Future media: Evolution of a discerning public

~by: Howard Lee~

When the Singapore Press Club closed its forum discussion on media coverage of the 2011 general and Presidential elections, there was still one unanswered question on my mind – the way forward for Singapore’s media environment.

Two on the panel, Cherian George, associate professor at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, and Lydia Lim, deputy political editor at the Straits Times, discussed at length the extent of coverage afforded by both traditional and online media, and the technology exploited by both. The general thrust of their presentations, to put it simply, was that traditional media has reached a significant milestone in 2011 in how it covered politics, and while it might never go the way of online media, it was testament to its willingness to respond to the growing ground demand for fair play in political debate.

I wasn’t going to disagree. In all fairness, traditional media’s coverage of the 2011 elections has given more exposure to the opposition parties than before, and the extent of coverage has at times also been critical of the ruling People’s Action Party.

But the 2011 elections has left an uneasy feeling within me, which the forum was not able to provide a resolution for. What will be the role of both media after 2011? Will we see a regression to sterile traditional media coverage of the political incumbent and government policies, to be criticised in vain only by online media? Will the PAP promise of greater engagement with the ‘Internet generation’ be a promise sold short, or even merely lip service?

It is with these questions in mind that I requested an interview with Viswa Sadasivan, CEO of Strategic Moves and the third presenter at the Press Club forum. Unlike Cherian and Lim, Viswa alluded to a void in critical thought which pervaded mainstream media, which was robustly filled by online media. There was a particular tone in the content of coverage that readers demanded, which transcends extent of coverage and technology use. It is this demand that characterised 2011, and which I was most keen to get to the bottom of.

What I did not bank on was a rather interesting insight into Viswa’s take on what might have been an anthropological account of Singapore politics, which he took pains to explain as a context for his views on our evolving media environment.

Viswa spoke of a nexus of symbiotic relationships that underlies our principle of governance, and of society as a whole. This nexus applies not just to party politics but to all aspects of society, including commercial interests, the public service, government linked entities, non-government bodies, and other institutional bodies that are technically independent which you would normally not associate with politics.

In his analysis, Singapore society has historically been governed by the right wing, the key interest of which is to ensure stability in a system that will maintain, if not enhance, their control over a system of benefits.

That nexus has also traditionally been apexed by the political incumbent, not least because in Singapore, the government is pervasive in every aspect of our lives. Hence, it is not strange to find politicians taking top and centre positions in commercial entities and other powerful organisations, or organsisations that desire to be powerful. Think our media conglomerates, People’s Association, trade unions, sports associations, and many more. All these represent the “expanded establishment”.

“It is a patron-client relationship, and everyone who wants to move up the ranks needs to be a patron of people. And people like to be clients of these people, because when the patron moves up, you get rewards. It is that system of interdependency that creates this whole structure that has moved a significant number of people towards the right wing.”

The opposing position, by logic, was the left, characterised by the minority voice that favours change at all cost, which is opposed to the right that favours stability and maintaining the status quo at all cost. The left in all its forms, from socialism to people with ideas that buck the norm, was not able to gain traction because it lacks the support of the nexus. If the right is, according to Viswa, framed by “a strong belief that we should work against any move that is adversarial”, then the left is made up of adversarial voices. Or perhaps it is also true to say that any adversarial voice is relegated to the left as a matter of public discourse that is dominated by the right.

In addition, the entire social structure that the PAP has built up during its dominant rule since the 1970s gave very little impetus for people to support the left, either at a corporate or personal level. Viswa described the “systematic increase of the stakes” during the Lee Kuan Yew era, where public goods were delivered on the back of robust economic progress and affluence, like so many miracles, that Singaporeans would seem insane to vote against. It is a system that makes us naturally more conservative. Indeed, there was nothing sinister or deliberate about it. In fact, Viswa believed it to be a “benign dictatorship” that, in the past, most people have been happy to be part of.

But he also indicated a change in the 1980s. With increasing education and overseas exposure, the Singapore public has grown to be more discerning, and the appeal of the right-wing waned. People have grown to realise (and you would have guessed this, if not heard with your own ears from others) that progress at all cost is not always for the best. As with any maturing society, and ironically as a by-product of affluence, people began to ‘rediscover’ their principles and desire to buck defined and established norms.

Nevertheless ground resentment need not necessarily lead to a change from the status quo. The condition of the nexus, due to its established position, did not compel the PAP to change. “A minister once told me (when I told him about how the ground feels) that yes, they will feel this way, they will be angry and it is good. It will last for two weeks in coffee shops, and then life goes on,” related Viswa.

But life did not go on. The critical step forward came with the age of the Internet and the boom of ‘alternative’ media. The conversation carried on beyond idle chatter, and carried with it the desire for change, defying any restrictions that the political elite have tried to impose on it, light touch or otherwise.

Viswa believed that the age of the Internet beckoned a new technocracy where people were finally given the ability to make their voices heard. However, that point does not account for the latest survey by the Institute of Policy Studies that insisted online media consumption, much less its usage as a platform for self expression, did not match-up to traditional media consumption.

But we might all have been led to believe wrongly that direct consumption is necessary for direct action. My antithesis is that people do not need to go online to seek solace, discover alignment or be mobilised to a cause. By virtue of knowing about dissenting voices, people realise that the left is present, alive and at large, and are able to credit a more mainstream position to what they have always believed as fringe ideals.

It is quite possible that the online world has a much greater influence on the outcome of the elections in specific, and social sentiment in general, something that no quantitative survey is capable of measuring, by virtue that these extended virtual communities were formed not by participation, but by the simple knowledge of their existence.

In many ways, then, the single biggest mistake that the political elite did was to depend on traditional media, its partner in the nexus of the right, to fight the media battle for maintaining the status quo. When online media first emerged in the early 2000s, I remembered a dedicated push by traditional media, bolstered by many a quotable quote from the political elite, to discredit online media. The attempt was likely reactive from lack of an understanding of what to do, but it is probable that the effort only served to push people away from the status quo.

The effort would have likely been based on a miscalculation of ground sentiment, as much as a miscalculation of the intent of online media. The political elite quite likely believed online media to be the new poison that must be stopped, and the people as mainly right wingers at danger of being converted to the left. It would have taken a different mindset to realise that the people were already disenfranchised with the status quo and the “progress at all cost” mantra, and were already prepared for a fresh perspective. Online media merely provided the spark, simply by existing and subsequently then molded discursively into the champion of the left, whether it intended to be or not.

In fact, it matters not that online media does not necessarily champion the left. It matters more that people are now aware of the existence of alternative voices that dare speak out against the establishment. Because it clearly indicates that there is an alternative to the status quo. Opposition parties, I then propose, are merely the options that people can take action with by voting. Whether that option is exercised or not is just as inconsequential. What matters is that the people know they are not alone in their desires, dilemmas and choices.

Reflections

“Great piece on the dolphins. Look forward to your take on the ge/pe”, texted a friend of mine.

That message nearly made me groan aloud. After the curtains went down on 27 August, I have resisted writing, and to some extent talking, about the elections. In truth, it has left a bad taste in my mouth, and it has nothing to do with my expectations of my vote.

Politics has never been my cup of tea. While I enjoyed covering the general elections and (regretfully) gunning from the commentary sidelines for the Presidential one, it is the policy issues that made more sense, and I have been eager to get back to my two interests of media and the natural environment, and to champion progress for these in my writing.

It was for that reason that I listened to Viswa’s concept of the nexus of the right with a mix of caution and intrigued. Caution because I thought I had enough of politics and power, but intrigue because the idea triggered the Foucauldian synapses of governmentality that have always been the sieve of my brain since I first read Discipline and Punish.

But it found its way to this article, because I felt it provided for an artful look into where Singapore society is today, particularly in political and media appetite. Matched against the anecdotal evidence I have heard and read, it was a view that I mostly agreed with, although Viswa suggested clear percentage shifts away from the right in his historic account, which I’d rather not touch on, since it draws very close to speculating the results of the elections. To be honest, it doesn’t really help to stir up that debate again.

It also made me realise that, like it or not, our media environment has always been preconditioned by our political environment, and it is near impossible to frame the position of one without due consideration of the other. Minimally I hope it provided you with an interesting background read.

But do watch out for part 2 – “Future media: Revolving door of the Centre”. I have sought to answer questions about how our media can move forward, and have no intent to let that slip.


Part 2 HERE.