This post is co-authored with Natasha Cowan of Flinders University
Organised via Facebook, the recent Occupy Singapore protest failed to attract any actual protestors, leaving foreign journalists disconsolate in their search for evidence of Singapore’s newly thriving political sphere. More interesting though is that the protest was organised at all given Singapore’s history of repressive politics. It says much about the impact of recent political reforms, particularly as they relate to online politicking and offline action in a highly controlled media environment with an almost 100% internet penetration rate.
The May 2011 general elections were the most competitive to date, demonstrating practical effect of electoral rules relaxed in 2009 to allow significant and meaningful participation by opposition parties for the first time. In addition, political discourse flourished online as the government lifted restrictions on political advertising and the use of video, multimedia and social media in political discussion and advertising. Whereas previously discussion was dominated by anonymous message boards, the 2011 elections saw a massive increase in the number of blogs, and facebook dominated the opposition’s media campaigning. Political participation also flourished offline, with footage of opposition rallies being streamed live and legally for the first time. The elections saw the first major electoral gains for opposition parties since independence, and some academics suggest the impact of online political discourse on actual electoral change is increasingly important.
In some cases these online discussions helped to generate political action in the real world. For example, opposition parties used the web to mobilize enough volunteers to place some at nearly every polling station – a huge departure from previous elections, when most polling stations were manned only by government members. In addition, a scandal regarding a government candidate’s comments on facebook was exposed by internet users, and resulted in a complaint being lodged with the Singaporean police. Political rallies were streamed online for the first time, and footage and live blogs from the rallies provided a focal point for political discussion.
However, despite relaxing the rules governing online communication the government made it much harder to organise public protests, reimposing earlier limitations on public protests and the use of Speakers Corner which had been lifted in 2008. These built on the 2009 Public Order Act, which required anyone wanting to promote a political cause to register with the authorities. The Act also allows the government to force individuals or groups suspected of organizing a protest to leave a location for up to 24 hours.
This seemingly counterintuitive link between online freedom and offline repression is arguably a useful example of networked authoritarianism – with the government managing the information sphere carefully to allow the release of political pressure whilst still maintaining control. Indeed, surveys of the relationship between online freedom of speech and freedom of association show the latter is the more important predictor of democratisation, implying freedom of speech – particularly in the online sphere, is not necessarily a democratising move.
However, Singapore’s online political discourse has always been a paradox: despite a much higher level of internet penetration than neighbouring Malaysia, its rate of political discourse has been much lower. Both countries have not hesitated to engage in censorship of online political debate – despite important differences like Singapore’s licensing regime, in practice their approaches have been essentially similar. Their different offline media ecologies provide a clue as to the reasons for this disparity. For example, scholars note that Malaysia’s number one alternative site, Harakah Daily, is run by the country’s largest opposition party, the Islamic Party (PAS). Singapore has no contentious website remotely as successful as Harakah Daily because it does not have an opposition party like PAS – well organised, well funded and strongly ideological. The impact of restrictions on traditional press are also important here. Some of the most significant political websites in Malaysia, including Aliran and Harakah, did not start from scratch, but are online versions of pre-existing newspapers and magazines repressed by the government. Harakah Daily started as a fortnightly tabloid and moved online when the government stepped in and revised its licence. Similarly, Aliran grew out of a monthly magazine. In contrast, other than one or two small and infrequent opposition newsletters, Singapore had virtually no independent political periodicals before the internet was introduced.
The onset of significant online political discourse in Singapore also raises an important point about the echo chamber effect of the internet in an environment of offline repression. Sunstein’s influential analysis of the effect of the online discourse’s tendency to deepen political rifts and polarise identities suggests that online political discourse in Singapore would reinforce divisions between government and opposition. In a multi-ethnic state like Singapore, such political fragmentation could be reinforced by fragmentation along language and ethnic lines. Indeed, academics note a profusion of Chinese language blogs in response to the 2011 elections, but there is little analysis of their place in the Singaporean political blogosphere overall. In addition, the echo chamber effect may be multiplied by the existence of offline censorship. Recent examples in China, for example, suggest the intensification of online rumours regarding the death of Jiang Zemin in the absence of reports in the official press. In Singapore, bloggers have complained about the mainstream press’s failure to take up political scandals, and the internet provided a conduit for scandal during the recent elections, but there is little analysis of the role of online fora and intensification of rumour in their role as alternative news sources.
The link between China and Singapore is an important one in this context. Commentators argue that Singapore’s model was the initial model for its own approach to online censorship: marrying the need for allowing the internet as an agent of economic development, and managing its implications for political order via a combination of overt and covert censorship, manipulation, and regulated spaces for political discourse. Given this link to China’s sophisticated ‘networked authoritarianism’ it is interesting to speculate the extent to which recent reforms of online political expression in Singapore represent real political change or another manifestation of this networked approached to regime information control—albeit in concert with real political reforms.
The failure of previously effective laws to enforce ‘intermediary liability’ in the recent elections is a useful indicator in this debate. Such liability is plays an important role in managing a populations’ internet use beyond black and white censorship. For example, the popular Online Citizen (TOC) website was gazetted in January this year under the Political Donations law. Ordinarily, this would have acted to stifle political debate, as gazetting a website in this manner defines it as a politically active body and requires it to take full responsibility for all content and actions inspired by content. This is an onerous responsibility in the Singapore, and in the past has led to such websites backing down in the face of government pressure. In the recent case though, TOC agreed to registration as a politically active body, complied, and continued on with its online activities.
Apparent panic in government ranks about the influence of new media following the election results aside, there are numerous options open to government in what is still essentially an authoritarian-style state. Understanding recent events as a balance between sophisticated control and actual political change is intriguing. Presidential elections in August of this year did nothing to clarify this issue; the next general election, due by 2016, may do just that.