Feature: New blogs on the block – The Independent and We the Citizens of Singapore

By Ng Yi Shu

More community blogs have sprung up in recent times. Two new additions to the socio-political blog community, We the Citizens of Singapore (WCS), launched on 14th of July 2013, and The Independent, which conducted a soft launch of their Facebook page on May and is officially launching on National Day, have sprung up in spite of new regulations mandated by the MDA in June.

Changes to the Broadcasting Act laid out last month has required news sites that qualify under two criteria (having a total of 8 articles relevant to Singapore to be posted over 2 months, and having a total of 50,000 unique visitors from Singapore over 2 months) to be gazetted under the licensing scheme, which has required news sites to post a performance bond of $50,000. While Parliament has not required other news sites such as The Online Citizen (amongst others) to be licensed, a fear within the online community has risen over the ambiguity of the new licensing framework – though clarification has arisen that has assured the community (at least, in word) that personal blogs will not be affected.

The Independent also came under public spotlight for allegedly seeking foreign funding and hence running counter to the rules as laid out in the Broadcasting Act. The Independent has since clarified otherwise, but was nevertheless required to register under the class licensing scheme.

Kumaran Pillai, former chief editor of TOC and current chief editor of The Independent, said, “The plan to setup The Independent was in the works even before MDA made the announcement about the new internet regulations. The government has also said that it doesn’t want to control discussions on the Internet and we take their word for it.”

Roy Ngerng, writer at The Heart Truths and founder of WCS, also told TOC that the new regulations did not factor into their considerations, though he objected to the regulations itself. “The presence of these regulations can be stifling, as there are no clear demarcations on what the regulations want to delineate,” Roy wrote in an email reply to TOC.

Varying inspirations and audiences

The reasons and factors that inspired these two men to start their own community blogs varied. The Independent wants to offer “our journalists a career choice where they can report without fear or favour on news and current affairs in Singapore”, while WCS wants to offer a place for “Singaporeans to reclaim their voice.”

There has been a huge difference between what both blogs intend to offer as well. With big guns such as PN Balji (former editor-in-chief of TODAY) on the slate when it launches, The Independent is seemingly intending to take a stricter, more journalistic approach to its editorial policies and its articles much like Breakfast Network (also established by former journalist Bertha Henson). In its philosophy outlined on its site, The Independent states that “the editorial direction for (the Independent) can be summed up in two words: responsible and robust.”

WCS however has intended for the direct opposite – a community-based approach like sites such as Temasek Review Emeritus and UK newspaper Guardian’s Comment Is Free website. It hopes “to be able to put up contributions from Singaporeans which are more balanced in their perspectives.” In their Commentary Guidelines posted on the site, WCS stated that they would not allow “commentaries which would inflame individuals or are meant to sow discord… commentaries which take personal potshots at individuals… (and) commentaries which are discriminatory or offensive.”

Says Roy Ngerng: “What we really hope to do is to create a culture of discussion where everyone would be able to come in with a mind-set to listen to one another… which enables the discussion to be taken further. We hope to create an environment where Singaporeans are able to add on to one another’s perspectives, and to create solutions that would cater to as wide a population as possible.”

What I’ve learnt so far about Singapore at this juncture is this – there are Singaporeans who have different political stances and alignments at this point, and we have forgotten to listen to one another, which is unfortunate,” says Roy. “This is unhealthy because such negative attacks on one another would prevent the conversation from being taken a step further. The fact of the matter is that everyone in Singapore has good suggestions about how to bring our country forward. We simply need to learn to distil the information from the conversations that we have, so that we can put them together for a representative solution that is formulated by the people… There is no right and wrong here and the people would need to vote for what they believe would serve their interests best.”

Is the community going towards more diversity, or more of the same?

Would these two differing inspirations and audiences mean that Singaporeans would enjoy more diversity? Says NUS undergraduate Teo Jun Jie, “The set ups could be encouraging in the sense that they provide attractive and convenient platforms, and perhaps will even motivate netizens to think thoroughly about various issues and work towards penning them down and sharing their views with the wider Internet community… for a more active and participatory “netizenry”.”

Diversity is hard to come by in Singapore – we need more voices – a plurality in ways to look at a problem, ways to decide what a problem is and a plurality in solutions,” opined NTU sociology student and social activist Lim Jialiang. “More voices is always good – especially in alternative media which enjoys lower levels of censorship.”

An openness to community collaboration

Both sites are open to collaboration between bloggers and community blogs in areas involving the exchange of knowledge and expertise between blogs. Says Roy: “The different blogs and websites in Singapore serve many different roles and functions. They also attract very different readers with various interests and reading styles (and hence) develop their own niche markets to cater to the different opinion groups… collaboration between blogs and websites would serve to further enhance and deepen the knowledge exchange among not only the readers, but the blog owners as well.”

It remains to be seen if other sites (including this site) would be open to collaboration between members of the community. No one scheme of collaboration has been established between community blogs. The Free My Internet coalition, which brought bloggers together in protest of the new MDA regulations, remains the largest show of solidarity in the Internet community to date. “#FreeMyInternet has played a pivotal role in bringing the bloggers together,” said Kumaran Pillai.

The licensing framework introduced by the MDA, had actually acted as the necessary impetus which propelled the formation of the #FreeMyInternet movement forward,” added Roy Ngerng.

Responsibility in alternative media – definitions differ

Perceptions differ however on how new (and old outlets) can remain credible and responsible on the Internet. “Maintaining and putting up quality posts is a good first step to build up such community blogs,” said Teo Jun Jie. “There is no value in having a wide variety of views… when most of them are unreliable. Helping to create or set the benchmark for an active, participatory and responsible “netizenry” could perhaps be one of the goal such community blogs aim to attain.”

Jialiang however begged to differ. Echoing public opinion laid out by socio-political blogger Alex Au, he said, “We should move away from the idea that the Internet is a place for citizen journalism and journalism.”

It’s just how the landscape has changed… if we look at history, places (such as coffee shops) that have been communal are no longer communal,” he adds. “Where are the conversations now? They have migrated to the Internet. Whether they (the new community blogs) fulfil their promise as what they call themselves to be remains to be seen.”

Clearly, Singapore’s blogosphere has grown a lot more diverse. Oddly, it would seem that the intent to further regulate online media has only strengthen its resolve, most notably in the blossoming of new sites interested in social political news, commentary and discussion. While their format and approach varies, their common purpose seems clear, and echoes with established sites like TOC, TRE and Publichouse – keeping the Singapore reading public informed about social and political issues, so that they can make their own decisions.

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