by Gerald Giam
The year 2006 was a landmark year for the new media and citizen journalism in Singapore. The government's "light touch" approach to regulating the Internet was probably one of the factors that emboldened many Singaporeans to step up and push the political boundaries through their blogs, podcasts (online sound clips) and vodcasts (online video clips).
There were too many developments in the new media in Singapore in the past year to capture in one article. Nevertheless, this piece will highlight just a few of the more significant happenings in Singapore fuelled by this phenomenon.
Election podcasting and vodcasting
In the weeks leading up to the General Election in May, Senior Minister of State for Information, Communications and the Arts Balaji Sadasivan announced a ban on "explicitly political" podcasting and vodcasting during the hustings. This move was ostensibly in response to the Singapore Democratic Party's (SDP) plans to circumvent the government-controlled mainstream media by reaching out to the electorate using sound and video clips on its website. After the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts (MICA) informed political parties of this regulation, the parties had no choice but to comply. The SDP reluctantly removed the podcasts from their website, but not without protest.
However, this did not stop some Netizens from publishing videos of numerous election rallies on their blogs. Almost all of the videos, which people had recorded using their mobile phone camcorders and submitted to the blogs, were of Opposition rallies, notably that of the Workers' Party (WP). The blog owners did make several attempts to ask for People's Action Party (PAP) videos but there were few takers.
Some wondered why the government did not make any attempt to crack down on these websites. The likely reason was that the government felt assured that due to the lack of knowledge about these websites among the general populace, they would have been unlikely to swing the votes by much. This assurance was probably strengthened when a post-election survey by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) revealed that only 33 per cent of Singaporeans — mostly young adults — said that the Internet was important to shaping their voting decisions.
Singapore's most well-known blogger, mrbrown, shot to fame during the elections with his riotously funny "Tur kwa" podcast. This was part of a series of "persistently non-political" podcasts (a play on the government's phase "explicitly political"). This podcast recorded an argument between a bak chor mee man (a food vendor) and his customer over a botched order. It implicitly poked fun at the PAP's demonising of WP candidate James Gomez for his blunder of not submitting his election forms properly and initially blaming it on an Elections Department official.
mrbrown's next podcast about the impact of grades and exams in Singapore was equally funny. In this clip, two schoolchildren who were comparing exam grades and debating whether one student's score of 66.6 per cent was "a very good score", as their teacher had told her. The mainstream media had trumpeted the PAP's 66.6 per cent win as a resounding mandate. The clip went on to lampoon other politicians both from the PAP and the Opposition.
During his National Day Rally speech, PM Lee misquoted the character in mrbrown's "Tur kwa" podcast as saying "mee siam mai hum". Many Singaporeans caught the error immediately, as the popular Malay dish mee siam never contains "hum" (cockles). PM Lee's press secretary later clarified that he had meant to say, "laksa mai hum". This didn't stop mrbrown from recording another funny podcast titled, "A hum-less podcast", which contained a catchy jingle of PM Lee's gaffe. The jingle was widely downloaded and circulated, with some people even converting it into a mobile phone ring tone. In keeping with their "light touch" commitment to the new media, there was no response from the government, even though some officials were said to have taken offence at that irreverent mockery.
Unfortunately, despite (or perhaps, because of) mrbrown's popularity, he found himself targeted for crossing the proverbial "out-of-bounds" (OB) markers. In a column he wrote for TODAY newspaper on 30 June, mrbrown criticised the government, albeit in a light-hearted manner, for its price increases following the Elections. The article, "S'poreans are fed, up with progress", drew a scathing response from MICA (Ministry of Information, Communications & the Arts), which it said "distort(ed) the truth". To the dismay of many Singaporeans, MICA accused mrbrown of being a "partisan player" in politics and declared that "it is not the role of journalists or newspapers in Singapore to champion issues, or campaign for or against the Government". The government's sore point appeared to be that his opinions were circulated in a mainstream newspaper rather than on his blog, which has a much narrower and more limited audience.
TODAY promptly sacked mrbrown, despite howls of protests from Netizens. (Some of whom turned up at City Hall mrt station wearing brown tee shirts in a show of support for mrbrown and protest at his dismissal from TODAY.) Thankfully, no further action was taken against mrbrown and his podcasts continued to draw more and more listeners every week.
The event Talking Cock in Parliament was publicised almost entirely through "viral marketing" on the Internet. It was a stand-up comedy held at the Old Parliament House on 24 August. Most of the performances were captured and made available on YouTube and other websites. The most memorable performances were probably that of Ruby Pan and Hossan Leong. Ruby Pan had her audience rolling in laughter as she demonstrated the different English accents used in Singapore to illustrate the different strains of Singlish -- acrolectal Singlish (i.e., the "high class" Singlish) and basilectal Singlish (the colloquial, ungrammatical type frowned on by the government).
Hossan Leong also had his audience in fits of laughter when he sang his localised version of Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire". His song, "We live in Singapura", chronicled the history of Singapore from Sang Nila Utama to the present day.
This refreshing, citizen-driven event not only showcased the amazing artistic talents of Singaporeans, but more importantly demonstrated that Singapore does have a unique and vibrant culture despite our short history. The event succeeded in making Singaporeans laugh at themselves and in the process celebrate their "Singaporean-ness", regardless of political differences.
Teenager Wee "Elite Face" Shu Min put Singapore on the map in October when her arrogant online rant against what she saw as a "whining" middle-aged Singaporean, and the subsequent vitriol against her resulted in her name topping Technorati's most popular search words in the world for a few days. The storm went mainstream when journalist Ken Kwek reported the online war of words in The Straits Times (ST). The incident was later mentioned numerous times in subsequent newspaper articles and commentaries, and even in Parliament. Member of Parliament Wee Siew Kim, had to apologise twice on behalf of his daughter — the second apology was for his own insensitive remarks in his first "non-apology".
There is no doubt that the intensity in which Singaporeans reacted to these dismissive comments by an "elite" father and daughter pair served as a warning bell of the fate that awaits any politician who is blind to the growing class divide in Singapore.
Self-regulation by bloggers
A TODAY article in December by blogger Dharmendra Yadav sparked off another debate in the blogosphere about self-regulation by bloggers and developing a bloggers' code of ethics. Many articles were written in response, arguing both for and against the proposal. It was evident that despite the rationale put forward by its proponents, most Netizens were against the idea of any sort of regulation or code of ethics on a platform which some saw as the "last bastion of truly free expression" in Singapore.
In the past year, Opposition parties in Singapore made tentative steps to use the Internet to propagate their messages. Of the three major Opposition parties in Singapore, the SDP appears to be the most Web savvy. The party regularly publishes articles and press statements on its positions on various issues. On the other hand the Workers' Party, while maintaining a respectable Web presence, has yet to use the Web extensively to maximise its reach to the electorate. In fact, two WP central executive committee members resigned following online comments of theirs which did not square with the party leadership's preferred method of engaging Singaporeans.
Foreign Minister George Yeo was the first Cabinet minister to start blogging regularly, with some surprisingly frank and insightful articles based on his interactions with foreign leaders. The PAP's P65 MPs (the term coined for new MPs born after Independence) drew some chuckles when they first started blogging about grassroots activities which did not interest the majority of Netizens. However, by immediately posting their maiden speeches in Parliament and the PAP Conference on their blogs, they proved to be a step ahead of the main opposition Workers' Party, which was markedly slower in using the Net for their party propaganda.
In his annual National Day Rally speech in August, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong devoted over 25 minutes to expounding on how digital media is changing Singapore. He acknowledged that the new media will "change the texture of society" and that the traditional media was "under siege" to hold its audiences. While highlighting several citizen-driven new media initiatives, he surprised many when he mentioned political satire site TalkingCock, even remarking that "some of the jokes are not bad". The site, which was founded by cartoonist and filmmaker Colin Goh, responded in feigned horror with a headline, "Seow Leow! TalkingCock Suffers Shrinkage, Street Cred Loss, After Rally Mention". This was obviously not true, as TalkingCock enjoyed a huge surge in visits after the speech.
PM Lee also revealed the government's distrust for the free-wheeling world of cyberspace. He told Singaporeans that "if you read something on the Straits Times or CNA (Channel NewsAsia) you must know it is real", unlike what is on TalkingCock. He warned Singaporeans to be "sceptical" and not believe everything they read, as "there will be half truths and untruths which will circulate, and you won't know which is which".
Many Netizens would have seen this as an unfair comparison, as they know that TalkingCock is just a humour site which has never claimed to be a source of proper news reports, while the ST and CNA too have their share of biases towards the government line.
PM Lee also made no mention of the many local blogs that debate political issues both objectively and independently. However, he signalled that the government would be prepared to change laws like the ones governing podcasts during elections and political videos to keep pace with developments in this digital age.
In response to these trends, the government set up a new unit in MICA's public communications division named the New Media Unit, presumably to advise the government on Internet public communications strategies and to monitor Internet chatter. Changes to the Penal Code were also proposed to make explicit mention of electronic media as a platform for potentially defamatory comments.
In June, media giant SPH launched a new web portal, STOMP (Straits Times Online Mobile Print). It was billed by ST editor Han Fook Kwang as a platform "to provide readers with new avenues to express themselves, to enable them to interact with [the newspaper], and among themselves".
While the paper trumpeted it as "citizen journalism", academic and former Straits Times journalist Cherian George poured cold water on the idea. He said on his blog, "I don't consider STOMP to be citizen journalism, because it puts the public on tap, not on top. It merely introduces greater interactivity to traditional journalism. Citizen journalism in the proper sense does its own agenda-setting. Citizen journalists decide what questions need to be asked and what topics to pursue. They don't just answer questions decided by mainstream editors."
Expected trends in 2007
Positive developments in the new media are expected to continue in 2007, barring any major government crackdown. As more Singaporeans from all backgrounds take to reading, writing and commenting on blogs, online forums, podcasts and vodcasts, the diversity of views on the Internet will also increase. Although most Internet chatter currently takes on a disproportionately anti-Establishment tone, there might be a slight shift in views to the right (i.e. the conservative) in 2007, as more people linked to the government machinery step in to counter their views.
We can expect more Singaporeans to warm up further to Blogosphere and see it as an increasingly credible alternative to the traditional media.