Ministers in the age of social media

When the Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing says he does not welcome a website promoting adultery into Singapore, is he pronouncing government policy? Giving the Cabinet's view?

Or just giving his opinion?

And should a law minister weigh in on a dispute to give his legal opinion and advise one party to sue, as Mr K. Shanmugam did?

In this age of ubiquitous social media, it is not just politicians and leaders who have to learn to master new communications tools to communicate old messages in new ways. Citizens too have to learn - and in some cases relearn - how to read said politicians' messages on Facebook or Twitter.

The two ministers' recent pronouncements on very different issues on their Facebook pages were widely shared online and commented upon. They were also reported in mainstream media like The Straits Times.

In the past, newspaper editors filtered comments made by politicians and used their judgment to decide if a comment was a personal viewpoint - which might garner it a small story on an inside page - or government policy - which might be put on the front page.

These days, online comments are unmediated and go straight from poster to reader.

How is the average citizen to make sense of all this?

It is intuitive to digital natives, but for others of my generation and older, I think it requires an understanding that some posts are official, like photographs of meetings with other government leaders. Some are semi-official, like explanations of thinking behind policies.

And some are just personal. And when posts are personal opinions, netizens and citizens should not get their expectations or hackles raised.

But first, a recap of the two posts. Mr Chan made clear his objection to plans by Ashley Madison, a website promoting "married dating, discreet encounters and extramarital affairs", to launch a Singapore service. It has over 20 million users worldwide, including in India, Hong Kong and Japan.

"I do not welcome such a website into Singapore," said Mr Chan. "I'm against any company or website that harms marriage. Promoting infidelity undermines trust and commitment between a husband and wife, which are core to marriage. Our marriage vows make it clear that marriage is a lifelong commitment between a man and a woman. This includes staying faithful to one another."

In days of yore, this would be interpreted as government policy, amid wide expectations that the omnipotent Singapore state will block Ashley Madison from corrupting Singaporeans.

Not anymore.

Even on Mr Chan's Facebook, commenters were sceptical. To be sure, many were supportive. But others pointed to the incongruity of such a statement from a leader of the same government that allowed Singapore to have two casinos. As one put it: "I agree with your position on this. However, I would also like to ask, how is legalising prostitution and allowing two casinos into Singapore different from this?"

Some posed a direct challenge to Mr Chan: So what action will you/the Government take?

In reality, the Government's powers are limited. A website targeted at Singapore users need not have a company incorporated in Singapore, a physical presence here or even servers locally.

The authority that regulates Internet affairs - or tries to - is the Media Development Authority under the Ministry of Communications and Information, not Mr Chan's MSF. Under the Broadcasting Act, MDA can act against Internet content providers deemed to violate community standards and social norms, by asking the website to take down articles. MDA can also block sites. But blocking access to one website promoting adultery is of mere symbolic value.

And after all, a sense of perspective is needed: Adultery may wreck lives and homes, but is not a crime. If people want to have affairs, one website more or less will not stop them. And as the recent high-profile sex-for-corruption cases showed, Singapore is far from free of adultery, even among some who you might assume would know better.

Hence Mr Chan's comments should be read as expressions of his personal view, not government policy. In fact, the most interesting thing about his comments was his clear definition of marriage as a lifelong commitment, between a man and woman, that includes being faithful to each other.

In an age of gay marriage, rising divorce, blended families, and "it's complicated" relationship status updates, it is becoming nearly uncommon to hear such a traditional definition of marriage.

While I respect his unequivocal stand, I hope his views do not reflect government policy, and that MSF and the state will be far more inclusive and accommodating to the many Singaporeans whose real family lives do not fit nicely into the traditional model.

Life is infinitely complex, and those in charge of family policy need to absorb quotidian realities: advocating one model while embracing many others, and making sure resources and help go to all manner of families, not just "sanctioned" ones.

So if a minister's social media comments have limited direct impact on policy outcomes, should they then keep mum? My answer is: "No." Ministers as citizens are free to speak their minds.

But is there a red line that a minister should not cross?

That question arose after Mr Shanmugam weighed in on a dispute over a dog that was put down, allegedly for aggression, by the adopted owner, despite her having signed a contract with animal welfare volunteer Ada Ong to say she would return the dog if she did not want it anymore. Mr Shanmugam, a well-known dog lover, wrote on his Facebook page that he had seen the contract and SMS exchange between the two parties, and advised Ms Ong that she had grounds to pursue legal action against the adopter. He even persuaded a fellow lawyer MP to take up the case pro bono.

Mr Shanmugam's intervention won support from animal lovers but raised many eyebrows among those who wondered if he was promoting a litigious society or using undue influence.

My own take on this is simple. Like Mr Chan, Mr Shanmugam is a citizen of the social media world, free to give his views. He may pay a political price if constituents think his behaviour is unbecoming, but he is clearly prepared to take the flak. As for undue influence, it would be a sad thing if Singapore lawyers or judges are intimidated by his personal comments and are less than fully impartial and professional about the case.

The net political gain from weighing in on controversial issues is always uncertain. But both spoke up for what they thought was right, political correctness notwithstanding.

And for that, they deserve some credit. To be a leader requires one to be authentic. That means speaking not only from the podium where one delivers practised speeches and pronounces on policy, but also speaking from the heart, citizen to citizen.

It is surely better to have leaders who care about causes and have convictions, and dare to speak their minds, than to have leaders who watch what they say for calculated effect. Worst would be those who say nothing at all, because they care for nothing.

This of course requires citizens to understand that politicians do not belong up there in the stratosphere, but down here among us, on the ground. And regardless of what they post or tweet, life goes on.

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