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2007: The year virtual reality shaped reality – A review of the new media landscape in 2007

By Terence Lee for theonlinecitizen

Who would have known that in a brightly-lit street along Clarke Quay, an old trishaw driver would attain near-celebrity status when he was bullied by three British tourists.

Certainly not the trishaw driver.

The video of the bullying incident was uploaded on YouTube by one of the three British men, which showed them cackling like vultures and hurling insults at the trishaw driver as he struggled in a futile attempt to bring the trishaw — with all three of them inside — up to speed.

The YouTube video, titled “the slowest taxi driver in SEAsia”, was condemned vehemently by Singaporeans in the forums and blogosphere community, and the incident was even splashed across the front page of The New Paper.

It is tempting to dismiss this STOMP-like expose on the ugliness of foreign tourists as a trivial matter. However, it is significant as it highlights how new media, particularly blogs and videos, have become a prominent newsmaker in its own right — even setting the agenda for what is to be featured in Singapore's mainstream media (MSM).

In this review, I will highlight some of the significant moments of 2007 in the new media landscape, and how it has caused ripples in the socio-political situation in Singapore.

Government’s “quiet counter-insurgency”

2007 got off to an ominous start for the online community when the Straits Times, on 3rd February, reported that the government was “mounting a quiet counter-insurgency against its online critics”.

This initiative is driven by no less than 2 sub-committees under the main “new media” committee chaired by Manpower Minister, Ng Eng Hen. One of the sub-committees is also headed by a minister – Minister of State for education, Lui Tuck Yew.

Clearly, the government was not going to take online criticisms of it lightly – else it wouldn’t have appointed two ministers to look into the matter. Many bloggers decried this intrusion of what they would consider their “sacred space” by a government which is already all-pervasive. And for the government to “counter” its critics anonymously was widely criticised.

PAP MP Baey Yam Keng famously said, “The identity is not important. It is the message that is important." (Straits Times, Feb 3 2007)

Popular blogger Mr Brown, who had been criticised by the government in 2006 for hiding “behind his pseudonym”, responded with this:

“Waitaminute. I thought being anonymous is a bad thing and affects credibility? I mean, that is the reason why we are constantly told that the internet is less credible than mainstream media, right?

If they had told me earlier, I would not have been hiding behind my pseudonym of mrbrown all this while lah! Then I can tell the world I am really Lee Kin Mun, and start posting on my blog with my real name lah! Early don't say!”

The government was thus seen as contradicting its own publicly-declared position.

Taming the white horse

For 2nd Lieutenant Li Hongyi, son of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, 2007 was indeed an unfortunate year for him. Out of frustration at how a fellow officer could get away with being AWOL while on duty, 2LT Li penned a complaint email addressed directly to the Defence Minister and several other senior SAF officers on 28 June 2007, eschewing the entire chain of command.

However, the email was leaked to the blogosphere, and the fallout was amplified exponentially, sparking a nationwide debate on the issue. It is easy to forget that even ten years ago, such an incident would not have been possible.

Cherian George, ex-Straits Times journalist and academic, pointed out that this is “another case of Net-induced disclosure of government information.” In an article on the Li Hongyi saga, he gave insights into how “internet chatter was picked up by The Straits Times, which asked Mindef for a response. Mindef’s public affairs department then issued a statement. ST reported the story today [13 July 2007] on page H4.”

The article also quoted Vivian Balakrishnan, Second Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts, who noted that “the most potent impact the new media will have on politics is that politicians will find it impossible to lie in the future. The truth will always be out there because somewhere, someone has the facts, or has seen something, and will publish it.” (MICA)

The ability of the internet to allow any sort of information to leak online – even forbidden ones – has resulted in greater accountability on the part of the government. As a result of this free flow of information, citizens can have a fuller picture of the situation, instead of relying primarily on the MSM.

In a country like Singapore, where self-censorship is practised in the press, this proves to be invaluable.

What hearing aids, cycling, and AWOL MPs have in common

The blogosphere has always been a collective voice of dissatisfaction against the PAP’s policies and their alleged contempt and mistreatment of the opposition parties.

When opposition MP Low Thia Khiang questioned the People’s Action Party’s (PAP) refusal to grant the Worker’s Party (WP) a permit to hold a cycling event at East Coast Park, outrage was poured over PAP MP Associate Professor Ho Peng Kee’s low blow comment regarding Low’s supposed hearing disability. He said, “If you listened very carefully Mr Low, I don’t know whether his hearing aid is with him because he wears one…”

In response, Melvin Tan, blogger and WP member, felt that Ho's comments were “unbecoming and unnecessary.” Another blogger felt that Ho should “treat [his] fellow parliamentary colleague with respect.”

Furthermore, many bloggers also found his reasons for banning the WP cycling event nonsensical. Huang Shoou Chyuan, who blogs at http://nofearsingapore.blogspot.com, described Ho’s reasoning as “less than convincing” and indicative of a “third-world mentality” in Singapore politics.

In a related development, The Online Citizen (TOC) commented that not only were the Young PAP able to organise similar activities without requiring a permit, they also spotted a change in the events calendar on the Young PAP website – a cycling event purportedly held on 28 July 2007 was erased after media coverage of the ban on the WP cycling event.

Young PAP representatives unconvincingly attributed this to the fact that the event had been canned due to “poor response from residents.” (Straits Times)

Besides the WP cycling event saga, bloggers also took to task PM Lee’s unkind comments on the WP’s team at Aljunied. The PM had said that they had been absent without official leave (AWOL) and that they “have scattered like monkeys when the tree fell.” (Straits Times)

Also of much concern to bloggers were the issues of inflation and the rising cost of living, the proposed compulsory annuities scheme, and ministerial pay hikes.

The coming-out party: crash & burn?

The gay issue had been a hot topic of contention in 2007. On 8 September 2007, Otto Fong, a well-loved and respected teacher at Raffles Institution for eight years, came out of the closet and admitted his homosexuality by posting an open letter on his blog. In the letter, he also expressed hope for a more tolerant, and mature Singapore society.

However, two days later, his blog post was mysteriously removed. TOC spotted it and brought it to the internet community’s attention. This incident sparked a furore in the online community, before the MSM even carried the story. (See Asia One’s report).

The Chinese-language daily Lianhe Zaobao finally did run the story on 12 September 2007, with The New Paper following suit the next day. The Straits Times, however, did not cover the story, but instead published a commentary on 15 September which criticised Fong’s decision to go public.

This incident brings to the fore an apparent contradiction between the government’s stand towards homosexuality and its resultant actions. Also, this incident is significant as blogs and new media were the first to carry the story, even before the MSM picked it up.

377A: Repeal vs Keep

However, the Otto Fong saga merely served as a precursor for the parliamentary battle that was to take place in October, as the entire national English press was embroiled in a debate over a small section of the Penal code – Section 377A.

The controversy was sparked when the Ministry of Home Affairs announced that it would be carrying out a review of the Singapore Penal Code, to bring it up-to-date with current times. The contentious issue, however, was over Section 377A, which criminalises sexual acts between two males.

While 2006 would perhaps be the year where biased media coverage towards the PAP were offset by coverage of the opposition parties on the internet, 2007 saw bloggers acting not just as bystanders, but as active participants working with political activists towards affecting change in public policy.

Repeal377A.com, a website that would be the focal point of the online community’s involvement in the revision of the penal code, began accepting signatories that would propel the Repeal 377A petition right into the heart of parliamentary debate.

The online community readied their arms as they promoted the cause on their blogs, urging people to sign the petition.

The battle lines were drawn, and as the MSM would have played it, it pitted NMPs Siew Kum Hong against Thio Li-ann, and Repeal377A.com against Keep377A.com. Within 2 days, on 20 October 2007, the Keep377A website overtook Repeal377A.com by 7,068 to 7,058 signatories.

Meanwhile, in parliament, as the dust settled, PM Lee announced that 377A would be retained. In a position of compromise, he stated that while 377A will not be pro-actively enforced and that gays will be allowed to lead their private lives, the retaining of the law serves the purpose of preventing division and polarisation in Singapore society.

“The results [of repealing 377A],” he said, “will be counterproductive, as it will lead to less space for homosexuals in Singapore.” (Straits Times)

As it stands, the Keep377A website proclaims loudly on its front page: 15,559 signatories, 5,010 minutes, 83.5 hours, 4 days, 1 cause. The silent majority had voiced out.

From virtual to reality

As the Repeal 377A petition has shown, blogs are becoming a tool for political activism, and many bloggers no longer content themselves with armchair criticism. This made 2007 a landmark year for bloggers.

Transforming from sporadic commentary into a potentially coherent force, if not an organized one, 2007 is the year that saw bloggers band together to train concerted fire on unpopular political decisions. This new form of political activism, however, is still in its infancy. (See bloggers’ reaction to the PM’s National Day Rally speech, for example.)

In August, word spread of a ‘wear black’ or a “black t-shirt” protest against the compulsory annuity scheme, which required protestors to wear black to show support in a peaceful protest held at 4pm, Centrepoint, 8 September 2007. The event soon became known as “Black September”. It, however, turned out to be a rather subdued affair as TOC counted only about 30 people wearing black. Furthermore, it was indeterminable which of these people were there by chance, or which of them were there for the protest.

Nevertheless, the Singapore Democratic Party gave the event a positive spin, as its Secreatary General Dr. Chee Soon Juan, said on its website: “Every action leaves behind a residue that the next one builds upon. The experience gained and the courage that radiates from that action elevates the general struggle another notch. Even for actions that fail to achieve their stated objectives, there is gain.”

Another widely-discussed protest was the so-called Anime Protest against the anime distributor Odex.

Blogger Vs Mainstream Media

In July, Yawning Bread blogger Alex Au wrote an investigative piece on the “$2,500 for a 3-room flat in Jurong East” reported by the mainstream broadsheet The Straits Times (ST, “HDB rents at 10-year high”)

In his article, Au pointed out the error in the Straits Times’ report and questioned the numbers used. The ST later clarified that property agency ERA had used a 2005 database which gave outdated information. Another paper, TODAY, also carried a full page article on the incident.

Au, in his article, said:

“Our mainstream media should be very careful not to boast too much about being paragons of "truthful and objective" reporting, in their attempt to belittle new media and preserve their market share.”

Closure of The Intelligent Singaporean

On August 25th, one of the most-visited and popular blogs in Singapore, The Intelligent Singaporean (IS), announced that it “is no longer able to serve the changing needs of the blogosphere today” and that it would cease providing the public with “the same convenience in navigating the socio-political blogosphere”.

Bloggers were, at the very least, puzzled at the sudden announcement and closure of IS.

In its place, a new blog aggregator - The Singapore Daily – emerged just a week or so later. It is now a recognised blog and one of the most visited as well, filling the vacuum left by IS' closure.

The trishaw driver and the three stooges

Elsewhere on the internet, a certain old man had his own claim to fame.

The story of the old trishaw uncle did not end with The New Paper. The posting of the video on YouTube meant that viewers abroad got wind of the incident and the wrath it incurred among Singaporeans. The trishaw rider was also interviewed by the media. And it was not long before the British media sniffed it out and reported on the bullying.

On 31 October 2007, the Daily Mail ran a report on the incident and the fallout that resulted, including the hatred it incited among the online community in Singapore and how the video had since been retracted by Bo Davis, one of the three British males, only to be have it reposted by an angry Singaporean.

It was not surprising that their British compatriots did not take it too well, and a lambasting of the three soon followed in the comments section of the article.

Burma and theonlinecitizen

When the Burmese monks took to the streets in Burma in September, protesting against declining living standards in the country, it set off a chain of events in Singapore.

Theonlinecitizen (TOC) first reported the events on September 26th, 4 days after the protests took place. On the same day, TOC published a letter to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr George Yeo, written by one of its writers, Koh Jie Kai. The letter had been sent via email to the minister earlier, who acknowledged receipt of the letter.

As reports, pictures and videos of the protests inside Burma emerged, bloggers’ reaction were swift and impassioned. (See TOC’s and The Singapore Daily’s aggregation of bloggers’ reaction.)

On Sept 27, the editorial team at TOC put out a statement condemning the crackdown. 2 days letter, TOC reported Singaporean graduate student Andrew Teo’s application to hold a public protest which was later rejected by the Singapore authorities. On the same day, TOC also reported a prayer meeting at the Burmese temple in Singapore with an accompanying video.

Its writers Benjamin Cheah, Gerald Giam, Leong Sze Hian and Choo Zheng Xi weighed in with opinion pieces on the events.

October 1st saw the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) organise a petition-signing event at the Burmese Embassy in Singapore. It eventually lasted 8 days. TOC’s report, pictures and videos of the event gave the internet community exclusive insight into what was happening at the embassy.

On October 4th, tertiary students from NUS, NTU and SMU held a Myanmar Peace Awareness Day in their campuses. NUS student Ng Sook Zhen did a report for TOC.

When the SDP members held a protest outside the Istana on October 8 and were arrested by the police, TOC was the only blog with a report and a video of the arrests.

Catherine Lim

Well-known writer Catherine Lim also took to the Internet in 2007, when her open letter to the Prime Minister was rejected for publication by both The Straits Times and TODAY in September. She explained in her website:

“As a result I am turning to alternative sources of dissemination, and am going online. For I think I have some important ideas to share about certain major issues in our society which could have serious implications for the future. It does not matter to me if these ideas don’t meet with agreement or even approval, but it does matter that they are shared with as many fellow Singaporeans as possible.”

Her letter has still not been given coverage by the mainstream media.

Emerging trends and future directions

The above examples highlight the extraordinary reach of new media and its potential as a tool for political activism and unfettered media freedom. In Singapore, bloggers and internet-savvy Singaporeans are making use of the internet like never before, and as we can see from the major events that had transpired in 2007, the year is marked by two emerging trends:

1) The rise of new media as a newsmaker and news breaker, and its influence upon what MSM covers.

· News about Otto Fong’s disclosure and the subsequent order by his school to remove it were already making rounds on the internet even before the MSM carried the news.

· Outrage regarding the bullying of the trishaw rider spilled onto the MSM, resulting in coverage from The New Paper and even the Daily Mail.

· The MSM would not have covered the Li Hongyi gaffe, had not his letter first leaked on the internet.

2) Increased organisation within bloggers and the online community towards political activism, even though success is still minuscule.

· The online Repeal377a petition was supported by bloggers and many others in the online community, gathering more than 2,200 signatures and sparking a parliamentary debate that became the talking point of the nation.

· The ‘Wear black’ annuity protest was staged at Centrepoint through announcements posted on blogs and forums, resulting in a handful of protestors gathering at the shopping mall to show their support.

However, the reach of new media, and political blogs especially, is still limited. Blogs mainly preach to the converted, especially those who already have a deep interest in socio-political developments in Singapore. They also target a particular demographic: young, internet-savvy, and highly educated. While The Straits Times claim to have a daily circulation of 400,000, socio-political blogs in Singapore do not boast that amount of readership even in total.

The challenge will be for these blogs to appeal to a wider audience.

The government, it seems, has been relatively quiet when it comes to reacting to the increasingly vocal blogging community. However, with the Advisory Council on the Impact of New Media on Society (AIMS), appointed by the government to study the impact of new media on society, that might soon change.

Nevertheless, the online community has taken the initiative by initiating the crafting of a submission paper that will put across the perspectives of new media practitioners to the council. The paper is set to be submitted by the middle of this year.

It will be interesting to see how 2008 unfolds.

About the author: Terence Lee is a 1st year student at NTU School of Communication & Information. He is an aspiring journalist with an interest in public affairs and social issues. More of his works can be found in his blog at http://themadmadworld.blogspot.com.

Additional reporting by Andrew Loh.

Read also Gerald Giam's "Review - The politics of Singapore's new media in 2006."

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