We, the Onternauts of Singapore

From ”Survey: 1 in 3 is a political cynic’, 15 Sept 2011, article by Gwendolyn Ng, My Paper

An emerging group of media consumers, who get their political news from alternative online sources, have been found to read newspapers and other mainstream media as well. They have been dubbed “onternauts” by senior research fellow Tan Tarn How of the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS). Onternauts, he explained, comes from a combination of the words “online”, “alternative” and “astronauts”.

He was speaking at a seminar at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy yesterday, about the results of the Survey on Political Traits and Media Use conducted from July to October last year.

…There are certain political traits that these onternauts exhibit: They are politically more knowledgeable, interested and liberal. They also tend to be more politically engaged online and off- line, be it posting a comment on a blog or speaking to politicians.

…The study also found that 30 per cent of Singaporeans are political cynics, defined by their distrust of politicians.

…These cynics are more likely to use online alternative media and foreign websites. They also prefer to use interpersonal channels like face-to-face meetings to discuss politics, the survey found.

One of the study’s researchers, Dr Zhang Weiyu, suggested that the Government and policymakers take advantage of the online and interpersonal channels to reach these people.

Dr Zhang, an assistant professor at the National University of Singapore’s Department of Communications and New Media, said: “We need to encourage interpersonal discussions directly between politicians and citizens… We find that interpersonal talk has a big influence on political psychology.”

‘Onternaut’ is a hastily assembled portmanteau that sounds to me more like a dinosaur Decepticon from Transformers than someone politically active in social media. We used to call people who trawl the web for information ‘surfers’, people with personal websites ‘web hosts’, later converted to ‘bloggers’ and subsequently ‘netizens’, implying a community of people with common ideologies who simply spend more time online chatting and posting information rather than sit around discussing politics.  Apparently you don’t ‘surf’ online anymore, either you float around helplessly in a vacuum like astronauts do, or embark on a flight plan around ‘cyberspace’ in a metaphorical rocket ship. As a ‘blogger’ myself, I don’t find anything ‘naut-y’ about what I do online. The web in its infancy indeed used to be as mind-blowing to its users as an excursion to outer space with infinite possibilities (hence the term cyberspace). Today, getting online and navigating it is as mundane as the air you breathe and there’s nothing about the experience that resembles the soaring, desolate majesty of conquering the final frontier. People don’t ‘explore’ like ‘nauts do anymore, they are spoonfed endless information on their apps, social media feeds, and respond intelligently or regurgitate stupidly. Type half a key search term and Google’s drop down fuzzy logic reads your mind in less than a second. In fact, the only thing that we still take too long to search for are naked celebrities pictures. Otherwise, we’re not so much ‘onternauts’ as we are ‘ontergluttons’, gobbling, processing, excreting anything that ‘cyberspace’ throws at us.

As for the survey, it’s worth nothing that although it’s reported that 30% of ALL SINGAPOREANS do not trust politicians, this was in fact conducted on only 1092 Singaporeans aged 21 years and above who i) ANSWERED THE CALL (It was a telephone survey) and ii) ENTERTAINED the experimenter (See full report here), hardly a sample representative of all 5 million of us. It’s possible that responders would have also refrained from answering truthfully, in light of the subject nature of the questionnaire and the fact that the experimenters HAVE THEIR NUMBERS. According to the report, political cynicism is a ‘mistrust of politicians and political processes’, and the four statements to be rated from Not Cynical at all (1) to Very Cynical (5) include:

1) Politicians quickly forget their election promises after a political campaign is over

2) For politicians, having more power is more important than catering to the people’s wishes

3) People are frequently manipulated by politicians

4) Generally speaking, I can trust the Singapore government to do what’s right.

I’m particularly interested in how question 4 fared, but alas ratings for all questions were added up and averaged, diluting the effect of any sub-score being a consequence of lying in the face of fear. I, for one, wouldn’t say I’m VERY CYNICAL about the Singapore government to a total stranger over the phone. But if these were truly a random sampling, one has to question the methodology of ensuring that subjects really understood the questions, or even what ‘cynical’ means in the first place.

One could argue about the definition of a ‘cynic’ all the way back to the Greek philosophers, but I’m sure ‘cynicism’ is slightly different from the rather harsh ‘mistrust’. If a friend tells me I just won the lottery I would be ‘cynical’ not because I don’t TRUST him, but because of the infinitesimal probability of me ever winning the lottery. I would then take measures to verify its authenticity (call Singapore Pools for example) under the assumption that my friend was misinformed. Cynicism, in this sense, is reasonable disbelief and there needs to be a gut-level assessment of available evidence or history before responding to what we’re told.

I would be ‘cynical’ of what politicians say depending on the ‘track record’ of the politician (If he’s ‘walked the talk’ before, I’m more likely to believe him) and the general feasibility of the action proposed. To be ‘cynical’ is not to be a ‘sucker’ for false promise and hope, and yet cynicism is painted in a grossly negative light in this survey, employing all the textbook  ‘bad politician’ cliches, with some of the statements even defining the stereotype of a politician like how ‘lying’ defines a lawyer (sometimes a politician too). By lacking any sense of precision, what the results basically tell us is that Singaporeans are ‘cynical’ about the IDEA of a politician, rather than ‘distrust’ the ruling Government, and frankly I don’t see how these results are even useful in any way. How does this suggest that government invoking more online presence reduces ‘cynicism’? A dead set anti-PAP cynic will not change his mind about government no matter how much a politician ‘Likes’ his comments, in fact Facebook has even landed MPs and presidential elects in worse trouble than if they never had accounts at all. Is ‘less cynicism’ even a good thing? The report doesn’t address the cause or benefits, if any, of our nagging cynicism. In fact, one aspect of the survey which pits Mr Brown vs Ris Low in a popularity poll makes me CYNICAL of its usefulness entirely.

Mr Brown Boomzed by Ris Low

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3 Responses

  1. […] Disclosure – funny little world: Leave my educated ovaries alone! – Everything Also Complain: We, the Onternauts of Singapore – Yours Toothfully by Dr Chan Joon Yee: Catch A […]

  2. […] blogger Everything Also Complain is not happy over the Onternaut term ‘Onternaut’ is a hastily assembled portmanteau that sounds […]

  3. […] bloggaren Everything Also Complain gillar inte termen Onternaut: ‘Onternaut’ is a hastily assembled portmanteau that sounds to me […]

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