Ignore Net at your own risk

IT'S just as well that the Net has not been a big force in politics here. Consider just how behind the curve we really are: It's 2001, the Internet tide has come and gone, and the ruling People's Action Party has just launched its official website - sans chatrooms, forums, and other interactive bells and whistles that keep surfers hooked online.

The other political parties don't fare any better, with their no-frills - and in some cases, non-existent - Web offerings to date.

Forget eye-candy: citizens of the future are going to want hard info and fast responses

Of course, those in the know have been clicking on ''indie'' offerings like sintercom.org and thinkcentre.org for alternative and rather more Web-savvy takes on current political chatter.

But this close to our first General Election in the Internet era, the message remains: As far as the political game is played here, cyberspace is still a good-to-have, not must-win constituency.

That's only good old-fashioned pragmatism at work. After all, the current majority of voters in the heartland aren't exactly your Net-head and dotcommer types.

The Singaporean voter that matters most right now - probably in his 30s and 40s - is likely to be too busy paying mortgages and fretting about the downturn to slug it out with political pundits online.

But how long will that last? One, perhaps two more generations remain before the bulk of voters are replaced by Singaporeans who've grown up with the Net, with all its charms and chaff.

You're talking about today's so-called apathetic youngsters, for whom the limited - and admittedly skewed - realm of online interaction is probably the only extensive contact they have with political discussions.

Already, Netizens are airing their traditional grouses online, with a whole range of tools - chatrooms, message boards and mass mails - to spread their views.

Sure, you can leave them alone for an election or two, perhaps bait them with a token, flashy website and let the bread-and-butter issues speak for themselves through the traditional media. What's it going to cost you right now? A few hundred disgruntled votes at best?

Then again, that's hardly the way to go if we're serious about building up a discerning, engaged electorate, much less a ''vibrant cosmopolis''.

For one thing, the foreign talent and overseas Singaporeans we badly need to attract are going to be scrutinising our every move before they make theirs.

You can bet they're surfing our websites with a finetooth comb.

Hooked on salon.com, politics.com and any number of quality Web presences around the world, these cosmopolitans will demand no less sophistication, substance or transparency from our system. It's a global competition, remember?

Talk is cheap, but that works both ways.

So, forget eye-candy, catchy slogans and feel-good ''brochureware''.

Discerning citizens of the future - Singaporeans or otherwise - are going to want hard info and fast responses from a city that touts itself as a wired modern metropolis.

And we'd better deliver at Web speed - as promised.

As for entertaining free-for-all voices online - sure, it can be messy right now, like any underdeveloped platform.

There are plenty of ways to make it work.

Pay attention only to those who identify themselves. Weed out the expletives and moderate flame wars. Or better yet, present the facts, figures and debates and let others do the talking. Keep the buzz up. If nothing else, it's an important investment to help develop the political maturity and vocabulary of our citizenry in the long term.

The alternative is to lose a great opportunity to engage the Net generation on its own turf.

Or worse, alienate the growing Net community altogether.

As a tiny city-state, we may never need to approach the Net-savviness of politics in other countries - with their e-mail hustings, SMS exit polls and online donations.

After all, that's not how we play the game here. But who knows what will happen when the rules change?

For the moment, the best way to deal with politics in cyberspace may be to ignore or sideline it.

But sooner or later, the winners will have to learn to play on its strengths.

Or someone else will.

© alvin pang
clm : rvw : esy : rfl