Comments on Gomez’s ‘Online Opposition in Singapore’

5 Nov

I made an earlier brief posting on Gomez’s analysis ‘Online Opposition in Singapore’ based on the abstract from his webpage. This is the comment which I made after reading the entire paper that was published in Journal of Contemporary Asia.

Brief Description of ‘Online Opposition in Singapore’

Gomez’s article ‘Online Opposition in Singapore’ provides a brief history of the Opposition’s parties internet presence starting from the first website that was created by the National Solidarity Party (NSP) in 1996 to coincide with next year’s general election. Ten years later, with the exception of the Singapore Democratic Party’s (SDP) website, most of the other political parties have been ad hoc when it comes to updating their website.

Gomez describes the two sets of legislation that are primarily concerned with regulating Opposition parties online – Class License Scheme and Parliamentary Elections Act, and even devote some time in mentioning how parties who violated some of the stipulated rules were forced to make immediate changes to their websites. He further notes that the Parliamentary Election Act was relaxed in 2001 to allow opposition parties to use the internet for posting candidate profiles. Thereafter, he questions opposition parties reluctance to create websites which are able to ‘exploit those features that were not forbidden during the election period (or even during non-elections times)…’ (Gomez 2008, p.599).

His analysis leads him to these factors: ‘a do-it-yourself approach, technical challenges, a culture of caution and the parties’ control over its members online communications’ (Gomez 2008, p.591).

Finally, he traces the electoral seats or percentage gains of the Opposition parties and come to the conclusion that in general electoral terms, ‘there has been no real impact ever since the opposition parties started to go online in 1996… no correlation in the rise and fall of their share of the valid votes’ (Gomez 2008, p. 605).

An inadequate description of Opposition’s websites?

While Gomez’s insight provides an idea of the limitations of the internet i.e. – that ten years after Opposition parties have created their own homepage, their electoral fortunes have not been reversed, the factors which he attributes to the phenomena fall short of being convincing.

While Gomez mentions the ability of the governing authority in ordering online materials to be removed, he does not seem to think this plays an important factor in explaining why Opposition parties’ online presence is heavily curtailed. Instead, he believes that it is the Opposition parties’ ‘culture of caution’ or fear of defamation suits that is the barrier. As a result, the role of the PAP in regulating the Internet is curiously neglected.

This point on PAP’s regulation of Opposition parties websites mirrors their offline strategies. They are often more sophisticated laws than outright bans. For example, while Gomez is correct to point out that there is nothing to stop Opposition parties from using their webpages to profile their electoral candidates, other measures such as banning election funding, videocasts and podcasts seriously limits their ability to use the inherent features of the Internet as a campaigning platform.

Conclusion

His conclusion that Opposition parties’ online presence has no direct impact on their electoral gains should not be a surprise for those who closely monitors the Singapore political situation.

While it is true that 70% of the population have been connected to the Internet, it does not necessarily translate that the majority will tune into Opposition parties website and become converts or political activists. In any case, it is insightful to look at how other authoritarian regimes have successfully curtailed online dissent. From banning websites to filtering and jailing dissidents, it is apparent that the Internet cannot solely overturn dictatorships. In this regard, Singapore is the norm and not the exception. An understanding of the imposed online regulations on political websites by the PAP government speaks volumes.

Gomez is right when he contends that other factors such as change in Prime Minister, are more likely to have an effect on electoral outcomes. However, he falls short when it comes to explaining why the Internet as a medium cannot be fully utilised. Except to lay blame on the Opposition parties.

– Work Cited-

Gomez, J 2008, ‘Online opposition in Singapore: Communications outreach without electoral gain’, Journal of Contemporary Asia, Vol. 38, No. 4, November, pp. 591 – 612.

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