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Temasek, in review

Howard Lee

This has the makings of a David vs Goliath saga.

The nimble and fiery Temasek Review (TR), championing the rights of the people at all cost, rose in defiance against the behemoth Temasek Holdings (TH), which through its lumbering public relations efforts, endeared itself as public enemy number one.

The cause of it all? The sacred name of “Temasek Review”, to which TR claims as its home, and TH claims as the authentic title of its annual report.

Yet for all the potential high drama, the details risk being buried, which does beg the question – is it all worth the scuffle? These would be the facts to date:

1) TH did not issue a legal writ to TR. It merely sent a request to whom it presumed was TR's owner, requesting – quite politely, actually – for TR to stop using the name. It was TR that evaluated the legal options of maintaining its name, not least going into a blow by blow evaluation of its legal options on its website. Perhaps a trifle sensitive, or perhaps just plain defensive.

2) The request was not even addressed to any party in TR, but sent to the mass media, as if that is a commonly accepted bulletin board. TR’s claim is that TH has never attempted to contact them via the website. If that were true, TH’s letter is akin to a fart in a crowded place - we smell it, but no one can in good faith pay any attention to its owner.

3) We have no idea how much in demand the name “Temasek Review” really is, to warrant such extensive news coverage. But for certain reasons, the traditional media has latched on rather easily to the battle of postures – perhaps a “high profile case” in its own right?

Nevertheless, it is getting blown a little out of proportion, especially since TH has made no indication of legal proceedings and TR really has no real obligation to respond to an indirect address. Basically, the jittery students have just asked the school bully to stop strutting around aggressively.

But the case does throw up some interesting points about how such public confrontations are conducted today in Singapore’s context, especially about the negotiation of owned space online. This article will try to shed some light on such negotiations, or minimally toss out the insanity thrown up so far. If you are a fan of either TH or TR, you will not like what follows.

The old school approach worthy of booing

Even if ground sentiment does not summarily decide against its claim, good common sense would tell you that TH’s letter lacks both teeth and weight. What is TH's grounds for asking TR to discontinue using the name in question – effectively, to shut down its website? Are there investors out there who are likely to mistake the political blogsite with some hardcopy annual report handed to them dutifully by their secretaries? Does TH even have reason to believe that that its investors read TR’s website often enough to be confused by the two?

For that reason (or TH’s apparent lack of it), the online world has immediately speculated that the letter was driven by politicking causes. And given TH’s close association with the ruling party, there is little wonder.

It would be hard to accept TH’s carefully placed statement, that they have “no issue with the desire to foster and facilitate serious debate and discourse and to provide news of socio-political affairs of Singapore”, at face value – it reeks of the Chinese idiom - “to confess on one’s own accord without a beating”. But even if we can give TH the benefit of the doubt, there is no denying that TH's position is political in nature, in that it believes it can assert its authority for the mindshare of the online world by doing this through the official “transparent” channels.

Effectively, TH is stuck in the old school mentality that a letter to the “rightful owner” is the appropriate way to go. Mind-numbing stupidity still trapped in slumber land.

The online world simply doesn’t work that way. TH cannot bring itself to engage an anonymous entity, believing perhaps that they would not have to option of bringing the responsible party to task. But such positions of authority hold no weight today, particularly not online. TR commands a much stronger position, not just simply because of its massive support base, but because its authority is founded on a shared identity, an identity that pervades even its website, something that TH can hardly lay claim to.

TH needs to understand that, if it wishes to enter the online sphere, it must first understand how it operates, realise that it does not make the rules here, and learn to play by those set by others. Personal engagement with an entity that potentially has no public face will be a steep learning curve, but ignorance or indifference is political suicide. Assuming, of course, that the good name of TH is not already dead in cyberspace.

Still swinging the imaginary big stick

Unfortunately, TR’s indignant fist-shaking has done little to progress a better understanding and appreciation of the online world. The defensive response quickly assumes that TH intends legal action, for which TH is still holding the cards.

In addition, TR raised a whole series of clarifications to TH, which read more like a challenge to TH to bring to bring on legal proceedings. Swear this is not a smear campaign against Dr Joseph Ong, clarify claim of exclusive use, clarify extent of use, clarify claim over URL… It’s a fairly long list, one that should be unnecessary to begin with if TR is really of the view that they were not formally informed of TH’s request and would treat the matter as “hearsay”. Was it necessary?

And for that matter, all the requests for clarifications were made on TR’s website, with no indication that they have been sent directly to TH. Subsequently, the response was picked up by the media, which also did not do the full reply justice. So this is really a tit for tat response – if TH refused to acknowledge and directly address TR, then TR is currently doing pretty much the same. I wasn’t even aware that such a cold war exists on our shores.

This defiant attitude has evidently won the approval of TR’s readers. However, it has done little to promote the Singapore online media environment. The likely word out there is that Singapore bloggers are fond of egoistic posturing, claiming rights to the public sphere without the responsibility and maturity to boot, shooting from the hips and asking questions later… All false claims, but in the past ten years, that mentality has been ingrained in most of our reading population. This incident has done little to alleviate that, if not made it worse.

Perhaps, then, TR owes Singaporeans more than just a tidy sum in potential law suits. TR has every right to defend its claims to its URL, but that should not be the reason for taking on TH with the same blunt stick it is using. Compared to TH dragging its pomposity through its own public relations sludge, TR has the wit and dexterity of a fencer, and some legal understanding to back it up. Yet, we would all benefit more from TR’s ability to take advantage of this situation and level up its engagement, instead of jumping the gun employing the same tactics as TH.

All in all, it has not been a good weekend for online media, but we can still hope that this clears quickly and we can get back to the real issues at hand.

*Temasek Review had changed its name to "New Temasek Review". However, its latest update says it has in fact not changed its name. See TR's explanation here.