I don't think all the interest suddenly vanishes; I saw this article yesterday, but didn't have the time to respond in the depth that I felt it deserved. Right off the bat, I will say that I'm not particularly familiar with Singaporean culture, and although I've heard and read quite a few things about Singapore, it's always difficult to make judgments from the outside looking in. Also, not having much experience with Foreign Policy magazine and their biases, I'd say the overall tone of the article was generally supportive of surveillance in general, but it raised several good points.
The fundamental premise here seems to be that through harnessing mass surveillance and big-data analysis, a more harmonious society can be created, which on its face, seemed like a bit of a non-sequitur. With Singapore's different culture and laws surrounding privacy, it allows for surveillance to tackle all sorts of problems, allowing them to accomplish governmental goals in a more intelligent and informed way:
Across Singapore's national ministries and departments today, armies of civil servants use scenario-based planning and big-data analysis from RAHS for a host of applications beyond fending off bombs and bugs. They use it to plan procurement cycles and budgets, make economic forecasts, inform immigration policy, study housing markets, and develop education plans for Singaporean schoolchildren -- and they are looking to analyze Facebook posts, Twitter messages, and other social media in an attempt to "gauge the nation's mood" about everything from government social programs to the potential for civil unrest.
Ultimately, I felt like the article was heavy on claims, but light on the details of exactly how the rubber meets the road. Of course this entire piece was written with the blessing of the Singapore government, and judging from the example about a lawsuit brought against the New York Times Co. over a libelous column against their PM in the International Herald Tribune, the government monitors critical writing and opinions carefully, so I read it with a grain of salt.
The first example, about SARS, does the best job of highlighting the benefits from big-data analysis. Connecting the dots of where and when an infectious disease is breaking is certainly the holy grail of public health. It reminds me that Google is actually really good at tracking and predicting flu activity just from analyzing search queries. I can agree that harnessing big-data analysis for purposes like this are in the public's interest, but obviously the RAHS system goes much further than that.
For all the of the hyperbolic and inflammatory accusations claiming that the US is just like 1984, Singapore is clearly much closer to that reality than the US is. I thought it was interesting that their internet traffic is monitored for two types of prohibited content: porn and racial invective. The author made a note of the fact that they do a poor job of blocking porn, although there was no analysis as to why porn is officially blocked, or whether their porous filters allow it on purpose. The bit about racial invective, however, was quite interesting:
Post a comment or an article that the law deems racially offensive or inflammatory and the police may come to your door.
Singaporeans have been charged under the Sedition Act for making racist statements online, but officials are quick to point out that they don't consider this censorship. Hateful speech threatens to tear the nation's multiethnic social fabric and is therefore a national security threat, they say. After the 2012 arrest of two Chinese teenage boys, who police alleged had made racist comments on Facebook and Twitter about ethnic Malays, a senior police official explained to reporters: "The right to free speech does not extend to making remarks that incite racial and religious friction and conflict. The Internet may be a convenient medium to express one's views, but members of the public should bear in mind that they are no less accountable for their actions online."
The premise that the right to free speech shouldn't extend to inciting racial or religious friction is one I don't necessarily agree with, although I would be curious to hear what other Hubskites think about this. Certainly free speech is not an absolute right, but the idea of "religious friction" as being off-limits seems like an ambiguous determination which could be ripe for abuse. I can understand the desire to maintain harmony in a racially diverse urban society, but I have to question if banning, limiting, or otherwise controlling speech about race is really creating harmony, or just merely preventing the public expression of acrimony caused by other underlying factors.
The author also addresses what I would consider a fundamental tension in any democratic society employing mass surveillance, especially one as authoritarian as Singapore, and that's how to handle critique of the ruling party. A democracy requires the free and open exchange of ideas and information between citizens; controlling the public conversation is tantamount to controlling the democracy. There seems to be an interesting distinction made by the Singaporean government in this regard, allowing some criticism of the official dogma, while "commentary that impugns an individual's character or motives. . . is off-limits because, like racial invective, it is seen as a threat to the nation's delicate balance." I suspect I might not be getting a full story here, and my lack of knowledge when it comes to Singaporean internal politics does myself a disservice.
It is interesting to note that defenders of US surveillance practices will sometimes say that if you're not a criminal, why should you worry about surveillance? It seems that among Singaporeans, there is a slight tweak to that aphorism: "if you're not a criminal or an opponent of the government, you don't have anything to worry about." Coupled with all of the individual surveillance, this seems like a system ready to be abused, and although the article offers virtually no examples of such abuse, I have to wonder in what myriad of unpublicized ways these powers are being used.
In the end, I leave the article with an appreciation for the double-edged sword that mass surveillance and big-data analysis is. The author notes that recently the RAHS system has been expanded to get detailed metrics about public opinions and perceptions which would probably otherwise be impossible to see. A government which is responsive to the mood and feelings of the public is certainly a good thing, although I would expect that a technocratic government like Singapore's recognizes that populism is hardly a silver bullet. Several examples at the end illustrate that the ruling party is coming under increasing pressure on a variety of fundamental issues like labor, housing, food, economic growth, etc. While surveillance and big-data analysis may provide unique insight into new solutions, the pernicious authoritarian aspects of those techniques could just as easily turn repression into a solution.
"In Singapore, the threshold for surveillance is deemed relatively higher," according to one RAHS study, with the majority of citizens having accepted the "surveillance situation" as necessary for deterring terrorism and "self-radicalization." Singaporeans speak, often reverently, of the "social contract" between the people and their government. They have consciously chosen to surrender certain civil liberties and individual freedoms in exchange for fundamental guarantees: security, education, affordable housing, health care.
But the social contract is negotiable and "should not be taken for granted," the RAHS team warns. "Nor should it be expected to be perpetual. Surveillance measures considered acceptable today may not be tolerable by future generations of Singaporeans."
Again, given my lack of knowledge of Singaporean culture, internal politics, and history, I have little choice but to accept the quote from the RAHS study at face value, but I think it serves to highlight the varied and fluid nature of social contracts between people and their government. It's important to remember that any social policy inevitably involves a trade-off of values, and it's hard for me to say what should or shouldn't work for them. In any complex system, it's difficult to pull out one particular policy and determine its results; Singapore obviously has had great successes with respect to economic growth and public safety and their focus on the social contract between citizens and their government seems well placed.
Essentially, it comes down to an issue of how such a system is used. There is no magic solution to any of the problems faced by governments, as the author duly notes at the very end of the article. Governance is a tricky issue; so long as the public has trust and faith in their leaders, and those leaders enact policies and use their powers in ways which benefit the public as a whole, that should be the ultimate goal. The sidelong comparisons to US surveillance felt out of place considering how the US intelligence community, in some ways, places itself above the social contract.