By Yap Shiwen
With the MDA’s recent efforts to regulate online media, orchestrated by Yaacob Ibrahim and the recent statements by Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen on the threat of online media causing disunity and loss of cohesion, followed by Dr Vivian Balakrishnan stating that the PAP was not afraid of differences in opinion. His statement was to the effect that:
“What they want to find out is whether you have values. And that you can marshall the arguments in support of a view that is honest, genuine and sincerely held. The PAP is not afraid of differences of opinion. What the PAP does not want are charlatans. We want people who are grounded.”
However the act of attempting to regulate and restrict online media, and the statements of Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen, which can in this context be taken to be a criticism of online media sources, does not imply this to be the case. Another PAP MP, Mr Zainudin Nordin, MP of Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC, sent a Cease & Desist Letter to a blogger, with the threat of legal action, when in this case the blogger was simply offering an opinion, with no implicit or explicit threats made or suggested to a legal figure.
This implies, if not on an individual level, an institutional lack of insight in the PAP. It implies a lack of ability to negotiate and managing relationships with persistent media agents and agencies that are both highly scalable and beyond their control. MPs and Ministers do not generally attempt legal actions against an individual blogger unless there is a sound legal basis. The action of Mr Zainudin Nordin, a member of a government whose MPs and Ministers are amongst the highest-paid in the world, implies an oversight in an education to engage with social media.
The PAP is used to a compliant media. This grants the PAP the ability to dictate and shape the public agenda and public awareness, as well as control the flow of information through media channels. This sort of control can grant an organisation the ability to orchestrate and shape the flows of information, or in some cases which border around misinformation, in the public awareness. As there is no explicit evidence of the PAP feeding misinformation to the public.
However, the introduction of online blogs, commentators and news sources such as New Asia Republic, The Online Citizen, Public House and Temasek Review Emeritus have disrupted their dominance. They are neither compliant to the PAP, nor are they corporate bodies that perform business within Singapore that are subject to a tax, given their non-profit nature.
PAP Media Control
According to Arun Mahizhnan, Special Research Adviser of the Institute of Policy Studies at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, the PAP Government has based its media policy, practices and procedures around a single tenet: media must serve national interest as defined by the elected government.
To this end, what has happened is a consolidation of every single media conglomerate and as a result, control over all major media channels in Singapore, with the exception of the World Wide Web. They have control over traditional media channels such as print media, television and radio, having heavy influence over mainstream media as a whole.
In order to explain the level of control, the Chairman of SPH who is currently Dr Lee Boon Yang, a former PAP member and the MP for Jalan Besar GRC from 1984-2011.There are extensive links between the directors of Singapore Press Holdings and the PAP Government. S. R. Nathan, Director of the Security & Intelligence Division and later President of Singapore served as SPH’s Executive Chairman from 1982 to 1988, while the first President of SPH (1994–2002) was Tjong Yik Min, former chief of the Internal Security Department. The immediate former Chairman of SPH, Tony Tan, was Deputy Prime Minister of Singapore from 1994-2005 and is the current President of Singapore.
Moreover, Temasek Holdings maintains investments and has a controlling interest in the following media and telecommunications companies: Mediacorp & Singapore Telecommunications (Singtel). Mediacorp controls all public broadcast channels in Singapore, while Singtel is a major telecoms conglomerate and MNC operating in Southeast Asia and Australia.
The current Chairman of Mediacorp is Teo Ming Kian. He has formerly served as Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Defence, the former Ministry of Communications, the Ministry of Finance, the Economic Development Board and as Chairman of the National Science and Technology Board, later renamed A*STAR, the Agency for Science, Technology and Development. Concurrently, he also sits on the Directorate Boards of the Lee Kuan Yew Exchange Fellowship, Monetary Authority of Singapore, and Temasek Holdings.
Present on the Singtel Board of Directors is Peter Ong, a non-independent, non-executive director. Mr Ong is also concurrently the Head of the Singapore Civil Service, Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Finance of Singapore and Permanent Secretary (Special Duties) in the Prime Minister’s Office.
Finally, Temasek Holdings, which owns a significant interest in these companies, was governed by Suppiah Dhanabalan in the role of Chairman, and Ho Ching, in the role of CEO and Executive Director. Both these individuals are on public record as being closely affiliated with the PAP. The current Chairman is Lim Boon Heng, another individual with extensive and open links to the PAP Government, having been a former MP from 2001-2011.
S. Dhanabalan served as a Minister in various bodies and in senior leadership positions in various Government-Linked Corporations (GLCs), while Ho Ching is married to the incumbent Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong. Lim Boon Heng has has served various roles in the PAP, NTUC, People’s Association and the Prime Minister’s Office. Taken together, these facts imply a high level of implicit control, or at the very minimum some degree of influence, of mainstream media channels by the PAP.
Disruptive Social Media and a New Approach
The introduction of the Internet was a disruptive innovation that did not necessarily threaten the political order yet, in the early 1990s. However, the rise in connectivity of the population, smartphones, growing political awareness of the younger generation and the advent of social media in the past few years had disrupted the traditional media channels.
And this is a phenomenon that opposition groups like the Worker’s Party and the Singapore Democratic Party have capitalised upon. Given their inability to make use of traditional media channels and platforms on an equal and impartial basis, they have shifted to the use of online tools. Social media is pervasive, scalable and ubiquitous, to a degree that mainstream media cannot match entirely. With social media, information and news can be disseminated more broadly and rapidly than can be done so with traditional media.
And entirely disruptive to the paradigm of a PAP used to dominance over media channels, such as television and print media. It is a war of information and public perception, with the traditional media channels dominated by the power brokers and plutocrats. As scalable, pervasive and established as traditional media are, they have not managed to evolve a proper response to the emergence of Facebook, Twitter and social media.
Social media is fluid and rapid, able to raise issues to the fore and generate a deluge of information. In short, it is agile and decentralised, and this is a quality that opposition groups have been able to capitalise upon. It is not an equaliser, but it is a platform that the PAP cannot control.
When it comes to public perception, it may not necessarily the facts that matter, but the opinions and insinuations that run rampant and arouse emotion the most. Sentiment is roused and directed, and rational thought very often cast adrift. Mob psychology can run rampant. In the world of the Web and Internet, logic serves to combat them, if to a limited degree. Public opinion and the mob are fickle and capricious, a useful tool that can serve the group best able to manage it, but not entirely controlled.
The PAP has the governmental machinery and traditional media conglomerates behind them, having power as regulator, content creator and content provider. But social media introduces a channel where there is no control. They have to compete with other content creators and content providers, who are decentralised, moderately anonymous and can raise issues that the PAP may rather not address, due to perceived sensitivities.
Inconsistencies of information and narratives are exposed and representatives of the PAP are subjected to intense scrutiny – like the cases of former YP member Jason Neo; the behaviour of PAP MP Zainudin Nordin; the election violation by PAP MP Tin Pei Ling or an associate, with the police case in limbo; the comparative differences in media treatment of PAP MP Michael Palmer over his extramarital affair with PA staff member Ms Laura Ong versus the treatment of WP MP Yaw Shin Leong over his own extramarital affair. Or even the financial difficulties encountered by Temasek Holdings in the late 1990s, which was never covered in mainstream media despite being a matter of public interest.
Rather than seek to fit online media providers and social media into their traditional paradigm of compliance, they may be better off engaging them on equal grounds, with courtesy rather than derision. It is would be a sign of institutional maturity on their part, by acknowledging the existence of an establishment beyond their control and content they cannot dictate. And an admission that there is a Fourth Estate emerging in Singapore, beyond the control of any single political organisation
Greater openness and transparency are perhaps the only way forward for the PAP, as the online media can and will react to measures to censor them, in the ways possible to them. It may even drive them underground and turn them even more against PAP interests, spurring their efforts to disseminate and educate the citizenry.
In his 2011 National Day Really Speech, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong stated the need to “…harness diverse views and ideas, put aside personal interests, and forge common goals”. Based on the Singapore Civil Service College’s own research, tapping on the public for ideas and energies can guard against group-think, optimise resources and improve public policy results and productivity.
Such efforts also fulfill citizen’s aspirations and engender greater ownership of outcomes. Conducted well, public engagement “…broadens the base of support, reduces the political risks and increases the legitimacy of outcomes”. Opportunities for people to work together, interact and create social networks can generate positive impact on individuals and spin-offs to the community at large, as seen in the entrepreneurial community and startup sector.
This can lead to more robust solutions, as well as more resilient communities and society. Engagement and empowerment generates dividends, but it means changing the paradigm from compliance to accepting the rise and existence of the Fourth Establishment. It means respecting and adopting an attitude of “Live and let live”, and letting others have their say.
To stay in power politically and socially, to remain relevant and connected to the grassroots and the segments of society they have alienate, the PAP Government will have to disengage from the paradigm of compliance and coercion. They are tools useful for certain situations, in dealing with seditionists and terrorists. They are not tools for dealing with the Fourth Establishment and the common people of Singapore who tacitly support and approve of it.
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- Ee, D. (2013).False info online a ‘threat to Total Defence‘.AsiaOne Singapore.
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- Mahizhnan, A. Managing New Media: New Trends. Institute of Policy Studies, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.
- TRE Editor.(2013).MP Zainudin Sends “Cease & Desist” Letter to Blogger Ganga.Temasek Review Emeritus.
- Boaz, C. (2003).Media as the “Fourth Estate”.Politics 326: Politics & the Media.
- Leong, L.(2011).Developing Our Approach to Public Engagement.Ethos,10.Singapore Civil Service College.