Navigating Singapore’s new media environment

S'poreans need to cease being observers on the sidelines, says Gerald Giam.

Below is Gerald Giam’s speech at the Reel Revolution learning talk, organised by The Substation, on 12 July 2008.

Gerald Giam | Deputy Editor

Singapore was ranked 153rd out of 195 countries by Freedom House, in its 2008 report on media freedom. A similar report by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranked Singapore 141st out of 169 countries. RSF said that Singapore‘s low ranking stemmed from “the complete absence” of independent print and broadcast media and the opposition’s lack of access to those media.

My view is that while Singapore certainly does not have the freest local media in the world, there are plenty of alternative sources of news that Singaporeans can choose from.

Instead of despairing about how “unfree” our media is, I’d like to share with you how much more we, ordinary Singaporeans, can do with the freedoms we have, to carve out a more desirable media environment for Singapore.

Firstly, we need to realise that our media companies operate in an environment that simply does not allow them to be free, even if they wanted to.

For example, the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act empowers the government to approve or revoke a newspaper’s license. The approval of the Minister is required before any individuals can acquire what are known as “management shares”. Holders of “management shares” have 200 times the voting rights of ordinary shareholders with respect to any resolution relating to the dismissal of any journalist of a newspaper company.

This effectively forces the news media as organisations to toe the government line. But that does not automatically mean that all journalists are sycophants whose only agenda is to sing the praises of the government and cast the opposition in a bad light.

I have met many reporters, both young and old, who hardly fit that stereotype. Some are even more critical of the government than me, and others have expressed a desire to see a more credible opposition for them to report on.

Importance of media freedom

Many Singaporeans have become so used to a compliant press that we have no idea what the proper role of the press is anymore.

The government has its version of what the role of the press is: That is, to communicate and explain the government’s policies to the masses. The local press is expected to play their part to assist the government in “nation-building”.

Implicit in this expectation, is that they are not to criticize government policies too harshly. They may propose refinements to decisions already made, but they are not to go head-to-head with the government and question the fundamentals of its policies. Nation-building, therefore, is defined as rallying support for the government and not making their job more difficult.

I agree with this to a small degree. Any elected government needs the mass media to communicate with its citizens. Can you imagine if you only found out about a newly passed law by word of mouth?

But that’s not all that the press should do. The press has a responsibility to report fairly and objectively. Not simply cut and paste government press releases. We need journalists to be thought leaders who can analyze the news and present alternative viewpoints if necessary.

Another important role of the press is their role as the watchdog of those in power. Without a free press, those in power can easily cover up their misdeeds without any fear of being found out.

The media also needs to be the voice of ordinary men on the street, not just those in power.

Internet as a leveller

Fortunately, many of Singapore‘s harsh press laws do NOT apply to another powerful, up and coming media platform — the Internet.

Several years ago, the government promised to maintain a “light touch” in regulating activity on the Internet. As of now, most of us would agree that they have more or less kept to this promise.

Last year, the government appointed the Advisory Council on the Impact of New Media on Society (AIMS). As its name implies, AIMS was tasked to examine Singapore‘s Internet regulatory regime and recommend changes to meet the challenges of this dynamic new environment.

Many of us bloggers were worried that, given the controlling nature of this government, AIMS being a government-appointed committee, would end up recommending even stricter laws to govern the Internet.

So 13 of us got together and put together a proposal to the government, where we argued for the repeal of several laws that unnecessarily curbed media freedom. We also proposed a way forward in the form of community moderation.

In response, the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts (MICA) told us that they were planning to adopt an even lighter touch to the Internet in the future. From my conversations with people in AIMS, I understand that they will probably be proposing an expansion of our freedoms, rather than clamping down further on free speech on the Net.

Seize the day

All the freedom in the world would be of no use if we the citizens do not make use of them, or worse, misuse them.

We have a tendency to cite the fear factor for not speaking up. But actually there are plenty of avenues to express ourselves, without getting into trouble, and without having our views disappear into a black hole and ignored. The fear that most people have is often due to ignorance of their rights under the law.

I guess many of us here already run our own blogs. That is definitely one way to express yourself.

Allow me to share with you some stories from my short experience in blogging.

I started blogging in June 2006, one week before leaving my civil service job. I could not do so earlier as civil servants are prohibited from publicly expressing views on any political matter.

At that time, my main purpose in blogging was to share my opinions on public policy issues in Singapore.

Besides being an outlet of expression for me, one of the hidden benefits of blogging, which I never imagined when I first began, is that I’ve greatly expanded my circle of politically-minded friends. Through my blog, I’ve gotten acquainted with many fellow political bloggers, civil society activists, journalists and even a long lost uncle!

I was approached — through my blog — in November 2006 by Andrew Loh, who told me then that he was thinking of setting up a new group blog called The Online Citizen (TOC). Since then, we have managed to bring on board many political bloggers to contribute articles to TOC. In the span of 17 months, TOC managed to rack up 1 million hits on our site. We now have about 3,000 to 4,000 unique visitors a day and growing.

In fact, the readership of TOC far exceeds the combined readership of each of the individual writers on their own blogs. My personal blog has barely hit 80,000 after two years of writing.

Why has TOC managed to gain so many eyeballs in such a short time? There are several factors.

One is content aggregation. Singaporeans are busy people. Not everyone has time to visit multiple blogs every day. Few are technically savvy enough to make use of RSS syndication to scan through blog posts. By providing an aggregation of views of many different Singaporeans, we have been able to provide a single website for people to click on to read alternative news.

Secondly, TOC has determined from the start to provide independent and alternative viewpoints, but not to the extent of engaging in the wild and irrational anti-government rhetoric that you see on many Internet bulletin boards. By doing this, we have managed to reach out to the moderate majority who are tired of the mainstream media brainlessly praising the government, but also want to engage in meaningful discourse on issues that matter.

TOC is still a volunteer-run outfit. We don’t have any full-time staff nor any regular source of funding to cover our expenses, apart from the ads that we just started putting up on our site.

Our greatest resources are our writers, readers and commenters. In order to keep TOC going, we continually need even more passionate people to step forward to volunteer their time as writers, editors and even to help with the technical and legal aspects of running a website. If you are interested to help TOC and be part of this media revolution, do come and talk to me later, or drop me an email.

Conclusion

In conclusion, I’d like to say that media freedom is not a Western concept inapplicable to Singapore. The concept of a free media can and should be adapted to the Singapore context. For example, the media should have more freedom to air alternative political views, without compromising racial, religious and moral sensibilities.

But we Singaporeans need to cease being observers on the sidelines, and take the future in our own hands. The future of our democratic society, based on justice and equality, is too precious to be left in the hands of an elite group that controls the levers of information and opinion in our country.

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This entry was posted in Current Affairs, Letters, Opinion.