Monday, 12 October 2009

Singapore’s Underworld – Turning Sharks into Nemos

Many minor but significant changes are taking place in the Singapore political landscape. The political culture is rapidly evolving and public debate among citizens about important national issues is more commonplace.

However, currently much of the debate is confrontational and 'anti-establishment' in nature. Much of the online debate often reflects a sense of helplessness and frustration by the participants. This is a result of the domain in which the discussions are taking place, the cyber world.
Cyberspace is a parallel world. In Singapore, the overlapping space shared by the New Media and the traditional media is small.
The tone and nature of the online discussions suggest that political efficacy among Singaporeans is low. A seemingly illogical idea, as in democratic countries with small populations citizens generally feel more empowered and able to influence change.  
Political efficacy refers "generally to citizens' beliefs in their ability to influence the political system ... political efficacy refer[s] to the feeling that political actions taken by individuals' can have an impact on the political process. Contemporary views ... conceptualize political efficacy as having two dimensions: internal efficacy, which reflects a personal sense of political competence, and external efficacy, the belief that the political system is democratic."
A simple search of articles on subjects dear to the Singapore citizenry such as HDB prices, Temasek Holdings, and immigration brings several points to the fore.
  1. Singaporeans are far more confident and vocal in their opinions, including criticisms, compared to a few years ago;
  2. Singaporeans wish to have a greater voice in the future of their society and are lacking in legitimate non-government / non-state associated avenues to channel their opinions;
  3. Thus, people are pushed into the only avenues available, the New Media. The nature of the New Media increases the tendency of people to make extreme and unrealistic judgements. This naturally diminishes the quality of the dialogue;
  4. There is a communication gap between segments of the population and the state;
  5. Many equate the state with the government and the People's Action Party (PAP). A notion buttressed by the feeling that the state's judicial and law enforcement system has traditionally supported the incumbents in maintaining control of the levers of state;
  6. The governments 'out of bound markers' have shifted – either by choice or force of circumstance. The recent acquittal of five opposition politicians for leading a procession in 2007 reflects that even officialdom is getting bolder in asserting freedoms and civil rights.
All of the above characteristics are positive. They exhibit a vested interest and a stake in the system, albeit with a desire for change.  In some respects, the traits are a natural corollary of a more affluent and educated population.

The question before policy makers is how to marry the idealism and energy of Singapore's younger generation with the practicality of the real world. One response may be the phased deregulation of Singapore's media sector.
A regulated and liberalized media sector is an important social safety valve. It will absorb some of the pent up pressure that is currently clogging up the 'underground' system.

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