Deputy editor of The Straits Times, Felix Soh, once said, “You can check the government until your paper gets closed down. Then you lose your job and everybody loses their job too…you got to be very realistic, if you want to engage the government, you have to do it on the political arena. You got to accept that and we journalists accept it1.”
Mr Brown’s blog is still safe, however, and so are the blogs of numerous others who discuss socio-economic issues, be that their sole focus or just one of several interests.
While the ruling party has always kept the local press as a tool of nation building, thankfully no such demand has yet to be made of the Internet. Perhaps it’s more the futility of trying to control it then any true desire to foster discussion – perhaps a purely economic decision, as a lot of things are in Singapore. Even so, the space is there for the more politically conscious among us to play with.
Sure, the Internet is not inherently democratising. But it’s still the closest a mass medium has ever come to being the ideal alternative public sphere where all opinions can be freely voiced, but those that are based on evidence and soundly argued need not worry much about being clamped down.
As for suggestions that the blogosphere is an ecosystem of armchair critics, communication theorist Jurgen Habermas’ construction of a core/periphery separation2 of the public sphere suggests that such criticism plays an important role. While the peripheral public sphere lacks organised, institutionalised powers to act, by contesting issues it brings them to the attention of the core public sphere where you find your administrative bodies, civil society, judicial system, etc – those with the expertise and powers to act. Seen another way, the periphery detects problems, while problem-solving is left to the core.
Overt politicization of issues
One of the greatest complications to local political discussion is the overt politicisation of issues – the stand that anything marked as being political is off limits to the non-politician.
Blogs and other Internet communication tools have allowed political discussion in Singapore to move into non-political forums, as media researcher Randy Kluver3 observed.
While most local blogs are of the personal-diary variety, it is heartening to note that personal bloggers do talk about socio-political issues every now and then when the motivation rises, or in response to some issue raised in the papers – that they now have a platform for discussing such issues right alongside more mundane things like where they went for dinner and what movie they watched.
The political culture of general apathy will take a while to change, but these developments are a hopeful step forwards.
Meanwhile, birthing problems can be expected as people get used to this new platform for discussion.
A blogger, Tym, said that people are not used to thinking about out-of-bounds markers, or putting their thoughts into a permanent form that can later be quoted back at them should their words antagonise someone4.
Benefits of blogs
Blogs give us a chance to have our views publicly challenged by others. Firstly this can teach us to be more thick-skinned in the face of criticism, as well as be exposed to diverse points of views. Those who take blogging as a serious activity will be pushed to ensure their opinions are expressed clearly, based on fact and logically argued.
Even if blogging about an issue does not bring about consensus, at the least it could help grow a community comfortable with holding an argument and hopefully, a community tolerant of alternative perspectives to an issue.
As for those who fear that the Internet is a breeding ground for malicious lies that could destabilise the country, it must be that they have little faith in our education system’s ability to groom a critical, thinking population, that they have little faith in the typical Singaporean’s ability to judge an argument on its own merit.
Besides, the more popular a blog the greater the public scrutiny it faces, and therefore the more the owner will be careful that what they say is backed by fact and logic – the best way of staying out of a lawsuit. With such a self-regulatory mechanism in place it would seem very difficult for a malicious lie to perpetuate itself without attracting the attention of the authorities. One need only remember the case of the racist blog posts last year to see this mechanism in effect.
As for civil society in Singapore, the Internet and blogs may give it a shot in the arms. There are three conditions for the emergence of civil society, as stated by Jakubowicz5:
>> Accessibility of information
>> Ability to enter the public sphere
>> Guarantee of an even match between state and society.
While the Internet is a massive library, it is the tool of blogging that has given ordinary citizens an easy-access public platform to voice their opinions, thus fulfilling the second condition.
And while the third condition doesn’t look like happening soon, we can’t say the overall situation hasn’t improved. So far the authorities have been fairly enlightened in its treatment of the online medium. Hopefully this will continue, and bloggers can continue to use this platform to gradually push back the boundaries of free speech.
About the author:
Raymond hopes to offer some views from the non-blogger’s perspective.
2Salter, L. (2003). Democracy, new social movements, and the Internet: A Habermasian analysis. In M. McCaughey & M. D. Ayers (Eds.), Cyberactivism: Online activism in theory and practice. (pp. 117-144). New York: Routledge.
3Kluver, R. (2005, September). Online Activism and Offline Quiescence: The Internet and Singapore’s 2005 Presidential Election. Paper presented at the conference “The American Footprint: The Impact of U.S. Technology and Technology Policy on the World.” Raleigh, NC: Duke University.
4Personal communication, December 9, 2005)
5Jakubowicz, K. (1994). Civil society, independent public sphere, and information society: An impossible combination? In S. Splichal, A. Calabrese & C. Sparks (Eds.), Information society and civil society (pp. 78-102). West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University.