Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Entering Treacherous Waters

For its reputation as a group of technocrats, the People's Action Party has been rather slow to embrace the internet.

These last couple of weeks, BG George Yeo made his first foray into the internet by making a few posts at ephraim loy's blog. These posts have drawn much attention, yet the response from the internet has been largely disappointing, since Yeo's posts have little to do with substantive issues facing Singapore, but are rather just an account of various events in his life.

Other attempts by PAP MPs to engage the internet community are now either defunct or benign. MP Penny Low set up a blog to cover the NDP 2005, but that blog is now devoid of activity. Dr Teo Ho Pin also set up a blog, but most of the posts seem to be short replies on relatively mundane issues.

On the other hand, other political parties have long since jumped on the internet bandwagon and have been vocal and explicit on politics. Goh Meng Seng's blog is about his 'political struggle', James Gomez has written extensively on his thoughts, and Chee Soon Juan relentlessly publishes fiercely political content.

Indeed, the rise of the internet as a major media platform for the future points towards serious challenges to the PAP's political hegemony. The free-for-all, democratic nature of the world wide web means that censorship of criticism on this medium is virtually impossible, and the kind of power that the ruling party is able to exert on the main stream media evaporates into insignificance on the internet.

Strong critics of the establishment not only abound in cyberspace, they also dominate the digital discourse. Bloggers and blogs such as Mr Wang, Gayle Goh, Yawning Bread and Singabloodypore all command a high readership and are unabashedly critical of policies and the press. Yet all three PAP bloggers have yet to engage any of the criticisms of the government in any meaningful way.

The recent acknowledgement of the impact of 'The Digital Age' by PM Lee Hsien Loong during his latest rally speech is a tacit admission that the playing field of the future will not be newspapers or television, which the incumbents currently have a stranglehold over. Rather, it will be the internet, where opinions can be published in an instant, at no cost, to everybody and anybody in cyberspace. And with the 'Intelligent Nation 2015' goal of getting 90% of all households on broadband, that means virtually the whole nation will be exposed not only to the opinions of detractors, but also to audio podcasts and videos which may portray the government in a less than favourable light.

But perhaps the PAP's lack of significant presence on the internet foreshadows the beginning of its decline. For years the state has dominated the press and broadcast media, disseminating messages favourable to its regime and censoring all that would threaten its power. And yet, as the Prime Minister calls for more engagement of Singaporeans, particularly in New Media, the PAP seems to lack bite and is clumsy, at best.

Without the ability to censor or control the internet, the PAP will be forced to engage its critics to remain credible in the eyes of Singaporean netizens. Meanwhile, a continued avoidance of substantive issues does no favour to improve its image. The internet is a new, levelling playing field, where authoritarian censorship no longer works.

As the Digital Age unfolds, it will be interesting to watch how the incumbents behave, as the tools for maintaining their dominance slowly slip from their hands, and as they enter the new treacherous waters of the internet.

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