The politics of Singapore’s new media in 2006

This is an article I contributed to The Online Citizen.

The year 2006 was a landmark year for the new media and citizen journalism in Singapore. The government’s “light touch” approach to regulating the Internet was probably one of the factors that emboldened many Singaporeans to step up and push the political boundaries through their blogs, podcasts (online sound clips) and vodcasts (online video clips). There were too many developments in the new media in Singapore in the past year to capture in one article. Nevertheless, this piece will highlight just a few of the more significant happenings in Singapore fuelled by this phenomenon.

Election podcasting and vodcasting

In the weeks leading up to the General Election in May, Senior Minister of State for Information, Communications and the Arts Balaji Sadasivan announced a ban on “explicitly political” podcasting and vodcasting during the hustings. This move was ostensibly in response to the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP)’s plans to circumvent the government-controlled mainstream media by reaching out to the electorate using sound and video clips on its website. After the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts (MICA) informed political parties of this regulation, the parties had no choice but to comply. The SDP reluctantly removed the podcasts from their website, but not without protest.

However, this did not stop some Netizens from publishing videos of numerous election rallies on their blogs. Almost all of the videos, which people had recorded using their mobile phone camcorders and submitted to the blogs, were of Opposition rallies, notably that of the Workers’ Party (WP). The blog owners did make several attempts to ask for People’s Action Party (PAP) videos but there were few takers.

Some wondered why the government did not crack down on these websites. The likely reason was that the government felt assured that due to the lack of knowledge about these websites among the general populace, they would have been unlikely to swing the votes by much. This assurance was probably strengthened when a post-election survey by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) revealed that only 33 per cent of Singaporeans — mostly young adults — said that the Internet was important to shaping their voting decisions.

The rise of mrbrown

Singapore’s most well-known blogger, mrbrown, shot to fame during the elections with his riotously funny “bak chor mee” podcast. This was part of a series of “persistently non-political” podcasts (a play on the government’s phase “explicitly political”). This podcast recorded an argument between a bak chor mee man (a food vendor) and his customer over a botched order. It implicitly poked fun at the PAP’s demonising of WP candidate James Gomez for his blunder of not submitting his election forms properly and initially blaming it on an Elections Department official.

mrbrown’s next podcast about the impact of grades and exams in Singapore was equally funny. In this clip, two schoolchildren who were comparing exam grades and debating whether one student’s score of 66.6 per cent was “a very good score”, as their teacher had told her. The mainstream media had trumpeted the PAP’s 66.6 per cent win as a resounding mandate. The clip went on to lampoon other politicians both from the PAP and the Opposition.

During his National Day Rally speech, PM Lee misquoted the character in mrbrown’s “bak chor mee” podcast as saying “mee siam mai hum”. Many Singaporeans caught the error immediately, as the popular Malay dish mee siam never contains hum (cockles). PM Lee’s press secretary later clarified that he had meant to say, “laksa mai hum”. This didn’t stop mrbrown from recording another funny podcast titled, “A harmless podcast”, which contained a catchy jingle of PM Lee’s gaffe. The jingle was widely downloaded and circulated, with some people even converting it into a mobile phone ring tone. In keeping with their “light touch” commitment to the new media, there was no response from the government, even though some officials were said to have taken offence at that irreverent mockery.

Unfortunately, despite (or perhaps, because of) mrbrown’s popularity, he found himself targeted for crossing the proverbial “out-of-bounds” (OB) markers. In a column he wrote for TODAY newspaper on 30 June, mrbrown criticised the government, albeit in a light-hearted manner, for its price increases following the Elections. The article, “S’poreans fed up with progress”, drew a scathing response from MICA, which it said “distort(ed) the truth”. To the dismay of many Singaporeans, MICA accused mrbrown of being a “partisan player” in politics and declared that “it is not the role of journalists or newspapers in Singapore to champion issues, or campaign for or against the Government”. The government’s sore point appeared to be that his opinions were circulated in a mainstream newspaper rather than on his blog, which has a much narrower and more limited audience.

TODAY promptly sacked mrbrown, despite howls of protests from Netizens, some of whom turned up at City Hall mrt station wearing brown tee shirts in a show of support for mrbrown and protest at his dismissal from TODAY.”Thankfully, no further action was taken against mrbrown and his podcasts continued to draw more and more listeners every week.

Talking Cock in Parliament

The event Talking Cock in Parliament was publicised almost entirely through “viral marketing” on the Internet. It was a stand-up comedy held at the Old Parliament House on 24 August. Most of the performances were captured and made available on YouTube and other websites. The most memorable performances were probably that of Ruby Pan and Hossan Leong. Ruby Pan had her audience rolling in laughter as she demonstrated the different English accents used in Singapore to illustrate the different strains of Singlish — acrolectal Singlish (i.e., the “high class” Singlish) and basilectal Singlish (the colloquial, ungrammatical type frowned on by the government).

Hossan Leong also had his audience in fits of laughter when he sang his localised version of Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire”. His song, “We live in Singapura”, chronicled the history of Singapore from Sang Nila Utama to the present day.

This refreshing, citizen-driven event not only showcased the amazing artistic talents of Singaporeans, but more importantly demonstrated that Singapore does have a unique and vibrant culture despite our short history. The event succeeded in making Singaporeans laugh at themselves and in the process celebrate their “Singaporean-ness”, regardless of political differences.

The Wee Shu Min affair

Teenager Wee “Elite Face” Shu Min put Singapore on the map in October when her arrogant online rant against what she saw as a “whining” middle-aged Singaporean, and the subsequent vitriol against her resulted in her name topping Technorati’s most popular search words in the world for a few days. T
he storm went mainstream when journalist Ken Kwek reported the online war of words in The Straits Times (ST). The incident was later mentioned numerous times in subsequent newspaper articles and commentaries, and even in Parliament. Member of Parliament Wee Siew Kim, had to apologise twice on behalf of his daughter — the second apology was for his own insensitive remarks in his first “non-apology”.

There is no doubt that the intensity in which Singaporeans reacted to these dismissive comments by an “elite” father and daughter pair served as a warning bell of the fate that awaits any politician who is blind to the growing class divide in Singapore.

Self-regulation by bloggers

A TODAY article in December by blogger Dharmendra Yadav sparked off another debate in Blogosphere about self-regulation by bloggers and developing a bloggers’ code of ethics. Many articles were written in response, arguing both for and against the proposal. It was evident that despite the rationale put forward by its proponents, most Netizens were against the idea of any sort of regulation or code of ethics on a platform which some saw as the “last bastion of truly free expression” in Singapore.

Use of the Internet by political parties

In the past year, Opposition parties in Singapore made tentative steps to use the Internet to propagate their messages. Of the three major Opposition parties in Singapore, the SDP appears to be the most Web savvy. The party regularly publishes articles and press statements on its positions on various issues. On the other hand the WP, while maintaining a respectable Web presence, has yet to use the Web extensively to maximise its reach to the electorate. In fact, two WP central executive committee members resigned following online comments of theirs which did not square with the party leadership’s preferred method of engaging Singaporeans.

Foreign Minister George Yeo was the first Cabinet minister to start blogging regularly, with some surprisingly frank and insightful articles based on his interactions with foreign leaders. P65 MPs (the term coined for new MPs born after Independence) drew some chuckles when they first started blogging about grassroots activities which did not interest the majority of Netizens. However, by immediately posting their maiden speeches in Parliament and the PAP Conference on their blogs, they proved to be a step ahead of the main opposition Workers’ Party, which was markedly slower in using the Net for their party propaganda.

Government awakens to the new media

In his annual National Day Rally speech in August, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong devoted over 25 minutes to expounding on how digital media is changing Singapore. He acknowledged that the new media will “change the texture of society” and that the traditional media was “under siege” to hold its audiences. While highlighting several citizen-driven new media initiatives, he surprised many when he mentioned political satire site TalkingCock, even remarking that “some of the jokes are not bad”. The site, which was founded by cartoonist and filmmaker Colin Goh, responded in feigned horror with a headline, “Seow Leow! TalkingCock Suffers Shrinkage, Street Cred Loss, After Rally Mention”. This was obviously not true, as TalkingCock enjoyed a huge surge in visits after the speech.

PM Lee also revealed the government’s distrust for the free-wheeling world of cyberspace. He told Singaporeans that “if you read something on the Straits Times or CNA (Channel NewsAsia) you know it is real”, unlike what is on TalkingCock. He warned Singaporeans to be “sceptical” and not believe everything they read, as “there will be half truths and untruths which will circulate, and you won’t know which is which”.

Many Netizens would have seen this as an unfair comparison, as they know that TalkingCock is just a humour site which has never claimed to be a source of proper news reports, while the ST and CNA too have their share of biases towards the government line.

PM Lee also made no mention of the many local blogs that debate political issues both objectively and independently. However, he signalled that the government would be prepared to change laws like the ones governing podcasts during elections and political videos to keep pace with developments in this digital age.

In response to these trends, the government set up a new unit in MICA’s public communications division named the New Media Unit, presumably to advise the government on Internet public communications strategies and to monitor Internet chatter. Changes to the Penal Code were also proposed to make explicit mention of electronic media as a platform for potentially defamatory comments.

STOMP and citizen journalism

In June, media giant SPH launched a new web portal, STOMP (Straits Times Online Mobile Print). It was billed by ST editor Han Fook Kwang as a platform “to provide readers with new avenues to express themselves, to enable them to interact with [the newspaper], and among themselves”.

While the paper trumpeted it as “citizen journalism”, academic and former Straits Times journalist Cherian George poured cold water on the idea. He said on his blog, “I don’t consider STOMP to be citizen journalism, because it puts the public on tap, not on top. It merely introduces greater interactivity to traditional journalism. Citizen journalism in the proper sense does its own agenda-setting. Citizen journalists decide what questions need to be asked and what topics to pursue. They don’t just answer questions decided by mainstream editors.”

Expected trends in 2007

Positive developments in the new media are expected to continue in 2007, barring any major government crackdown. As more Singaporeans from all backgrounds take to reading, writing and commenting on blogs, online forums, podcasts and vodcasts, the diversity of views on the Internet will also increase. Although most Internet chatter currently takes on a disproportionately anti-Establishment tone, there might be a slight shift in views to the right (i.e. the conservative) in 2007, as more people linked to the government machinery step in to counter their views.

We can expect more Singaporeans to warm up further to Blogosphere and see it as an increasingly credible alternative to the traditional media.

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Also check out Charissa’s excellent review: Rise of the New Media in Singapore Politics

15 thoughts on “The politics of Singapore’s new media in 2006”

  1. i just saw the host for blogtv on Good Morning Singapore on CNA.

    She was just hardselling blogs – everyone can do it. If a grandma can do it, you should too. If you want to talk about cats or dogs, you should and you should blog.

    I just dont get it. She did not explain why one should be committed or motivated to blog. She is saying “get on the wagon everyone. its something you dont want to miss”.

    i wonder whats the agenda. And then it hits me – they then showed a trailer for the next blogtv segment “the big boys who blog” and they want to feature BG George Yeo.

    I’ve always been apprehensive of CNA, and how objective their news are, and well, what they did just strengthen my view that they’re in no way a competitor to the likes of BBC or CNN. (more BBC, as CNN has also become a tool of the US Govt).

    Aygee

  2. I think the host has to hardsell BlogTV because if the ratings are not good, she’s out of a job. As it is now, I’m guessing the ratings aren’t that great. I mean, who actually watches the show? I’m a regular CNA viewer, I’m a blogger and I’ve been invited for one of their previous shows, but I’ve never watched blogtv before. Have you?

    I think its fine to encourage everyone to blog, even if it’s just personal ramblings. But I find it very irritating when the MIW keep making stupid apple-orange comparisons with the mainstream media like, “You see, I told you blogs are full of misinformation. Read the Straits Times — it always tells the truth.”

    I don’t think there’s much dispute that CNA is a tool of the Singov. BBC is owned by the British govt (unlike Mediacorp, technically), but yet it is independent. CNN is just pandering to the American audience. Since Americans are generally more patriotic then Brits, it pays for CNN to fly the stars and stripes more. If you want to watch real pro-Bush TV, watch Fox News.

    How about Al Jazeera? They started later than CNA, they too can’t criticise their own Emir, but they seem to be going places.

  3. blogtv.. no, i dont actively watch it.

    i always feel that blogs should remain as an internet entity and always keep that sense of…”anarchy” and “giving it to the establishment”.

    If i was Gayle, i probably would have told them i’m not interested to be on the show and then post that i dont need CNA to promote myself.

    Once you say something “sensitive” on air, it’ll be considered as saying something on “mainstream” and the govt can shut you down.

    but thats my opinion and u may disagree.

    Al Jazeera. well, for now, its only starting to go to the English mainstream. Before that, they’re just a channel for the Arab-speaking audience. and they got popular only because they’re a vehicle for fundamental-terrorist types to spread their message. the terrorists helped them build their brand in the Western world.

    Think about it – will global investors, decision makers turn to Al Jazeera for market-moving news? Will Intel or Microsoft use Al Jazeera to break important groundbreaking news?

    Al Jazeera will still be general human interest stories, filled with tragedies or happy news, and the occasional business news that you get from any other news sources anyway.

    I’m not sure Al Jazeera was later than CNA. But Al Jazeera is well-funded. CNN has one correspondent for Africa, while Al Jazeera has 20+! They are bleeding as a news organisation, but they have money to ride through the next couple of years (probably in the hope that others suffer and they can buy up).

    Aygee

  4. oh and a final thought:

    whats blogtv’s agenda or mission anyway?

    They are a mainstream show for mainstream audience. They’re telling mainstream audience to turn to blogs – “its a phenomenon that is taking hold of the world”.

    Blogs are meant to be anarchic, conspiratorial theorists, or giving the alternative view to mainstream.

    then we have govt people saying “blogs have misinformation”.

    Now, whats the idea of a mainstream segment, in a so-called news channel that tells the truth, asking their audience to turn to the Internet for alternative and misinformed news channel?

    Do you see mainstream, hardcore journalists (broadcast or print) quote bloggers for news? not very often.

    When they announced Saddam was captured, there were more than 300 media in that news conference, i believe. How many were bloggers?

    In a different light – alternative rock bands always want to remain alternative or underground. they hold their fingers up at mainstream recording labels or mainstream channels that promote them. They’ll rather not have someone who listens to Britney Spears to listen to their music.

    Oh anyways, i’m ramblng.

    Take it easy and enjoy your reservist.

    Aygee

  5. Personally, I think this article is fair on SDP but plays up PAP and plays down WP.

    George Yeo blogs only very occasionally and he doesn’t even have his own blog.

    What also fails to mention is WP’s election website and a large handful of WP members who blog EXCLUDING the 2 who resigned.

  6. Hi Firebrand,

    I think George Yeo doesn’t have his own blog for a reason – it’s so that he won’t be seen as using it as an official platform to promote himself. Now that he is a so-called “guest blogger” on someone else’s site, he can just say he’s doing it for fun and personal interest. Actually George Yeo blogs very frequently. At least twice a week, which is more than what I can afford on my blog.

    I wish WP well, but the fact remains that in order to be a serious political challenger to the PAP, they have to take advantage of alternative platforms to counter the PAP’s hegemony of the Mainstream media. Right now they are not maximising their reach through the Internet. Even the WP members who blog don’t do so very often, and their blogs contain more personal ramblings than policy analysis.

  7. How do you like using wordpress so far? I’m thinking about putting up a new blog install and still debating between wordpress and joomla

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