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:


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, I agree, with full 101% conviction that, a political tsunami is unlikely in S'pore, not in 10-20 years time.
I do not possess a great intellect to come out with appropriate words, but I can safely say, ours is such 'an uniquely Singapore' political landscape, fashioned by an unique architect/gardener that perhaps only an earthquake of a magnitude of the Sichuan kind that can upheave this landscape.

9:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is nothing novel.

I do wish to add one wee point concerning the role of the internet in shaping the Malaysian political scene.

Hardly any studies have been conducted concerning how much foreign help the Malaysian bloggers received from unspecified sources. It is no secret in Malaysia that many net providers are BN linked and they were all planning to disrupt network access. I am very sure some of the big blogging hubs and nodes did benefit from technological assistance. For example in Bangsar and Damansara where I stay. I remember one particular incident the service provider had mysteriously cut off the connection as they said it was down for unspecified reasons. S right one meh, it happened everytime the opposition had breaking news. One day the baum rate for that area remain virtually unaffected, it had be re-routed and supported using an elaborately network of proxy servers. I only realized this when I rechecked my pass word and router settings. Someone had changed it. When I wrote in to both TMnet and Maxis. They did not even give me a reply except to say the matter is still under investigations. I dont believe they even know what hit them.

The Aliens are with us

Miss Ong Lee Kiat

12:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Even an earthquake of the Sichuan magnitude will not change anything because one person of particular significance is still going to come back from the grave if things go in a different direction. I wonder who said that? Of course it must be someone great, silly me!

12:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When the PAP lost 2 seats many years ago, they were distraught. The narrow victory for Aljunied GRC in the last elections again drew a reaction from the PAP which showed them up as highly strung and paranoid.
I don't think they can stomach a few GRCs losses, let alone a political tsunami. One old fool may just have a heart attack. LOL

1:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Miss Ong,

I am sure you just imagined it. You see I have a message from Darkness; he says that he will appreciate it very nicely, if you forgot what you saw. It was a figment of your imagination!

We can assume many things by what he means, but I believe this is one thing that even you cannot just deny.

He says, he wants to visit you Malaysians and to explain why that is so and he would appreciate it, if you refrain from commenting in future.

The Bird of Prey

4:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

We want 12:48 AM to be removed. We would the internet to be a place where only the truth is represented.

I am sure you will agree. Do as we say.

The Bird of Prey

4:13 AM  
Anonymous Current Issues said...

Very insightful analysis you have there!

9:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for this article. I only understand part of it. However, it's 2010 and I believe that many, if not, most Singaporeans are still going to vote for the PAP.

11:34 AM  

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