A funny thing happened on Tuesday 18 December 2012. Three mainstream media reporters called me asking the same thing: Do I know anything about construction workers going on strike in Yishun? They said that Andrew Loh had a story on Yahoo! and Publichouse about such a strike and they needed urgently to confirm the veracity of it.
“Is the story true? Where is the worksite?”
I rang Andrew to congratulate him on the scoop and to tell him about the calls I received. In return, he told me how he got it.
The workers had been unhappy for some time and had approached both the Ministry of Manpower and a local non-government organisation for help. I’m not sure that the NGO wants to be named, so I won’t. As is so often the case, the ministry officials were seen by the workers as unhelpful, and the workers felt they had to escalate the matter if they’re going to get any solution at all. Someone in the NGO told Andrew, and that’s how the story began.
Many years ago, when people wanted publicity for a cause, they would approach the mainstream media. The custom of sending out press releases originates from there.
But this episode shows how times have changed. The newsmakers went to the alternative media, leaving reporters from the mainstream media in the lurch and scrambling to catch up.
Media analysts, such as Cherian George, had long predicted this day would come. As long as our mainstream media is unable to break out of the government’s grip, it will not gain the public’s trust. Without it, people on the ground won’t feed news to it, and without being offered news leads, our mainstream media will lose its relevance.
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Yet, for the People’s Action Party government, mainstream media’s loss of hegemony is a crucial loss for them. They depend on it to get their message out and to shape public opinion. Or, in some instances, to put a lid on unflattering news. That’s why, through the years, ministers have insisted that media should not be “setting the agenda”; it is for the government to set. Press editors and broadcast news producers were kept on a short leash.
The problem now is that while indeed the mainstream editors and producers do not set the agenda, increasingly it is alternative media that does. The story about the Yishun strike is a classic example.
It may not be related, but it’s nonetheless an interesting conjunction of events that the strike story was followed by not one, but two, op-eds in the Straits Times casting aspersions on the political value of opinions expressed in alternative and social media.
On 22 December 2012, Leslie Koh, Assistant Political Editor, wrote:
It is time for the silent majority to speak up.
For too long, a small but vocal group has appeared to dominate public debate in Singapore, making its judgments so strongly that it often shapes public opinion as fast as the public can form one.
— Straits Times, 22 Dec 2012, Online voices = Vox populi?
The next day, Warren Fernandez, the Editor no less, invokes the ‘silent majority’ again:
But there are troubling signs of some pressure groups emerging, putting on war paint and pushing their agendas vociferously, especially in cyberspace. They seek to influence — and even intimidate — others to their point of view, foisting a form of political correctness on the silent majority which is too disparate, or just plain disinterested, to fight back.
— Straits Times, 23 Dec 2012, When politics springs a surprise
This is getting tiresome.
The Straits Times may deny it, but it is evident from the very loaded way they use the term ‘silent majority’ that they have injected into it a constructed meaning that goes much further than the two words alone. They use it to signify a block of citizens whose socio-political views would differ from those active on social and alternative media. Not only that, they would differ in a direction that is more conservative and more PAP-government-friendly.
They are both right and tragi-comically wrong.
Of course there is a majority of people who do not express political views very much. This is not just true of Singapore, but of all other countries. In that sense, there is a majority who is, in ordinary times, silent. But to impute to them a certain homogeneity of views, or any views at all, is completely unfounded. They tend to be silent for a reason: they don’t have views, or they don’t have strong views, or they are just not politically engaged. At least in ordinary times.
But when they are called to give their views, the evidence shows that they’re not very conservative or government-friendly at all. In the general election of May 2011, two out of very five voters voted against the PAP. In the presidential election of August 2011, two out of three voters voted against the PAP’s preferred candidate. It takes considerable self-deception to see any homogeneity in the great middle block which the term ‘silent majority’ conjures.
Speak to any number of people on the streets on a typical day about housing prices, job security, the income gap and the cost of living and you will probably get a variety of views with many — almost certainly a plurality, perhaps a majority — critical of present policies. They may not have the confidence to articulate them well, which may explain why on social media they leave it to others to speak up.
Even Leslie Koh, in the cited passage above, chips in with some evidence. What he calls the ability of the “small but vocal group” to “shape[s] public opinion” is really the ability of this group to speak in such a way that resonates with many more people. Relatively non-vocal readers may not have well-formed views prior to seeing what they see on social media, but they are not going to form views diametrically opposed to their pre-existing values and experiences just because they see someone say something. That’s not how humans form opinions. So, the very fact that public opinion takes greater shape after the vocal ones have spoken out suggests that there is a certain coherence already between the speakers and the listeners.
It must be very frustrating for the Straits Times not to enjoy such resonance.
Yet, there isn’t any homogeneity about the voices that do appear. Leslie Koh himself provided the examples:
When NTUC employee Amy Cheong spouted racist remarks on a posting, for example, the online furore that ensued was seen as a factor for her sacking. But the same netizens who demanded it later came under fire for overreacting and acting like a lynch mob.
In the wake of last month’s strike by SMRT bus drivers, opinions on social media were decidedly mercurial – first an outpouring of anger against mainland Chinese, which quickly turned to sympathy.
— Straits Times, 22 Dec 2012, Online voices = Vox populi?
No they were not “decidedly mercurial”. They were different voices speaking up to criticise the stands taken by other social media participants or to offer a different point of view. It can only be described as ‘mercurial’ when one insists on seeing the many individuals as being of one mind, a mind that is quickly changed. Here again, it indicates how the Straits Times’ characterisation of new media participants borders on fiction, just as their idea of ‘silent majority’ is borne out of wishful thinking.
And because it is wishful thinking, it is tragi-comic, for even if many more people — the majority — speak up on the internet, the editors of the mainstream media will still not be hearing the ‘silent majority’. Simply because they will not be hearing what they want to hear. Consequently, they will continue to castigate such voices as are heard as yet more ‘vocal minorities’, accusing them of shrillness and putting on war paint.
But at some point, people will see that the tables have been turned and that it is the Straits Times, desperately trying to present itself as the only remaining voice of sanity, desperately demanding relevance when others ignore it, that is the shrill one. The chicken will squawk louder yet.