A challenge to get S'poreans to speak out, TOC Chief tells the Asian New Media Forum in Malaysia.

Online Citizen: David vs Goliath in S’pore

TOC thanks Malaysiakini for allowing us to publish the following report which appeared on its website on June 11.

Tarani Palani

A fledgling website in Singapore hopes to emulate its counterparts across the Causeway in bringing democracy to the island state.

The Online Citizen, which often considered as the closest thing to Malaysiakini in Singapore, was set up two years ago by a group of volunteers.Editor-in-chief Choo Zheng Xi said that his site, launched in December 2006, provides independent writers a platform to express their views on burning political issues.

Its contributing writers, all of whom are volunteers, include students, professionals and retirees.

Choo, who despite his important title in Online Citizen, is himself a full-time university student.

One of its most notable contributors is Tan Kin Lian, the ex-chief executive of insurance cooperative NTUC Income.

Choo did not minced his words when describing the state of press freedom in his country.

“Reporters Without Borders ranks Singapore between 140th and 150th position regularly. In terms of press freedom, Singapore may as well be first from the bottom,” he told an international forum on new media in Petaling Jaya today.Choo also talked about the legal framework which creates a hostile environment for political expression in Singapore.

He said that Singapore‘s concept of ‘eastern democracy’ meshed with Confucian ideology has created a culture of political compliance in the island state.

“The Confucian ideas of respecting your elders and political leaders, that the people in charge are there because they are the most merited, and most importantly, that the nation comes before the individual, have been used as justifications for authoritarian rule in Singapore.”

Choo said that this concept of democracy is reflected in the country’s litany of restrictive laws which deters political expression.

An example is the Parliamentary Elections Act, which among others allows the minister in charge to regulate election advertising over the Internet during the polls campaigning period.

In addition, websites of political parties and their candidates as well as other ‘political’ websites are required to register with Media Development Authority, an agency linked to the government.

An uphill task

Choo said that his Online Citizen is fighting an uphill battle in changing the mindset of Singaporeans.

“But even if we don’t see big results from our action, it does not mean that there is no impact.”

The recent increase of salaries for ministers – who are already among the highest paid in the world – saw disgruntled citizens voicing their objection through the online media.

“The effect snowballed and mainstream media could not ignore the public’s discontent and ended up discussing the issue.”

The challenge, said Choo, is to get more Singaporeans to speak out.

“You can bring one person down but you can’t bring down the whole online community. We want to show that individuals can catch the ear of the government,” he stressed.

Apart from Choo, other speakers at the two- day Asian New Media Forum include academics, bloggers and journalists from Thailand, Philippines and Malaysia.

The 50 participants, some coming from as far as Bangladesh and Iran, are mostly representatives from independent media in their respective countries.Among the topics for discussion at the forum are business sustainability, video journalism and new media in Web 3.0.

The dialogue is the second of such forums organised by Malaysiakini’s Southeast Asia Centre for e-Media (Seasem).

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