Hyper-responsiveness towards the public reactions of POFMA
Second, the government has been hyper-responsive in addressing concerns about and public reactions to the law. Borrowing from existing work on the concept of‘responsive authoritarianism’, authoritarian regimes can demonstrate responsiveness in a few ways.
The first is through the formation of official avenues for civic and political participation by citizens, through which people’s voices and opinions can be conveyed directly to the government (Means 1996; Qiaoan & Teets 2020). One example of this is the convening of the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods in 2018, which sought to solicit public feedback on tackling online falsehoods, possibly through the use of legislation as a countermeasure. The public consultation exercise received a total of 170 submissions from academics, media and technology practitioners, members of civil society, and the public, of whom 65 appeared in front of the committee for oral hearing sessions that were widely reported by the local media. The committee eventually published a report that captured the public’s feedback and proposed 22 policy recommendations that the government accepted in their entirety. On top of serving as a channel for gathering feedback, the select committee process also signaled a more consultative governance approach through its deliberative mode of communication (Marquis & Bird 2018; Teets 2013). This allowed the government to portray itself as less paternalistic, keen to work with citizens in partnership, and closely aware of public sentiments on the ground. This national display of a close relationship between the government and its people (which, in itself, could be argued as a populist strategy) may have had the effect of countering populist appeals claiming that the political elites were disconnected from everyday Singaporeans.
The second is through proactive sensing and monitoring of public concern about and opposition to policy decisions, which the government responds to when resistance is perceived to be widespread (Huerlin 2016). As mentioned earlier, the passing of POFMA saw significant opposition from civil society, academics, and free speech activists. Leaders in the government embarked on a series of public engagements that ranged from live interviews to closed-door discussions to explain the legislation, clarify misconceptions about it, and address concerns about its use. One of the most popular engagements was a video in which Minister Shanmugam was interviewed by internet personality Michelle Chong, who played her alter ego of an ‘Ah Lian’1 in an attempt to make the topic of POFMA (its rationale and what it sets out to do) more accessible to the working-class Singaporean. In the video, ‘Ah Lian’ conducted a light-hearted interview with the minister, who was himself more casual than his usual ‘no-nonsense’ public persona, using humour at times to diffuse the seriousness of the topic. The YouTube video has since received about 126,000 views. Such responses to public concerns by soft selling the legislation through light-hearted forms of communication may have moderated the public’s perception of the law as chilling free speech and also signaled that the government is willing to respond to and engage with concerns on the ground as valid and understandable.
The third is by responding to criticisms about the law through frank debates in the public domain to signal openness and transparency. For example, the select committee provided a legitimate channel for critics to air their grievances, and a certain degree of dissent was tolerated. The government also candidly engaged with criticisms from foreign news media outlets, especially those from Western liberal democracies such as Bloomberg, The Economist, and the Washington Post, regarding its use of the law. This openness in responding to critics signals some tolerance of criticism and dissent in the public sphere, once again lending legitimacy to the government by giving the appearance that it upholds free speech to cushion the chilling effects of the law (Marquis & Bird 2018; ILepnikova 2017).
In short, being hyper-responsive to public reactions towards the law allowed the government to portray itself as closely in touch with people and issues on the ground, dampening a populist opposition’s ability to appeal to the masses by portraying the government as ‘not in touch’ with Singaporeans. Furthermore, the open engagement with criticisms produces a public image of upholding free speech and tolerance of dissent to moderate the chilling effect of the law that could, ironically, reduce its ability to accurately perform public opinion sensing in the long run.