Have Singaporeans really moved on?

Scanning the forum pages of our English dailies, I notice a glaring absence of any letters about Mas Selamat-gate.

This could be due to one of two things:
1. Singaporeans have really moved on, as SM Goh Chok Tong and Straits Times’ political editor Chua Lee Hong exhorted us to; or

2. The media is rejecting all letters about the issue, and is failing its national duty of reflecting the views of Singaporeans.

Which one is it?

p.s. those who read the Chinese, Malay and Tamil press, do share the situation on that front.

Response to Straits Times’ questions for article "Internet users learning netiquette the hard way"

Last Friday (July 20), the Straits Times contacted me to ask for my views for their article, “Internet users learning netiquette the hard way” (ST, July 25). The following are the questions and my responses.


Straits Times (ST): I see that you have put your name down on the blog and not shy behind annonymity (sic). But when you blog, are you consciously aware that there are people reading you? If so, do you hold back on talking about certain topics or word your arguments carefully?

Gerald (GG): Yes, I am aware that many people in Singapore and in other countries read my articles (which I write for not just my own blog but other online publications like TheOnlineCitizen.com and OhmyNews International as well). I take a very considered approach to my articles. I do not write things that could be deemed illegal in Singapore. For example, I refrain from making ad hominem attacks on people, and I am careful not to reveal any official secrets (which I might have learned during my NS or when I was a foreign service officer in MFA). However, I do not hold back criticism when I feel criticism is due. For example, I wrote a series of articles last year arguing against the latest GST hike in Singapore. (See the articles here, here, here and here.) But even when I criticise, I try to focus on the issue rather than the person(s). Where possible, I also try to present alternative solutions, although I don’t believe that all criticism needs to be accompanied by solutions.

ST: What do you think of the Wee Shu Min case? I’m thinking if she said it quietly to her friends, nothing would have happened. In this case, it was the Internet, a public area where people read and take notice of what you say, that blew the issue up. Its abit like racism, isn’t it? One can be racist among racist and nobody would take notice. But broadcast it, combined with the fact that one is a public figure, or related to one, and that person can be in big trouble. Would you agree?

GG: The dismissive and arrogant tone of her online rant was interpreted by many Singaporeans as being reflective of the disconnect that some of our “elite” have from mainstream society. I do not agree that one can say nasty or racist things about others in private, but not in public. Sooner or later, one will be held to account. For example, your friends might hear what you mutter in private, and decide to broadcast your words on their blog. But I do agree that public figures (and their relatives) need to be aware that their words carry more weight than that of the ordinary man on the street.

ST: The spread of information over the net is also stupendous. Immediately almost. Do you take care in verifying information before writing or blogging about it?

GG: Yes, I never publish anything without verifying the facts. I see that as my responsibility as a citizen journalist. There is a lot of information on the Net, but it is not as difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff as many “blogophobes” like to make it out to be. Adults should have no problem telling apart a false and misleading website from a genuine one. I think schools and parents have a responsibility to inculcate some media literacy in our young, rather than try to shield them from the Net. But I feel the mainstream media and some of our politicians do bloggers a disservice when they keep perpetuating the myth that blogosphere (and the Internet in general) is “full of clever propaganda, inflammatory opinions, half-truths and untruths” (see this article of mine). I think Singaporean bloggers in general are very responsible citizen journalists.

(Verbal question over a subsequent phone call by the journalist. May not be verbatim.)

ST: Have you ever gotten yourself in trouble because of something you blogged about?

GG: No, I am always very careful about what I blog about.

(Another verbal question)

ST: Do you know anyone who has gotten himself or herself in trouble because of their blog? We are writing an article highlighting some recent incidents where people got burnt because of comments they published on their blogs.

GG: I am in touch with a number of fellow bloggers and I am not aware of any of them who have gotten in trouble because of their blog. I don’t think this is a very a big issue in Singapore.


Afterthoughts:

I’m aware that several other social-political bloggers were also approached by the ST for this article. It seems the questions asked were almost identical. Dansong has published his responses on Singapore Angle. I notice only quotes from university professors and MPs made the final cut. Oh well… :)

What I was actually uncomfortable with was the slant of the article from the outset. It was obvious from the questions that the ST was trying to frame the article in terms of “Singapore bloggers are an irresponsible lot and the nonsense they write always gets them in trouble”.

Is this another example of how the mainstream media is trying to make the new media look like an amateurish and unreliable source of information?

PAP MP calls for less restrictions on mainstream media

PAP MP Baey Yam Keng, in his first speech in Parliament this week, urged the government to amend Singapore’s media legislation so as to promote greater media freedom in the mainstream media (MSM). (Extracts of his speech are reproduced below.)

In his speech, Baey noted that new media’s impact on the young has been “massive”. He pointed out that the government should not hold itself responsible for what the people see or read, otherwise Singaporeans may lose the ability to think, evaluate and judge for themselves. In observing the vastly different viewpoints put out by the MSM and new media, Baey wondered if they were from two different populations talking about two different countries. He went on to state that he did not think that the reality is “mostly positive” as portrayed in the traditional media nor is it as negative as what the new media describes it.

In contrast to what the Second Minister for Information recently said, he called on the government to relax regulations on traditional media to allow people to vent grouses and frustrations, without always demanding for constructive suggestions. He said this would enable Singaporeans to then engage openly in meaningful, level-headed discussions without fear of prosecution.

This is probably the first time that a ruling party MP has so openly advocated greater media freedom — tight media restrictions are a sacred cow for the PAP. Equally significant is the fact that he was a former director in the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts (MICA), the very ministry in charge of regulating – or some say censoring – the media.

It is heartening to note that at least one MP is listening to issues percolating from the ground by reading blogs, rather than just believing everything the Straits Times and Zaobao put out.

Baey gave a good example of Wikipedia’s self-policing mechanisms as the way of the future. Journalist Thomas Friedman had also cited community-driven websites like Wikipedia as one of the “ten forces that flattened the world” in his book, The World Is Flat. He compared how Microsoft Encarta, the world’s “best-selling encyclopedia” had just 36,000 entries, while Wikipedia had almost 900,000 articles by end 2005. The Singapore government cannot afford to be stuck in its traditional mindset of how information is disseminated and digested if they desire to see our country progress and keep pace with this globalised world.

Baey pointed out that unlike the MSM, new media often portrays issues in a negative and critical manner. There are good reasons for this. Bloggers try to find a niches that are not covered by the MSM. Because the MSM in Singapore is so skewed towards the ruling party’s viewpoints, it doesn’t make sense for the bloggers to echo the praises the MSM heaps on the PAP and the government. If the MSM were to be a bit more balanced when reporting on local political issues, perhaps bloggers would start see less of a need to play an adversarial role all the time.

Having said that, it is important to point out that the new media contains very diverse viewpoints – both for and against the government. Many are just independent analyses, which when compared to the Straits Times, naturally appear “anti-government” when they are in fact simply independent. It is unhelpful for political leaders to constantly paint the new media as being full untruths, because this may become a self-fulfilling prophesy. (More comments on this issue in my earlier post, From broadsheets to blogs.)

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Extracts of Parliament speech by MP Baey Yam Keng, 9 Nov 06. Original speech is on the P65 blog:

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Now, I would like to move on to the subject of new media, another means of self and cultural expression. New media’s impact on the young, to say the least, has been massive.

Compared to traditional media, new media is much less structured; it is more informal and also more difficult to control. It is a virtual world with its own parameters, rules and regulations. Its estate or space is both private and public. It has both advantages and disadvantages. It presents new opportunities and solutions as well as new problems. It is a force to be reckoned with and most people in the developed world cannot envision a future without it. We are beginning to see its social, political and economic powers.

It was reported recently that Google UK is poised to overtake UK’s main TV channels in advertising revenue within the year. It is therefore a wise choice that the government has identified interactive & digital media as a new sector to grow. We should harness the power of both new and old media, for instance, in using them for cross communications and marketing to different audiences. The popularity of Singapore Idol and the Idol format around the world was largely due to its ability to leverage on both the traditional TV media and the new mobile media. It manages to engage the audience and turn them into fans who like the power to be able to pick their winner.

The global media scene will continue to evolve. From the ancient days of using smoke signals, pigeons, to print, radio, television, fax, telephony, mobile and now the internet, it does not mean the emergence of one new media will always replace another. The radio continued to survive in the advent of the TV. In fact, it became more accessible with the emergence of the portable radio, then the car radio, followed by the mobile phone radio.

It is a media ecosystem when many can co-exist and will co-evolve. Even The Straits Times has launched STOMP and vodcasts, and Channel News Asia has its BlogTV.sg. One thing is certain, with technology advancement, the speed of evolution will be faster and people’s lifestyles and expectations will also change at a quicker pace.

The convergence of media can pose problems for the conscientious censor. On the other hand, the good citizens of the world can now also play a bigger role in helping to police our virtual space. For example, the Wikipedia is a self-regulating resource. As reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education in Oct 2006, Alexander M.C. Halavais, an Assistant Professor with the State University of New York at Buffalo, slipped in 13 errors in Wikipedia. In less than three hours, all of his false facts had been deleted, thanks to the vigilance of Wikipedia editors who regularly check recently updated entries. On Dr Halawi’s “user talk” page, one Wikipedian pleaded with him to “refrain from writing nonsense articles and falsifying information.”

The differences between new media and traditional media call for different treatments from the authorities. We can allow different platforms for responsible and less responsible expression of views, eg 全民乱讲 is for all citizens to talk nonsense, 全民开讲 allows all citizens to speak their minds,and 全民好好讲 calls for all citizens to have a good discussion. I believe people will know which programme is meant to serve what target audience. What the government should ensure is that there is no masquerading.

The government should not and cannot hold itself responsible for what the people see or read. Otherwise, Singaporeans risk losing the ability to think, evaluate and judge for themselves. The Mr Brown incident illustrates too clearly how new and old media could have engaged each other better. Having driven negative comments or untrue information about the government underground, into the labyrinth of virtual space, the government loses an opportunity to engage the propagators and dispel the erroneous statements.

As I read comments in the newspapers and compare them with those in bl
ogs and online forums, I sometimes wonder if they are from two different populations talking about two different countries. I do not think that the reality is mostly positive like in the traditional media or like what the new media is portraying, mostly negative and critical. I believe the real world is somewhere in between.

We have to accept that it will be very difficult, in fact, impossible to monitor and rebut all negative online comments against the government. We should also consider relaxing regulations on traditional media to allow people to vent grouses and frustrations, without always demanding for constructive suggestions. Singaporeans can then engage openly in meaningful, level-headed discussions without fear of prosecution. Erroneous assumptions, wrong ideas, narrow mindsets, prejudices and biases, loyalties, tolerance and wisdom can all be brought to the light of day and seen clearly for what they are. I believe in the Singaporean’s ability to discern wisely. Even if we may not be able to do so accurately, that is our judgment and that judgment should be given the opportunity to be sharpened.

A few months ago, Lianhe Zaobao and My Paper featured articles about the “strawberry generation”, a description of “soft”, young people with little determination, weak wills and dependent mindsets who are unable to take the slightest of hardship. They are adults but they still turn to their parents for pocket money. They have difficulties holding down a job. I wonder if this reflects, on a micro level, a side effect of our government’s parental style towards its citizens. If our government trusts the general public’s ability to refrain from uncontrolled gambling by allowing casinos, she should also trust its ability to tell right from wrong, black from white, or even grey, on other issues. Thus, I urge the government to consider amendments to our media legislation so as to promote greater media freedom.

This, I believe, would encourage greater creativity in this sector, leading to spill-over effect in other sectors and professions in Singapore. Creativity exists in all sectors and industries. As we nurture creativity in every aspect of our lives, it would become part of ourselves, our DNA, our lifestyles, our identity. Creativity is doing things in a different way which adds value and benefits, which no one else has done before. Creativity is working smart. Creativity is the new cutting edge. Creativity is that which will provide us with the lead over our competitors.

I look forward to the day when creativity is synonymous with the Singapore national identity, the Singapore brand. When that day comes, we can be assured that our survival as a nation is secure and the future, ever the brighter.

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