There has been much public debate recently on issues such as how to handle the residence of Singapore’s founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew at 38 Oxley Road, how small states should or should not behave, as well as Mr Tan Cheng Bock’s court appeal on the elected presidency.
The heated discussions have led some to say that we are well and truly entering the post-Lee Kuan Yew era, meaning that they could not imagine these arguments playing out on social media and the media, say, five or 10 years ago. By extension, Facebook and Twitter have made everyone with a view of current affairs an Op-Ed author as well.
The truth is, like it or not, the current media landscape has created a new social environment where all issues are on the table for everyone to debate.
News cycles of traditional media are now more dependent on the social media, as in the examples of tweets by President Donald Trump on his foreign policy and the use of Facebook by the siblings of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to criticise him and the government.
Many news organisations now are also using social media to promote their news stories, which in turn generate debate online.
My sense is that, in the past, weighty subjects were mainly debated in Parliament or in letters to newspaper editors. These issues included those that many people have strong views on, such as the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) issue, and whether to repeal Section 377A in the Penal Code in 2007.
Nowadays, discourse is more participatory — everyone has an opinion, and is willing to share, march or wear identifiable symbols to show affiliation. For example, the annual Pink Dot event at Hong Lim Park this year drew an estimated crowd of 20,000.
Social media has greatly increased the speed at which such discussions are taking place. Yet rarely are arguments of online disagreements conclusive. Very often, different parties may interpret issues differently and are not even arguing over the same points.
With a greater contestation of ideas on the online space, spats often involve an element of personal attacks and acrimony.
This scenario where everything is debated with great ferocity, but inconclusively, is what worries me, and may indicate a deterioration of the intellectual discourse and civility in Singapore.
In the past, our arguments revolved around big ideas that serve as guiding philosophies of our society; ideas such as independence and meritocracy. Personal attacks were not made to discredit the ideas of the speaker.
However, beyond the usual dictum of agreeing to disagree, what can we do to increase the level of discourse in Singapore in the new media climate?
First, arguments cannot be made at the expense of our national brand. Whatever thesis put forward for public scrutiny should be based on advancing our institutions, and not to advance an individual.
Some have said that there should not be public disagreement between senior figures in government, which could be interpreted by external parties as a sign of weakness. I think that if the debate is not driven by self-interest, it could be beneficial.
In my opinion, personal attacks do not fit into public policy discussions even though such approaches have been often used as an attempt to strengthen one’s arguments.
Second, as I remember from my public policy classes in school, there are no correct answers. What is important is that we should think critically about all sides of the issue — especially the key assumptions and logical consequences of such events.
And when the facts and situations change, which they invariably will, everyone would be able to understand the ramifications and work out where our long-term national interests lie.
Third, people are entitled to voice constructive opinions, and should not be faulted for expressing a valid point of view within the boundaries of the law.
Pluralism allows for a wider range of ideas and could help us improve our ability to effectively communicate differences of opinion. But this should be done in the spirit of mutual respect for legitimate differences.
Even with the above suggestions in mind, we need to accept that heated online discussions are the new normal. Writers on social media should also be aware of de-escalating techniques, not merely to appease others, but to recognise that there is indeed the possibility of error even in communicating beliefs that are dearest to us.
Shakespeare once said that “there is no art to find the mind’s construction in the face”. It is indeed difficult to tell what a person is like just by looking at his or her face.
With social media platforms carrying more weight in perception-building, there is much greater responsibility for the reader to discern between clear thinking and a lack of seriousness in approaching the subject matter.
Ultimately, open and honest dialogue should be adhered to not just for the sake of intellectual discussion, but also for the credibility of Singapore as a community of people known to the world as pragmatic and forward looking.
We need to stay united as a people, develop more empathy in advancing the quality of social media communication without losing its soul, while taking a longer-term view to serve Singapore’s broader interests.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dr Yap Kwong Weng is a businessman and author. He holds a Master of Public Administration from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, and is a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum.