“But while this brand of social activism has led to change elsewhere, in Singapore it has had limited impact” (Online Petition A New Tool To Put Issues On Agenda, Miss Tham Yuen-C).
Online petitions are not made the same, and sometimes we might be too quick to judge these petitions based on their outcomes per se. It is hard to know how much pressure the petitions actually exerted during the fiasco involving the National Library Board, Miss Tham Yuen-C points out (ST, July 19), and many online petitions have not collected their target number of signatures or “led to changes in policies and actions”. Petitions cover a plethora of causes. I for instance reckon the 25,000 signatures-strong petitions against citizen journalism site STOMP and socio-commentary site The Real Singapore are in vain, because misinformation and disinformation can only be countered by readers becoming more discerning.
Yet it is diversity of opinions – expressed in petitions, and reflected in perceptions towards petition – that is valuable. The petition is one of many ways to influence political action.
Online petitions are not that new in Singapore. And accusations of astro-turfing – when individuals sign a petition multiple times, often doing so anonymously – surfaced in 2010 when the government alleged there were grassroots campaigns with the intent of fuelling soaring housing prices, and last year when member of Parliament Mr. Zaqy Mohamad questioned the authenticity of petitions campaigning for the wearing of the Muslim headscarf at workplaces, to “put political pressure [and] provide false impression to the general public”
The obvious answer for the government would be to create a platform similar to the “We the People” endeavour in the United States where signatures are tied to names and identification numbers, to give these collective voices legitimacy. With a sound SingPass system in place technical concerns should not feature. Miss Tham is worried that online petitions could be frivolous, that there might be “uncomfortable situations for governments”, and the lack of policy changes in political systems abroad. But even with end-goals in mind petitions and the discourse surrounding their objects – that process – is critical for an active citizenry.
Activists constantly jostle for public space, and the online petition is one of many tools. It gives visibility and credibility. With nothing to fill the void left by the Our Singapore Conversation, and the apprehension towards street protests – Hong Lim Park notwithstanding – it comes as no surprise that online petitions has complemented the traditional approaches of mailing (and emailing) parliamentarians or decision-makers. By using a central platform to legitimise petitions which have attained a number of signatures, the government can not only engage more people in conversations, but also tailor and tinker national policies.
It may be of political interest to preserve homogeneity, yet this aversion to conflict will yield nothing in the long run. Over the weekend chairman of the government’s feedback unit REACH Dr. Amy Khor maintained that because some issues were divisive, and that is was important that “these divisions do not deepen”. Ironically a staunch refusal to take sides might please nobody in the end. And unfortunately compromises and balances will not last, and the government’s role as an adjudicator will come into increasing prominence.
A version of this article was published in The Straits Times.