Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Commentary written about the Internet before the 2006 elections

It's been over two years, but I thought I should upload this commentary anyway:

Chances poor that public will take to the Net during polls

by Tan Tarn How

The Straits Times, 7 April 2006

FIVE years ago, the Internet took a test in Singapore - and flunked miserably.

The occasion was the 2001 election, the first in which the World Wide Web promised - or, depending on your point of view, threatened - to be a liberating force that would level the playing field in the electoral game and ring in more freedom of expression for all.

The Net, after all, is not just a new technology. It is also supposed to be a disruptive one. It lets people do new things, or simplifies how old things are done.

But the Net failed to live up to the hype. Nomination Day came and went, then the hustings and Polling Day.

Through it all, the Internet was not so much a sideshow as a non-event.

There are three possible reasons it ended up a damp squib.

One is regulatory. That is, the Internet fizzled because of the laws cobbled up just before the election to limit electioneering and to curb expression online.

Parties were allowed only the items on a short 'positive list', including posting their manifestoes and histories, announcing events and hosting moderated forums.

Voters also interpreted the law as banning all expression of praise or criticisms of candidates or parties. (Last week, it was finally clarified that fair comment was fine but not blatant endorsement.)

No doubt, these proscriptions had a chilling effect. But research shows there are other reasons too.

Dr Randolph Kluver of the Nanyang Technology University found in a study that the opposition parties 'themselves did little with the few mechanisms available to them' in exploiting the Net.

Even the Singapore Democratic Party, whose leader, Dr Chee Soon Juan, declared that it would 'depend on' its website in the battle for votes, had a poor cyberspace presence.

The best websites were none other than the People's Action Party and that of its youth wing.

In the end, the online world merely reflected the state of the offline world, namely, the dominance of the PAP.

The Internet tilted the filed playing field further, reinforcing rather than disrupting the status quo.

The ordinary voter probably did not use the Net as a tool for democratic expression for fear of running afoul of the law.

The cloak of anonymity the Internet allowed did not seem to be sufficient encouragement. Perhaps they believed that official monitoring meant the cloak was more apparent than real. Or they found it meaningless to exercise their right to free speech behind a pseudonym.

Another, more likely, reason is voter apathy.

Just as the opposition's Net ineffectiveness lay in their real-world weakness, Singaporeans stayed away because they were not interested.

The Net is a tool like a word processor: If you have nothing to write, then all its wonderful features are useless to you.

The third reason of the Internet failing the test is less pessimistic than the first two.

Perhaps the technology then was not developed enough to be truly disruptive.

Five years on, blogging is held up as the 'killer application' for citizen participation. The Internet has always been hailed for the ease with which it enables anyone to be a reporter, pundit and publisher. Blogging is the technologies that truly realise that dream.

Not many know that Singapore, despite its small population, is in the global blogging big league by at least one measure.

Take www.technorati.com, which searches through blogs much like Google searches Web pages.

'Daphne Teo', 'Dawn Yang' (both controversial local bloggers) and 'Tammy NYP' (of the mobile phone sex video fame) have been among the 10 most used search keywords globally.

And it is not all fun and games, either. 'NKF' topped the rankings at one point last year. The number of new blog entries a day with the words 'Singapore election' ranges between a dozen and 30, hitting about 100 twice in the last three weeks.

Some Singaporeans, led by well-known bloggers Lee Kin Mun (mr brown) and Benjamin Lee (Mr Miyagi), have started the website, tomorrow.sg, a daily log of the best Singapore blogs.

Its usefulness is in 'aggregating' - collecting many people's information and opinions at one place, like a newspaper draws from numerous sources.

Other tools have also come of age. These include video via the Web (made painless with the high-speed Internet connections) and 'social software' for starting petitions, conducting surveys or forming groups.

The National Kidney Foundation (NKF) petition is a potent demonstration of how an ordinary person can start a huge ball rolling with almost no effort except for having a brainwave and using a ready-made tool.

When the different technologies come together, even more possibilities emerge.

Take sgrally.blogspot.com, set up by an anonymous person to make available rally videos sent to it by anyone.

The legality of doing so is made moot with identity hiding. Contributors who want safety in numbers can use www.pledge bank.com to find pledgers for 'I will send in my rally videos if 20 other people will join me'.

tomorrow.sg can highlight the videos, and bloggers can e-mail them to the world at large.

Citizen journalism - where the man in the street collects, reports, analyses and disseminate information - can also make a difference when used with other tools.

In the United States, some voters set up websites where they ask questions of candidates, who are then forced to respond.

Whistle-blowing may become a factor. This was how the fatal dunking in the armed forces was exposed, via a message to an online forum.

This time round, will Singaporeans take to the Internet during the polls?

More interestingly, will the parties be forced to react to happenings online?

I am a sceptic. Tools make things easier. But people have to put in effort to use them, however slight. Most Singaporeans have little care for politics except when politics is turned into entertainment. The elections won't change this fundamental fact.

In other words, if the Internet fails again, it won't be the Internet which actually flunks the test.

The writer researches media and cultural policy at the Institute of Policy Studies.

{Keywords: Singapore Internet Regulation, Singapore politics, Singapore media, Singapore elections}

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Malaysia's 'political tsunami' unlikely in Singapore

Speech I gave at a forum on “New Media: Trends and Opportunities” on 23rd June, 2008, at Menara Star, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia, organised by the Asian Centre for Media Studies

Let me begin by telling you a story:

Not long ago, a tropical country with an authoritarian government held a general election. The media in this country, its television stations and newspapers, was controlled by the government. They were held hostage by a law which requires regular renewal of their publishing and broadcasting licenses. The compliant media had been one of the key reasons that the ruling had held a grip on power since independence. It had not only won every election, but it had also had a supermajority, which allowed it to change the constitution at will, for a long time.

But in this election, there was something new afoot. A new creature had entered the picture. It was called “the Internet”. This Internet was a type of “new media” and it was predicted that it would change the ground rules of politics in this tropical country. It would allow, for instance, the Opposition to circumvent the restrictions of old media. And indeed it happened. Opposition parties found that they could reach the voters directly through this Internet. Individual voters could also express their unhappiness with the government – and read about the grouses and grievances of other voters. From the photographs of ceremahs (rallies) which were not carried on television or newspapers but posted online, voters could also bear witness to the huge crowds who came to hear the Opposition message. They could also hear the speeches made by Opposition candidates – and could do so without having to be physically present. This Internet also facilitated the dissemination of information about ceremahs, so more people knew of the venues and dates of ceremahs. This helped to boost the attendance at the rallies. Thousands, even over ten thousand, people flocked to hear the new message, a message they could not get from the newspapers and television. By polling day, there was a feeling that politics had changed forever, there was an expectation in the air that something momentous was about to happened, a political tsunami.

When the results were announced on polling night, there was indeed a shock. The ruling party had yet again romped home with a landslide. It had kept its overwhelming majority, losing only two of the 84 seats.

By now you would have realised that I am talking about Singapore, which held its election in May 2006, and not Malaysia. The fact that the organiser of this forum had asked me to speak about Singapore suggests that he thinks there are interesting parallels between Singapore and its formerly conjoined Siamese twin to her north. I can tell you that this view is held not only in Malaysia, but also in my country. After all, our two countries not only shared a common past, but we are not that different in many aspects. Following the set-back from the Barisan Nasional and UMNO in March this year, many were also wondering if the political tsunami that swept over Malaysia could also occur in Singapore.

I think not. I have used the example of Singapore’s 2006 election to show that there was an opportunity for such a tiny tsunami (if that phrase is not a contradiction in itself) to have happened. But it did not. I will attempt to explain why.

The truth is that for a technologically-advanced society, with one of the highest Internet penetrations in the world, the Internet has had a surprising little effect on politics in Singapore. Many may disagree with this view, including some people here today. It is indeed true that things are happening on the Internet – political blogging, dissent, heavy bombardment online by some parts of the Opposition, such as Dr Chee Soon Juan and his supporters. But these activities do not have the breadth and reach of mainstream media. They remain very much on the fringe.

Why is this so? One reason is that the Internet regulations have had a dampening effect on political discourse and activity online. Compared to Malaysia, which has no special censorship regulations for the Internet, Singapore has a whole raft of laws that restrict online speech, ranging from the Parliamentary Elections Act to the Class Licensing regulations for websites and the Penal Code. These laws do have a chilling effect. Another reason is a political environment that does not encourage political activism. The pressures on Opposition politicians of various kinds and the supposed Out-of-bound markers placed on speech by citizens all contribute to general avoidance of all things political by Singaporeans. Additionally, Singaporeans do not care about politics in general. They have been socialised into believing that the concept of democracy is about jobs and economic well-being rather than about freedom of speech, political choice and participation of each citizen in the political process. I have been surprised on a number of occasions by otherwise very educated university students who espouse this view.

A key difference between Malaysia and Singapore is that the majority of Singaporeans think that they have a good government. They are largely a contented lot. This is after all a government that delivers the goods for the majority of the people. The economy is doing well, even if rising inequality is a problem. There is law and order, and the crime rate is low. The city is clean and green. Indeed, if you are a person who does not care about politics or political participation, Singapore is quite a wonderful place to live in. Just ask the expatriates.

Another difference from Malaysia is in the ends to which departures from liberal democratic ideals have been put. In both countries critics have lamented the degradation of democracy, justice and their institutions. But in Singapore, this has been carried out for party political purposes – that is, ensuring continuing dominance of the ruling party – and not for personal gains or elite group interests. And since the party whose protection the various actions have been carried out on behalf of has consistently delivered what the majority desires, or what some will say they have been conditioned to desire - that is, economic well-being, law and order – the party has not seen its legitimacy being eroded.

Another difference is that Singapore has a media that, as surveys have shown, is trusted by most of its citizens. Indeed, the level of trust enjoyed by The Straits Times, is much higher than the newspapers in the West such as the New York Times and the London Times, where polls have shown that they enjoy the trust of less than half of the population. The high-level of trust is thus seemingly contradictory to the embarrassingly low ranking of the Singapore media, for instance, as rated by Reports Without Borders. It is also counterintuitive to the fact that Singapore’s media is under tight government control. The reason for the credibility is that the press in Singapore, even though it is occasionally economical with the facts, one would be hard pressed to find an instance in which it lies. That is also true of its politicians. Both do not play with the facts, even if they work very hard on the spin. The government knows that media is a powerful tool, and that it derives its power from its credibility. Perhaps it is the mistake of the Barisan Nasional to allow its media to lose credibility.

It is important to note that that people will continue to rely on the traditional media for information even when they do not think highly of its credibility. It can be argued that in 2004, Malaysia was not that much different from how it was in the 2008 election. Yet in the 2004 election, the Internet did not have such a great impact. The reason is that people have very different narratives of both elections. In 2004, the narrative revolved around the idea of “the new Badawi – give him a chance”. Most people were convinced by that narrative and therefore felt that there was no need to for them to find out further information. They were happy to rely on the traditional media, which was telling the same narrative as the people believed in. A longitudinal study by Professor Baharrudin Aziz of the Universiti Teknologi MARA showed that in 2004, people were staying at home and watching television in their sitting rooms instead of trying to find alternative information. The narrative most people believed in prior to the March 2008 election was very different. It was one where Malaysia was plagued by rampant corruption, great injustice and ineffectual leadership. This narrative seized the people’s imagination, although it could be argued that in actual fact corruption, injustice and incompetence were not that much different from four years ago. The traditional media and the ruling coalition politicians were telling a story – the same story as four years ago – that did not square with the narrative in people’s heads. Hence voters turned to the Internet and the Opposition rallies to hear a story that was closer to what they believed.

As for Singaporeans, the narrative that most of them have in the minds is very much the same as the narrative the traditional media and the ruling party rely on. Therefore there is little need for the Internet as an alternative media – they do not need to hear an alternative story. That was the case in the 2006 election. This is likely to be so for some time. We can never predict the long term impacts of the Internet on politics here; indeed society will change in the long range. But in the short term, for the next two or three elections at least, the role of new media is not likely mirror the role it played in the political tsunami in Malaysia earlier this year.

See also: http://www.ips.org.sg/media/yr2008/Star%20_Malaysia__Challenge%20to%20thrive%20in%20the%20online%20world_240608.pdf