Who wants a revolution?

This is the short talk I gave on 9 February 2011 at the seminar What can I say?: ‘Freedom of expression’ from Wikileaks to Peter Pan, organised by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in Jakarta.

* * * * *

First of all, forgive me for the translations on the slides. I used Google Translate, which means that I am very sure there will be shocking or hilarious errors. For those of you starry-eyed about the internet, these errors should bring you down to earth. The pros and cons of relying on digital technology will be plain to see.

But, to be honest, if there are any mistakes, the responsibility is mine. It is my fault for not learning Indonesian myself and having to rely on Google Translate.

What changes to the media landscape will the new digital technologies bring? How will they impact our societies? These are the questions I’ve been asked to address. As a blogger on socio-political issues, my main interest is in citizen journalism — which thus forms the main subject of my talk.

I come from Singapore, which in many ways is a very unusual kind of place, very different from our Asean neighbours, in politics, economy and culture. As a result, my perspective may be very different from other speakers, but I hope there is value in that difference. More specifically, after hearing from Indonesians around me speak of what they see as insufficiently effective government, I am going to speak of a country with over-effective government.

After hearing me, you may want to be careful what you wish for.

The other distinction I need to make to better set the context, is this: Whereas in Indonesia, you have a highly competitive media scene with hundreds of newspapers and magazines, and another few hundred radio stations, in Singapore, we essentially have just two media companies. One, government-owned, runs all TV and almost all radio. The other, a government-linked company, runs nearly all the newspapers.

So, when the internet came along, immediately, Singaporeans saw the internet as a means of contesting the media monopolies and the governmental messages they are known for. In most other countries, e.g. Indonesia, the internet is not typically seen this way, and that’s why I feel I need to set this context carefully.

The more enthusiastic of the internet-users in Singapore see their mission as something akin to David fighting Goliath: the small, independent voice battling the media giants that serve a one-party state.

Now, let’s begin.

* * * * *

As we all know, the new digital technologies have the potential to serve two powerful possibilities:

1.     As a source of otherwise unavailable information

2.     As an organising tool.

However, what we tend to forget is that potential does not always become reality. Whether or not that potential is realised depends on certain conditions:

1.     Whether there is a significant gap between the information provided by mainstream media and that desired by media consumers

2.     Whether the public wants to be organised

In other words, whether there is consumer demand for these roles of the internet. But is one more condition:

3.     Whether or not those who use the new media can organise themselves to deliver on the promise.

In my opinion, the situation in Singapore is one where, firstly, there is not a lot of dissatisfaction with mainstream media, and therefore there is not a lot of demand for alternative sources of news information. This does not necessarily mean that our mainstream media is that good. It can also mean that the average Singaporean is intellectually lazy and uncurious about the world.

Secondly, there is quite a high level of satisfaction with living standards and trust in the political order; therefore there is no great reason for people to organise themselves. Again this does not mean that the government is so good. It can also mean that the people are complacent and lack imagination.

These levels of satisfaction do not mean that new media changes nothing. It does bring changes, but these changes are incremental rather than revolutionising. I do not foresee new media upsetting the present socio-political situation and in fact, in some ways, it reinforces it.

Let me take five minutes to give you a very quick overview of citizen journalism in Singapore.

Like many places, there are individual blogs and group blogs, but no one has started up an online newspaper.

Of the group blogs, I will mention two – The Online Citizen and Temasek Review – because they provide contrasting ways of coping with the regulatory environment.

As many of you may know, the Singapore government has a history of crushing dissent. For three decades, they used detention without trial against their opponents. I believe the world record for detention without trial is still held by Singapore. Chia Thye Poh was detained for 23 years and held under house arrest for another 9 years. He was never found guilty in any court of law.

Another of the Singapore government’s preferred means for crushing dissent has been the defamation suit. Opponents of the government and Dow Jones more recently have been required by courts to pay large amounts of money as damages to ministers for libel and slander. Two opposition leaders faced such huge sums in damages, they were made bankrupt which in turn curtailed their political rights.

And then if anyone says that the courts are not impartial but serve the political interests of the government, they face contempt of court charges which carry prison terms.

Under these conditions, the Temasek Review has chosen to base itself outside Singapore to preserve its freedom of manoeuvre. Its writers and editors remain anonymous.

The Online Citizen, on the other hand, feels that remaining anonymous will not support its credibility. Its writers and editors put their real names on the site and identify themselves when they cover news events.

Both have some loyal readers and, by Singapore standards, a considerable following. That said, it is hard to know how influential they are. What I can confidently say is that their readership is still small compared to the readership of mainstream newspapers.

Even so, the government is no doubt watching developments closely, and not looking forward to the day when non-mainstream media can match the traditional media in terms of clout and influence.

Yet, the government also knows that trying to stymie the growth of media sources it does not control through the old methods — detention without trial, defamation suits and prosecution — may be disproportionate and worse, bring bad publicity onto them. These are heavy-handed methods that attract media attention.

The preferred solution wherever possible is to encourage self-censorship. That way, if even new media does not report on something, it is not because the government banned the news, but that new media practitioners themselves chose not to raise the matter. That would be far neater.

Self-censorship is usually achieved by a web of licensing rules, small rewards and punishments, i.e. carrots and sticks.

So, let’s come back to the Temasek Review and The Online Citizen.

What is the government doing and how are they to grow?

For Temasek Review, it is quite obvious that their problems are these: How can it grow when it must remain anonymous?  How can it truly overcome questions about its credibility?

For The Online Citizen, the government squeeze has begun. First the government denied them a business registration. Then last December, they gazetted the website and the group of people running it as a “political association”, a move that puts them under certain regulations, particularly with respect to reporting during election time. More importantly, it forbids The Online Citizen from receiving foreign funding, including foreign assistance in kind. There is also a very low limit to anonymous local donations, the total of which must not exceed Sing$5,000 a year.

The restriction on funding now becomes a major obstacle to growth. And since The Online Citizen has also been denied a business registration, the question becomes how much advertising revenue they can accept.

Let me now turn to some other aspects of new media:

Our mainstream newspapers have online editions. The leading English newspaper, the Straits Times, created a subsidiary site called “Stomp” that hoped to receive news inputs from netizens, partly to co-opt citizen-journalist wannabes.

The results are pathetic. Quality is abysmal. The contributions to Stomp are of trees falling down, dead dogs on the road and young lovers kissing at the back of the bus.

As for social media, Facebook is the most popular in Singapore. To be honest, I don’t see any journalism in it. The key word is “social”. It is full of stuff like where to find the best cheesecake, the latest beach vacation, trees falling down, dead dogs on the road and young lovers kissing at the back of the bus.

On social media, the trend is to acquire more and more friends, each one of them generating more and more chatter. The result: you hardly have time to read more than 3 percent of the stuff that keeps flooding in.

In any case, because you choose your friends, you tend to end up with like-minded people. The whole thing becomes an echo-chamber that just gets louder and louder till you can’t even hear yourself think.

Twitter. This is a technology that in my view, has potential to be a game-changer, but I don’t think it has been proven in Singapore. I think its potential will only be seen when there is a crisis or emergency. So far, we have not seen any large-scale crisis or emergency, so it is hard to say what the effect of Twitter will be.

However, as I said earlier, it is not true that nothing has changed. New media has changed society and politics in incremental ways. I will briefly name three:

1. Firstly, some sections of the population that have been denied traditional avenues of expression have exploited the internet successfully to communicate and to mobilise. In Singapore’s case, the most interesting example is probably the gay and lesbian communities. Then, during the 2007 and 2008 financial crisis we have the example of people who felt unfairly treated by the big banks and who mobilised through the internet to demand compensation (we call that the “minibonds” issue). There is also the gradual emergence of an anti-death penalty movement, despite the determined silence of the mainstream media on this subject.

2. Secondly, it can be argued that digital expression has made for better governance. The Singapore government expends huge resources on monitoring what is said on the internet. In many of these issues, you can trace policy adjustments as more and more people air their dissatisfaction. As examples, I will name

(a) gay and lesbian concerns
(b) minibond issue,

and in the last 12 – 18 months,
(c) rising housing prices and
(d) high levels of immigration.

Had the old order been in effect where the government controlled the media and individuals or groups did not have the internet for expression, you could imagine a situation where the government remained oblivious to an undercurrent of dissatisfaction until it got explosive. The government-controlled media would behave like Yes-men, telling the government what they want to hear rather than reflecting what citizens are saying and thinking.

Thus the advent of the internet has modified the information flow between citizens and government, and so long as a government is of a mind to listen, it can be for the better.

3. The third effect of new media in Singapore is that on old media. The challenge of new media meant that old media had to become more responsive to what citizens are saying rather what the government wants said. The fear of irrelevance compels change. And here again, I think we can call it progress.

Nonetheless, my main point is that in Singapore at least, I do not foresee any information revolution.

There is not enough pent-up hunger for alternative news, there is not enough pent-up frustration with the social and political situation. The demand side of the equation is just not there.

Nor is the supply side of the equation.

Here is an inescapable truth: Change comes strongly when humans organise themselves to effect change. The key ingredient is organisation.

For example, as we all know, organised information is a lot more potent than disorganised data; organised news and commentary a lot more influential than chatter.

Technology alone does not produce the magic results. It is human organisation that makes the difference. Building a group blog into an online newspaper with credibility requires effort and resources, doing the things that newspapers do, including fair, frontline reporting, and not just armchair opinionising.

So long as practitioners of new media continue to provide largely unorganised  information, or fail to organise themselves, or is forbidden to do so, or is unable to raise the needed resources, I do not foresee any overturning of the existing information landscape.

The dynamics may change gradually. The balance between government and the governed, between media organisations and consumers of media, will evolve. But government and media organisations do not remain static and unchanging. They too will adjust. . . . and continue to rule.

I leave you with one last slide. It shows you the problem that is posed by the Singapore experience — one where people hope for new media to challenge the existing order, and yet that existing order works to slow the growth and impact of new media in politics and thus prevent that challenge from coming about. Does it not look like a chicken-and-egg question?

Thank you.

5 Responses to “Who wants a revolution?”


  1. 1 yuen 10 February 2011 at 09:24

    so singapore does not want revolution, but it keeps “remaking” itself, by bringing in IT, biotech, opera, casinos, liberal arts education etc. I guess people are content with little gifts from above

  2. 2 jeremy 10 February 2011 at 22:49

    welcome back!

    very good analysis.

    i almost forgive you for forcing me to read the straits times in your prolonged absence.

    while i agree that the impact and the readership of independent online resources is more modest than we like, I think the reader profile is quite remarkable.

    take yawningbread and lucky tan for example. the regular readers may number only in the thousands but just about everyone i know who reads it are probably what trend consultants would call ‘early adopters’ or ‘influencers’

    mainstream media may have a strong hold on the middle class and an even more formidable grip on the low income, but at the higher, intellectual end….the results are more heartening. give it another decade or two. the trickle down effects could be significant.

  3. 3 subcootaneous 11 February 2011 at 00:02

    Excellent job, Alex. Simple, sparse, pointed, solid. Like an arrow.

  4. 4 2cents 14 February 2011 at 00:03

    BBC radio has a new series that includes Singapore. Have to check the BBC homepage for actual broadcast times (actual day and repeat – or as how mediacorp loves to put it – encore broadcasts) or to listen online.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/news/2009/03/090000_coming_soon.shtml

    What Can I Say?

    Speaking out safely

    ‘What Can I Say?’ is a radio documentary series exploring freedom of speech and democracy in South East Asia.

    Over four programmes, presenter Gary Bryson travels to Indonesia, Cambodia, Thailand and Singapore. Along the way he meets journalists, poets, filmmakers, political activists and others trying to find a voice for their village, their culture or their nation.

    Together they weave a picture of how past traumas and present politics limit freedom of expression. The series seeks to uncover what can be said publicly in these countries without fear of being sued, imprisoned or worse.

    What Can I Say? – on air and online from 16 February.

  5. 5 2cents 14 February 2011 at 18:35

    BBC radio has a new series on the same subject (and more) that includes Singapore. Have to check the BBC homepage for actual broadcast times (actual day and repeat – or as how mediacorp loves to put it – encore broadcasts) or to listen online.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/news/2009/03/090000_coming_soon.shtml

    What Can I Say?

    Speaking out safely

    ‘What Can I Say?’ is a radio documentary series exploring freedom of speech and democracy in South East Asia.

    Over four programmes, presenter Gary Bryson travels to Indonesia, Cambodia, Thailand and Singapore. Along the way he meets journalists, poets, filmmakers, political activists and others trying to find a voice for their village, their culture or their nation.

    Together they weave a picture of how past traumas and present politics limit freedom of expression. The series seeks to uncover what can be said publicly in these countries without fear of being sued, imprisoned or worse.

    What Can I Say? – on air and online from 16 February.


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