“I am unsure what such a code would achieve in practice,” said Mr Singh, who is the first opposition MP to speak up about the suggestion for a code. “Encourage Singaporeans to speak up even more and share their concerns with Ministers and MPs. Otherwise, a government-sanctioned code of conduct would be perceived as a tool to ring-fence critical views.”
It is a view which is shared by many, going by views expressed online since the topic was raised last year. In particular, the Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts, Dr Yaacob Ibrahim, has been at the forefront of urging bloggers to create this code from “the ground up”.
However, some see this as a political move by the ruling party to rein in criticisms, which at times can be stinging and explicit, which it sees as going beyond the pale. Former deputy prime minister Tony Tan’s candidacy in last year’s presidential election, for example, had drawn sharp criticisms and even ridicule from netizens, along with allegations of his son being favoured while serving his National Service.
Also, in last year’s General Election, some of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) candidates, such as Ms Tin Pei Ling, Mr Janil Puthucheary, and Ms Foo Mee Har, were intensely criticised online.
But netizens speaking their minds are “in the nature of social media”, Mr Singh said, who added that “long may that continue.”
“This development makes some governments, not just the PAP, insecure. In fact, the PAP is especially insecure because it systemically chipped away at whatever vestige of an independent mainstream media that had existed previously,” Mr Singh said. “For a number of years already, the online space has represented a bastion of free expression for so many Singaporeans who did not have such an outlet previously.”
Mr Singh said Singapore leaders are “especially uncomfortable with social media because today they no longer are 100 per cent in control of the national discourse.”
“We should welcome the arrival of social media as a function of our democratic evolution. And we should work with it to strengthen our national fabric, not see it as an impediment. Critical views are something we should be proud of. People want to take ownership of their country. It’s a welcome sign.”
Mr Singh said his own wish was that Singaporeans have the courage to put a name behind their views. This is to “ferret out trolls who seek to hijack the discourse for their partisan interests.”
As far as the media is concerned, the WP election manifesto of 2011 called for the establishment of “independent and professional organisations” to “monitor the media”. (See manifesto, chapter 14)
“These organisations can include ex-journalists and civil society activists, for the purpose of making journalists and media companies more accountable to Singaporeans when they report on issues of national interests,” the party said.
It also called for amendments to the Internet Code of Practice "to remove the requirement for religious and political sites to register.”
As for cynical views online, Mr Singh said these may actually no longer be seen as such. “Singaporeans as a whole are becoming wiser to the political games that can be played in the mainstream and online media. Personally, I expect more of such games as the political space becomes increasingly contested. And that’s why it’s important we keep pushing for transparency and accountability to reduce that prospect.”