Baey Yam Keng, MP for Tampines GRC and self-styled Minister of Selfies posted this image to Facebook earlier in the week in reference to a session on social media he held for “senior Vietnamese government officials”. Why the Vietnamese government need to learn about social media by coming to Singapore was never explained, in fact a more compelling case could be made for the PAP seeking to learn from the hardline stance taken against internet freedoms in Hanoi. Recent developments in the High Court against Alex Au unfortunately throw this question into stark relief.
We deplore the way this trial was conducted, including the fact that the defendant’s relatives were not allowed into the courtroom and the way the authorities again manipulated the media. [He] is the victim of a judicial system that takes its orders from authoritarian party officials. He must be released.
Reporters Without Borders. 2 October 2013
Anyone who sees Singapore’s assault on digital media in recent months as draconian is in for a shock when they read about Vietnam. The quote above comes from the case of Le Quoc Quan, a Vietnamese blogger who was jailed for 30-months on trumped-up tax evasion charges. Similar charges were brought in 2008 against another blogger, Nguyen Van Hai, who faces over 12 years in jail. If that wasn’t enough, the Vietnamese have even made posting news articles on Facebook illegal. So what were the Vietnamese government doing in Singapore, learning about social media?
Clearly there is much that differs between Singapore and Vietnam, and the case for a knowledge sharing session on social media is not obvious. In fact, there may be no case to make at all, as the meeting could have been perfectly innocuous. Yet, do senior political delegations make international trips for no reason? Given the timing, what Singapore and Vietnam do have in common, and the subsequent filing of suit against Alex Au, the nagging doubt that there was some ulterior motive behind the visit remains.
Both Vietnam and Singapore are ruled by extremely undemocratic governments, ones which owe a greater or lesser portion of their power to subservient state media, and in both countries the power of the internet as an alternative source of information is challenging the authority of the ruling parties. So while Vietnam has taken a hard-line approach to the threat of social media by jailing bloggers, Singapore has for the most part tried to deploy more subtle tactics, such as the encouragement of self-censorship with the threat of harsher regulations as well as lawsuits that have apparently been deployed simply to extract retractions and apologies.
Despite, or perhaps because of this relatively soft-touch approach, the Singapore government has increasingly been the brunt of harsh criticism online which they are ill prepared to handle. Years of government control over the mainstream media and personal freedoms have suppressed the public expression of anti-government feelings, so when the threat of digital vandalism was made against the government, and a not insignificant portion of the population was unapologetically excited about the prospect, the ruling party was left looking weak and exposed. Shocked into action, it seems to have been decided that the soft-touch approach has failed, and since authoritarian governments cannot survive if they are perceived as weak, a hard-line stance must be taken to re-establish government authority over online critics. This hard-line approach appears to have already begun, starting with the troubling decision to deny alleged hacker James Raj access to his lawyer and continuing with the PAP’s senior members practically queueing up to deliver their definitionally flawed statements equating hacking with terrorism. The fear then is that the next step may be a politically motivated case brought against a critical blogger. Whether there is a political motive behind the current action against Alex Au is hard to fathom – the timing of course could easily be a co-incidence – but as a prominent blogger, openly critical of the ruling party, he does seem to fit the bill.
Who is the teacher, who the pupil?
So when our authoritarian comrades from Hanoi visited Singapore last week, who had the most to gain from their session on social media? Do the Vietnamese have a lot to learn from a Singapore government reeling in the aftermath of an outpouring of digital discontent? Discontent made possible by the relatively soft-touch approach to social media taken here? Do the Vietnamese plan to free their imprisoned bloggers, and roll back their criminalisation of Facebook? It seems unlikely. More probably, the Singapore government seeks to learn a trick or two on suppressing the flow of critical information online. That may not mean 12 years in jail for a blogger, and it may not mean a ban on posting news articles on Facebook, but a more repressive online environment seems highly likely. A conviction against Alex Au for his alleged criticism of the judiciary would only support the hypothesis that a politically motivated crackdown on internet freedoms has begun.