The Online Media: Untangling Singapore’s web of politics

The following is an article which TOC’s Deputy Editor Gerald Giam wrote for Opinion Asia. We would like to thank Opinion Asia for letting us re-publish it in full here.

The article has also been published in the Straits Times, under the title “New media: Govt’s ‘lighter touch’ gets even lighter.

Gerald Giam / Deputy Editor

Two years ago, just before Singapore‘s General Election, Senior Minister of State for Information, Communications and the Arts, Balaji Sadasivan, warned that “persistently political” websites would be required to register with the Government and be subject to the same restrictions as political party websites.

Far from having a chilling effect on local “blogosphere” (the community of blogs), many bloggers simply ignored the directive. Numerous blogs sprang to action to cover the elections, discussing many issues which the Government-controlled mainstream media had omitted. Mobile phone videos of almost every opposition rally were uploaded to video sharing site YouTube and cross-posted on blogs, despite a controversial law which bans “party political” videos in Singapore.

Local humour writer mrbrown created a series of digital audio recordings, dubbed “persistently non-political podcasts”, in a spoof of the minister’s warning. His podcasts used everyday Singaporean experiences to poke fun at various players in the election, particularly the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP). One clip after the election results featured a student boasting to his friends that he scored 66.6% in his examinations. That figure was the percentage of the popular vote that the PAP had garnered, and which the mainstream media had proclaimed was a decisive victory. However, in Singapore‘s highly competitive academic culture, a score like that would be considered mediocre at best.

Some were surprised that the Government did not take any action against these law-breaking bloggers. After all, this was a government that had always enforced laws that they enacted, especially those oriented towards managing political dissent.

The Singapore Government had earlier said that as part of their efforts to promote the use of the Internet to the country’s economic advantage, it would adopt a “light touch” towards regulating online content. So far, this promise has been largely kept. There have been only three Singaporeans who have been publicly hauled in for material posted on the Internet. All had posted offensive remarks about other ethnic groups or religions — a taboo in multi-racial Singapore. To date, no Singaporean has got in trouble for posting dissenting political views. This is despite the fact that most political expression on the Internet is critical of the Government (One PAP MP, Denise Phua, put the figure at 85%).

Some have attributed the lack of enforcement to the inability of the Government to find violators who use pseudonyms to cloak their identity. This is a mistaken assumption, as the “racist” bloggers — all of whom used pseudonyms — would attest. Nevertheless the sheer number of bloggers makes it impractical to hunt down every one of them.

Paradoxically, humourist mrbrown was fired as a columnist from mainstream newspaper Today for an article that sarcastically declared that Singaporeans were “fed up with success”. Among other things, mrbrown had criticised Singapore‘s high cost of living. Such an article would not have raised an eyebrow had it been posted online. The Government was signalling a different treatment for political expression online and in the mainstream media (To be exact, the Government did not sack mrbrown. The information minister’s press secretary merely wrote a strongly-worded letter to the newspaper’s editor. The signal, however, couldn’t be clearer).

The Government’s rationale is not hard to guess: The traditional media reaches out to a far larger audience than the Internet, even in a highly-wired society like Singapore. Mainstream English newspapers The Straits Times and Today have a combined daily readership of over 1.7 million, while even the most popular local socio-political websites are each visited by no more than 9,000 readers a day. After factoring in television and the vernacular press, it is clear that the mainstream media has a commanding mindshare of voting citizens.

To differentiate society’s level of acceptance of the news from the mainstream media and the Internet-based media, the Government has attempted to portray the latter as irrational and unreliable compared to the former. In a speech to international journalists in October 2006, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong charged that the Internet “enables clever propaganda, inflammatory opinions, half-truths and untruths to circulate freely and gain currency”.

Maturing of Singapore‘s alternative media

Singapore‘s rambunctious alternative media has come a long way since 2006. While individual “rantings” are still the mainstay of the majority of blogs, several blog aggregators and group blogs have emerged.

Blog aggregators like Singapore Daily and Singapore Surf comb through hundreds of individual blogs to flag the best articles of the day, providing a portal that directs readers to these blog posts. This encourages bloggers to improve the quality of their writing in order to get selected as one of the “blogs of the day”.

Group blogs like Singapore Angle and The Online Citizen are run by a team of writers. They usually have their own editorial policies, with each article going through rounds of edits and approvals before being published, not unlike the process employed by the mainstream press.

Needless to say, readership of local socio-political blogs has increased. Previously the most popular blogs received no more than 2,000 visits a day. Now, they routinely hit four times that number, despite there being more sites for readers to choose from. Blog readers tend to be an unusual mix of youths, young professionals and retirees.

It is not just ordinary citizens who have taken a greater interest in the alternative media. Even politicians have been setting up their own blogs. A group of PAP MPs set up the “P65” group blog and Singapore foreign minister George Yeo regularly posts his thoughts about his meetings with foreign dignitaries on two blogs he shares with his grassroots volunteers.

The mainstream media has also taken a greater interest in reporting on Internet chatter. Many stories that first broke on the Internet were later reported in the mainstream press.

Often, Singaporeans switch to reading online media when they realise the newspapers are not covering some issues fully because of their political sensitivity. This was most evident after the escape of alleged Jemaah Islamiyah terrorist Mas Selamat Kastari from custody. While the mainstream press was perceived to be playing down the scandal, citizen journalists offered their independent takes on the affair. Blogs like The Online Citizen saw a sharp spike in readership during this period.

The Government’s response

To date, the Government has refrained from responding to online criticism, possibly because it fears this will lend greater credibility to critical views espoused on the Internet – to the extent that even letters to the editor published on the online section of The Straits Times forum are deemed unworthy of an official response.

Last year, the Government appointed the Advisory Council on the Impact of the Internet on Society (AIMS) to examine Singapore‘s Internet regulatory regime and recommend changes to meet the challenges of this dynamic new environment.

Many bloggers were worried that, given the controlling nature of the Singapore government, AIMS being a government-appointed committee would end up recommending even stricter laws to govern the Internet. Thirteen bloggers, including this writer, submitted a joint proposal to the Government, in which they argued for the repeal of several laws that unnecessarily curbed media freedom. The “Bloggers 13”, as the media dubbed them, also proposed a way forward in the form of community moderation.

In response, the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts (MICA) responded that they were planning to adopt an “even lighter touch” to the Internet in the future.

In his recent message to the nation on the eve of the country’s National Day on August 9th, Prime Minister Lee said the government will “adapt” to the Internet and use it to “engage our cyber-citizens”.

Mr Lee went one step further during his National Day Rally speech on August 17th, announcing a slight relaxation of regulations governing political films, podcasts and political advertising on the Internet. He acknowledged that the new media will change the way Singapore conducts its politics.

While these changes would hardly be considered dramatic liberalisations in and of themselves, they indicate a positive shift in the Government’s attitude towards online media. From their previous stance of discrediting almost all views generated on the Internet, there is now a growing acceptance that there is no option but to engage citizens online.

In fact, the Prime Minister’s multimedia demonstrations during his Rally speech — including a live webcast filmed from his mobile phone — appeared to be aimed at convincing the senior cabinet ministers, including his father, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew seated in the front row.

It remains to be seen whether the Government will continue to engage citizens on their own terms using portals like REACH (the government feedback unit), or venture into engaging citizens on their turf by responding to articles on blogs. Should they choose the latter, it will signal a higher level of political openness and engagement that many Singaporeans, both young and old, have long been hoping for.


Picture not from original published article.

Picture from Terry Mockler.


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