Chapter 9. Rise of the Unruly: Media Activism and Civil Disobedience
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Rise of the Unruly: Media Activism and Civil Disobedience 183 183 9 C H A P T E R Rise of the Unruly: Media Activism and Civil Disobedience In 2008, a dissident lawyer by the name of Gopalan Nair let fly an online tirade against Singapore leaders Lee Kuan Yew and Lee Hsien Loong, accusing them of being, among other things, “nothing more than tin pot tyrants who remain in power by abusing the courts to eliminate your political opponents”.1 By the standards of the wild wild web, the content of Nair’s diatribe was not earth shattering. Singaporeans had grown accustomed to reading unbridled and even unlawful criticism of their leaders on online forums and blogs. However , there was something about his blog posts that made Nair stand out from the crowd: he was, quite literally, asking for trouble. “There is no doubt in the Singaporean sense, I have defamed [Lee Kuan Yew] and his Prime Minister son, not only in my last blog post but in almost all my blog posts since my blog’s inception in December 2006,” he wrote.2 This was not the false bravado of a critic cloaked in anonymity or relishing freedom in exile. Although he lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, he was now visiting the country of his birth to observe a trial involving opposition leader Chee Soon Juan. He was within reach of the authorities — and he wanted them to know it. “Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, look here. I am now within your jurisdiction and that of your corrupt police and your corrupt judiciary who will do anything you want of them, however criminal and illegal. What are you going to do about it?” He even volunteered his hotel address — “Broadway Hotel, Room 708, 195 Serangoon Road” — and local Chap9 (183-199) 183 Chap9 (183-199) 183 4/2/12 2:54:38 PM 4/2/12 2:54:38 PM 184 Freedom from the Press mobile number.3 His blog carried a photograph of him — middleaged , portly, bespectacled — in the top right hand corner. Leaving a trail as clear as a Changi airport runway, Nair was eventually arrested and jailed for two months for insulting a judge.4 (As he was not sued for defamation, he was not given the satisfaction of facing the Lees in court.) The curious case of Gopalan Nair, like so much of Singapore’s media and politics, turns conventional wisdom on its head. For decades, those studying the internet’s role in political dissent and insurgency have focused on guerrilla-style campaigns. In this mode, the opponents of authoritarian governments use information technology to transcend geography and evade censorship and capture. During the internet’s preweb era, the Zapatista insurgency in Mexico was a favourite example of this emerging trend.5 The Zapatistas achieved considerable success in getting their messages out to the world’s media while remaining in their jungle hideouts. Gradually, though, analysts realised that governments could master the same technologies and engage in online surveillance and censorship. States could also use their offline dominance to mute the impact of their online challengers. Bloggers were put behind bars. But, even if observers were no longer so certain about who would win, at least the rules of the game seemed straightforward enough. Watching the cat-and-mouse game being played in China, Myanmar, Iran and other authoritarian societies, the strategy for insurgents was clear. They had to stay one step ahead of the authorities, bypassing government filters and firewalls, and using the anonymity and separation of cyberspace to avoid the knock on one’s door at midnight. Apparently, though, nobody told Gopalan Nair. Was his come-and-get-me stunt just an idiosyncrasy? Politics attracts more than a fair share of crazies and not all observed political behaviour deserves deeper analysis. However, the Nair case could in fact tell us something significant about media and power. While the internet is commonly harnessed in authoritarian societies as a vehicle for guerrilla-like hit-and-run communication, his action is an example of a radically different use: as a medium for civil disobedience, with activists deliberately remaining within physical reach of the police. This was a template already used by Chee Soon Juan and his followers in the Singapore Democratic Party. Instead of seeking anonymity or extra-territoriality, they use the internet to magnify their presence and even to invite repression. If such behaviour does not fit into the old...