Insights on the Dynamic Digital Revolution: Hashtags and Personal Identity

This is the first of several scripts I have prepared for my upcoming panel discussion for the Asia Business Summit organised by the Institute of Asian Consumer Insight and Channel News Asia.

Question: The dynamic landscape of digital revolution is set to change a very large aspect of consumer lives, especially in Asia where consumers love technology and are quick to adapt to new gadgets. What are some trends and issue you can foresee happening in 5 years’ time?

One online trend that I’ve observed over the past few years is that a rapidly increasing number of us have started to hashtag our lives: our feelings, our experiences, our personal thoughts. But as we do this, one emerging phenomenon is that we too are beginning to describe ourselves with hashtags. We are beginning to hashtag our own identity, and we are thinking about ourselves in those terms and acting on such an understanding.

In the past, people described themselves with a certain richness. “I am so-and-so, I like to do this and that, my favourite colour, blah blah blah…”

Today, if you check out the many social media profiles on Instagram for example, people describe themselves with hashtags: Writer, blogger, traveller, foodie, photographer, etc. They don’t even bother starting the sentence with “I am a…” No, they go right straight into it.

There is a problem when hashtag ourselves.

Let me start by illustrating the problem with a question: When I say the sky is cloudy, what colour is the sky? Grey? I think most of you will say that. But can the sky be white or blue? Yes!

That’s the problem with language: it says too little and too much at the same time.

As we move into a hashtag mode of self-understanding, of self-identification, we lose track of the richness of understanding and defining who we really are. On its own, this hashtag identification is a minor issue. However, when we begin to measure our worth and success on social media, as defined by those hashtags, based on the number of likes and followers, we fall prey to the terrors of performativity.

When you impose performance measures on people, what happens? We change our behaviours and our perceptions. Performance measures were designed precisely to engineer specific behavioural outcomes, or performance outcomes. Yet, one of the unintended effects is that it can and does change the way we behave in ways beyond the performance goals. James G. March, the sociologist and founder of organisational theory, notes that such performance indicators can produce a culture of distrust and competition rather than cooperation. People, at the mercy of such performance indicators, can live entire lives just working to achieve those goals annd neglect every other aspect that’s as important (but not defined in those performance measures).

The more obsess we are by those metrics, the more we think of ourselves solely in those terms. This makes us behave no differently from a machine.

As we think increasingly of ourselves as hashtags, we come to a reduced, and impoverished understanding of who we are. And this is further reinforced by the very fact that social media platforms are the means by which we present ourselves to the digital world. The likes and follows we receive are a measure of how the world responds to us. It’s our performance measure. And many young people (and not so young ones too) are falling prey to the terrors of such online performance measures.

If I define and present myself online as a foodie, for example, the online reactions I receive are a measure of how good a foodie I am. This traps us in the awful terror of performativity that forces us to work harder at whatever hashtag we used in our identification.

And it doesn’t help that social media services, in their bit to recommend related posts, will aid in reinforcing those hashtags, those perceptions of what we like, and who we are.

But am I more than a foodie, or a photographer, or writer, etc.? Yes.

I am a human being with a myriad passions and interests, likes and dislikes, and more. But it’s easy for us to forget all that when we’ve reduced our identities into a few hashtags.

A Worrying Trend Arising Among Religions in Singapore

Allow me to share something that has been bothering me for some time now.

If you’ve been visiting Christian or Buddhist bookshops here in Singapore, and if you’ve been paying attention, you’d notice that over the past few years, there’s been a drop in the selection of intellectual books and a sharp rise in devotional materials.

Here are two examples:

Novena Church (currently closed for renovation) has a bookshop, which for many years, used to sell a wide variety of books. Years ago, they used to have a good mix. You could find intellectual books dealing with the doctrines of the faith or ethical issues. And that was balanced with a variety of devotional books and devotional items (statues, prayer beads, etc.).

However, as the years went by, the selection of intellectual books dwindled until there was not a single book on doctrine or ethics at all. In the two years before the Church closed for renovation, the bookshop sold nothing but devotional materials.

This trend is present in many other Christian bookshops.

But this trend isn’t just confined to Christianity. Buddhism seems to have the same problem too.

Years ago, there used to be a huge Buddhist bookshop housed in the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple in Chinatown. It was so huge that it occupied an entire floor. I loved to visit that bookshop because of the incredible selection of Buddhist philosophical books. They had a wide variety – and a good balance – of intellectual and devotional materials.

That bookshop, however, closed down, and a small souvenir shop was opened at a corner of the temple selling nothing but devotional books and items (prayer beads, etc.).

I asked a very intellectual Buddhist friend if he noticed a similar pattern in other Buddhist bookshops. He agreed and commented that many Buddhist circles were intensifying their devotional practices, paying little or no attention to the intellectual aspects.

This too is the trend in many Christian circles too.

The demise of intellectual books in religious bookshops has been a worrying indicator for me. The demand for intellectual reading material has dried up, while the appetite for devotional materials has increased sharply in recent years.

And this is a problem not confined to a single religion.

Let me state this to be clear: I am not against devotional practices.

Devotional practices are important in the context of religion. I believe that there must be a healthy balance of both the devotional and the intellectual aspects of religion. Devotional practices help to cultivate the heart, just as how the intellectual aspects help to cultivate the mind.

What bothers me is the sharp drop of religious intellectualism here in Singapore while religious devotion is increasing at a rapid rate.

Of course, I know some atheists and secular humanists might be laughing. Religious intellectualism sounds like a paradox. How can you be intellectual if you are religious?

To some degree, one can be intellectual and religious. At least to be able to justify, with reason, certain tenets of one’s religious beliefs, or of one’s ethical principles.

The slow death of intellectualism, which I’m seeing in Buddhism and Christianity here in Singapore is a worrying trend. Buddhism and Christianity are two of the biggest religions here in Singapore. That this is a trend affecting at least two big religions is disturbing for it points to greater problems slowly simmering in society.

Karl Marx wrote that religion is an “opiate of the masses,” in the sense that people flock to it seeking relief because they are in great pain. The spike in devotion and piety is a symptom of societal stresses. People are alienated from themselves and their work. One of the many outlets from the misery of such a fast-paced, high-stress society and the existential agonies is religious devotion, where they find spiritual and emotional relief. An oasis of calm and peace in a world of madness.

Marx isn’t saying that religious devotion is bad. Religious devotion brings relief from a life of constant pain and agony. That more and more people are flocking to it is a sign that the stresses of modern life is taking a huge toll on people, more than what they are able to bear.

Will we soon be reaching a critical point of high stress in our society that Singapore society breaks down?

That is one of my worries.

To reiterate my point: devotion is useful in cultivating a good heart. What bothers me is the death of intellectualism the rise of devotionalism, and its consequences on society.

Many do not have a good understanding of their own religious beliefs, teachings, or ethical positions. For example, there are many out there who are so fired up about their relationship with God, or with their rituals, but they know nothing about their religion’s teachings or scriptures.

Those who do have some knowledge of these issues, however, do not really know the justifications or rationale behind them.

With good intentions, and with a zeal cultivated by devotion and piety, we are witnessing a decline of religion.

Religion has turned into a soccer match. People take sides depending on their own initial biases. Sometimes the fights occur within one’s own religion.

What I am seeing in real life and on social media are people parroting material they’ve read without really thinking whether what they say is true or problematic.

Worse still, in the name of defending one’s religion (or one’s position on a religious matter), people are parroting terribly irrational answers, the kind of answers that deride the opponent (“Oooo… BURN!”), stirring up their team mates to cheer for them, like a striker scoring a goal.

This can and does lead to extremism.

But I’m not just talking about religious extremism in the kind of fundamentalism of ideas (that happens too). Rather, I’m concerned about extremism involving devotional practices, and its consequences.

Fuelled by religious zeal, one can get too carried away with certain practices or ideas about practices, taking them to an extreme level with dire consequences on others.

Yes, sinners should atone, but to what extent? Of causing bodily harm to themselves? Should we begin forcing certain sinners to atone publicly in certain ways? Yes, modesty is important to the cultivation of virtue and holiness, but to what extent? Of covering up from head to toe? Of imposing the covering up onto everyone else?

The danger begins when people uncritically attach values or high lofty ideals onto specific actions or items, judging those who do not practice those actions or carry those items as having rejected those set of values.

The danger begins when people uncritically think that they have achieved the spiritual goal by doing a certain set of actions, or carrying certain items, thinking that they have no further need to cultivate themselves (they have attained the religious ideal, what more is there to do?), and thus behave in a self-righteous manner.

The danger begins when people in their good intentions and zeal begin to impose – quite uncritically – certain norms onto others (and their community) without realising the consequences of their actions.

The REAL danger is when no one is willing to listen to any opposing voices that find it necessary to examine and critique what’s being done in the midst of all that religious zeal.

The path of dialogue and communication closed, there will only be greater misunderstanding and lack of trust among different parties. Society will thus become increasingly polarised and fragmented.

With the slow death of intellectualism, comes a decline in critical voices and critical examination. Religious circles thus become echo chambers, breeding extremism fuelled only by religious zeal and good intentions.

As the famous saying goes, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

Some Comments on the 2015 Singapore General Elections

Well, the Singapore election results are out. To the (silent) majority who voted for the ruling party, there is a sigh of relief that its business as usual. To the minority who voted for the opposition, there is grave disappointment and even shock at the results.

The PAP won 83 of the 89 contested seats.

Now that the results are out, I’d like to share my thoughts and comments about the elections and where we might be heading towards. What I say may probably be very unpopular both to supporters of the ruling party and supporters of the opposition. I do hope that this post may provide some food for thought as we recover from the election fever, and return to the mundane routine of our daily lives.

First a disclaimer: I am not pro-PAP (People’s Action Party) neither am I a pro-opposition supporter. Both sides are not ideal neither do I like both sides. My principle for this election has been to vote for the one least capable of damaging the country both in the short term and in the long term. It’s difficult to gauge who’s better from just 10 days of campaigning. But it is very easy to determine who’s the worst, who’s the most incompetent, or the most stupid person/team. Whoever promised to be the least damaging for the country got my vote.

One of the most disturbing comments coming out from opposition candidates in response to the election results was that they were surprised by their poor performance in this elections. Many thought that they’d perform better than the last election, and were thus taken aback by the sharp drop in votes. All that rhetoric about being one with the people and understanding their needs is complete utter rubbish. I think it’s safe to say that this came from all opposition candidates who didn’t belong to the Workers’ Party (WP).

Now, this is disturbing to me because it signals their lack of understanding of the ground. If they are to represent the people of their constituency, they must know the needs and thoughts of their people. Many opposition candidates seemed quite content with receiving feedback from social media, rallies, and the people they met while campaigning – as if these sources of information were sufficient for understanding the sentiments on the ground.

WP and PAP, on the other hand, knew very well that they couldn’t trust the rally attendance or social media as reliable sources of on-the-ground information, which was why Mr. Low Thia Kiang and his team weren’t surprised at all with the drastic “swing” in their election results.

The other opposition candidates thought they knew the ground, and thus they were very surprised. Clearly, they were out of touch, surrounded comfortably with people of similar views. They only had a perceived understanding of the needs and concerns of the people. In the end, they lacked the wisdom to discern and listen to the needs of the people. I certainly wouldn’t want them to represent me in Parliament, would you?

Now, what isn’t helpful to the opposition and their supporters is the narrative they constructed last night: the myth of the silent majority and the surprising national swing in favour of the ruling party. (The other myth is the myth of a large group of new citizens, which I’ll treat in a future post)

Once again, this has revealed just how blind these candidates have been to what’s really going on. The Straits Times, for all its flaws and sins as a mouthpiece of the ruling party, has actually done a somewhat decent job (not great, but can do) in pointing out the daily bread and butter concerns of the majority.

Take for example, the issue of many business owners having difficulty expanding or maintaining their operations due to stricter policies on foreign labour. With the exception of the WP, every other opposition party had been quite happy to shoot down foreigners and foreign labour. This does not bode well for many business owners. Of course, this is one of many other examples. The concerns of the “silent” majority are expressed often on the news, but they weren’t picked up by these opposition candidates at all. Instead, they’ve picked up the supposed problems expressed so often and so loudly on social media, as if everything on the Internet is true (or it may be true, but just blown out of proportion).

Furthermore, it is interesting how many of these opposition candidates seem rather oblivious to the strong pro-PAP sentiments arising from the death of Lee Kuan Yew and the SG50 celebrations. They were so strongly expressed both offline and online. Clearly, an election soon after SG50 celebrations was an attempt by the ruling party to ride this wave. How could anyone miss this? How could these candidates – who desire to represent their constituencies – be completely oblivious to it, and show surprise at the results? What cave have they been hiding in to not be aware of this?

On these two points alone, the opposition parties (excluding the WP) have demonstrated utter ignorance and lack of wisdom to be even barely decent candidates. They have no excuse for being surprised.

Nonetheless, this election has helped to differentiate who are the credible and potentially credible opposition parties for the next round of election. The Workers’ Party is clearly the most credible and reputable party. The Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), having reformed itself, showed much potential for being another credible party in the future. These two parties are worth watching out for in the next election.

The other opposition parties have made a fool of themselves in so many ways in just 10 days (some began displaying utter stupidity weeks in advance). They’re definitely not worth anyone’s time or money, even if they come back promising reforms to their leadership and team. The other problem with many of these small parties is that they’re constantly splitting up due to minor differences. They do not know how to handle differences of opinion and they believe that they hold the truth, despite showing how misinformed they can be. This is dangerous on so many levels. The last thing we should confer to them is power of any kind.

Allow me to say a few words about the WP. I have to commend Mr. Low and his team. They knew in advance that they may experience a drop in election results. They knew they were up against the euphoria of SG50 celebrations and the pro-PAP sentiments arising from Lee Kuan Yew’s passing, and hence fielded their candidates very carefully with the priority of maintaining their stronghold.

But in addition to this, what led to WP’s drop was that they had set in the minds of everyone, too high an expectation of their performance in the past 4 years. In the 2011 General Election, they campaigned for a First-world Parliament, where policies would be debated and probed, as a way of checking the PAP. The expectations people had of them were too high, and many were disillusioned because WP did not meet those expectations.

Sure, WP was heavily bogged down by Town Council matters, and that might have prevented them from doing more in parliament. But perhaps, WP allowed themselves to become too distracted by town council issues because the PAP kept probing them about it. Many say that the PAP was playing dirty. But I wouldn’t fault the PAP for that. The problem lies with the way WP handled the issue. It’s suspicious that WP couldn’t produce a straightforward answer each time they were asked. They answered but skirted several issues while they were at it. Such an approach would raise eyebrows naturally, and hence the reason why this issue looks like a dead horse that’s been flogged for years now. Many supporters have become suspicious of the WP as a result of this.

To many who have held high expectations of WP’s First-world Parliament performance, one key area of disappointment was that they seemed to have failed to debate on many issues. Questions posed by the WP in parliament were more like clarification questions, rather than actual probing of policies.

Most disappointingly of all, was their star candidate, Mr. Chen Show Mao. With a Bachelor, Masters and Doctorate degrees from Harvard, Oxford, and Stanford, one would have expected him to be an eloquent and sharp speaker in Parliament, with the keen ability to detect problems in proposed policies by the PAP. He showed himself a great speaker during the 2011 campaigns. But for reasons beyond my comprehension, his performance in Parliament – his speeches and questions, as well as his replies to questions – were far below expectation. I am not sure if he is silenced by the party, but there is a great disparity in the ability he showed at campaigns and in Parliament. What’s going on?

So, yes, there is much soul searching and improvement that the WP needs to do to regain the trust and confidence. If anything, I think the lesson here is that they shouldn’t have set for themselves too high an expectation beyond what they could deliver. It is for this reason that they have to suffer the consequence of losing a single-member constituency, and a drop in votes.

What about the ruling party, the PAP? A great deal of digital ink has been spilled over the stupidity and arrogance of many of their candidates. There are many candidates who are clearly out of touch with the ground and speak as if they have been sitting in an ivory tower for a very long time. I wished they were voted out. There are some who are competent, but make matters worse for everyone whenever they open their mouths. They should have learnt from the previous election to speak less else they’d appear stupid before the masses. Some have learnt their lesson this time round; others didn’t and continued to make a fool of themselves.

Yet, for all the failings of the PAP in their campaigning, I must salute them for having done a much better job this year. There is a marked improvement in the way they presented themselves.

In particular, PM Lee Hsien Loong has certainly done a fantastic job making himself well-loved by many on the Internet over these past years. His winning point is that he has shown himself to be very human, a joyful, lovable person with many geeky interests that the people share in common with – a stark contrast to the strict and authoritarian person his father was.

He was his own personal brand, and one that accompanied all the constituencies this election. To the eyes of many, PM Lee has certainly helped to soften the image of the ruling party. It wasn’t just a vote for the tough, cold, arrogant, uncaring and authoritarian party, it was also a vote for a lovable and jovial geeky mathematician who would lead his people to greater prosperity and peace. This was the power of his personal brand during the campaign. In the past 10 days, you’d see his happy smiling face everywhere you went. As the results of this election has shown, PM Lee’s personal branding has definitely balanced out some of the negative feelings towards the party. I must give credit to the public relations person who helped to craft this image.

The timing of this election has been most peculiar. Why now rather than next year? Some have joked that it had to do with the Hungry Ghost Festival, and that PM Lee was hoping to seek the blessings of the late Mr. Lee Kuan Yew to assist. It is a funny thought.

Yet, the narrative of the PAP’s victory speeches seems to be preparing us for something more drastic.

Sure, the term “mandate of the people” is a term thrown around in elections, but it is over-used this time round (though not as much as the word, “humble”, which was used so frequently it became meaningless).

Given the impending possibility of yet another economic/financial crisis thanks to mess in the US, EU, and China, this mandate of the people is especially important. If Singapore is going to brace itself for the impending economic/financial doom and gloom that is to come, drastic measures need to be taken, measures that will definitely prove to be very unpopular to many. I suspect the phrase, “bitter medicine” will be thrown about a lot in the coming months.

Since the people have given the PAP their mandate, they cannot complain about what’s going to happen in the next five years (to borrow a phrase from the bitter losing candidate, Mr. Kenneth Jeyaretnam). It is perhaps useful that DPM Tharman Shanmugaratnam received a slightly stronger mandate from the people (whether the PAP put in effort to produce his own personal brand I’m not sure, but his awesomeness shone through and he won the favour of many).

Having received such a strong mandate, he will probably be the spokesperson, planner and implementer of the upcoming unpopular changes in policy to brace the nation for impending economic/financial doom.

Perhaps many voters have sensed the impending crisis and are willing to place their trust in a party that has a record of keeping stable in times of economic turbulence, hence the great swing towards the PAP. I’m not sure.

But whatever it is, the people have issued a strong mandate. And if indeed the PAP is going to implement drastic measures to prepare for the impending global economic crisis, we shall see in the months to come.

So, brace yourself! The ride is going to get rough.