Keeping the “civil” in civil society

In News Reports on June 3, 2014 at 1:21 am

Reading the comments that appear on my Facebook wall or in response to this blog, I think there are only two kinds of people on the internet: the cynical and the defensive.

Each group tries to drive the other out of the space, which is why in some forums, you have only a certain sort of like-minded people gathered. It is an echo chamber. What cynics say about G committees and conversations applies to them too, that they are talking only to themselves. That has never seemed to me to be an intelligent way to conduct a conversation.

From what I can see, there are more anti-G than pro-G elements in cyberspace. I pity the pro-G forces who are left in some corners of the space and who quietly watch from the sidelines at the vitriol being poured on them. How can it be that civil discourse on the Internet is so polarised?

There are too many who will die, die not give the G the benefit of the doubt, much less praise of any kind. And those who do, get tarred with some bad names including those that can’t be printed. I’ve been a target myself when I presume to say that the G is right. I have always thought I have a pretty thick hide, but the comments are so downright wicked and scurrilous that I blanch when I read them. (Note: I did NOT cry). I still care enough about my ex-colleagues (a prime target) to send them consoling messages when they are trolled. And I am always grateful to those who care enough about me or think I have been unjustly vilified, to stick their own necks out.

Last month at a talk in a junior college, a student asked how the level of vitriol, on racism and xenophobia, for example, can be tamped down. I replied that people have simply got to speak up against it. Sure, you’ll be whacked but if you have the courage of your convictions, you stand by them, I said.

Too many people say “What for? Waste time only’’ when they complain about the nastiness. They say that speaking up will only bring about a backlash and various CSI activities that might hurt not just themselves, but their family. And how they themselves are not nasty enough to do the same to the perpetrators of calumnies.

Evil triumphs when good people do nothing, it is said. I agree.

I don’t think I have that much guts by the way. I get asked very often about whether I’m afraid that what I write will bring the G down on me. Truth is, I am actually less afraid of the G (actually not at all!) than online venom.

I was flummoxed when an FB fan asked me (very politely) if I was trying to “fit in’’ because she said that some of my comments were dripping with sarcasm directed at the G. It is sad that “fitting in’’ means having to be anti-Establishment, but it got me thinking that perhaps I WAS trying to fit in. Not in the rude name-calling manner, but in a wise-ass kind of way that the online community likes (I think).

But when it comes to certain matters, I don’t think fudging it or cloaking it in wit or satire or sarcasm does me or readers any favours. So I think the antics of Anonymous with the videos etc were plain bad; that PM is right to sue Roy Ngerng and the anti-Pilipino independence day crowd was being silly. Some things should be said plainly.

I’m going to use the word of week: cynicism. There’s too much of it going around such that everything bad is laid at the G’s door and any attempt by the G to do anything is viewed with suspicion. Past mistakes are not forgiven, even if amends are being made.

There is a tendency to “mis-read’’ stuff, especially complicated stuff. The MSM isn’t doing a good enough job of making it easy – and I acknowledge that this is hard to do. Then there are people who will wilfully mis-read whether out of mischief or because they are so blinded by prejudice that they can’t see beyond it. And of course, people who wilfully disseminate the wrong stuff. I use this word “wilfully’’ deliberately. I think a lot of so-called misinformation out there is not deliberate, but more out of an incomplete understanding of the facts. Of these people, I say we should be tolerant. And it behoves those who DO know the facts and understand the subject to speak up.

Of course, they would be misconstrued as “lackeys’’ and so forth but there would be those who welcome fuller participation (and these people too should speak up too!)

I actually think the so-called PAP Internet Brigade, whoever they are, are brave people.  It is a tough job engaging opposing voices. (Oops! I think the phrase should be “shouting matches’’ with the so-called oppies or those who want a “change’’ come 2016. )

I know the responses I will get from both sides who read this post:

  1. Blame the G lah. They started it, always knocking down opponents.
  2. Why can’t I demand more from our very well-paid politicians and civil servants?
  3. Why can’t these people just be grateful for what we have now?
  4. These people who complain, can they do any better?
  5. It’s freedom of speech; you can’t control the Internet.

Thing is, we do not need a society of “closed minds’’, of painting things in black or white. Or resorting to ad hominem statements. When we do so, we risk alienating a broad middle band or the chance to bring the extremes closer together. We can start by being civil and engaging mind (and heart) before engaging mouse. We can, for example, suspend judgment for a while when confronted with things we don’t understand instead of delivering an instant verdict. We can wait to see how things pan out. We can ask questions. We must remember the “civil’’ in civil discourse and civil society.

Sure, we are entitled to have an opinion, however ill-informed, because we live here and we love this place.   

But for our opinions to matter, it must be READ by a wide range of people, and not just the like-minded.  


  1. I totally agree. There are times when those associated with me in FB either say I am anti-G or complain for the sake of complaining.

    I replied to them, saying that as much as there is no government in this world that is perfect as it is made up of imperfect people, and so there are ways to improve it. I put it simply that I am anti-bullshit. To call a spade, a spade and to be frank about mistakes and find ways to solve the problems.

    For those who said I complain for the sake of complaining, my only reply, thanks to my education in Quality Management, is to improve things no matter if they are good or bad. These days both sides are going too extreme, calling each other names, focusing on the wrong things that does nothing to the betterment of the nation as a whole.

    We ALL have to grow up…and that’s a fact. Not just the opposition, the government but as a people we have to respond beyond what a normal human should do.

    Like a quote I have heard years ago…

    “To respond in kind is human, to respond good with bad is evil but to answer evil with goodness is holy.”

  2. “Evil triumphs when good people do nothing”

    The same can be said for people who do not speak up against the government. Cynicism is now the new dirty word the government uses to label the skepticism that grew because of the government’s opaqueness in its dealings. In the light of AIMgate, Brompton bikes, the exposed identities of 5 MINORS who vandalized, the defamation suit brought on to a commoner by the prime minister of a country, the obvious conflict of interest in Temasek Holdings in the public sector and many more incidents in the past, one cannot help but be skeptical of the government’s actions. The recent semi-nationalization of the bus services can also been seen as nationalizing the risks while privatizing the profits (where a conflict of interest also exist). I won’t deny it; I am a skeptic.

    People are mature enough to discern “trolls” from reasonable, logical posters. There is also the saying of “no smoke without fire.” If misinformation have been spread, a clear reply from the government can dispel all misunderstandings but it seems that the government is unwilling to do so and are content to let the “Internet Brigade” engage in a trolling contest with the rest of the internet. I have been reading the internet for views on both sides and to me, the pro-PAP arguments are really lacking in substance whereas the “trolls” the government have so much ignored presented arguments that resonated with me the ground around me more.

    Racist and Xenophobes (ad hominem statements in your words) had been used to describe people, who are unhappy because of the misery the huge influx of foreigners have brought in for them; it is not unreasonable for them to be expressing their frustrations online as there are people who can empathize with their situation, instead of the ministers who thought that a person earning $1000 wage can buy an affordable (another dirty word) HDB flat, $8 is sufficient for a heart by-pass surgery, $8.33/day is sufficient for sustenance if you only want to eat in a hawker, not a food court, nor a restaurant.

    That being said, I agree that a more civil discussion in the internet would beneficial to the development of Singapore; and at that, the government should join in the discussions.

    I do not think that PM Lee is right to CONTINUE to press charges even after apologies and offers for damages have been made, anti-Philipino Independence Day comments were not targeted at a specific group for their race but rather for 1. Singapore’s sovereignty and 2. security concerns which are both valid concerns.

  3. It’s a pity that this topic is often so highly charged that it is difficult for many to see beyond emotion and engage logic. Yes, the government isn’t perfect, but then no government is. It is important to highlight the flaws when we see them but to be fair, we also need to recognise the good as well. This applies to both the ruling and opposition parties. At the end of the day, whoever we vote for needs to have the capabilities to run a country while balancing the delicate diplomatic affairs of the international arena. To vote because we want to “teach someone a lesson”, because we “can’t stand the government” or simply want change for changes sake is a recipe for future disaster. Similarly, voting because of the track record of the old guard or not wanting to rock the boat is also disastrous. We need to look at what each party stands for and think about the long-term and far-reaching implications. For those who say, “That’s the government’s job”, my reply is, “That’s our job because we put them there.”

  4. Thank you for this post, Bertha. I haven’t always agreed with your past comments but I’ve always appreciated the thought that you put in them. This is a necessary reminder to all of us.

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