Sunday, March 28, 2010

Yes to feedback, no to pressure campaigns: PM

Mar 28, 2010

Govt is wary of online pressure tactics that distort real picture of public sentiment

The Government welcomes honest public feedback on policies and issues, but is wary of online campaigns that pressure leaders to take certain actions, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday.

One such campaign took place recently regarding the sizzling property market. A flood of e-mail messages called on the Government to lower property prices, and threatened to withdraw support for the ruling party at the next general election if this was not done.

The e-mail messages, sent to many recipients in and outside government, were 'well-written and cogently argued', obviously by someone with knowledge of the property market, said Mr Lee.

But the identities of the writers proved to be fake. They included names of grassroots leaders purportedly from Yio Chu Kang and Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC, but these people did not exist.

In the case of one who did, he was Chinese-educated and could not have written the letter. Said Mr Lee, to laughter: 'We were a bit suspicious, because the language was excellent. There was no use of Singlish.' He was speaking at a dialogue with about 100 active contributors to the Government's feedback arm, Reaching Everyone for Active Citizenry@Home (Reach).

'I do not know who was behind this campaign, but this was clearly not a straightforward effort to give the Government honest feedback.

'Rather, it was a covert attempt to pressure the Government, perhaps for personal benefit,' he said.

He added: 'We must expect to see such astroturfing campaigns from time to time, and learn to assess online content critically and carefully.'

Astroturfing refers to campaigns where the originators hide behind the scenes so as to give the impression the campaign is spontaneous.

As such campaigns distort the real picture of public sentiment, the volume of e-mail messages sent to the Government on a particular issue cannot be what determines its decision, Mr Lee noted.

He cited the Association of Women for Action and Research leadership tussle last year as another example. He had received many e-mail messages from the opposing camps during that time.

Many of the messages were identical, and obviously cut and pasted from the same template. They marked an organised campaign to lobby the Government to back one side against the other, Mr Lee said.

While highlighting the dark side of the online world, Mr Lee also credited Reach with finding innovative ways to engage Singaporeans online, such as via networking sites Facebook and Twitter. These channels are in addition to offline platforms like face-to-face dialogues.

Last year, Reach received almost 27,000 inputs, mainly from the Internet. There was a 28 per cent jump in online feedback.

The more insightful comments often come from the People's Forum members who give their real names, noted Mr Lee.

'It is not a surprise as contributors who give their true identities and hence have to stand up for their views take more care to make sure their points are factual, well argued and helpful,' he said.

Yesterday, Reach gave out awards to five active contributors who made suggestions on issues ranging from engaging young people to improving the health-care system. 'They have often been critical of government policies. But their well-intended, well-considered, well-expressed views are much appreciated by the Government,' Mr Lee said.

The award recipients were SingTel's senior manager Lim Siang Hwa, 38; relief teacher Soh Yida, 21; engineering consultancy Meinhardt Singapore's senior site quantity surveyor Lai Chee Fan, 60; Thye Hua Kwan Hospital's head of rehabilitation Sinha Shekhar, 40; and retiree Raymond Lo, 71.

'The award recognises the importance of the role ordinary Singaporeans like me play in building our democratic society,' said Mr Lim.

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