The Online Citizen

Future media: Revolving door of the Centre

September 23
13:03 2011

~by: Howard Lee~

Pole positions of the media

When I spoke to Viswa Sadasivan about his views from the Singapore Press Club’s forum on media coverage during the elections, he spoke at length about the historical establishment of the right and the re-emergence of the left through online media.

But it would be simplistic of us to immediately assume that online media is a mouthpiece for the political opposition, just as it is wrong of us to accuse traditional media of being PAP’s loudhailer. In fact, we are better off looking at traditional media as the protector of right wing ideals of stability and the status quo, from which it will derive the most benefits.

Similarly, online media champions left wing ideals of change, and this position is understandable. The online world has never been part of the nexus of governance by symbiosis that typified the right. It derives no benefits from it, and sees no reason why any part of it cannot be challenged.

Viswa indicated that it is the nature of “the emerging form of media to support emerging trends. And emerging trends usually involve people who challenge the status quo, which is not necessarily the same as pro-opposition.”

So we have a situation of traditional media co-existing with online media. If we examine the historical development of both media in light of Viswa’s left-vs-right concept, we might not be that far off from saying they represent the polar ends – not by political affiliations, but by principle of existence. In that sense, the argument that online media has ‘polarised the country’ is incorrect, although we might argue that without online media, the natural polarity in our nation would not have become obvious. If that were true, have those positions changed in 2011?

The new centre

We might be inclined to think that the boom of online media leading up to the 2006 and 2011 elections has increased voter affiliations with the political opposition. The popularly coined term ‘Internet elections’ comes to mind, and given the serious vote swings to opposition parties in 2006 and again in 2011, we might be inclined to give in to that belief.

However, that is only part of the story. Voting is an absolute – by casting your vote for one party, you have summarily denounced support for the other(s). But a vote cannot account for the full range of perceptions and valued judgments that voters go through as they head for the ballot boxes.

Indeed, Viswa suggested the slow dismantling of the entrenched right wing and the emergence and growth of the centre right – people who want stability, but could be willing to support anything else that works around it. I would even go as far as to suggest the growth of the centre left – people who will challenge anything that they perceive it to be wrong unless it affects stability, but are not yet ready to accept the kill-or-be-killed thinking of the extreme left (if that position still exists).

The exact percentage shifts from the extreme into the moderate centre, and in particular how they voted, would likely be speculative, but it was clear that there is a sizeable population that no longer subscribe to the extremes, clearly believing that there is some give and take in between. In fact, Viswa suggested “a revolving door between the centre right and the centre left”, where people move between positions depending on their comfort level with the proposed changes to policies.

Similarly, this attitude of give and take begins to filter into how people approach their media consumption, allowing for greater acceptance of contrarian views that upset the status quo. Beliefs determine consumption, contrary to all you have heard that says consumption determines beliefs.

As such, we are seeing the creation of a new readership that clearly discerns the quality of their media and are willing to take arguments from diverse positions, possibly even from the extreme ends. What concerns this new readership, however, is not the division of disparate viewpoints, but the convergence of viewpoints towards a workable solution to solve problems in society.

Placing media into the convergence

Fitting into this new readership landscape is a challenge that both traditional and online media need to sort out for themselves, given their historical roots. Viswa felt that traditional media has been moving slowly into the centre since 2006. While rank and file reporters have hankered for greater freedom, he believed that the move could be a sanction or agreed pact between the political elite and the conglomorates’ management. “Since 2006, the government realised that there is a surge of people towards new media, and the only way they can offset that is by beefing up their own channel, take away some of the constraints and let them have a lot more critical articles.”

At the heart of it is also commercial interest. Traditional media realised that advertisers are looking for eyeballs on advertisements to justify their investment, and the fact is that their readership growth rates have gradually decreased over the years. With the gradual shift in the population towards moderate views, traditional media risk losing a sizeable number of eyeballs unless they have content to keep them interested.

By comparison, online media is not bound by the stakes of right wing interests, and to a lesser extent by commercial interests. But they are also constrained by the need for readers, otherwise the labour of love is simply not worth sustaining. Online media can choose to veer whichever way to quickly attract the most eyeballs, as long as it continues to distinguish itself from traditional media, even if that means courting the extreme left.

But to Viswa, there is some readership risk in making that move. “The new media is playing to that role (of a left champion), and I don’t think that is healthy, because it adds fodder to the government’s argument that the new media is left. And the moment you are labeled left, you actually lose the support of the centre (majority).”

Projecting forward, traditional media and online media would most likely operate on diverse ends of the political spectrum, but weighing heavy towards the politically diverse centre, with some potential for overlap and cooperation (see diagram). It is an uneasy truce, but not that bad an idea, provided both media are clear that they do not have to be adversarial towards each other, and respect these to be the boundaries set by our evolving socio-political landscape.

But we only speak of media. I have already made clear that power structure premeditates media directions. Similarly, power structure will also have an impact on how this evolving media ecosystem can be realised. Would the power elite be keen to promote this evolution?

Poor position of the power elite

Perhaps the question is not if they are able to, but how quickly they will perish if they don’t. According to Viswa, the PAP might not have the necessary disposition to take on the task. “If you were brought up conditioned in a certain way, and then exposed to a completely different condition, and to survive you need to give up everything you have been conditioned with, can you do it? Your instincts to survive will be there, but you have no experience to survive, so you will try to put up a fight. But you are conditioned so differently that the fight you put up and the methods you use will be ridiculous.”

The predictability and comfort that the years of being in the right wing has cultivated could not stand up to the onslaught of the online world, to the extent that the response to adversity is often inadequate, and just as easily made a mockery of in the environment that it tries to control. It explains the many hesitant steps, fumbles, and flat-faced falls that the PAP has encountered in its foray into online media, but also in how it has obstinately tried to engaged traditional media in terms that favours the status quo.

The response, however, should not be to control or fight against it. “One of the key concepts they need to go by is partisan perceptions,” proposed Viswa. “You have to look at things from the partisan viewpoint, develop a strategy from that viewpoint, immerse yourself in that viewpoint, and start feeling the way the other feels. Move away from conspiracy theories and try to find out where they are coming from.”

“If you don’t take pains to understand where the other party is coming from and their motivations, you will miscalculate and respond to a miscalculated perception. My sense is that they see online media as trying to topple, disgrace and embarrass the government. They see your motivation as wanting to discredit and destroy them. But I think your real motivation is for the common man’s voice to be heard, and plant the seed for important social change for Singapore’s betterment. And for that to start, you necessarily have to highlight all the negatives, and it is then natural for a banter to take place. The incumbent can then put forward their position, and the online world can then choose to agree or disagree, and you have a sparing, which is healthy. It doesn’t have to become pugnacious or adversarial.”

Building up this evolving media environment is important to the political elite – it has to, or it will not survive the evolution. For Viswa, this has to be done on both traditional and online media fronts. It needs to empower traditional media by removing both visible and invisible barriers, such as the Newspapers and Broadcast Act and editorial manipulation, and then constructively engage online media, rather than create new platforms that are viewed as propaganda machines. It needs to engage in open debate with unbridled players on everyone else’s turf but its own.

“We need to move towards a new new normal, which is a willingness to accept each other’s point of view that is contributing to the whole,” said Viswa.

The power elite needs to realise that it cannot choose the battles it wishes to fight in this new world, without alienating a public that has grown increasingly aware of issues and demanding of fair play. It needs open engagement, and a willingness to change policy. It is not for populist reasons, but for the progress of this nation, a goal which even the opinionated online world shares.


“When Workers Party becomes the next government, will TOC still write good things about it?” a friend once asked.

I had no answer. I can’t even be sure that TOC will write good things about WP now. But with all my heart, and encouraged by Viswa’s analysis, I dare say online media will give WP their fair share, should they become the new right and be found incompetent or complacent.

The question, of course, did not use “if”, but “when” WP, or any other party for that matter, becomes the government. In the natural order of things, PAP cannot hope to be in power forever. Nevertheless, the right wing will always remain, it being only a matter of who sits at its apex. And ironically, as long as the incumbent remains unchallenged, it risks retardation similar to what we have witnessed from 2006 to 2011.

The silver lining, if the incumbent chooses to see it that way, is that before any other political party can take over, the warnings would have already been sounded loud and clear by an emboldened traditional media and the ever-contrarian online media. The question is, would they see this, take advantage of an increasingly open public sphere and encourage this future media model?

I guess we will know by the next general elections. But for the sake of this nation, I hope we don’t have to wait that long.

Part 1 HERE.

  • Titiana Ann Xavier

    So long as the PAP government is in power, MSM will be coerced into being pro-establishment.

    The social media will always attract readers who are aversed to being fed a diet of pro-government propaganda.

    New media remain a threat to the establishment. It is unable to cope with anti-establishment diatribes much to its chagrin.

  • notanotherspinstory

    MSM is the voice of Squealer. They don’t represent anybody but the PAP. People who agree with MSM are either collaborators or mindless followers.

    Online media is the true voice of Singaporeans. Singaporeans who lost their basic human right of freedom of speech.

    PAP can forget about engaging online. They will be blasted by a thousand voices every time.

  • Angelina

    “And the moment you are labeled left, you actually lose the support of the centre (majority).”

    Doesn’t this mean the ‘centre’ are ‘right’ inclined?

    Media cannot be neutral or centre. The role of the media is redundant if it is. They have to take a stand in order to choose stories to report besides how to report.

    Therefore media cannot be centre and therefore a balance of left and right media is a must in a good society, for the good of the society and the builidng of thinking people.

  • andrew leung

    ST is to further prevent people from participating in politics. You can’t have your views heard or entertained. Only PAP has the right to participate in politics and decide your fates. ST is to suppress the people’s thoughts. They want to put down the people and put them into their place. They have put down the earlier batch of independent thinkers. Now the new generation is going to be put down again. PAP rears its ugly head.

  • F-pap

    No problem, soon The Shit Times will be redundant. It wont affect anyone anymore.

  • imhogtg

    Especially with their ridiculous pricing for their online and ipad version

  • First World

    @ Angelina

    I think by referring the media as centre probably means that after digging out the facts, if it sides to left or the right, report it entirely as it is without prejudice. Difficult as it might be, but that is what the media should be, to disclose and provide valuable informtions without abusing the power of media.

    No offence intended.

  • andrew leung

    Let’s see how Dr Lee Boon Yang will manage SPH. Does he have his own brain or balls. He may be your next President, balls not included.

  • Angelina

    Mr Howard Lee,

    I take it that you are equate stability to centre. As we are talking about the media here, how would you classify an in-depth report of GIC & Temasek activities, story of Alan Shadrake’s arrest & subsequent release, increasing suicide & murders stories or even good quality statistics that matter? My take is anything that exposes the Govt is NOT in favour of stability, therefore leftish? If this is the case, the centre position is a ‘cover up’ job for the Govt, but you say this is in the majority’s favour. I am confused.

  • Angelina

    @ First World

    “…after digging out the facts, if it sides to left or the right, report it entirely as it is without prejudice”

    Let us use an eg. If the facts show a high level of corruption at the top (and I really mean IF), throwing everything open to the public can cause instability. Going by HL’s writing, this is NOT centre.

    I personally do not believe in ‘centre’ position. Believe it or not, there was a very famous journalist who also said this when interviewed. His words were “Media cannot be neutral, it can never be”.

  • Angelina

    Media that expose the Govt won’t seek out stories to praise the Govt and vice versa. Therefore you are either left or right.

  • calibri

    Once again, good article. Viswa is certainly being optimistic. I think people want to be represented, but this isn’t eaxctly the same as being heard. People are defining their interests away from the govt version of it, and are increasingly looking for debates, articles and mps to reflect this. I look forward to the day, where our media is no longer a monopoly and the left is not simply confined to alternative media, but a variety actually exists that would allow us to more accurately identify ourselves, ourside of the continuum of ‘singaporeans’.

  • First World

    @ Angelina

    if we look from your point of view, it makes sense.

    But if the media digs only the exposing or only the praising part, then it is biased. If it digs both and realise there are only either the exposing part or the praising part to publish, then it is being centre.

    However, we do not really know if they are being biased or not, as only the person digging the facts knows it. Many news nowadays are either being controlled or altered for the sake of viewships.

    Maybe that is why that famous journalist said the media can never be neutral.

  • First World

    The journalistic ethics of objectivity and fairness are strong influences on the profession. But journalistic objectivity is not the pristine objectivity of philosophy. Instead, a journalist attempts to be objective by two methods: 1) fairness to those concerned with the news and 2) a professional process of information gathering that seeks fairness, completeness, and accuracy. As we all know, the ethical heights journalists set for themselves are not always reached.

  • HL

    Angelina, let me see if I can take it one bit at a time. Understandably, this is a long story with two parts.

    First, the centre. No, stability does not equate centre. Indeed, the right of yesteryears does. Conversely, the centre I wrote about refers to the increasing majority of people in our society who are willing to trade stability for change to varying degrees (hence the wider scope of centre left and centre right, and everyone else in between). By centre, I was talking abt the group in society who would not support either the extreme left (change at all cost) or extreme right (stability at all cost).

    I’m a firm believer tt ‘objective media’ can never exist, simply because journalist are also human and can never be totally unbiased. For me, what makes gd journalism is an honesty with your position, giving due credit to the arguments of the other camp, robustly argue it from your own position, and admit it when you can’t substantiate. Notice tt I have been talking abt stating viewpoints. I don’t believe tt there is an ideal neutral position journalists can safely report from to appeal to the centre. And neither does the centre expect tt. They expect fairness in argument, and tt shd be prevalent in journalism whether u support left or right, or are somewhere in between.

    Now, back to your earlier query about why online media, if labeled left, will lose the support of the majority centre. This is because the centre has as much distaste for extreme left as they do for extreme right. In fact, I believe tt was how traditional media initially lost readership, becos it is often seen as extreme right. The centre has no patience for extremist journalism, and the gd thing for our society is tt the centre is growing, becos it also means more respect for healthy, inclusive debate on issues.

  • Angelina

    @ HL

    Thank you so much for taking the time to explain to me. I am glad you clarified the centre as being the group of people willing to trade….. and that I agree especially with regards centre right although I feel this is not necessarily wholly due to changes in the media. My main difficulty is in accepting the centre position of the media:

    “Viswa felt that traditional media has been moving slowly into the centre since 2006.”

    What constitutes a centre position? Is it more positive coverage of the opposition*, pressing for transparency…? Is this based on gut feel or content analysis? *Increase in coverage can be due to more opposition & the latter growing stronger but not neccessarily positive coverage and we should only count positive coverage.

    I also struggle to accept Viswa’s comment that “it is the nature of “the emerging form of media to support emerging trends.” Unless I understand this wrongly, it could well also be that “Emerging form of media (referring to new media) paves way for emerging trends – “people who challenge the status quo”. To state it more clearly, I believe had there been media freedom pre-internet days, we might see the same trend which I opine also depends very much on the status quo (not challenging for the sake of it but provoked to do so).

    ps: Congrats for the good piece of writing. I understand the constrain of time & resources otherwise a bit of media research would be very helpful to support some claims. By this I mean content analysis of MSM over the years.

  • F-pap

    They talk rubbish again. They attempt to cloud and justify things. In reality, long and short, whatever fanciful things they say, the centre is themselves- the one and only pap.
    Come on, we are not the 1960s batch anymore, let them lead by the nose.

  • Hypocrites in White

    These people are still so foolish to think that there is a ‘centre’. Since the advent of the internet, there is no such thing as ‘centre’ .
    Looks like pap is trying to creat and chase after a ‘centre’ .
    Talk about what ‘cyber security’. If they are really so credible, honest,and upright they should not fear anything, whether left or right or centre.
    Now we see a panic stage whereby the pap find themselves Exposed left right top bottom centre to the world .

  • The TRUTH

    Ya, i also feel that TOC is not really opposition.

    It sometimes write good things about PAP also.

    Do not be confused.

    TOC is neutral.

    You think it will write good about WP?


  • Ah Cow

    di 23 September 2011

    Sick? See doc.
    Bugging toothache? See dentist.
    Psycho ala Oh Thumb Eng? See shrink, yes definitely absolutely shrink. ASAP!!!

    V. MARK II
    I say Oh Tham Eng, why aren’t you here posting all your usual convoluted, perverse, upside-down, demented religious shits?

    Methinks you are in IMH having your brain fried. Perhaps the hangman has already gotten to you? Culling is what a mad dog like you deserves. RIP!

  • Ethen Jin-Chew

    Hillary Clinton told the audience of world leaders, celebrities, business people, philanthropists and non-governmental organizations in New York City yesterday that “we really are in a new age, we’re in the age of participation”.

    She said the challenge was for governments and other organizations to figure out how to be responsive to people as they make their voices heard, “how to help catalyze, unleash, channel the kind of participatory eagerness that is there.”

    “I want to see us moving toward a world where we do try to maximize the God-given potential of every person,” Hillary Clinton said.

    Former president Bill Clinton concluded the session by saying the modern world required humanity to figure out a different way of being, of moving away from the current struggles for power that involve trying to gain control over other people’s lives and resources.

    “If we are too successful in the struggle for wealth and power, we will be too successful in robbing people of their dignity, and we will pay a terrible price,” he said.

    Mr Clinton was, of course, referring to his country and global politics. But the same philosophy of governance does apply squarely to this small country of ours.

    The era of MSM manipulation and control by government is undeniably over!! The age of participation is the age of transparency and accountability.

    To deny the power and reality of the new media or to still want to hang on to old paradigm in attempt to create a “hybrid” form of controlled MSM is not going to work.

    The fact that we have limited natural resources as a country, we must develop our human resources and potentials to the fullest to progress as a society in this new age. And for this to truly happen, our MSM must be totally revamped, must be allowed “true journalism” to take place. There is no room for journalistic compromise in this new reality.

    Objective and intellectual editorial in the MSM is vital towards forming political awareness in the citizenry.

    Now the whole world, (including our immediate neighbour), is moving toward catalyzing, unleashing and channelling their participatory eagerness and energies, maximizing the God-given potential of their every person.

    Singapore cannot afford to hesitate, ponder and procrastinate unless we do not want to see a knowledgeable, politically responsible, conscientious and matured citizenry to emerge.

    Only a matured citizenry can guarantee the long-term survival of our country. Such matured citizenry can only emerge naturally in an environment of openness, free exchange and expression of views in both the MSM and the new media.

    In fact, we have already lost 40 years of our natural growth towards political maturity as a society.

    Political maturity of a society has a direct bearing on many of its other vital attributes. We, as a nation, either move with the world or be left behind!!

  • Damn

    @Ethen Jin-Chew
    I like what you’ve written.
    What pappies have been doing through msm is to brain-washing people into believing the fallacy of progress but in reality we are no better than some of the totalitarian states in the world.

  • HL

    @Angelina, thanks for the patience in trying to understand this issue. It is not an easy one to grasp, and I struggled with it, tossing around many theories and challenges, before arriving at these two articles.

    In relation to what Viswa said about the media moving into the centre, based on my conversation with him, we agreed that this “move” is about traditional media being less ready to defend the right wing and allow for more debate on issues. It need not be about covering the views of opposition parties, but challenging statements made by the establishment/ right wing (PAP, RWS, Temasek Holdings, etc). It is not gut feel – Viswa mentioned that the PAP sometimes crack the whip when traditional media strays too far from the right, to which they respond with a hasty retreat back to the fold. This slow-creep and quick-snap-back typified traditional media’s attempts to provide more coverage that appeals to the evolving readership. These attempts are empirically hard to track, given that the creep-and-snap is often lost in nuancing, but if you need examples, think of the issue surrounding mr brown and Today, or Val Chua coverage of Mrs LKY’s overseas hospital experience, or YOG coverage on volunteer mistreatment.

    On your view about media freedom leading to social change no matter which media “paves the way”, I totally agree, but that is an ideal that we do not have. The best we had was Project Eyeball, and we all know how that went. Instead, what we did have was Internet-enabled media freedom. The key consideration is that our traditional media has never been free, not because we have clear laws against it, but that it (or more accurately, its management) prefers to be willing participants of the nexus dominated by the right.

    Having said that, I am personally more carefully about saying things like “evolving media paves the way for emerging trends”. There are two general schools of thought about this. There are the McLuhans who believe that the media IS the message, where who speaks it is more influencial than what is said. But I lean with the other school that believes in the arbitary formulation of thoughts based on the context of media consumption. As media consumers, we actively seek out what we wish to consume, and then absorb and understand it in terms that are unique to us. Thus, it is perhaps better to say that media’s seeming support for certain ideals is more a convergence of preferences.

    Finally, thanks for the tip on content analysis of traditional media. Believe it or not, I actually have a collection of articles dating back to 2003 documenting the semi-deliberate campaign by the right against online media! The key thing to note, however, is that this particular analysis was for “future media” – the fleshing out of a new model for the way forward.

    @Ethen Jin-Chew, my initial instinct has always been to champion the “power to the people” ideology. But the chat with Viswa brought another important consideration to my mind: The people must be willing to accept that power. I would characterise the current mood of our nation as “pent up dissatisfaction with a lingering and grudging preference for stability”. Perhaps it is not the interest or ability of online media to drive people in that direction, although a more definite coming-of-age would be good.

    But I do agree that manipulation of traditional media AND the deliberate smear campaign against online media no longer has a place in our society today, not so much because the Clintons say so, but the reality of our political landscape demands so. In other articles, I have also indicated that the current model of public engagement undertaken by our political elite is clearly inadequate. When it comes to online engagement, that inadequacy is even more apparent.

  • http://= malusayaspoor

    All this is BULL SHIT. What it it all about is the lap dog ST is in the pocket of the gahmen. You have only to read bits of former Pres Nathan’s memoirs to confirm this.

    The lapdog ST is the mouth-piss.. I mean mouthpiece of the gahmen.
    Only a few days ago another Pappie has ben appointed to helm SPH.. to jaga all the muppets.
    So please lah..lets not have any bullshit.
    The editors of the ST have no B***S.
    They just follow the gahmen like a bitch on heat.