The Power of the Internet – can it kick out the PAP in the next GE?

January 8, 2011

(To increase the font in this essay – hold down the Ctrl key and keep pressing +)

With the general elections just around the corner – one question will be pushed to the forefront of every netizen who is interested in politics: will the internet be the game changer in the determining the outcome of the political landscape in Singapore?

Obama’s ripping campaign would suggest there can be little doubt the Internet certainly played a decisive role in securing his Presidency, not only has the power of the internet been cited as playing a larger than life role in upending the public consciousness that kicked out Bush & Co. But it has also redefined the way political battles are waged in the way the advent of the tank rendered trench warfare obsolete. Closer to home, in Malaysia, in the last general elections, the opposition managed the miraculous feat and pulled the rug underneath the ruling Barisan Nasional Party – when anti-government sites and blogs, as well as the YouTube phenomenon were mobilized by the opposition to exploit chinks in the armor of the ruling hegemony which had ruled Malaysia uninterrupted for the past 50 years.

Will we see the same phenomenon in the next general elections in Singapore?
Though one can wax lyrical how the internet has managed to smash the monopoly of information by making real news more accessible. Or how the emergence of the Internet has now provided the opposition an alternative platform to spread their political memorandum despite state sanctioned blockades and blackouts – this picture of the internet as the great wonder weapon misleads on a few counts. Firstly, it fails to inform us what social, economic and political conditions needs to be present before the internet can be weaponized; secondly, as much as we all like to believe the internet is some great equalizer; when you strip it right down to its bare chassis, it’s nothing more than just a ingenuous means of disseminating information; one could even say just like the invention of the Guttenberg press, radio and television; the internet falls into the same genre. To put it another way it’s just a tool, nothing more or less – so what’s needed here is context and the need to appreciate just because Singapore happens to be the most wired country doesn’t really mean anything. For all you know all of them are logging in to check the latest TOTO results. Something more is required…..much more.

However, where the internet may be able to confer a competitive advantage to challenge the ruling hegemony is when the right conditions present themselves where it can be weaponized; and what continues to confound me till this days is how so many are prepared to forget those conditions that first allowed Obama and Anwar Ibrahim to unseat their opponents – consider this would Obama be able to secure his presidency as easily as he did if not for the disastrous decision of the Bush administration to prosecute an ill conceived war in Iraq and Afghanistan? Would it have been possible for the opposition in Malaysia during the last election to garner so many seats had it not been for the melancholic mood of most Malaysians who had felt (real or imagined) disenfranchised and marginalized by the ill conceived policies of the ruling Barisan Nasional Party?

My point is simply to demonstrate the nexus between what condition first needs to exist before we can even moot the idea of whether the internet is a force that can bring about transformation change in the political landscape.

this I admit may appear to be a novel idea as whenever academics, political pundits and even bloggers broach this question they frequently fail to ask what conditions were first operable in the first instance that allowed the internet to confer a competitive advantage to the underdog- this omission is akin to placing the cart before the horse – and at best it misleads as not only does it attempt to frame the question via a presentist vantage but it promotes the importance of technologically possibilities to the upper reaches of faith; where it may even have very little to do with what role the internet played in the sequence of cause and effect – that’s not so different from saying just because primates were the first species to be blasted into space, monkeys are currently designing spaceships to go to Mars – my point is they were just there for the ride and in the same vein when we ask ourselves whether the internet once played a pivotal role in effecting transformational political change elsewhere – it too could just be there for the ride. We would do well to step away from the hype and spin that so often skewers what the internet can do and instead focus on what it cannot do – a good place to begin may be to interrogate further on those conditions that once allowed technology to gain a foot hold on the collective consciousness along with why, who and how – if we proceed along this renewed line of logic; it’s conceivable the internet may not even have played a preponderant role in the process triggering political change – here its necessary for the perceptive reader to understand just because something has the power for agency; this need not necessarily imply in the absence of certain preconditions it can be directed to a specific goal – for instance intercontinental ballistic missiles may have once been the main montage of the cold war; but who denies the capability to deliver a pre-emptive strike was secondary to how it eventually morphed into mere chess pieces and bargaining chips in the geo-political chessboard – granted, we can argue till the cows return to their pens whether detente, peaceful co-existence along with the whole idea of balance of power would have even been possible had it not been for the invention of rocketry – but if memory serves no country has ever been nuked since WW2. Otherwise this essay would be written in a stone tablet in a cave and delivered to you via homing pigeons – however what we can say is the invention of the modern rocket, certainly created the “right conditions,” to effect change through diplomacy thereby allowing certain states a competitive advantage which would otherwise have been impossible.

By the same token while palpably true the internet is indeed an awesome tool thereby allowing anti-establishment rhetorical essays to be churned at the lowest cost of entry; that by itself cannot confer any competitive to the opposition – in the absence of acute social, cultural and political concerns – its just the equivalent of a kid ridding a bike throwing out gripes and insults (or in my case a letter in bottle thrown by a man in an obscure shark infested island) 

I am not suggesting for one moment; the internet is facile or that its so powerless it can do nothing whatsoever to color the collective consciousness – for one just like its cold war predecessor the intercontinental ballistic missile, its reach and ability to lance right into the nucleus of the collective consciousness is impressive; one only needs to note how Obama’s Presidential election speeches was watched in YouTube by millions all over the world at a cost, speed and accessibility that would have once required millions in terms of advertising and man hours. The same could be said about how Pakatan Rakyat, the opposition managed to overeach the high wire fence set up by BN by using the internet – but what’s seldom discussed is would all these gains have been possible if the mainstream newspapers provided fair coverage to the opposition during the election campaign? Creating the perfect conditions for an increasingly politically conscious electorate to seek out information from the alternative online news sites such as Malaysiakini and other political blogs. My point was what made change possible was firstly the presence of mass discontentment.

And this underscores the valence between mass discontent and technology and what it may achieve – they should be viewed as one of the same reality whenever we consider whether the internet can effect political change.

If the internet has brought about any measurable change that we can discern without too much fuss it is perhaps how it has managed to transform the way politics is conducted in Singapore and elsewhere – as the ability to interrogate, collaborate and verify facts now makes it easier to prove a politician wrong and in some cases such as the Wikileaks dumps reduce governments to a bunch of shambolic mumblers – but can barbed repartees and cyber snipperism alone translate into competitive advantage when we talk about the serious business of using the internet as an agent to effect political change?

Where I believe the internet can be weaponized to deal a decisive blow to the ruling hegemony, not only the PAP but any other government of the day is when the MSM political discourse becomes so disconnected with the ground swell that it can no longer effectively contain the cognitive dissonance under conditions of peace if not civility. Along with failing to include a diverse range of moral, ideological and philosophical opinions – as when the political narrative is narrowed, bracketed or worst subverted to only the voice of officialdom and drowns out all others – then I say you are looking for trouble and I assure you find it you will – when even divergent opinions (providing they do not threaten the peace, stability and racial harmony) are seen as subversive instead of just one of many ways to pursue generally accepted ends – not only has there been a failure to manage conflict intelligently and imaginatively; but an accretion of state inspired marginalization can only find expression in that real quarter of the Internet, not covert fake sites like TR – this is the main reason why I believe Potemkin sites that ape the form of an opposition is a disservice to the whole idea of creating better Internet as it assumes the new media and the msm are mutually exclusive entities: when they are infect one of the same – so long as the custodians of power believe they can manage the discontent online by aping an opposition form while continuing to wordsmith a diametrically opposite narrative in through the msm – the truth will eventually peel away and find itself allying with the real internet and threaten the ideal – the cohesion of Singaporean society must always be stronger than its divisions if the goal is to create an Internet that is able to bring about constructive change – for this reason, it profits us naught to inure the ranks of those who may be planning how best to deal with the hubris of the internet with blinkered people whose only preoccupation seems to be worrying endlessly that inviting divergent views into the public square runs the risk of imperiling the status quo ante – or behaving as if their role is to dole out brownie marks for what they consider right, appropriate or kosher (that sort of attitude typically provokes a go fuck your mother attitude from most netizens, if you are offended by my candor, please move on to the next excellent article somewhere else….still here?).

Now you understand why creating fake opposition sites like TR serves no one in the long term. Instead they should be replaced with real people who hold real views and are driven by real ideals, if we are to stand any chance of creating a good in our society through this new technology.

I have no illusions as to how best to deal with this erudite cyber trooper do gooders who are currently running Potemkin sites such as Wayang Party aka Temasek review – the best thing we can do to keep the internet moderate and sane is by purging them from the ranks and packing them off to the Singapore Meteorological outpost in Antarctica, where the only net they will be managing is a fishing net full of holes as they try their level best to moderate the feral behavior of deadly Polar bears.

Providing an antagonistic relationship between MSM & Government of the day et al versus netizens continue to persist all the custodians of power would have created is a die-die must visit Mecca for those who are marginalized, disenfranchised and dispossessed, but not in Potemkin fake sites like TR, but the real ones – now you understand why Temasek Review has to be created as it takes its cue directly from palliative medicine: what it cannot cure, it will relief and numb – its patently clear to me, the goal of Potemkin sites like TR is to prevent discontentment that usually finds expression ONLY online from boiling over and getting out of hand. the agenda is to short circuit and spontaneous upheaval. In the same way the terminal ambivalence of the aristocracy in France to the plight of the destitute and poor once created perfect conditions for pamphleteers such as Marat and his motley crew of Sans-culottes to unroot the system – or how the Shah’s autocratic fixation to modernize and secularize a backyard society stepped in bazaari culture that considers all Western influences anathema led to a backlash where loud speakers in minarets were weaponized to send him off packing for good. 

Should that day dawn where the right conditions suddenly finds itself pushing itself out from fake opposition of sites like TR into the domain of the real then change will occur and the Internet will be that acquire the agency to effect changed – then in my book should that day come the government of the day has to bear part of that blame – as a significant part of the anatomy of failure that accounts for their inertia to engage the internet sincerely so far can at best be described as a failure of imagination to transcend the old fashion belief much of the brutish energy in the internet derives from some malevolent force from the lunatic fringe who are just bent on causing mayhem – and this explains why Potemkin sites like Temasek Review aka Wayang Party (soon to be the de facto online version of ST) have to exist – the goal is to create a forum that not only guts out all deep spirited and meaningful social political discourse and serve up anti government soundbites – but to fashion some great sounding board that is able act like some giant agony aunt cum Oprahy Winfrey platform that is able to suck up all our gripes, grief and anxiety and resonate it – in the way an angry man beats away at a punch bag to dissipate his negative energy.

That’s not the way to create a better Internet culture, it’s the road to perdition.

In theory, even I have to admit its a great idea, but where it fails is it lacks the crucial element of authenticity. And without that one vital component in an age where we are all already marinating in hype and spin though many may still go there. For all their efforts and best intentions to maintain peace, they may have may have inadvertently created the perfect conditions for weaponizing the internet.

Its a slow and gradual process. The question is not whether this will happen but when. As Potemkin sites such as TR can only blow out steam; it doesn’t address the root cause of discontentment and this can only be accomplished with intelligent an deep reflective discourse.

Here one needs to press the pause button and ask the deeper question: why was Temasek review aka Wayang Party created? And here the question may very well be the answer. Consider this: what better way can there be to discredit the internet; then by creating the very form that lends credence to the much publicized belief the internet can offer nothing except bile, bigotry, vilification and everything that we would normally associate with the lunatic fringe? In short its the trite old game of reverse psychology – and there lies the danger – how might this occur? Well let us say I give you the dots and my hope is you can make those connections.

These days it doesn’t pay to be a open book. Only let me issue out one stricture: creating a digital equivalent of Hong Lim Park may seem like a great idea to tame the net as what it does is retrofit a pressure valve that allows steam to be blown out – this I don’t doubt may work for the next 2 or even 3 years – just as the Soviets once resorted building fake Western outpost along their borders to convince escapees that they have finally made it – only to realize its the most expedient way to debrief and clamp down on the opposition. But a corollary of that also means real thinking fritters away along with all semblance of critical thinking which incidentally way well be the very raw material needed to craft a better Singapore internet that stands any chance of forming an alliance with the ruling hegemony.

In short the adage is an old one that frequently repeats itself: its doesn’t pay to embody the form without the real content. Neither is there any profit to trade the short term gains for the long term.

For the time being, I don’t doubt, this strategy seems to works, but at best its a patch and can do very little to palliate the fears and anxieties of our age which so frequently find expression in that real quarter of the internet.

But let us leave that as it is, coming back to the question: will the internet be able to play a decisive role in changing the political landscape?

It would seem that answer depends on a certain understanding of the complexity how well technology sits along side the long bench of many of our fears, apprehensions and anxieties – but nothing can be further from the truth; in my considered opinion if there is one way reliably weaponize the internet; it is when sites such as TR do not allow real discourse to take root – instead the narrative is kitsch, facile and artificial, designed in a way to appeal to the modern age where the average reader has the attention span of a house fly.

But this is a dangerous game – as you can fool some but never all – and to the perceptive reader who would by now summarize this essay cannot aspire to be counterargument; anymore then we can expect a man to step out of his skin.

I say let the games begin!

Darkness 2011
“People often say the Communist have no imagination; they don’t know how to create online games; but they are dead wrong. They build a digital Great Wall that they call the Great Chinese Firewall – its about a 10,000 times bigger than Temasek Review, they staff it with stadium loads of cyber troopers and the game is to win the high ground somewhere in that space between your ears – so tell have they not created the ultimate online game that’s even better than World of Warcraft? They might as launch a satellite into space that can paint the night sky to broadcast to every hacker on this planet that this is the only game in town – better still rename the Great Chinese Firewall as the University of 1,001 ways how to drill holes; these motherfuckers think they are very clever; that is what I fear most in life, stupid people who think they are very clever – what they have done is weaponize the internet; its not so different from those Madrasahs that churn out terrorist by the busloads – hey, have you ever considered where do you think Assange’s army of the 3,000 faceless monkeys once cut their teeth and chalked their skills? Think apprentice….we live in a world of cause and effect…now you see why the question is itself the answer. And the worst part of this game is the higher those communist build those walls; those guys are just going to get bigger drill bits…now you understand apprentice why there is no wisdom when governments believe they can control the internet like fishes in a tank – and by the way I have not forgotten how Temasek Review once published by IP. You see I ask myself why, why and why….this unfortunately is something that few do these days – it is not that I am smarter than them; only I know only too well how this game will be played and even how it may end. But my young apprentice, whatever the outcome, it will not be a happy enterprise – as what they are playing here is a game called Russian Roulette.”


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