Singapore—Media Studies professor Cherian George has called for an “all-party code of conduct,” writing that certain websites that support the Government have crossed boundaries in critical posts and have made it difficult for Singaporeans to engage in needful debates concerning national issues. Furthermore, these posts have also placed their targets in the crosshairs of hate speech.
Prof George writes that political parties, as well as the Government, need to self-regulate and that this would do much in paving the way for actual political discourse. He suggested “at least three key core commitments” for this code of conduct, which are
- “No to all inauthentic behaviours, such as using fake social media accounts and paid human trolls to mislead people about the state of public opinion
- Yes to full transparency in public communication, with no hidden or opaque sponsorship of content, or use of anonymous sites
- No to supporters who propagate lies and incite hatred in your name: disown or correct those who abuse others, including your political opponents.”
The context for Prof George’s call is a post in the pro-administration Global Times Singapore (GTS) Facebook page, which he called “a particularly vile attack.” After an opinion piece from writer Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh was published in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), GTS put up a post on May 6 accusing Mr Vadaketh, together with other Singaporeans who have published pieces in SCMP including Ken Kwe, Tan Tarn How, PN Balji, Inderjit Singh and Donald Low, of pandering to SCMP’s “clear China agenda.”
The post also named Prof George’s wife, Zuraidah Ibrahim, who is an editor for SCMP, implying she used her position to promote a pro-China stance and drew links between the professor and the accused writers.
He wrote, “The allegation was so outlandish that most of us had a good laugh. Singaporeans who follow current affairs will recognise all the named writers as belonging to the 95th percentile of the country’s independent thinkers (I should clarify here that the post did not name me as a writer, but as their agent), and therefore singularly unsuitable candidates for any conspiracy. They will also know that the one and only reason why so many of Singapore’s best commentators have resorted to SCMP as a forum for their pieces is that Singapore’s throttled newspapers tend to be inhospitable to views deemed critical of the government.
“Singaporeans who follow the media in other parts of Asia and the world can also guess why the PAP and its hardcore supporters are so thin-skinned about critiques that open societies would consider mild. It must be because decades of tightly managed debate have acclimated officials to a public sphere suffused with friendly white noise, rendering them hypersensitive to the rare instances of robust criticism.”
Prof George added that he wants the Government to take posts like GTS’s attack on the writers seriously, as these could be harmful to the individuals named, as such hate speech could lead to real-life violent incidents. He added that this type of post is also harmful to the public that consumes it, citing the report from the Parliamentary Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods that said, “Online falsehoods can derail democratic contestation, and harm freedom of expression.” Also, he noted that such blatant accusations could be harmful to the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) as they could taint its “hard-earned reputation for rational and sober governance.”
Prof George emphasized how Lee Kuan Yew had always “resisted the populist temptation,” and added, “He would not have allowed the clarity of his message to be clouded by duffers and fools claiming to love him and hate his opponents.”
He also said that he was eager to hear what PAP leaders may say concerning GTS, especially because one of the post’s targets, Inderjit Singh, is a forger PAP Member of Parliament, “and the Prime Minister’s GRC teammate to boot,” and added that the “leadership will” not only “need to comfort its own ranks,” but “draw a line for all to see.”
Prof George then reiterated his call for an online code of conduct ensuring civility, respect, and intolerance for trolling or other forms of abuse.
He adds that what is important is how a party would respond when such a code is violated. And while this kind of code can be initiated by the ruling party or the Government, it can also be a citizen-led initiative.
“The ruling party and the government can demonstrate its stature by instituting a comprehensive internal code of conduct against online abuse that prioritises openness, transparency and honesty. We should expect nothing less from leaders who have pontificated about online toxicity as if it is the greatest threat to Singapore since Japanese bombers entered our airspace, and have gone on to construct the world’s most elaborate law against manipulation of online discourse — by anyone outside of government, that is.
But neither should we wait for politicians to act. A code of conduct can be a citizen initiative. We have enough expertise in technology, internet regulation, law, media ethics, and other relevant areas to produce such a code. And if political actors do not want to be part of the process, that itself tells us all we need to know.” —/TISG