The Mask of Moderation

There have always been those who deem themselves rational voices of moderation in public discourse, although these people are often complicit with the ideology of compulsory balance, probably the worst form of extremism, which denies other standpoints (particularly those that are against the status quo) by virtue of the fact that they are not judged to be balanced, rational, or moderate. People can be so balanced that they will readily execute anyone who moves an inch further from the center of gravity than permitted by their standards. If a comparison helps, it is like a religious institution that has some form of legitimacy in a society but voices subtly extremist views. It is quietly accepted because any form of extremism it takes does not offend those with the power to threaten its legitimacy within the mainstream.

There are also those who seize the notion of balance and wear it as a mask to propagate positions that are anything but moderate. These people know the game and taps into the power of the above group to their advantage.

We saw, in the previous post, how Mr. Ling Tuck Mun tried to look opposition friendly by suggesting that we imagine a future without the PAP, only to eventually hint none too subtly that such a future would not be too bright. Then Rachel Chang comes in and tell us, sounding almost neutral, about the “Power of the net to polarise”. Of course, being good and rational folks, we know that engineered homogeneity is preferable to polarity. (In Cold War terms, why have two Superpowers when we can have one lording over us?)

Perhaps in order to establish a connection with those who are critical of the government, Rachel Chang starts her article with the idea that the government is all-powerful:

There is a cliched warning parents like to use with their kids to discourage wrongdoing: ‘You better not do xx, or the police will come after you.’

The Singaporean version of this replaces ‘police’ with ‘the Government’, an indication of how the Government is larger than life here.

I thought it goes, in perfect Singlish, “Don’t anyhow say! Wait the gahmen send the police after you.” But I get Rachel’s drift. She gets to her real point immediately, if the reader pardons Molly’s extremely extremist act of inserting a comment into the following quotation:

But that is not the only bogey in Singapore. The people who oppose the Government [all of them?] have become scary in their own right.

Virulently anti-People’s Action Party personages on the Internet have claimed victims of their own, including members of the PAP’s youth wing, Young PAP.

This is very well set up. The people who oppose the government are scary, virulent and victimize others. And to put into perspective how terrifying these people are, they are victimizing the those affiliated to the old bogey, the PAP!

Rachel then cites a supposed example of how the new bogey has victimized others:

The chairman of the Eunos Community Centre’s Youth Club [Mr. Sear Hock Rong] had boasted on his website that his clients included Eunos residents’ committees. Netizens seized on the link, accusing him of using his grassroots connections to drum up business for his events management company.

A check with the Eunos constituency office revealed that his business dealings with it amounted to no more than a few jobs as master of ceremonies at grassroots events.

It would help a lot of Rachel could provide us with a few examples of netizens who “accused” Sear of using his connections to get business and whether these netizens accusing him had enough influence to victimize him through their accusations. I have come across articles demanding to know whether he had used his connections to benefit his business, but I have yet to come across one that has maligned him. Perhaps Rachel and I visit different websites. Being the excellent journalist that she is, if only Rachel had visited Temasek Review, perhaps she would have shed light on the how untrue the following claims are:

Mr Sear runs an education service company which was registered only in July this year. In the span of six months, his start-up managed to secure 24 clients including the following grassroots organizations: Eunos Citizens’ Consultative Committee, Eunos Zone ‘1′ Residents’ Committee, Eunos Zone ‘3′ Residents’ Committee and Eunos Zone ‘5′ Residents’ Committee.

According to information posted on Mr Sear’s company website, Mr Sear is the Chairman of Eunos Community Club Youth Executive Committee.

His business partner Mr Fong Yoong Keong is the Vice-Chairman of Eunos CC Youth Executive Committee and Assistant Secretary of Eunos Zone ‘3′ RC.

Speaking of bogeys, though, Rachel seems to have forgotten to mention the legal bogeys such as the defamation bogey. Incidentally, it seems that Sear has threatened to take action against people for divulging his personal information.

In case we are not sympathetic towards Sear, Rachel cites the example of Gayle Goh who “stopped writing, in large part because of the harassment and abuse she was subjected to by some netizens.” Rachel even tells us that “political forums and blogs, embittered and united in their detest of the ruling party, egg one another on to mow down minnows like Mr Sear and Ms Goh.” (Using the same logic, perhaps I might say that members of the mainstream media, embittered and united in their detest of critical netizens, compulsively assassinate alternative media.” I am not too sure which “people who oppose the Government” harassed Gayle Goh into closing her blog, but perhaps Rachel could have cited examples of how a blogger is threatened with defamation by Philip Yeo, and how, as an ironic return to the police bogey, a Janet Wee apparently complained to the police about alleged sedition on the part of The Online Citizen. Instead, Rachel proceeds to persuade us that “[t]he World Wide Web can be a scary place. It is a no-holds-barred arena, and its denizens have little care for decorum and personal space – or facts, for that matter.”

The Straits Times can be a scary paper and its journalists have little care for journalistic integrity—or facts, for that matter. But this is nothing new. What less typical in Rachel’s article is the effort she puts in to appear balanced, moderate, rational. To do so, she sounds almost critical of the political landscape at times:

I cannot help wondering if the political landscape has contributed to the situation.

Dissent in Singapore through channels such as political parties and the media is seen as weak. Some Singaporeans believe that they can only find fearless discussion of policy issues online. They believe the mainstream media self-censors.

The other extreme, a lack of self-censorship, prevails in cyberspace. In some forums, ugly impulses like a blanket racism towards all foreigners have become de rigueur.

So long as a segment of Singaporeans feel there is no mainstream channel through which they can criticise the Government freely, more will gravitate towards the Net. And once there, they may forever be beyond the reach of the ruling party.

The Straits Times suggesting that there should be a mainstream channel for people to criticize the government freely? A miracle? But perhaps we can read it again. “And once there, they may forever be beyond the reach of the ruling party.” Does Rachel see anything wrong with this? Does she want a mainstream space for people to criticize the government “freely” so that they will not be “beyond the reach” of the PAP? Criticize freely and be fixed by the PAP freely. Ultimately, Rachel’s point is utterly stale:

The urgent task for the online community in Singapore is to build up websites that are credible and respected, and pry control of the Web away from the ones who dominate it now – the ones who hide behind nicknames and prefer personal attacks to policy discussion.

Her point is a simple disparagement of current alternative media. It is an attack on people who prefer to stay anonymous, regardless of the fact that anonymous netizens are capable of writing that are at least more sound than hers. Rachel wants “credibility” from the netizens. “Credibiity” in Singaporean public discourse is an uncanny term. It may simply mean that you take on a Straits Times quality. Or that you divulged your name and IC number so that you can be fixed more easily.

Certainly, not all online behavior is respectable. For instance, I do not find it very respectable for a government to employ people to post positive “truths” about itself in order to counter comments criticizing it. There are probably racist comments (but who is to say that no one is paid to be racist?). There is no need to persistently preach about credibility, especially in ways that would just benefit the hegemony of one party. The power of the Net to polarize? No, it’s the power of the Net to diversify. It is the Net. There are poles and there is a lot between the poles that stumbling penguins faced with melting homes should not ignore. (My due apologies to penguins.)

In a moment of bitterness rather than self-awareness, Rachel continues from the previous quotation and finishes her article saying, “The same ones [those who currently “dominate” the web, according to her] who will probably shoot me nasty, unsigned e-mail messages after reading this column.” If I write a blog post criticizing her pseudo-moderate stance, I must a a dangerous cyber terrorist even if I cannot even be bothered to email her.

7 Responses

  1. […] times for a confused PAP leadership – TOC: Polarization: The symptom, not the illness – Molitics: The Mask of Moderation – My Thoughts: ST’s Rachel Chang accuses Singapore government of being polarised [Thanks […]

  2. […] “..those who deem themselves rational voices of moderation in public discourse.. are often complicit with the ideology of compulsory balance, probably the worst form of extremism, which denies other standpoints (particularly those that are against the status quo) by virtue of the fact that they are not judged to be balanced, rational, or moderate.” Molly Meek […]

  3. The problem is with ST. They are so off the mark that they dont really recount real stories but instead feed us all material that comes from upstairs by people who simply want to remain in power.

    The internet has allow that death grip to be pried open, so she is just a sour puss,

    Real stories are what we want, not fake ones.

    Like this – this is real, I can relate to it as the highlights hit hard and they ring so very true

    if ST learnt to write like this character, then there will be no need for us to even jump up and down abt what she said or didnt say.

  4. Please comment on ST Forum “…As long as PAP remains incorruptible” dated 9 Feb 10.

  5. From my perspective, I shut down my blog for a number of reasons, but Rachel Chang is not wrong in citing personal harassment as one of them; and yes, they did mainly come from “people who oppose the Government” in the sense that I was slammed everytime I ventured a defence of dialogue with the establishment; or later on, in the assuming of my scholarship, the possibility of representing neglected interests by learning, hands-on, the difficulties of governance. The blogosphere -is- brimming with vicious slander and a strange fervent anger that I think Chang is correct to attribute in part to a mode of government that for many years sent a strong negative signal towards citizen discourse.

    I feel, furthermore, that the Net itself is not the active polarising force, but rather as Chang herself pointed out, the history of governance that pits “us” (or perhaps I am no longer qualified to say “us”…or perhaps I never was, and never wanted to be) against the “establishment”. The Net brings the termites out of the woodwork. It encourages enclaves and subcultures. In this sense, I believe you’re correct in that it diversifies, and I say this is a great thing. But I hope the long-term influence of the Net is to cause a shift in paradigm between citizens and government that eases the present bipolar bitterness. I see the forays of PAP and non-PAP supporters and even establishment figures such as Yeo into this great wilderness as the early, clumsy and painful steps towards this effect. I hope online discourse can see more credibility, open-mindedness and civility in the future, and I think the largely free rein that political commentary presently enjoys on the Internet is helping this. This might seem a strange example to use, but: — more and more I see slanderous remarks being posted on Facebook about LKY using real identities. The fear and poison is running its course, being purged from repressed frustrations, and I think while it won’t ever disappear, these are the early pangs of what I believe will become a more healthy online environment of debate, where people aren’t afraid to own to their opinions, and therefore learn to take responsibility for themselves and their environment.

    • On the one hand, it sounds right to want to ease what you call the bipolar bitterness, or perhaps what Catherine Lim calls the great affective divide. On the other hand, I do not necessarily see a need to do so or a point to it. If we can identify poles, the poles come about firstly because there exists a very strong force in the form of the government and secondly there is an attempt to counter this face. (Of course, instead of polarizing, the Net allows for diversity except that one big chunk of this diversity forms the pole opposite to that of the government.)

      The moment we talk about easing the divide, we are in fact already re-emphasizing the poles but only adding buffers in between so that the poles will not look obviously like poles. One reason the current divide exists is precisely that there is a desire to change the paradigm. No longer are people content with dealing with that one constant pole better known as the PAP government. To these people, it does not matter what exists in between to mediate because they are ultimately contending with that other pole which refuses to go away. Until the PAP ceases to exist or is dramatically weakened, the polarity will exist—even if it is silenced.

      What we are looking at, then, is also the issue of whether we should be focusing on dialogue with the government (the government formed by the PAP to be precise) or if we should see that such a dialogue is inherently meaningless because it perpetuates the one-party hegemony in Singapore which preempts any true agency on the part of the people to change things. (This itself may be another divide, another pair of poles.) To a lot of people, it does not matter at all whether the PAP enters cyberspace to relate to them. To begin with, what they are against the the need to constantly negotiate, as a lesser entity, with the one great power in Singapore. Perhaps the paradigm shift they are seeking is greater, more idealistic and perhaps will never come to being as long as too many people find meaning in buffering the current poles instead of doing away with them.

  6. Hi Molly, new to your blog, think you’re doing a great job. =)

    If i may extend your argument, dont think we’re dealing so much with a set of dichotomous poles (certainly not now and perhaps not even in those early days) as we are a kind of blanket, all-pervading System of Thought that permeates every facet of life on this island. poles, even if subjectively, denote discrete entities, whereas the System is more insidious.

    its not quite 1984-style-brainwashing–and here there’s polarity–since Big Brother stands in a purely external relation to the People.

    with ‘us’ its much more subtle. there’s no brainwashing, at least in the active sense of the word. what’s happening is that things (i.e. Singaporeans) are running on an overall circuit/network which has not been built (like a builder a building) but rather brought into being/fostered (by decades of social engineering), in such a way that every element in this circuit simultaneously sustains the circuit (viz our worship of efficiency) and is sustained by it (no efficiency/Pragmatism, so less growth, so cracks in the system cannot be kissed into silence with so many fruits of growth, so social decay, and so economic decay, and The End, and Just Another Ordinary City in Asia, and so on). the System doesnt stand in opposition to the ‘oppressed’ people, that would be a relatively delicious and enviable state of affairs. on the contrary, the people are oppressed in so far as they themselves constitute this System, in the most literal and direct sense.

    “Oh, thou foolish mortals, take time to study the System, examine it and learn how it works, that thou mayst come to know how precious it is!” — A Wise Man

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