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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

The Great Online Debate

Singapore takes its politics to the Internet

By Jose Manuel Tesoro


A FLAME IS A nasty e-mail message hurled across the Internet's vast reaches. Harold Fock gets a lot of them. On more than one occasion, messages have accused him of being a "yellow communist bastard" -- and that's just a low-heat flame. But as the leader of the Young People's Action Party's (PAP) Internet committee, Fock is used to being roasted.

The Young PAP, made up of citizens in their twenties, is the youth wing of Singapore's ruling party. The objective of its Internet committee is to rebut and dispute what they see as "misinformation" about the city-state on the global network. Fock, who does have a day job, spends some two hours nightly defending Singapore's policies and viewpoints. Along with three other Young PAP colleagues, the amiable 27-year-old monitors and participates in Internet discussions. He also brings "hot" topics of conversation to the attention of Information and the Arts Minister George Yeo -- though Fock claims the committee never divulges the names of those who post their opinions.

The Young PAP's main arena of battle is the freewheeling electronic discussion forum soc.culture.singapore (s.c.s.). The "newsgroup," initiated in early 1993 by a band of Singaporean graduate students, is an area where Internet users comment on Singapore's society, debate its culture and loudly criticize its government -- without much fear of retribution. Originally, s.c.s was created as a place where Internet users could talk about the "development of Singapore in the areas of science, technology, culture and education." But now subjects run a gamut, ranging from "Singapore's Poorest" to "Why So Many SM Lee Speeches Suddenly?" to musings on good hawker stalls. In short, any participant is free to post whatever he wants.

Many of the newsgroup's inhabitants, composed primarily of young men who are as passionate about their own views as they are about debating opposing ones, find the committee's pro-government positions annoying. Indeed, the prevailing view on s.c.s -- as elsewhere on the Internet -- is firmly anti-authority. "Representatives of any political organization are not well-liked," says Walter Theseira, 18, a frequent s.c.s participant. An "Us-Against-Them" mentality sometimes dominates the forum, with reasoned argument degenerating into slanging matches.

So when Fock and other young party members post their views on subsidized housing or the state of the opposition, s.c.s. participants offer spirited attacks, countering the pro-PAP line with pointed critiques of policies. When Fock recently requested people to input opinions on education into the Young PAP's website (www.youngpap.org.sg), he faced resistance. Some users alleged that the Young PAP would exercise censorship. Another sniffed that all the feedback they needed was right in s.c.s.

Many s.c.s. participants accuse the Young PAP of often backing down from a debate whenever it turns against them. "And that's even when people are asking sensible questions," complains s.c.s. user Poon Chi Yeong, 25. The group prefers not to argue at length, retorts Fock, since prolonged discussions tend to spin onto non-productive tangents. Yet another criticism is that Fock and friends present only the party line. This is not so, he says. While their views are informed by their participation in the PAP, "We don't speak on behalf of the party," he says. "We speak as individuals."

More than anything, says Fock, the s.c.s is a valuable form of public feedback -- one to which officials pay attention. Fock says that the youth wing is there to pick up "interesting insights in what we can do to make this place better." At the Young PAP's 10th anniversary dinner last week, Deputy PM Lee Hsien Loong praised the Internet committee. "Far from being afraid of the Internet," he said, "we are using it to put our point of view across . . . and hold our own in cyberspace." On the Internet, one can douse fires or let off steam, start "flame wars" or just stew. In the end, all this heat does little harm, except perhaps to phone lines and some circuits. But everyone may gain just a little more in understanding.


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