START CENTRAL PLATFORM TO LEGITIMISE PETITIONS

ONLINE petitions are not made the same, and sometimes we might be too quick to judge them based on their outcomes (“Online petition a new tool to put issues on agenda”; last Saturday).

Yet it is the diversity of opinions – expressed in petitions, and reflected in perceptions towards them – that is valuable.

Online petitions are not that new in Singapore. Accusations of astro-turfing – or the creation of a fake grassroots movement to suggest that more people feel strongly about an issue than is actually the case – surfaced as far back as 2010, when the Government warned of an online campaign to pressure it to lower property prices (“Yes to feedback, no to pressure campaigns: PM”; March 28, 2010).

The obvious answer is for the Government to create a platform similar to the We The People site in the United States, where signatures are tied to names and identification numbers, to give these collective voices legitimacy.

With a sound SingPass system in place, technical concerns should not be an issue here.

Then, there are worries that online petitions could be frivolous and there might be “uncomfortable situations for governments”.

Also, few petitions have led to policy changes in political systems abroad.

But no matter what the end goal is, petitions and the discourse surrounding them are critical for an active citizenry.

Activists constantly jostle for public space, and the online petition is one of many tools – it gives visibility and credibility.

With nothing to fill the void left by Our Singapore Conversation, and the apprehension towards street protests – Hong Lim Park notwithstanding – it comes as no surprise that online petitions have complemented the traditional approaches of mailing (and e-mailing) parliamentarians or decision-makers.

By using a central platform to legitimise petitions, the Government can not only engage more people in conversation, but also tailor and tinker with national policies.

It may be of political interest to preserve homogeneity, yet this aversion to conflict will yield nothing in the long run.

Dr Amy Khor, chairman of the Government’s feedback unit Reach, has maintained that some issues are divisive and it is important that “these divisions do not deepen” (“A ‘challenge’ for NLB to balance various interests”; Sunday).

Yet, a staunch refusal to take sides might please nobody in the end, and the Government’s role as an adjudicator will come into increasing prominence.

Kwan Jin Yao

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