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Discrediting the “new media”

Melvin Tan

Rear-Admiral (NS) Lui Tuck Yew, who is Senior Minister of State for Information, Communications and the Arts, recently expressed disappointment with netizens for what he felt were "unkind comments" over the mishap involving PAP MP Seng Han Thong.

During a grassroots event in Yio Chu Kang SMC last month, Mr Seng was torched by an elderly resident, Ong Kah Chua, and suffered serious burns.

The Straits Times also interviewed Aw Chui Seng, the grassroots leader who was injured in the same attack while sacrificing himself to save Mr Seng, which saw him describe netizens as "inhuman" and "extreme".

Are these a continuation of attempts by the mainstream media to discredit the "new media" (a term the internet is popularly known as)?

After all, sweeping statements have been made by the mainstream media against the new media on various occasions, most notably by the Straits Times’ "Chua sisters" – Chua Lee Hoong and Chua Mui Hoong, examples as shown in the below quotes:

"Anonymous bloggers and grandstanding kopitiam rabble rousers aside, I am doubtful if many right-thinking Singaporeans seriously think Mr Wong should resign over one lapse in one of his agencies."

- Chua Mui Hoong, "Beyond witch-hunts to sanction for lapses" (ST, 23 April 2008)

"The problem with the Internet is reliability: To what extent can you trust what you read online? Whether due to ignorance, mischief or sheer absence of quality control, much of what is written online has to be taken with a pinch of salt."

- Chua Lee Hoong, "Political challenges in 2009" (ST, 3 January 2009)

Oddly, from what I have come across, the derisions of Mr Seng were hardly rampant in the socio-political spectrum of cyberspace, which encompasses primarily bloggers and online forummers.

Absent were any bloggers, identified or anonymous, mocking Mr Seng over the unfortunate incident.

On the contrary, several of them, including sympathisers of Singapore’s political opposition, expressed sympathies for Mr Seng and wished him a speedy recovery.

True, there were forummers armed with callous remarks and graphics but they did not constitute the majority either, bearing in mind that a handful of participants in an online forum cannot represent an entire slate of a few hundred or a few thousand registrants.

On my part was an article in my Chinese blog examining the potential causes of more senior citizens developing mental illnesses, attributing mainly to the increasing pressure in Singapore society and their inability to retire.

When RAdm Lui brought this to light in Parliament on 4 February 2009, he obviously had, intentionally or otherwise, drawn from a very small sampling and not a very significant portion of the new media's population.

As for Mr Aw, I am unsure if he accesses the internet or browse socio-political websites because many people of his generation do not and if so, he might probably be fed the wrong information, most likely by the ST reporters interviewing him.

Generally, netizens are predominantly not as "beastly" as what the MSM makes them out to be by refusing to be specific about the level or originators of such derisions, in particular bloggers whose channels and readerships require more efforts to establish and maintain and would be foolish to squander their own efforts.

Why such a portrayal?

Although the effects of new media are limited, it is a useful tool to disseminate information of opposition parties as well as independent groups and garnering 1% of Singaporeans' eyeballs beats garnering none at all, as what it was before the internet came into existence. 

While the socio-political sphere is largely critical of the PAP government, it is due to the political circumstance that results in this and with voters of opposition political party candidates being under-represented, they have nowhere else to head to.

To put it in a fair manner, the ruling PAP gets more power it deserves and more flak, while the opposition parties in Parliament, namely the WP and the SDA, do not take much of the heat with the understanding that it does not receive much executive delegation.

This outcome stems from the reality that the Singapore government, along with several countries with enduring governments, such as in Malaysia and China, cultivates its national mainstream media to restrict it broadly in the areas of policies and politics with authority, making the presence of online alternative views desirable to carry the service of balancing the information dished out by these channels.

Unless the online acts are illegal, the internet can never be regulated or self-regulate, with only each netizen or blogger able to determine the direction he or she wishes to embark on.

Doing so would be akin to regulating a daily life aspect like sleeping or talking because cyberspace is a mirror of the real world, which is how the word "netizen" originates from "citizens".

Anyway, the PAP does not believe that most Singaporeans are suitable to belong in their ranks, with its emphasis on "credibility" and "talent" for their leadership and candidature. So why would they expect "lesser-mortal" netizens to express themselves the PAP way?

Being an uncontrollable medium, there would surely be a fair share of distortions and the PAP is neither the only political party that encounters them nor is the mainstream media not guilty of the same.

From my experience, the Workers' Party once had an impromptu visit by a seedy blogger to its weekly open house in the pretext of finding out more about it, pulling along another who, ironically, would be in an apparent position to provide him with honest information.

Later, a journalistic review was penned, with misleading pictures as well as quotes taken during private conversations from a WP Central Executive Council member and those present there that day, without informing them that they were being interviewed.

Apart from these rare instances, in fact, rarer than how the mainstream garbles the perceptions of the WP and other opposition parties over the years, netizens and bloggers are fine and should not be painted into an absolutely different light.

The author also blogs at http://melvintansg.blogspot.com/

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