In May, Sarah Bagharib, a communications specialist for a humanitarian aid organization in Singapore, discovered that one of her wedding photos had been turned into a life-sized cardboard cutout for a state-sponsored Hari Raya Aidilfitri event. Even more mortifying: she and her husband’s faces had been cut out, allowing members of the public to stick their heads through and use the standee as a prop for photo opportunities. 

Sarah contacted the People’s Association, the statutory board responsible for putting up the decorations. She also posted her objections on Instagram. Apart from the blatant copyright infringement, Sarah pointed out that it was inappropriate to use a wedding photo for Hari Raya decorations, as if one Malay-Muslim celebration could be easily substituted for another. 

The People’s Association and the designer apologized for using the photograph without permission, but the conversation on Instagram quickly went viral. Sarah reiterated her concerns about “cultural ignorance” within the organization. Other commentators went further, pointing to this incident as an example of systemic racism in the Chinese-majority country. 

The People’s Association, whose stated purpose on its website is “to promote racial harmony and social cohesion in Singapore,” chafed at these criticisms. In a press statement published on Facebook, the association said that while the incident had been “culturally insensitive,” it had not been racist. It unilaterally cancelled a scheduled meeting between the parties. While ostensibly a neutral government body, the People’s Association is closely intertwined with the ruling People’s Action Party. Many Singaporeans see little distinction between criticizing or defending the People’s Association and criticizing or defending the party.

In Singapore, hyperlocal problems and issues surface on Facebook or Instagram Stories and can quickly go viral. Regardless of the author’s original intent, these are often sucked straight into long-standing partisan quarrels. This form of partisanship on social media is not new, but the growing number of examples, which sometimes have the active participation of members of the ruling party, suggest that it’s becoming a worrying and polarizing feature of Singaporean politics. 

In the aftermath of the PA’s statement, a pro-PAP troll page, Fabrications about the PAP, pumped out a meme. It contrasted a photo of Sarah with that of a woman in the blue uniform of the Workers’ Party. The connotation was clear: claiming that Sarah was a volunteer for the opposition party, insinuating that her public complaints were motivated by partisanship. The post was picked up by Shamsul Kamar, a former PAP candidate, on his personal page. He shared the meme with the caption: “For all to decide… Everything happens for a reason but let’s not be divisive.”

Carma, a media intelligence agency, tracked posts and comments posted between June 14 and June 21 — the week after the PA published its statement on Facebook. The agency was commissioned by a group of Singaporeans curious to find out more about how social media is shaping matters of public interest. The fee to pay the agency was crowdfunded among individuals (I chipped in $37.00, which is 50 Singapore dollars). Its analysis focused on the Facebook pages of mainstream media outlets, alternative media outlets, and key individuals with substantial followings, as well as Reddit and the Singapore-based forum page HardwareZone.

The agency also examined sock puppet accounts, which it defined as accounts that lack identifying information, have generic names and photos, or lack a profile photo of an actual person (as opposed to models in stock photos). It is possible that some of these pages might have been created shortly before or during the cardboard cutout wedding photo incident. Sock puppet accounts might also show signs of being coordinated with other similar accounts, such as liking one another’s comments.

Of the 94 potential sock puppet accounts that Carma identified, 45% posted comments supporting the People’s Association, while 50% criticized the organization. The comments of the remaining 5% were found to be “neutral.” Four of the five sock puppet accounts that received the most engagement were in support of the PA.

These puppets behaved in different ways: while the pro-establishment accounts tended to post their comments on the social media pages of mainstream news outlets, where the majority of the comments aligned with their views, the critical accounts tended to be active on posts, such as on alternative media pages, where about half of the other comments were in line with their take.

At first glance, it might seem that plenty of anti-establishment commentary is permitted to flourish. This is what the government points to when they rebut criticism about the suppression of freedom of expression in Singapore. But those of us who follow developments more closely — or even experience the heat of such online skirmishes firsthand — know that the uneven playing field persists even in the online realm.

If a member of the People’s Action Party had been subject to a similar meme as the one spread against Sarah, those in power would have a range of ways to retaliate. If taking action was deemed to be in the “public interest,” government ministers could issue a correction or takedown orders under the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act that came into force in 2019. They could sue for defamation, and potentially win thousands in compensation, since the legal precedent in Singapore is to order more damages if the victim of defamation is a public figure. Earlier this year, Leong Sze Hian, a blogger and critic of the government, was ordered to pay Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong over $191,000 (260,000 Singapore dollars) in damages and legal costs, after the court ruled that Leong had defamed Lee simply by sharing a link to an article, without a caption, on his Facebook page.

Ordinary citizens, on the other hand, have to think twice about taking action. Apart from the costs of hiring a lawyer to fight a legal case, there’s the mental and emotional burden of taking on those connected to the country’s most powerful institutions. One would also have to be prepared: going against the party or establishment could end up attracting even more ill-spirited memes, jibes, and trolling online. There’s no way a single citizen like Sarah could take them all on. 

When called out for his irresponsible sharing of a fake meme and unfair insinuations against a citizen, Shamsul’s response was that people had misunderstood him and that he was simply encouraging everyone to “stay united” during the pandemic. He faced no other repercussions.

Other criticism of double standards surfaced recently after the police announced that they would not be taking any action against SMRT Feedback by The Vigilanteh, another anonymous Facebook page with a pro-PAP slant. The page had been reported to the police after it published a post defending former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s views about whether Muslims in Singapore would have divided loyalties if the country were ever to enter into a conflict with its Muslim-majority neighbors. 

Syazana Yahya, a lawyer who reported the page to the police, argued that the casting of aspersions on the loyalties of Muslim Singaporeans was an offense under Section 298A of Singapore’s penal code, which criminalizes the promotion of hostility or enmity between racial and religious groups. 

It would be naïve of us to mistake this relative openness for any serious power or clout to demand accountability and freedom of expression.

The police and Attorney-General’s Chambers’ decision to close the case stood in stark contrast with previous actions. In 2020, the police investigated Workers’ Party member Raeesah Khan in the middle of the election campaign for old posts calling out double standards in policing and sentencing. In 2019, the social media influencer Preetipls and her rapper brother Subhas Nair were given two-year conditional warnings over a parody rap video they made calling out racism. Those who support the party are often given more benefit of the doubt, while critics have to walk a tightrope.

There is no evidence to suggest that pages like Fabrications about the PAP, SMRT Feedback by The Vigilanteh, or other pro-PAP sock puppet accounts are funded or coordinated by the People’s Action Party. But members of the party, like Shamsul, aren’t above using content or claims produced by those pages to take swipes at their real or perceived opponents. 

The PAP has also done little to rein in its most rabid supporters, even when they repeatedly harass and slander activists, academics, and critics of the party on Facebook. In June 2020, during the election campaigning period, the Singaporean platform called on politicians to commit to authenticity, civility, and transparency on social media. Only a tiny minority of politicians, none of whom were from the ruling party, rose to the occasion. 

On social media, Singaporeans have found more latitude to express themselves and issue callouts than before. But it would be naïve of us to mistake this relative openness for any serious power or clout to demand accountability and freedom of expression.