I was lucky with the timing of my political awakening. It was 2010, when the internet and social media were still widely seen as liberating, democratizing spaces. As a young Singaporean brought up on a diet of government-controlled traditional media, my entry into online spaces for political discourse — volunteering for the independent citizen journalism website the Online Citizen and starting my own little WordPress blog, among other activities — was an education unlike anything I’d received before.
Space is a problem in Singapore. I’m not just referring to our being a small, densely populated city-state. I’m also referring to space for politics, discourse, and activism. In my country, freedom of assembly is heavily restricted by the Public Order Act, a law that criminalizes physical protests of even one person unless one manages to obtain prior permission from the police. This is something that activists have found almost impossible to do because permission is never granted. One example: In 2018, the chief editor of the Online Citizen was told that his plans to stand outside a train station and collect signatures for a parliamentary petition would break this law unless he applied for a permit. He ended up calling off the exercise.
This lack of space for dissent, closely associated with a systematic depoliticization of society and public discourse, meant that I grew up with very few examples of engaged citizenship or debate. My political imagination was limited to the establishment narratives I was fed: that Singapore is a vulnerable, tiny country that defied expectations to punch above its weight; that this success is hard-won and has to be carefully guarded; that guardianship should be entrusted to the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) and its highly qualified leaders, who, unlike the crooked and incompetent politicians elsewhere, have never let us down.
It was through online spaces — blogs at first, then increasingly Facebook, the most popular social media platform for political discussion in Singapore — that the gaps in my knowledge were gradually filled in, and are still being filled in today. It was on a blog that I first read the words “Operation Spectrum,” and learned that, in 1987, over 20 Singaporean volunteers, social workers, and theater practitioners had been detained without trial, accused of a “Marxist Conspiracy,” of which there is still no clear proof today.
That was the first time I’d ever been invited to consider that perhaps my government hasn’t always acted with irreproachable integrity, and to realize that some things had been left out of the school curriculum. It was through my own blogging that I developed my thoughts on a range of issues, from capital punishment to inequality and labor exploitation. From when I started volunteering with the Online Citizen, I met people and made friends I continue to cherish a decade on. Via the Internet, I found my voice and my community.
Things aren’t quite as rosy today. The first flush of excitement over the “liberating” space of social media has long faded away. We’re now much more likely to talk about the Internet in relation to data collection, surveillance, misinformation, disinformation, trolling, and harassment.
My experience has followed this trajectory. Where the early days had largely been about discovery and self-expression, my growth from a newbie blogger to a more established fixture in Singaporean civil society, writing for international publications and gaining more followers on Facebook, meant that the target on my back grew, too.
In recent years, I’ve been attacked on pro-ruling party Facebook pages, in forum threads, and by PAP parliamentarians and ministers themselves on a range of platforms, from social media to the mainstream media. Apart from the “usual” abuses — cries of “SJW!” fat-shaming, sexist and misogynist comments — I’ve also been branded anti-national and a traitor. My country’s Law and Home Affairs Minister claimed that I, with funds from foreign sources and help from the pro-democracy platform New Naratif (where I was editor-in-chief from 2017 until March this year), sought to incite protests in Singapore like those in Hong Kong — thus portraying me as some shady foreign agent seeking to destabilize my own country. As “evidence,” he pointed to a video of a speech I gave in 2016, even before New Naratif was founded.
I’m by no means the only one to have had the miserable honor of such attention online. In June, not long before a general election was called, the PAP published an article on their website accusing Singaporean playwright Alfian Sa’at of being a pro-Malaysia activist and not loving his country. This attack was prompted by Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh making a veiled reference to Alfian (who, following Malay customs, goes by his first name) as a “loving critic” during a parliamentary speech. By smearing Alfian, the party sought to suggest that their political opponent was willing to align with “unpatriotic” individuals.
Technically, there are mechanisms to deal with information that’s “false or misleading,” most notably the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act that came into force last year. POFMA, as it’s commonly known, can be used to require publishers of “fake news” to put up corrections or remove content. In more serious cases, platforms and service providers can also be ordered to block access to websites and content. As of July 5, there have been over 70 distinct POFMA orders covering content ranging from misinformation about the spread of COVID-19 to speculation about the annual salary of a sovereign wealth fund’s CEO (who also happens to be the prime minister’s wife). The law has even been used against the very suggestion that it suppresses information.
But there’s a catch: POFMA’s powers can only be exercised by a government minister, or, during elections, a designated alternate authority. To target online falsehoods and harassment circulating about them, everyone else in Singapore will have to obtain a court order via the Protection from Harassment Act, a law introduced in 2014 and amended around the same time as POFMA was passed. Ministers can issue orders via POFMA and thus bypass the courts. Compliance with a POFMA order is compulsory; it can only be set aside if one appeals to the High Court, and manages to win.
What do you do when your character is being assassinated by the ruling party and their supporters? Seek a court order for harassment against a powerful minister? Or sue them for defamation? So far as I know, no one has done this. Even if one were able to muster the money, legal support, and — perhaps most importantly — the nerve, doing so might lead to even more abuse from trolls and harassers, this time armed with fallacious arguments like, “Don’t you support freedom of expression?” that muddy the waters and derail other important conversations. Given this, almost everyone I know who has been on the receiving end has opted to ride things out the best they can, without resorting to legal means.
This paints a bleak picture of the possibility of free discussion online. And it often does feel like a slog through a cacophony of bad faith disagreements. Yet, despite all this toxicity, social media is still the most free of spaces in Singapore, providing opportunities for conversation, mobilization, and community-organizing that are hard to find anywhere else on the island.
Younger generations of Singaporeans are also growing ever more adept at utilizing and maximizing this space, putting together social media campaigns, webinars (particularly during this pandemic period), petitions, and resources for political education. In 2019, for example, students successfully harnessed social media to advocate for their universities to take better and clearer action against sexual harassment. Other online initiatives, such as Greenwatch, push for greater awareness of the climate crisis. During the election period (which will end with Polling Day on July 10), there’s been a proliferation of voter education materials and other resources — such as a Telegram channel compiling links to the myriad e-rallies, given the ban on physical rallies due to COVID-19.
A single Singaporean might not be able to venture outside with a placard. But on the Internet, there’s no Public Order Act — and Singaporeans need to make sure it stays that way.