Where is Singaporekini?

Former journalist Cherian George wrote a piece entitled, “Malaysiakini turns 10. So where’s Singaporekini?”

My hypothesis is that we don’t have a Singaporekini (i.e., an alternative media outlet that enjoys broad readership) simply because we haven’t found our Steven Gan and Prem Chandran — a combination of an experienced journalist and a good business mind to lead the team. Popular sites like The Online Citizen and Temasek Review all have people who are passionate about what they do, and love to write, but don’t know how to make money. (I point back at myself, as I was a writer for TOC until August this year when I stepped out.)

It will require a few bold professional journalists and businessmen to start up something truly credible and sustainable that Singaporeans can flock to. We had an unfortunate false start with SingaNews.  I’m told there is a new news portal being started by a few ex-mainstream media editors come next year. Hopefully that will give our government-aligned mainstream media a run for their money.

E-Engaging young S’poreans…with whom?

An article appeared on Saturday (March 7) in Malaysian newspaper The Star titled “Engaging the young and restless on their virtual turf”. The writer, veteran Singapore journalist Seah Chiang Nee, mentioned me briefly:

Prominent blogger Gerald Giam believes that until now the PAP did not see a need to use the Internet because it had firm control of newspapers and television.

He probably paraphrased it from a blogpost I wrote:

…back then, I think the PAP did not plan to use new media in a big way to win over the electorate. It didn’t see a need to since it had effective control over the mainstream media (it still does) and few Singaporeans were getting their news from the Internet (that number has grown, and it includes not just young people, but retirees as well).

Mr Seah also wrote that:

In his interview, PM Lee apparently realised it. Moving forward, he said, what is needed are young MPs who are comfortable with the new media landscape.

I’m interested to know who these young, potential MPs are — and if they even exist. Scanning local blogosphere for the past two years, I don’t know of many fellow bloggers who are pro-establishment and have made a name for themselves (i.e., Netizens know about them, for better or worse). Only a few come to mind: Ephraim Loy, Nicholas Lazarus, Kway Teow Man.

The fact that more than two years after PAP MP Denise Phua said the Internet is “85% against the government”, our blogosphere is still as anti-establishment as before indicates that there really aren’t many prominent bloggers in the PAP ranks to balance the anti-PAP rhetoric.

Added to the stringent qualifications for being a PAP candidate (scholar, CEO or can speak Chinese/Malay very well), this means that the party probably has to settle for candidates who are IT savvy, but are not necessarily bloggers.

This does not spell well for their e-engagement strategy. Being IT savvy doesn’t mean that one knows how to engage Netizens. Those are two completely different skillsets. It’s like asking a programmer geek to be a public relations professional.

Blogging and identity: To name or not to name?

I got into an interesting exchange with one of my readers in my last post, regarding whether Singapore bloggers should blog anonymously or use their real names.

The reader and fellow blogger thought I was criticising bloggers who don’t use their real names on their blogs, and argued that some bloggers (like himself/herself) choose to use a pseudonym, but not out of fear. I clarified that it is a blogger’s right to use a pseudonym, and that it’s better to use a pseudonym and speak out than to remain silent.

This issue surfaced recently after PM Lee and MCYS Minister Vivian Balakrishnan discussed social media issues in separate interviews recently.

PM gave an interview with CNA, where he said:

But even in the Internet, there are places which are more considered, more moderated where people put their names down and identify themselves. And there is a debate which goes on and a give and take, which is not so rambunctious but perhaps more thoughtful. That is another range.

Separately, Dr Balakrishnan told a youth forum:

Anonymity in cyberspace is an illusion. You will remember in 2007, we prosecuted three persons under the Sedition Act because of the blogs they put up which denigrated the religion of one of our communities in Singapore.

I remember Straits Times did a two-page feature article on TOC on Oct 3 last year, and their headline was “The Online Citizen won’t play hide and speak”.

Implicit in all these words, was that bloggers who use their real names are more “credible” those who remain anonymous.

I’m not surprised that this would rile up many fellow bloggers, particularly those who blog with pseudonyms.

Lucky Tan gave this explanation for his anonymity:

for many bloggers, our anonymity is to keep our friends, parents and relatives from worrying and not for any other purpose.

Fair enough. I understand about parents and spouses worrying, because mine certainly do, and express their concern quite regularly. But friends and relatives too? I don’t think any of my friends worry for me that way, and neither do my relatives (few even know I blog).

I think if most of my fellow socio-political bloggers are like me, their main source of fear is not their parents, not relatives, not even the government, but their employers.

Yes that’s right. I think we fear our bosses more than the government. And here’s why:

The government, despite all its illiberal ways, usually does not persecute “lesser mortals” like you and me. Neither does it have a habit of gunning down opposition members who make no attempt to challenge their right to rule, at least not in recent times. The targets of their persecution are usually people associated with a particular opposition activist with a PhD. (I know if I go any further, I will be the target of criticism from his supporters, so I shall stop there.)

But many employers, like most Singaporeans of the older generation, don’t seem to know that – or perhaps they refuse to believe that. They think that anyone who criticises the government is sure to get hantam (beaten). I think this fear afflicts SME bosses the most, because they are afraid of losing out on government contracts if one of their employees criticises the government.

I have a friend who told me that at two different jobs, his bosses requested him to leave after they found out he was a political activist, even though they were satisfied with his work and he had done nothing illegal. Admittedly this was sometime back when people still viewed all oppositionists as troublemakers. Fortunately my employer is quite enlightened and hasn’t expressed any objection to my blogging activities. I hope they don’t. But if they do, and it’s a choice between keeping my blog and keeping my job during an economic downturn, I will probably have to make the pragmatic choice for the sake of my wife and four month old baby, since I’m a sole breadwinner.

So why do I still blog with my real name?

It is a decision I made when I first started blogging in June 2006, when I had just left my job in MFA. (The Singapore Civil Service permits officers to blog, but not about political matters.) Prior to that I had occasionally written to the Straits Times and TODAY forum pages, where it is a requirement to use one’s real name. So blogging was just a continuation of that. At that time, I was running my own business, so I had no bosses to worry about.

For me (so far) it has been the right choice. My blogging has opened up a whole new social circle for me that I never expected. I’ve met many fellow bloggers, readers, journalists, academics and political activists because of my blog. I don’t think I would have been contacted by, or ventured to contact, these people if I wasn’t using my real name.

A case in point: Almost all of the dozens of socio-political bloggers I’ve met in person are bloggers who use their real names (or at least don’t bother hiding their true identity, like mrbrown). I think I have yet to be acquainted with any blogger who keeps their identity secret – or at least I didn’t know they were bloggers when I met them. It’s not because I’m atas (stuck up) or anything. I just don’t get the opportunity to meet them at events and gatherings, possibly because they also don’t go to such public events in their capacity as bloggers. (I know at least one exception: Mr Wang Says So once spoke at a public forum, but he was still introduced as Mr Wang.)

So my take on blogging and identity is this: If you want to meet more interesting people in the real world, and your employer is not bothered by it, use your real name. If you’re happy keeping your online and offline life separate, then by all means, use a pseudonym. The issue is really not about “credibility” or lack thereof, in my opinion.

The PAP’s evolving new media strategy

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong gave an interview with Channel NewsAsia on the topic of new media that was aired yesterday. The report, titled “Government building capabilities to tap on new media at next GE”, said:

The Singapore government is set to actively engage and leverage on the new media at the next General Election due in 2012.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said the government is already building up some capabilities. But he added there is still a place for traditional media to be the trusted source of information.

After giving his strong endorsement to the government-controlled traditional media, he made mention of new media:

Mr Lee said: “Well, there is a place called the Wild West and there are other places which are not so wild. And the new media – some of it are Wild West and anything goes and people can say anything they want, and tomorrow take a completely contrary view. And well, that is just the way the medium is.

“But even in the Internet, there are places which are more considered, more moderated where people put their names down and identify themselves. And there is a debate which goes on and a give and take, which is not so rambunctious but perhaps more thoughtful. That is another range.”

It is interesting how his public statements on new media have shifted from just over two years ago. Back in October 2006, in a speech at the Asian-European Editors’ Forum, PM Lee 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”.

In response, I had written in a blogpost:

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.

I’m sure he was fully aware even back then that there were “more considered” blogs where people put their names down and identify themselves (not that this in itself is a requirement for “credibility”).

So what is the difference between then and now?

Well back then, I think the PAP did not plan to use new media in a big way to win over the electorate. It didn’t see a need to since it had effective control over the mainstream media (it still does) and few Singaporeans were getting their news from the Internet (that number has grown, and it includes not just young people, but retirees as well). However, seeing the effects of new media on elections in the US and Malaysia probably got them thinking that perhaps the Internet could — or should — also be harnessed to win a few more votes. Hence the “liberalisation” of the new media and legalisation of some types of political films.

So now that the PAP is hopping onto the social media bandwagon, they probably realise they can’t afford to rubbish the entire platform as being “full of” half truths and untruths. Perhaps they are now employing a “divide and rule” strategy: continue to discredit the unruly sites, and make positive mention of the sites that they either control (like REACH) or they feel they can live with (like TOC?).

Netizens on the “Wild West” sites will then get all riled up and shift the focus of their criticisms away the PAP and start attacking the moderate sites as being government-aligned, or worse, part of the PAP’s Internet arm. Then all the PAP needs to do is stand back and watch while Netizens slug it out among themselves.

In the meantime, George Yeo and Teo Ser Luck will continue to collect more and more Facebook “friends”, and REACH will continue to draw more members who are sick of the petty mudslinging among bloggers.

It’s a clever strategy, don’t you think? Will bloggers fall for it?

Parliament debates HDB rental flats, upgrading, e-engagement and Gaza crisis

PARLIAMENT on Friday [6 Feb] debated the budgets of three ministries – Foreign Affairs, National Development, and Information, Communications and the Arts.

Ministry of National Development

Mr Low Thia Khiang (WP-Hougang) queried the Minister for National Development about the recent demolition of flats on Hougang Avenue 7. He lamented that the demolition took place just seven years after Hougang Town Council used its own funds to upgrade the lifts in those flats. (Hougang, being an opposition ward, is at end of the queue for the Lift Upgrading Programme [LUP]. The LUP expenses for PAP wards are typically borne by HDB with small co-payments by the local town council and residents.)

Mr Low remarked that much of the money was wasted because of the early demolition. He said that in future, HDB should inform the Town Council earlier of its redevelopment plans, lest such waste took place again.

In her initial response, Senior Minister of State (National Development) Grace Fu, skimmed over the issue. Mr Low later pressed Ms Fu for an answer, adding that HDB ought to reimburse Hougang Town Council for the money that went to waste.

Ms Fu reiterated the Government’s earlier commitment to complete the LUP by 2014. Given the time needed to complete the works, HDB would have to make their selections and announcements of contractors by 2011.

Regarding the flat demolitions, the Senior Minister of State explained that HDB regularly reviews its land use, and that her Ministry “can’t tell seven years in advance” of redevelopment plans – “not even seven months”.Mr Masagos Zulkifli (PAP-Tampines) and Mdm Ho Geok Choo (PAP-West Coast) asked the Minister about the shortage of subsidised HDB rental flats for needy residents.

Minister for National Development Mah Bow Tan revealed that there were currently 4,550 applicants in the queue for subsidised rental flats. He said that “two-thirds of them have reasons not to be in the queue”. He cited examples of retirees who had no income but significant savings from the sale of their flats, yet qualified for rental flats. His ministry’s solution to this housing crunch would be to further tighten the eligibility criteria for rental flats.

Mdm Cynthia Phua (PAP-Aljunied) expressed dismay at this proposal, emphasising that in times of economic downturn, the Government “should have more love” instead of tightening the rental housing criteria for old folks. Mr Mah responded, saying that the purchase of a $90,000 two-room flat is “easily affordable” to someone earning $1,200. Continue reading “Parliament debates HDB rental flats, upgrading, e-engagement and Gaza crisis”