who are not anonymous for what they said during this chit-chat session. They may not have thought about this issue thoroughly. Since many of them have no reason be be anonymous, they may not have spent time thinking about why others have chosen to be anonymous.
"I have a friend who told me that at two different jobs, his bosses requested him to leave after they found out he was a political activist, even though they were satisfied with his work and he had done nothing illegal" - Gerald Giam[Link]
WP;s Gerald Giam was working with the MFA and started blogging non-anonymously only after the left to start his own business. The civil service allows officers to blog but not about political matters - so civil servants are quite safe to have a Facebook or blog that talks about their travels, his hobbies and the food he likes. But suppose he has an opinion about the healthcare system - he thinks it is too expensive or he thinks the GST hikes are bad. These are grey areas seen by some as simply a personal opinion he is entitled to or it can be seen as political opinions so it is safer for him to write about it anonymously on the Internet.
The political economy of Singapore is such that the influence of the PAP extends well beyond govt - there are TLCs, GLCs and network of companies that depend on these for their existence. In the 2005, a rather naive Andrew Kuan answered one of those calls to step forward by offering himself as an alternative candidate for the Presidential elections. In the next few weeks after his announcement, was an ugly humiliation exercise in which his ex-employers came forward one by one to release confidential data about his work performance in those companies. You wonder what will happen to bloggers critical of the govt f they are working in one of those companies if they reveal themselves.
The second reason for anonymity is how people expressing criticism are treated in Singapore. or how they believe they will be treated. I'm not just talking about political criticism but in companies...even private sector companies. Companies that regularly conduct surveys to collect staff feedback know this. If the survey requires the employees to put their name down, they will get little comments or comments bias towards the positive side. If you want honest opinions, you will have to make such surveys anonymous. In Singapore, there are several reasons for this. The employers and higher managment wields a lot of power to hire and fire lower ranking staff and there is sometimes hyper-sensitivity to criticism due to cultural reasons. If you have worked with companies from various countries, you will be able to correlate the corporate culture with the position of "free speech" in the society. In countries where free speech is protected, there is generally less fear and people speak their minds.
So why does the PAP govt want comments on the Internet to be "non-anonymous"? Cynics will say they want to track and catch people criticising the govt online to punish and humiliate. There is a basis for this belief. As recently as a few months ago, Richard Wan of TREmeritus was threatened with lawsuits by various members of the establishment. So was Alex Au. Mr. Brown was fired from Today for an article many netizens felt express the real sentiment on the ground. Richard Wan was threatened with a lawsuit for one of the tens of thousands of comments[Link] posted by one of the several thousands readers of the website - they went after him because he came forward.
During Goh Chok Tong's time as PM, he came into office saying that he wanted a consulative govt that woild listen to the views of citizens - he said "nothing" would happen to people who came forward with their views even if they were critical of the govt. Many Singaporeans are smart in their own way - they let others go first to see what happens. A young lecturer in the NUS answered the call to speak up and give honest feedback. Shortly, after he spoke up, his taxi claims were check for typographical errors, and he was sacked for dishonesty. A few years later he was made a bankrupt. Yes, "nothing" happened to him, after speaking up, he literally had nothing left in his finances.
In the US, thousands, if not tens of thousands, of websites are set up critising Obama and his policies....a lot of views and opinions expressed but not a single threat of a lawsuit.
The large number of anonymous comments is a result the system of govt in place and actions that the govt has taken in the past. Where in the world do you find the most anonymous bloggers and netizens - in China, Russia and Burma. In N. Korea, the govt simply cut the citizens off the Internet to build a nation wide intranet where every user can be tracked and monitored so that it is hard to be anonymous...when you can do that the only get praises for Dear Leader and Brilliant Comrade. Countries and govts that cope well with the Internet are also those that have over time respected the rights of their citizens to speak freely. Govts and systems that depend on propaganda and information control to rule the people are the ones that find it hard to cope with the new media.
For a monolithic dominant govt with its own internal decision making processes, democratic processes fall out of the system. Criticism and dissent will be at some point be viewed by govt and its supporters as harmful and unconstructive. With concentration of power, citizens are always worried what will happen to them if they openly disagree with the govt.
There are 2 almost unique characteristics of online political discussion in Singapore - it is dominated by people opposing the PAP govt and there many prominent bloggers expressing rational views anonymously. Other than those run by govt entities and the PAP, why are discussion forums full of voices against the PAP? You visit US political forums, you find there are people who support Obama and people who don't...people who support Bush and people who don't. The PAP govt operate on the extreme end of the polical spectrum generating policies that people find hard to accept - running an economy with the biggest income inequality in the developed world, burdening the sick with the highest share of healthcare burden, lack of social safety nets, extremely high foreign influx undemocratic practices etc etc etc. To push these many of these unpopular through, it needs a mainstream media that is on its side. So if you're the kind of person that likes PAP policies, you feel your views are well represented when you open up the Straits Times to read it so there is compelling need to go somewhere to express your views. However, if you oppose what the PAP does..... after reading the Straits Times, you will feel very motivated to go somewhere to express your point of view - that place used to be the local coffeeshop, now it is the Internet.
Why are there so many people expressing rational reasonable views anonymously? In many other countries people will proudly put their real names and identities down. You look around at the people blogging with their real identities, many are retired others run their own business with little dealing with the govt. Suppose you're an intelligent guy working for or running a small company dependent on one of the GLCs (e.g SingTel), will you feel safe being identified a blog full of alternative competing views? In the current political environment, given the level of fear, the level of dominance, and the position of free speech...it is unpredictable what kind of actions people will take if you are found out.
At the end of the day does anonymity really matters? Maybe for those in power to have the ability to extract apology and issue threats of defamation to frighten oppenents. But for the vast majority of netizens over time they know it doesn't matter. You don't go behind Wikipedia to find out who wrote the page you;re reading, you know it is not perfect but can be relied on most of the time. On the Internet, anyone can start a blog, a discussion group, a website put up his ideas openly for feedback and anyone can freely criique his ideas. The PAP seems to have problem with this whole concept because it cannot control the informaton, it cannot suppress the competing points of views - we keep hearing complaints from the PAP about the Internet. The same problems they have with democracy. They are running a system that works well only when information can be filtered and ideas flow top down for acceptance by the ordinary citizens....but times have changed and the PAP monopoly of ideas has been eroded by the Internet and they seem to have to great difficulty adjusting and competing....