2008: The year of the blogger-activist

Benjamin Cheah / Senior Writer

On January 2nd, artist and blogger Seelan Palay held a hunger strike outside the Malaysian High Commission. He intended to protest against the detention of five leaders of the Hindu Rights Action Force under Malaysia’s Internal Security Act. Nobody realised that this would be the harbinger of things to come – a year marked by more active expressions by ordinary Singaporeans.

This article aims to review 2008 through the New Media framework, focusing on events in which users of new media have played a significant role as actors or commentators.

Mas Selamat’s Escape

In the afternoon of 27 February, suspected terrorist Mas Selamat bin Kastari escaped from Whitley Road Detention Centre.  This sparked an unprecedented island-wide manhunt conducted by the army and police, which is still ongoing today, albeit on a much smaller scale. Singaporean bloggers, even those who do not normally blog about socio-political events, poured out their fears, anger and resolve on the Internet. But as the circumstances surrounding the escape gradually came to light, these bloggers, too, started to scrutinise the Government’s response to the escape. Inevitably, the questions that they raised were intertwined, rightly or wrongly, with criticisms of the workings of State.

Among the initial concerns was how the alleged terrorist managed to escape from a seemingly well-guarded prison facility, so low profile that many Singaporeans have not even heard of it. This was followed by a greater torrent of questions surrounding the four-hour time lapse between the escape and the notification of the mass media, as well as whether or not the Government would have informed the people had MSK been apprehended within these four hours.

Later, as the police released information about MSK, bloggers criticised the authorities for disseminating critical information, such as his clothing and his limp, a week after his escape, instead of immediately after. The final straw came when the Government organised a Commission of Inquiry (COI) to investigate the member, staffed by people with strong connections to the Government even though the Government branded it as “independent”. Blogger Gerald Giam summed it all in a single word: hubris.

The Prime Minister himself was showing signs of questionable leadership. Despite the severity of this incident, he made no appearances before the media until the 9th of March – some 11 days after Mas Selamat had escaped. On that day, his principal message was what would soon be an oft-repeated cliché: these things happen; close ranks; move on. Of the important questions that were asked, none were answered.

As March turned to April, the Government shifted its stance once more. Following the release of the COI’s report, the Government blamed Singaporeans for letting Mas Selamat escape, citing complacency and a dependency mentality, and said that the Government itself was not to blame. The COI was itself seen as less-than-independent; this move was perceived by bloggers as further deepening the divide between the Government and the people, and as proof that the Government sees itself accountable to no one.

Bloggers take action offline

The genesis of this trend was in 2007. The Government commissioned the Advisory Council on the Impact of New Media on Society (AIMS) to study New Media and determine how the Government could better utilise it in the future. In response, 13 bloggers stepped forward to propose their own recommendations to AIMS and MICA. (See TOC’s articles about AIMs here.)

The Bloggers 13, as they were known, crafted a proposal that focused on the deregulation of the Internet, with particular emphasis on party political films and censorship. Written, debated and edited entirely on Google Docs, this proposal was quite literally a child of New Media.

Bloggers 13 organised a press conference before submitting the proposal to the Minister of Information, Communication and the Arts in April. When AIMS unveiled its proposal in August, Bloggers 13 responded with its own press conference, highlighting its main concerns with the proposal. At this moment, Bloggers 13 is working out a key tenant of its proposal, namely the Internet Content Consultative Committee.

The Online Citizen also embarked on a similar venture in the field of public transport. As part of its Public Transport Week in September, TOC expanded upon and re-published a series of proposals designed to improve Singapore’s public transport system in February. This paper was sent to the Minister for Transport, in the hope that it would be considered. The Ministry responded to TOC with an email acknowledging receipt of the proposals.

In August, TOC conducted a street survey in Jurong GRC, following the death of one of the People’s Action Party’s MPs, Dr Ong Chit Chung.  The results were brought to the attention of Parliament, during its August sitting, by Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP), Mr Siew Kum Hong.

TOC columnist Leong Sze Hian had written a series of letters throughout the years to the mainstream press. These letters focused on a series of pertinent issues, ranging from healthcare to accountability. Mr. Leong has since compiled these into a book titled, “Issues that matter – Uniquely Singapore: F1 or F9?”. The book has been published and is now on sale.

Greater Political and Media Liberalisation – almost

Traditionally, the mainstream media and bloggers have been portrayed as being at loggerheads. The Government, too, is seen as being ultra-conservative and authoritarian. But this perception was altered somewhat on April 16, when the Media Development Authority approved Speakers Cornered, a film by Martyn See, that has scenes of demonstrations and gatherings at Speakers’ Corner.

In July, MICA affirmed that it would continue with its “light touch” policy for New Media, and might consider a lighter touch. AIMS’ report in August was encouraging for socio-political bloggers, as it seemed to expand on this “light touch” policy, by narrowing the scope of prosecution for “party political films” and acknowledging that censorship was no longer an option.

The Government announced measures to liberalise Singapore’s political space in late August. Among these were a removal of the tacit ban on demonstrations and public speeches at Speakers’ Corner in Hong Lim Park. Activists soon capitalized upon the easing of regulations surrounding the use of Speakers’ Corner. This was demonstrated in October when four students from the Nanyang Technological University took to Speakers’ Corner to protest their school’s censorship of the coverage of the visit by the SDP’s Dr Chee Soon Juan. The students eventually created an indepedent online newspaper, The Enquirer, to circumvent such censorship.

The following month, November, it was the turn of polytechnic students who used New Media to organise a petition to call for fairer public transport fares for students from the polytechnics. Its Facebook group has to date attracted almost 13,000 members.

Taking the Government to Account

In September, Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy. Singaporeans who had purchased their structured products found their savings gone overnight. Mr. Tan Kin Lian, former Chief Executive of NTUC Income and avid blogger, organised a talk-cum-forum at Hong Lim Park regarding this issue, laying out ways and means to seek redress, and calling on the Monetary Authority of Singapore to “do the right thing”. This matter slow-boiled throughout October, with the Monetary Authority of Singapore doing little to reassure investors. Mr Tan conducted a total of six gatherings at Speakers’ Corner on the issue, all of which were organised and publicised through his blog.

November saw NMP Eunice Olsen asking about the Town Councils’ exposure to structured products. It was known that the Town Councils may invest up to 35% of its sinking funds, but the TCs did not reveal where the money was invested in. This sparked a wider range of questions from bloggers, demanding to know where the people’s money have gone to. While Minister for National Development Mah Bow Tan said that the Town Councils have the duty to explain how it invests its funds. The Online Citizen acted on November 25, issuing a call to demand answers from the Town Councils. On December 5, it was revealed that the Town Councils would not reveal any more information. On the same day, The Online Citizen conducted a series of speeches at Hong Lim Park about human rights and social justice, with a particular emphasis on the Town Councils’ lack of accountability, attempts by investors to seek redress, and other basic human rights Singaporeans are entitled to.

Trends and Directions

This year has seen the emergence of three distinct trends.

Firstly, online activists and socio-political bloggers are becoming more organised, confident, and assertive. Bloggers are also pressuring the Government for accountability and transparency, through letters, e-mails, petitions and speeches, on a larger scale than before. The demographics of these bloggers are also expanding, including amongst their number secondary school students and professionals in their sixties.

Secondly, bloggers and activists are going offline. Previously, the work of socio-political bloggers and activists were done online, through articles, petitions and papers. However, activists are now making bolder offline statements, by conducting mass actions to communicate their ideas. By going offline, activists and bloggers are creating a public image and identity for themselves, in order to amplify their message and improve their credibility. In doing so, they hope to solve the problem of reaching out to a wider audience, namely people who usually do not read blogs.

Thirdly, bloggers and activists are becoming one and the same. Bloggers seem to be coming to the realisation that they must press for the change they want to see in Singapore, instead of simply writing about what they want. Activists, in turn, are starting to use New Media as a means to reach out to a wider audience to spread their message, most commonly through blogs and social networking sites. The demarcation between blogger and activist is beginning to dissolve, and has, in fact, already become irrelevant for certain individuals.

Challenges for 2009

There are three main challenges bloggers and activists would face in 2009. The first is to reach out into the general public, as opposed to the Internet-savvy public. This entails meeting people who do not usually read blogs to answer their questions and understand their concerns face-to-face. This would in turn translate into bloggers and activists making offline appearances more often and on a larger scale, aided by Singapore’s recent political liberalisation.

The second challenge is to effect the changes they would like to see. With political power solidly in the hands of the Government, bloggers and activists must at some point actively engage the Government. Previously, bloggers have largely been preaching to the converted, telling the Internet community about their views but not approaching the Government with their ideas. Activists must focus on finding ways to break through to Singapore’s notoriously feedback-unfriendly Government in order to effect change.

The third challenge, especially for bloggers who engage in citizen journalism, is to maintain journalistic integrity amidst the activism. One of the fundamental tenants of journalism is to never, ever get involved in an issue. From a blogger’s approach, this means covering all sides of an issue and not pushing for any one side. While individual bloggers have the luxury of choosing to report a particular issue while at the same time pushing for a particular agenda, group blogs do not. Group blogs like TOC must find a way to maintain journalistic integrity should they choose to support activists of any stripe in any way. To fail to do so would risk being tainted by a critical brush, and irreparable blows to their reputation and credibility, and therefore effectiveness.

2008 has seen many changes. 2009 would not be any different. The online community should be ready to adapt to these changes, and meet the above-mentioned challenges. Now more than ever, it is up to the blogger-activist to effect the change he wants to see, as groups and individuals, with new Media as his most powerful tool.

It would be interesting to see how 2009 unfolds.

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