Follow us on Telegram for the latest updates: https://t.me/mothershipsg
REMARK : “The traditional arsenal of weapons of the powerful to subjugate the weak consisted of gunboats and bombs. […] Bombs and guns however are messy and deadly while digital technology is a clean weapon.”
T Jasudasen is a retired diplomat who served in the Foreign Office for 37 years in various ambassadorial posts, including to France, Myanmar, Malaysia and the United Kingdom.
From 2015 to 2021, he served as Singapore’s Non-Resident Ambassador to the African Union and the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, and in July 2021, he was appointed as Singapore’s Non-Resident Ambassador to the Republic of Peru.
In his 2021 essay “Whose Technology To Get There?”, Jasudasen writes about Singapore’s position as a small country with no “inherent value or right to exist in the world” and the importance of maintaining diversity in key areas such as technology, in order to maintain its independence and sovereignty.
Jasudasen’s essay was first published in The birthday book: are we there already? Mothership and The Birthday Collective team up to share a selection of essays from the 2021 edition of The birthday book.
The birthday book (which you can buy here) is a collection of essays on Singapore by 56 authors from a variety of backgrounds. These essays reflect the stories of their lives that define them and the collective future of Singapore.
By T. Jasudasen
How does a small country like Singapore ensure the freedom to work and play and decide the shape of our society without being manipulated by dark and less dark outside forces?
Harness the power of technology
In early January 2021, Twitter and Facebook suspended or closed President Trump’s accounts after the US Capitol building in Washington DC was ransacked.
The president of the supposedly most powerful country in the world was, for all intents and purposes, no longer able to communicate with his 88 million followers on Twitter and 35 million on Facebook.
Shortly after, it was announced that more than 10,000 members of right-wing Trumpist groups had also lost their Twitter and Facebook accounts.
Closer to home, also in January 2021, Facebook threatened to shut down its operations in Australia, a sovereign country of 30 million people, over a dispute with the Australian government over taxes and fees.
The Australian Treasurer (Finance Minister) hit back: “We will not be intimidated, no matter how big the international business, no matter how powerful, no matter how valuable.”
Brave words indeed. A wealthy middle power with a strong economy and resource base coupled with strong global alliances might say those words and mean it.
The aforementioned events seem quite far away from our small island nation, but in fact, little Singapore has become a little more fragile because of these events.
One more tool has been added to the arsenal of weapons used to intimidate, influence and even impoverish small countries to bend them to the will of powerful commercial interests or powerful countries.
The threats are twofold: the first is manipulation for private gain and the second for political and strategic gain.
Importance of technology in Singapore
Singapore is a technology-intensive city. WhatsApp, Twitter, Signal, Telegram, Skype, FaceTime, Zoom and a long list of other services connect Singaporeans to Singaporeans and Singaporeans to the rest of the world. It helps us punch above our weight.
Technology, especially that of communications, makes us an exceptional city.
All of these services are largely controlled by private, unregulated companies based in the United States, who control the master switch to turn services on or off to individuals or classes of individuals or entire countries. .
We have already seen Twitter and other social media platforms being used to manipulate political debates, to influence the outcome of US elections and the UK Brexit vote. We may have breathed a collective sigh of relief that American right-wing militant groups have been temporarily beheaded or temporarily tied up, but we have also entered dangerous territory.
The question is whether private companies can arrogate the right to decide on the values of a community (eg freedom of expression) outside the law in force in the country.
Should we allow the exercise of such arbitrary power without any due process of law or independent body to ensure checks and balances and transparent appeal processes? Have we, in applauding Twitter’s decision to delete 10,000 accounts, inadvertently abandoned the longer-term public good for a quick fix to a bad situation?
This is not a hypothetical or theoretical reflection. What if tomorrow Twitter shuts down the accounts of one or another political party in Singapore for not endorsing their policies, much like it did in the United States?
So how do we protect ourselves from this arbitrary power to manipulate and influence public debate in Singapore?
There are those who argue that over time, antitrust rules will wash over the digital giants. I am less optimistic.
Governments never completely tame yesterday’s multinationals like oil and mining companies. The US Congress is inundated with well-funded corporate lobbyists from powerful multinational corporations who are successfully changing rules, laws, and creating loopholes to benefit their payors’ businesses.
Technology as a “clean weapon”
So far, we have only covered private companies acting as judge and jury. What if powerful states decided to play the same game to achieve their strategic objectives?
Small countries like Singapore have no inherent value or right to exist in the world and many nation states have not survived beyond 100-200 years.
The traditional arsenal of weapons of the powerful to subjugate the weak consisted of gunboats and bombs. President Bush Jr. threatened to bomb Pakistan into the “stone age” if he did not cooperate in tracking down the 9/11 terrorists. Pakistan, a small nuclear power, gave in to American pressure.
In 2014, Russia annexed the Ukrainian region of Crimea.
Bombs and guns however are messy and deadly while digital technology is a clean weapon. Strong states could simply order private companies to cut services to a target country.
The current clash of the Titans, namely the US-China trade war and the Huawei episode, is instructive. To put pressure on China, the United States, among others, simply banned exports of high-performance chips made in the United States to Chinese companies.
Faced with such powerful countries, how does a small country like Singapore ensure the freedom to work and play and decide the shape of our society without being manipulated by dark and less dark outside forces?
China and Russia have created alternative systems
In order to preserve their independence and control their own social media, Russia and China have developed their own social media and networking apps to successfully serve their respective national populations, such as VK and WeChat.
Both have populations with sufficient critical mass to ensure the commercial viability of their platforms.
The Europeans, although NATO allies in the United States, built an independent GPS system called Galileo. The Chinese and Russians also launched their own GPS systems – BeiDou and Glonass.
The main driver of these three alternative systems was, again, the absence of the US-controlled GPS system, which dominates the world in everything – from helping the pizza delivery boy locate our homes to guiding missiles precision towards their targets.
Tech in Singapore: diversification or autonomy?
We have neither the option nor the desire to become a hermit kingdom like North Korea. This is not a viable option for Singapore as our food, water and pretty much everything we need is imported.
The communication platforms that are under the exclusive control of Singapore are the old faithful: broadcast media (radio and television), print media (newspapers and books) and national telephone services.
For the rest of our needs, we are dependent on the world, which most often means the United States. We have excellent relations with the United States, but we have absolutely no assurance that this will continue indefinitely, because among nation states there are no permanent friends or enemies. . — only permanent interest.
Arguably, the advancement of technological systems will allow Singapore to build private communications networks that we can fully demarcate and integrate with global networks, but the question of its adoption rate and commercial viability remains to be determined.
Why reinvent the proverbial wheel?
Yet, until technology advances, we should also consider building regional social media network infrastructure with like-minded countries that also fear being held hostage by global monopolies.
We should also enthusiastically support healthy competition. When customers and countries have a choice, we are less likely to be held hostage by monopolistic companies or the countries that control them.
At the individual level, we can contribute by using products made in different countries. We all love our Apple products, but we should branch out into Huawei, Samsung, or Sony products.
WhatsApp and Instagram aren’t the only social media apps in town. A dozen other good options are available today – in the area, Naver, Line and Kakao, come to mind.
The greater the diversity in Singapore in all key areas, the greater the chance that we will come through intact as an independent and sovereign state, and challenge the dismal history of small states.
Follow and listen to our podcast here
Top photo via Unsplash/NASA.