symmetry of information

September 11, 2005

It is impossible to claim that Singapore is a true democracy, or anywhere near a true democracy, or anything remotely resembling a democracy. I will argue that more insidious than the oft-quoted defamation trials or the koshering of candidates or the gerrymandering of electoral districts is the government’s control over all branches of information: a far more subtle and pervasive phenomenon. A true democracy is, in my opinion, fundamentally a political version of the free market. A few caveats apply, of course, but many will agree with this analogy. Critical, however, to the proper functioning of the free market, aside from the obvious factor of competition, is good information, is disseminated equally and fairly. Clearly Singapore lacks this. The typical excuse given is, of course, that like most other markets in Singapore, the information market is too small to support more than one firm – ergo, a ‘natural’ monopoly results. (On a tangential note, that is also the oblique argument that the PAP implies when it speaks of its own monopoly over power.)

This is obviously detrimental. Without any good information, any decision made by the population at large is rendered irrelevant at best. The ruling party often claims that it has the mandate of the people: there is competition, since there is an opposition, yet the party is constantly re-voted into power again and again and again, therefore the people must really support the PAP. This claim is nonsense. It is rubbished by the fact that there is no open, fair source of information for the citizens. Controlling the national newspapers (‘news’ is used loosely; I shall henceforth refer to it as the papers) and the channels must have something to do with this constant re-voting into power. There is no such thing as a free election without free information.

Take, for example, the recent case of the National Kidney Foundation scandal. Protected for years by a sympathetic media, the NKF and its very cushy management were left uncriticised, despite certain misleading claims and some dubious policies which existed prior to when the scandal broke. Yet suddenly, within the short span of a month or so, the NKF was left floundering and struggling. This was not only exacerbated, but, I shall argue, caused by the media’s sudden vilification of TT Durai et al after a period of relative calm. This in turn, was only possible with the green light of the government: if the media were truly free as it is said to be, then how was it that the story only hit the news this year, long after some of the NKF’s doubtful practices had been known to take place? This is not comforting; and no one should feel triumphant that the dubitablity of the NKF has now been reined in. Instead, one should be disappointed that the NKF fiasco has ended only now, when, if the press were freer, and more talented, it could have ended much earlier, or could have been avoided in the first place, if NKF were subordiate to the transparency and public scrutiny that comes with good information.

Similarly with the economy. It is impossible to say, definitively, that Singapore’s economy is doing ‘well’. Singapore’s leaders are notoriously tight-lipped about crucial indicators, for example, the band within which the exchange rate is floated and the markers beyond which they are regulated. Economic growth indicators are managed and collated mainly by the government: since, according to Goodhart’s law, to control is to distort, then might we not end up in a situation where the government is so taken in with its own ability to work magic that it becomes just that: magic, without any grounding in reality? To draw a parallel, no-one in the 1960s or 1970s would have thought that the Soviet Union was on its way to self-destruction, what with its phenomenal growth rates. The Soviets, to some extent, became enchanted with their own rhetoric and gradually failed to establish a connection with actuality. There is no guarantee that this will not happen (or has not happened) in Singapore, if information is guarded jealously.

The good news is that information is slowly but surely becoming more democratised. With the rise of blogs, wikis and other online resources, more can now participate in not only the collating of information, but also the dissemination of information. Blogs and wikis, to my mind, are the way of the future: where not only Dr XX YY, PhD MP Kembangan-Punggol, can express a view that is deemed sound of mind, but instead power of information is returned to the people. Yes, there are dangers involved, for example, demagoguery becomes more important than accuracy: but no system is perfect, and taking responsibility for one’s own views is perhaps the highest mark of maturity, and will truly show that we have ‘made it’. Already this democratisation is spreading to Singapore, and many local blogs reflect a certain level of sensibility and intelligence that is at once unexpected and comforting. How the ruling party must contend with this phenomenon is an exciting prospect which has yet to fully unfurl.


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