PAP’S QUIET COUNTER-INSURGENCY IN THE CYBERSPACE FRONT

PAP

The ruling party’s digital initiative is to defend itself or go on the offensive against online critics, which include Opposition representatives.

MORE details have emerged from one of the world’s most unusual government operations which involve sending teams of agents into cyberspace to take on its critics.

It was launched by the People’s Action Party (PAP) five years ago under Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen and several top MPs to counter a rising tide of anti-establishment postings.

It formed a new media committee, which included what The Straits Times described in 2007 as “a quiet PAP counter-insurgency” group. It would send teams of members anonymously into various message boards to rebut anti-government criticisms.

A PAP activist was quoted then as saying that his job was to track popular blogs and forums to “see if there is anything we can clarify” on controversial issues such as the impending hike in the Goods and Services Tax.

Then on Oct 11, a blog (‘Inside the World of the PAP Internet Brigade‘) threw more light on the operation allegedly with information supplied by a former agent. It also promised more reports. (Five days later the movement posted an offer to buy Internet user IDs from account holders, paying each a few hundred dollars or more. The longer they had been used, the higher the value.)

It said this group, My Compass, is led by four administrators (their names and photos were published), each leading a group of members.

Altogether the group has 260 operatives, which if accurate is not a small outfit, according to the new report.

Information of its size and modus operandi is said to have come from a former member named Kelly. It has not been confirmed by the government. So far it has not been denied.

It continued: “Access to this by invitation-only group, is via recommendations of existing trusted members.”

Four years or less separate the next election when the New Media will likely be important to determine whether the PAP can wrestle back lost votes or lose more seats.

More than three quarters of the Internet postings today are critical of the government or its policies.

This PAP digital initiative is aimed at defending itself or going into the offensive against online critics, which include Opposition representatives.

It is quite a fascinating subject and uniquely Singaporean. No other government in the world – democratic or dictatorial – is known to have operated such an outfit.

Elsewhere, cyberspace critics would either be tolerated as normal as in the West or banned or jailed and their sites banned in authoritarian societies.

The harsher steps would probably have fitted Singapore during the Lee Kuan Yew era. Here happily, they are not prevalent.

Instead, the authorities have structured the response to cyber critics by confronting them with a business-like organisation.

“The PAP could simply have depended on existing laws to control their excesses or let its own PAP supporters to engage them.

“However, it is done by people … engaged in structured jobs,” said a young professional.

But he feels that – however unpopular and unethical the tactic is – it is better to have it than having the PAP resorting to its old knuckle duster days of censorship, banning or prosecution.”

Overall, the reaction is predictably widely against it.

In this informed economy, successful propaganda needs to be practised by experts, people skilled in subtly articulating issues. Most of the operatives today are none of these.

The first rule is that no one should actually know it is propaganda. Making it public destroys its ability to be effective.

I have been reading some of the postings and it has not been very difficult to spot an agent despite the anonymity.

A few of them even openly made clear their links by repeatedly declaring: “Long live PAP” or “Without the PAP, there won’t be a Singapore.” Are readers fools?

The use of expletives or crude language is sometimes used when referring to disliked anti-PAP posters, Opposition parties or their representatives, which again reveals a motive.

In politics in Singapore, there is a general rule: There should be no anger or hatred and no revenge, whether attacking the PAP or the Opposition.

But in the current Internet world, there is too much crude language and personal attacks emerging from the anti-PAP camp, and they should stop.

Now some of the members of the PAP group show they are no better than the people they want to correct.

There is a more important point. I would have thought that the biggest needs for the group are issues like immigration, inflation, healthcare, overcrowding, public housing, where the PAP has been charged with negligence.

Surprisingly, putting up a defence has not been seriously tried. In fact, these controversies rarely figured in their postings.

To me, it is like selecting a group of people, throwing them together and telling them: “You go out and do this and this” probably without real training.

If it is carefully implemented, having government teams to explain issues over the Net is a good idea. But it needs a systematic selection and training of agents. Maybe Singapore is not yet ready for such sophistication.

Describing the project as alarming, reader Ng Yi Shu said: “A group of seemingly one-minded people controlling public opinion and warping public perception certainly is troublesome for a society progressing towards the ideals of openness and free speech.”

Jeremy Chen, from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) suggested: “We have to civilise this PAP Internet Brigade. It is as yet not at a level of cultural sophistication that would allow it to engage a civil society.”

 

Seah Chiang Nee

Chiang Nee has been a journalist for 40 years. He is a true-blooded Singaporean, born, bred and says that he hopes to die in Singapore. He worked as a Reuters corespondent between 1960-70, based in Singapore but with various assignments in Southeast Asia, including a total of about 40 months in (then South) Vietnam between 1966-1970. In 1970, he left to work for Singapore Herald, first as Malaysia Bureau Chief and later as News Editor before it was forced to close after a run-in with the Singapore Government. He then left Singapore to work for The Asian, the world’s first regional weekly newspaper, based in Bangkok to cover Thailand and Indochina for two years between 1972-73. Other jobs: News Editor of Hong Kong Standard (1973-74),  Foreign Editor of Straits Times with reporting assignments to Asia, Europe, Africa, the Middle East and The United States (1974-82) and Editor of Singapore Monitor (1982-85). Since 1986, he has been a columnist for the Malaysia’s The Star newspaper. Article first appeared in his blog, http://www.littlespeck.com.