From broadsheets to blogs: Stage set for new media in S’pore

In his speech at the Asian-European Editors’ Forum on 6 October, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong set out the Singapore Government’s prescription on the role of the media in society. (An excerpt of the speech is attached below.) As expected, PM Lee pointed out the pitfalls of the American model of an “unfettered and rambunctious” press. He made a veiled swipe at other Asian countries (read: Philippines, Thailand, Taiwan) which have adopted this media model and have not been as “successful at improving the lives of their people” as others with a less aggressive and adversarial press (read: Singapore, of course).

Notably, he commended the Japanese media model for being “less adversarial”, and putting “more emphasis on consensus building”. If, as PM Lee said, the Japanese media has “contributed to Japan’s success”, then the Singapore Government may have a thing or two to learn from Japan’s media.

Unlike the Singapore media, the Japanese press provides its readers a wide range of political viewpoints, from the centre-right Yomiuri Shimbun to the left-wing Asahi Shimbun. Readership is evenly split between the conservative and liberal newspapers. Singapore, in contrast, has just two national media companies, both of which are owned by the government and whose board and editors consist mostly of government or ex-government people, ensuring the media companies’ compliance with the government line at all times.

If the Singapore media can even come close to Japan’s in terms of political independence and the presentation of differing political viewpoints, we would not continue to be ranked 140th in the world by Reporters Sans Frontiers for press freedom, or be scored 38 out of 100 by the World Bank for “voice and accountability” in governance.

The New Media

PM Lee also gave his views about the Internet, or “new media”. He declared that while the traditional or mainstream media is “reliable, verified and insightful”, the new media is “full of clever propaganda, inflammatory opinions, half-truths and untruths” which are “not always easily countered by rational refutation or factual explanation”.

This belittlement of the new media is a government line which has been repeated so often that many Singaporeans have started believing and internalising it. Some journalists, in particular, love to cite this in their commentaries about the new media without substantiating it with evidence.

Due to its fewer political constraints, the new media contains many more diverse viewpoints than the government-linked media. However, it is wrong to refer to the new media as a single, monolithic entity which is all bad. The new media ranges from no-holds barred forums for Netizens to just vent, to much better thought out op-eds found in websites like SingaporeAngle.com and blogs by academics like Cherian George. Some websites like IntelligentSingaporean and MyAppleMenu provide a useful public service by aggregating and summarising quality local postings for the day.

In just the last few months, many more local blogs have been gaining prominence for their hard hitting commentaries on public policies and international relations, and for providing new insights into issues that the government-linked media does not dare to report on. A good example was the coverage of the protest by opposition activist Chee Soon Juan during the IMF/World Bank Meetings in September. While the government-linked media had orders to ignore the protest despite it being an issue of public interest, many political bloggers took it upon themselves to snap photos of the protest and post it on their blogs. Popular blogger Gayle Goh even conducted a very informative on-site interview with one of the protestors.

It is also not true that all Internet content is unfiltered, unprocessed and unverified. For example, SingaporeAngle’s editorial policy requires every post to be approved by a panel of editors before publication. Articles containing obscenities or hate speech are automatically rejected. If there is no editorial consensus on a submitted article, but it is deemed to contain “redeeming features”, the article is returned to the writer for revisions.

Furthermore, blog readers are free to post their comments and criticisms –– anonymously if they wish –– about the post. This provides a form of peer review that is absent in traditional newspapers. If one wishes to criticise an article in the newspapers, a letter to the forum page is the only option. But that letter needs to be carefully crafted and its publication is entirely at the discretion of the forum editor.

From broadsheets to blogs

The Government has recognised that the local media scene is set for some drastic changes ahead thanks to the Internet. Recently, a New Media Unit was set up within the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts to monitor Internet content and help formulate the Government’s policies on engaging citizenry through the Internet. The government-linked media will have to adapt fast to the changing media landscape. Already many young Singaporeans are shunning traditional broadsheets for blogs. As the quality and quantity of these citizen journalists’ products improve, SPH and Mediacorp can expect to lose a larger and larger market share to these new media entrants if the Government continues its stranglehold on the mainstream media.

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EXCERPTS OF SPEECH BY PRIME MINISTER LEE HSIEN LOONG AT THE 6th ASIAN-EUROPEAN EDITORS’ FORUM, 6 OCTOBER 2006

* * * * *

ROLE OF MEDIA

27. Good government delivers economic growth and progress, and builds a resilient and inclusive society. Responsible journalism, which understands and furthers the larger national interest, supports both of these goals. Ultimately, both exist for the people they serve.

28. In every country, the media occupies a position of power and responsibility. It is the source of news and views, accessible to all. It informs, educates and entertains. It influences and shapes public opinion. However, the media operates differently across countries. In some, media players consciously seek to uphold their responsibility to society and further the broader national interest. In others, the media reports and publishes stories based on what sells, or pushes particular ideological views, on the theory that the marketplace of ideas will automatically sort out the good from the bad.

29. The Western, particularly the American, model is an unfettered and rambunctious press, championing issues, competing to set the agenda, holding the elected government to account, and subject to minimal legal restraints. In Asia, some countries approximate this Western model of the media more closely than others. But the countries which have been most successful at improving the lives of their people do not always have the most aggressive media. For example, the Japanese media are less adversarial, and put more emphasis on consensus building. Their approach is different from the Western one, but it suits Japan’s culture and circumstances and has contributed to Japan’s success.

30. As with the political system, each country will have to evolve its own model of the media that works for it. Here too the situation is dynamic, not least because the internet is changing everything.

31. The internet is enabling ordinary citizens to post news and views on the web, making information available more quickly and plentifully than ever. The conventional wisdom is that the free flow of information on the internet is universally a good thing. It is undoubtedly very difficult to control information flow. But as we find terrorist groups using the internet to plan m
urderous attacks, and paedophiles using it to prey on defenceless children, we are learning that while the internet is a great boon to mankind, it is not an unmitigated one.

32. In the pre-internet age, newspapers and television stations not only reported news and opinions, they also filtered, processed and verified the information, in order to present coherent perspectives which shape the public debate and the public’s collective understanding of the world around us. The internet short circuits and undercuts this model.

33. Even in the internet age, there will still be a role for serious journalism, whether in print or on the web, because people will still seek out information sources which are reliable, verified and insightful. But it will not be easy to keep the public debate on this high plane, especially on controversial issues. For the internet also enables clever propaganda, inflammatory opinions, half-truths and untruths to circulate freely and gain currency through viral distribution, and these are not always easily countered by rational refutation or factual explanation. How to deal with this is something which every newspaper, and indeed every society, is grappling with.

34. Singapore regulates the internet with a light touch. But the same laws of sedition and defamation apply whether on the internet or in print, and we have prosecuted persons who have incited racial and religious hatred on blogs. Our mainstream media – television and newspapers – have kept their credibility and followings, though they are constantly tracking developments in cyberspace. We cannot say what the position will be in 10 or even 5 years’ time, with new technology continually emerging and a new internet generation growing up. Our position will evolve as we feel our way forward, but we do not believe that we should just drift with the tide. We still need anchor points that reflect our values, our vulnerabilities and our ambitions. The media in Singapore must adapt to these changes, do their best to stay relevant, and continue to contribute constructively to nation building.

Technorati: Singapore, media, press, blogs, new media, mainstream media, Asian-European Editors Forum

Author: Gerald Giam

Gerald Giam is the Member of Parliament for Aljunied GRC. He is a member of the Workers' Party of Singapore. The opinions expressed on this page are his alone.

6 thoughts on “From broadsheets to blogs: Stage set for new media in S’pore”

  1. Hi Gerald,

    About MSM’s forum participation, you wrote,”If one wishes to criticise an article in the newspapers, a letter to the forum page is the only option. But that letter needs to be carefully crafted and its publication is entirely at the discretion of the forum editor.”

    You are absolutely right. I was a regular participant in the forum pages and I generally got positive feedback from friends/acquaintances who came across my letters altho a few cautioned about being too “honest”.

    But all of a sudden ( esply after the GE) I noted a change in the way my submissions were treated. I don’t even get an acknowledgement of my submissions, not to mention about getting them published. ( I suppose if they haven’t officially received my letters, they cannot be faulted for not printing them!)
    It was as if I was on some “banned list” and everything I write gets ignored!

    But with blogs, it’s different. There is complete interaction and I publish what I feel is worthy of the readers’ time.

    But my advice to all. Have no fear. Do what you think is good for our nation, notwithstanding the thinking of backward thinking narrow-minded people ( some of whom dwell in high places)

    Dr.Huang

  2. Hi Dr Huang,

    I feel that the govt-linked media (GLM)’s Forum pages are there to give the public the impression that feedback is being taken seriously be the govt. While I am convinced that the govt does value feedback (they’ll be dumb not to), they are wary of critical feeedback on policies being aired publicly on platforms where the mainstream population can read it. This is because it has the potential to sway public opinion against the Govt. The mr brown affair is a case in point. You wrote in an earlier comment that the Govt wants us to “speak up, but speak right”. This is definitely true for views aired in the GLM.

    But people like us don’t need to depend on the GLM to air our views. My suggestion is that if the ST refuses to publish your articles, don’t let the public be deprived of them. Just post them on your blog! If you make a sound argument, there is a good chance it will be noticed, even by the authorities.

    I fully agree with your last point. If we are sincere in wanting to contribute to improving this nation, then fear should be secondary, although admittedly, it cannot be absent in this “unfree” political environment (to borrow a phrase from Amatya Sen).

  3. Hi inspir3d,

    I fully agree with your view that “the best attitude we should have is one of no fear – and that is to simply continue writing and publishing quality honest opinions about the state of affairs. The best way to respond to such criticism is simply to raise the quality of internet discourse and prove to the incumbents that the internet can be, and often is, a platform for intelligent and informed debate, often more intelligent and informed than the mainstream press.”

    As Henry David Thoreau wrote, “If you would convince a man that he does wrong, do right. But do not care to convince him. Men will believe what they see. Let them see.”

  4. hi may i know where you got the excerpt of the speech from? because i need to do apa citations and all for my assignment. please get back to me asap if you can. thanks. (:
    dead02@hotmail.com

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