Tuesday, April 06, 2010

What is an internet election

When someone says that the coming election (for instance the next Singapore general election) will be an Internet election, what does it mean? No point reinventing the wheel, so this is a UK perspective from the website ePolitix.com (tagline: UK political and parliamentary news, interviews, analysis, comment, blogs and podcasts.)

The article is here:


Will 2010 really be an internet election?

Will 2010 really be an internet  election?

Will the coming general election be the first where the parties will harness the power of the internet, as many commentators have predicted?

Some of the articles on this subject have focused on the way politicians use the internet, some on the backroom campaign technology.

Others have considered how the internet is driving the media agenda and some on how voters use the web.

But to answer this question, there are two bigger issues which first need to be asked.

1) What is an internet election?

To give some focus to this question, it might be useful to think of some appropriate benchmarks.

– How much funding should be raised online in an internet election? Five per cent, ten, fifty?

– How many voters would be contacted electronically, by email or social media?

– What would be the number of ‘voter contacts’ logged electronically by party staff and volunteers?

– How many clicks are generated by campaign-related Google Adwords and the like?

- How much traffic is there to party websites and how much participation in online events such as Q&As?

– How many voters subsequently report casting their ballot on the basis of information received/discovered via the internet?

– What proportion of party budgets is spent on online campaigning and infrastructure?

To this, we could have added the proportion of votes cast electronically if the UK had not all but abandoned experimentation with ways of actually making it easier for people to vote.

There are also the benchmarks which are harder to quantify, such as the impact of social media on party morale.

And then there are the factors which are virtually impossible to measure, like the way in which stories or memes which begin online then migrate into the traditional media and pick up a wider audience.

2) If this is an internet election, for whom will it be so?

It is worth first considering how many people are influenced by anything at all.

The Hansard Society’s 2010 Audit of Political Engagement provides some useful evidence on this point.

Some 24 per cent of British adults are classed as disengaged/mistrustful, having a 'luke warm' commitment to voting.

This group is "mainly young (more than half are aged under 35), and rather more working class than the adult public as a whole, though 44 per cent are ABC1s", says the report. "They are rarely readers of the broadsheet press, and more likely than average to read the Sun, Daily Star or Metro."

A younger audience might have been thought of as just the people to most consume information of any kind via the internet, but they may be disproportionately uninterested.

A further nine per cent of British adults, again a disproportionately young group, are classed as alienated/hostile.

The report says: "This group have a very low level of interest in or knowledge about politics, low satisfaction with the system, low belief in its efficacy and almost total distrust of politicians. They are often actively hostile towards the system."

So we can ask if this will be an internet election, but for around a third of the population it is unlikely to be any kind of election at all.

A further eight per cent are bored/apathetic and are "most likely of all groups to consider politics boring".

Perhaps internet humour and virals will be a hook to draw them into the election, or perhaps the increased coverage of election campaigning will make them even more bored of politics.

In roughly the middle of the road are the politically contented (six per cent of adults), the detached cynics (17 per cent) and the interested bystanders (14 per cent).

These groups are somewhat less apathetic, may know a little about their local MP and might discuss politics but are "less interested in seeking to influence political outcomes directly or in voicing their opinions beyond their immediate family and friends".

Could 2010 be an internet election for these groups of people?

There is a hint in that last quote about family and friends that the way to make internet campaigning work for them is not to communicate to them top-down from party or PPC, but rather to do so sideways, through those who they know, trust and already discuss the issues with.

Those kind of horizontal links are what social media excels at, and might be the most profitable area for developing campaigning techniques.

The Tweetminster report which highlighted the work of Labour's grassroots supporters online might turn out to have particular significance.

Finally, the Hansard Society report identifies the politically committed (10 per cent of adults) who are "hardcore activists" and the active campaigners (14 per cent) who are "interested in and knowledgeable about politics, but they are less passionate about and less involved in party politics".

Will these groups experience an internet election? If any group is, these are the most likely candidates.

But while they account for 24 per cent of the adult population, the report says that just two per cent of Britons have actually followed a political group or politician on Twitter and only four per cent have done so on Facebook.

And to emphasise quite what a minority interest it is to discuss politics online, just nine per cent have "expressed their political opinions online".

The Hansard Society report said: "A sample of 'digital leaders' showed that social media is important and highly valued amongst this elite group of political/digital experts. However, social media concepts in a political context have not yet crossed over into the mainstream where they are still seen primarily as useful tools for extending and enhancing existing personal relationships and for following celebrities, rather than engaging in the political process."

So what are the answers to the questions posed in this article?

Will it be an internet election? In some specific ways, such as the number of people contacted electronically (most likely by email), the answer will be yes.

But in a lot of other important ways, it seems unlikely.

And are there people for whom this will be an internet election?

Undoubtedly, and more so than in 2005, but they remain a small minority even of those who are interested in politics.

There were hopes from some people that 2001 and 2005 would both be 'internet elections'.

Neither were, and it seems unlikely that 2010 will be perceived as such either come May 7.

In particular, if the outcome delivers a narrow Conservative majority and/or a disproportionately large swing to the Conservatives in marginal constituencies, it is far more likely to be seen as proof of the efficacy of targeting key constituencies over the long term with feet on the ground, and not of online campaigning.

But one factor which perhaps could give the internet greater prominence is the role of the 'digital leaders' identified by the Hansard Society.

This no doubt includes most of the political media, so online coverage from the established media could perhaps ripple out to the wider public.

It would be somewhat ironic, however, if it was the mainstream media which made for an internet election.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Comments to media on allegedly racist Facebook and Rony Tan cases Part 2

This is part two of: Thought I should post these comments, since very little of what I said was actually used, as is usual because of space constraints in the paper.

Phone Interview with Mr Leong Wee Keat of Today newspaper.

The article "Reason pastor is not arrest" published on 10 Feb is here.

Q: Is community policing an ideal?

A : "We have been suggesting that the community as a whole, together with the media and opinion leaders, be involved in the process of setting the moral tone on what people should be allowed to express publicly on these kinds of matters. In fact, we would think that a process when individuals, like those three boys get into that kind of trouble they get, should not just involved the Government and these three boys. The community, through the press or other panels, can come in and one of the thing that press can do, or institutions can do, is to condemn roundly, if the boys are indeed guilty. So, I find it very strange, instead of saying outright that they are appalled by the racist behaviour of boys, their polytechnic declined comment. And I find that rather irresponsible. They can say, 'Most of the boys are not like that and we do have educational programs but the boys do not seemed to learn it and we want them to go through the program again'. I would hope the parents, former teachers and religious teachers should be interviewed and condemn these kind of behaviour. Opinion leaders, people in positions of authority, institutions should come into the game and say this is wrong, instead of leaving it a matter of between the police and the three boys. After a while, people will know that it is not just saying it and getting away, if not ending up in jail, but rather the whole society do not approve of this. And this will develop a social immune system against racist behaviour and hate speech."

Q: Does community policing go against the grain of Internet which is freedom of free speech.

A: "I don't think you should have complete freedom of speech on Internet, even though it is very hard to police. The existence of these things (hate videos and speech) is problematic. But if its roundly condemn by society, especially institutions and opinion leaders, there is a vaccine against the virus of hate speech. The opinion of society is very critical, not just of individuals but opinion leaders and institutions. Unfortunately, it seems churches are keeping silent on this. This has become Buddhist criticising Christians, but rather should be Christians criticising this pastor. This would be a more potent weapon against such talk. It is a failure that media do not go out and talk to churches and seek their responses. Of course, the Buddhists will be angry.

I want to another point. Unfortunately, it seems to get the small guys and let the opinion leaders relatively free with an apology. The right approach is, if he is an opinion leader, he ought to be more severely dealt with than if he is just a small individual. The opinion leader has more influence. I think the pastor is let off too lightly."

Comments to media on allegedly racist Facebook and Rony Tan cases

Thought I should post these comments, since very little of what I said was actually used, as is usual because of space constraints in the paper:

Interview with Mr Chua Hian Hou of The Straits Times on the allegedly racist Facebook users.

The article "Facebook user made police report" published on 9 Feb 2010 is here.

Following are my comments to Mr Chua on 4 Feb via email:

Please, start by saying that “Tan Tarn How, a senior research fellow who studies media at the Institute of Policy Studies, calls such a group racist and hence deplorable.”

Q: Are you surprised this has happened again, and it's not that long after the arrests of the racist bloggers.

A: Not surprised. Firstly, because while you can reduce racism, it is unfortunately almost impossible to eradicate. Second, while legal actions are sometime necessary, not enough effort is spent on educating people and in nurturing values such as sensitivity to the other and in arriving at a wide and public articulate consensus about how to behave with sensitiviy. People need to be given consistent and multiple messages via various means, from the legal to the social, that is kind of thing is not done in a modern civilised society. This means not just government or the police getting involved, but also opinion leaders (especially those from the communities that the guilty parties come from), and the media (which can interview the opinion leaders, and also the parents and teachers or bosses of the offenders so as to help draw line on right and wrong). ((The above answers most of your questions below too. See my column a couple of years ago on social immune system.)

Q: Will this be the last time something like this is going to happen?

A: No.

Q: What are your thoughts of the reaction - arresting the three youths (not sure male or female) - how appropriate is it?

A: In the most extreme cases legal action is necessary, but the other measures I describe above have unfortunately not been used.

Q: After news broke about the arrests, 200 more people joined the group (absolute numbers, net increase of 200+, so some could had dropped, while others came in). How would you interpret this?

A: That is exactly the problem in that there is not enough signals from different sources that what the group is doing is wrong.


Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Article in Today: Bad news and two myths

Bad news and two myths
by Tan Tarn How

TODAY Weekend, Singapore news

13 September 2008

NEWSPAPERS in Singapore have so far managed to avoid the sorry fate faced by their counterparts in the West: A dramatic decline in circulation and profits.

Still, executives at both newspaper giant Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) as well as MediaCorp, which co-owns this paper with SPH, must be wondering how long this will last.

Their actions reveal more nervousness than confidence. In recent years, for instance, SPH has launched a number of free newspapers as pre-emptive defensive moves against the rise of the free daily Today, which is a long term threat to its cash cow, The Straits Times.

But rival publications are not the only foes of newspapers. SPH’s multiple forays online — from the straight digital versions of its print papers to its “citizen journalism” venture STOMP and the new Razor TV — are all initiatives to stave off a more serious challenge: The Internet.

As Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong noted recently in his National Day Rally speech, young people are now reading newspapers less in preference over the Internet.

The older generation also use the Internet, now indispensable for work. But they are what have been termed “digital immigrants”, not born into the world of the Internet. They still prefer getting their daily dose of current affairs from an old-style paper with their morning shot of kopi-O.

In contrast, today’s generation are “digital natives”, growing up with a keyboard at their fingertips. If they read news at all, it is usually online in dribs and drabs over the course of a day while doing half a dozen other things on their screen over a latte.

Sometimes, they don’t even get their news via articles. Research in the United States shows that young people are increasingly getting information about current affairs from, would you believe it, comedy talk shows.

The evidence is that people are less and less interested in consuming news: They just have too many other things to do. Thus the enemy of newspapers, indeed of any news organisation, is not one another or even TV, but the lack of time.

There is a standard list of prescriptions for the struggling newspapers in the West: Try to “reconnect” with alienated readers, zoom in on local coverage, get school-going children used to reading a print paper, be more interactive by using forums or via citizen journalism, give more depth to news coverage, provide more “news you can use” information on lifestyle and entertainment.

These have been tried by newspapers here — but the digital natives are not settling down, leaving the media executives still biting their nails. No one knows how it will all work out in the long run.

Amid the bad news, newspapers like to hold on to a few myths about themselves.

quality myth

First is the quality myth. This states that people will still prefer newspapers because they are more credible than online sources. Yes, newspapers are more reliable because they have to be more accountable to the government, shareholders and local laws, but it does not mean that people will prefer it over lower quality content. Besides, one can get a lot of credible news online — and for free — from digital versions of print newspapers. Just look at America which has many highly-respected online sources.

The only bright spot for news companies here is that licensing laws have limited traditional sources of Singapore news to a very few. In cyberspace, competition will be fierce and uncontrollable.

Another side of this quality myth is that people want the greater depth of coverage that newspapers offer. But readership surveys show that most prefer news in short, snappy bits. A minority find depth compelling, but they will not sustain the circulations of the glory days.

eyeball myth

Second is the eyeball myth. This states that if you get people to read the online version of your newspaper, then you are out of the woods. But the hard economic fact is that each pair of eyeballs online pulls in much less advertising revenue than the same pair scanning a printed paper. Also, whatever revenue that digital papers could have earned are often creamed off by search engines such as Google as this is the most frequent way that articles are accessed.

Newspapers will eventually become as peripheral as movie rental shops, CD shops or public telephones. All have been hit because there are better ways of watching a movie, getting a song and making a call. Of course, these remnants of an age past will not die completely. But the business on which they are built will no longer be the money-spinners they used to be. Print newspapers will still exist. But they will cease to be such a part of life as they are today.

The writer researches arts, culture and mediapolicy at the Institute of Policy Studies.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

AIMS Report On New Media: A new assumption and a leap of faith

This appeared in ST last week:

The Straits Times, Review

10 September 2008


A new assumption and a leap of faith

By Arun Mahizhnan & Tan Tarn How

THE report of the Advisory Council on the Impact of New Media on Society (Aims) has hit more targets than some thought possible, though not as many as others had hoped it would.

The committee did not include a champion of new media. Its chairman, former Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) English and Malay newspapers division editor-in-chief Cheong Yip Seng, is a distinguished old media veteran. Despite its composition, however, the committee's recommendations were remarkable. They constituted a leap of faith.

The report was issued as a consultation paper. It is still a work in progress, and Aims seeks further comments from the public before it closes the book. There was a time when government-appointed committees would make recommendations, which the Government would then accept in toto. Aims was a welcome departure from this model

The report is titled Engaging New Media: Challenging Old Assumptions. Frankly, it is the subtitle that holds the key to the future.

The Government often invokes the sage saying that a river must be crossed slowly, as we feel our way across it stone by stone. Whatever its validity in the old media world, that approach has little application in the new media world. By the time the state gropes its way across the river, many of our children and civil activists would have leapt across it and gone into the forests on the other side. The state would be left struggling to catch up. The Aims report should help it realise that the new media is a different kind of river and that the state needs different crossing strategies.

Aims addresses some fundamental dilemmas that the new media has thrown up, disturbing the cosy and compliant old media world that the Government and citizens alike have grown accustomed to. One of the earliest edicts laid down by the PAP Government was that the media was not and can never be the watchdog of the Government. It had no mandate to play such a role.

Singapore's old media concurred with that edict without question. Even the old foreign media, such as The Wall Street Journal and The Economist, learnt that no matter how powerful they were as the Fourth Estate in their own or other countries, they had no estate in Singapore because they had no stake here.

All that worked rather well for a long time - until the Internet arrived. Now, there are many citizen watchdogs and the number is growing. It would be a stretch, even for a much-admired government, to tell citizens they have no mandate. They are the mandate.

And citizen watchdogs now have a media to go along with their mandate. Anyone can be a publisher, broadcaster or public critic today. They don't even have to live in Singapore to engage in domestic politics. Worse, we don't even know who is who. In the online world, you could be a dog or a subversive.

There is understandable concern that the cyber-world is chaotic. There is no government there, no gatekeepers, certainly none who would be accepted as the final arbiter on what is good for Singapore.

We have to learn to live with this reality, not deny its existence. Thus, the question to ask is not if the Government should engage the online world. There is no question it should. The Government has no choice. The real question is how - how to, how not to, how much, etc.

But the 'how' question turns on some fundamental factors: Is the Government willing and able to engage the citizenry in an open and robust public debate? Is it willing to share enough information to enable the citizenry to engage in meaningful exchanges? Is it willing to accept that it may not have the last word, as was possible in the old media world?

Equally, the citizenry has to answer some hard questions too: Does it care enough to engage and express its views on critical issues? Does it accept that solutions may not be reached quickly or to the satisfaction of everyone? Does it understand that consultation by the Government does not necessarily mean compliance with its wishes?

The extent of e-engagement will depend on the answers to such questions. The answers are not self-evident. What is clear is that the old assumptions will not serve us well any more. One such assumption was that Singapore had a nanny state. Hopefully, doing away with that assumption will not involve too great a leap of faith.

The writers are media researchers at the Institute of Policy Studies.

Does modern Singapore need a vision?

This article appeared in Today newspaper:

Does modern Singapore need a vision?

By Tan Tarn How

Today, August 30, 2008

PRIME Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s speech at the National Day Rally two Sundays ago was delivered in what has now become his trademark style.

Like his rally performances of his first four years, the Aug 17 disquisition on “Celebrating the Singapore Story” too was a formidable display of his mastery over details, his sheer intellect and his ready sense of humour.

In his speech, the most important of the annual political calendar, he raised important issues that concerned all Singaporeans. It showed that his Government was applying itself to solving them, and in the areas of inflation and babies, was putting its money where its mouth is. All in, he impressed as a man who knows what he is doing.

But, I didn’t get a sense of where we are headed as a nation and what he wants Team Singapore to do to achieve that vision.

The Prime Minister’s forte is as a fixer of things. His official biography for the Cabinet revealingly lists among his hobbies “tinkering with computers”.

(As a geek myself, I totally share his obvious delight when he demonstrated that he could instantly upload to his website a “live” video taken with his mobile phone.) He is a true technocratic Prime Minister. That he led the economy out of the woods in the periods from 1985 to 1986 and 2001 to 2003 attests to his brilliance as a trouble-shooter.

In the last four years, Mr Lee did make two vision-type statements. For a while, they stirred the imagination of the people. In his 2004 inauguration speech as Prime Minister, he promised an “open and inclusive society”. That raised expectation levels among many.

The pessimists among us would say nothing much has come out of that speech. The optimists would argue that following through on that statement takes time, especially in a country which has so many competing forces at work.

The hopefuls would have been surprised at the retention of Section 377A of the Penal Code and the proscriptions on activities such as the annual Indignation gay festival.

Mr Lee’s other vision speech, an address in 2004 to the Harvard Club on “civic society” just before he took over from Mr Goh Chok Tong, also appeared to signal greater accommodation of diversity, even dissent. In retrospect, however, it seemed more a restatement of the status quo than a declaration of impending changes, though the roll back on restrictions on public discourse on the Internet he announced during his rally speech is a big, positive step.

The titles of three of his four previous National Day Rally speeches are “Our Future of Opportunity and Promise” in 2004, “A Vibrant Global City Called Home” 2005 and “City of Possibilities; Home for All” in 2007. (The official transcript for 2006 does not include a title.)

In themselves the titles do articulate certain visions. The phrase “city of possibilities” in particular has a nice ring to it. But, again the realisation of this will take time.

Perhaps a country does not need a vision. Some will point to the headline economic growth figures of the last four years and say they matter most. Some may dismiss the vision thing as mere sloganeering or public relations. Or they may say that Singapore has matured and visions are for those who have not yet arrived.

Or that in this borderless and globalised world, the big idea is a fall back to a past when nationhood and a nation’s notion of itself held more meaning.

Or they may say that in a diverse, even divided, Singapore — note the battle over the criminalisation of homosexuality and the casino debate — no one vision can satisfy everyone, so it is politic not to articulate any even if you have one. Or they may point to the fact some of the self-examination exercises under Mr Goh yielded little.

There is another way of looking at it. Singapore now needs a vision — or at least a debate about a proposed vision — as much as it always has, if not more.

Singapore is at a crossroads. No less than at any time in the last 43 years of its independence, there is today much uncertainty about what kind of nation it is and is becoming.

Increased rates of immigration and influx of temporary workers at all levels, intensified globalisation and the inequality that it has engendered, the rising diversity and divergences in the population — these all call for not just individual policy responses, but also a higher-level conceptualisation or re-conceptualisation of the meaning of Singapore and being Singaporean.

The writer is a researcher with the Institute of Policy Studies.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Commentary on regulating speech on race and religion on the Internet

Use social immune system to fight ills of racist speech

Tan Tarn How
The Straits Times, 28th September 2007

THE proposed change to the Penal Code unveiled last week to make it a crime to utter racial insults over the Internet answers a nagging question that has been around for two years. But the amendment could lull one into thinking that the best way of addressing the larger social issue of racism is through the courts. That would be a big mistake.

In the revised Code, a person who knowingly causes religious or racial disharmony, or promotes ill will between different groups on the grounds of religion or race, could be jailed for up to three years or fined, or both. If passed, it will prevent a repeat of the need to resort to the Sedition Act - as was the case in 2005, when three men who posted extremely sick, if not demented, racist comments on online forums and blogs were jailed or fined. The uproar then was largely over the charge of sedition for offences which, though very serious, did not seem in the least bit seditious - that is, aimed at inciting rebellion against the state. Unfortunately, it obscured the debate about the most appropriate response to people who spout hate speech.

So far, the Government's preferred instrument is censorship and strong media management. It has succeeded in suppressing the circulation of racist speech in the public domain - though it is doubtful if it has reduced privately held racist sentiments. However, the Internet has made censorship hard to enforce. When everyone can air his or her views, it is difficult to have oversight.

Second, unlike coffee-shop chatter, material on the Internet can spread like wildfire and is almost impossible to delete. In the face of the Internet's challenge, the Government should perhaps consider a totally different approach to managing racist speech. Such a radical approach eschews legal intervention, keeping it as an instrument of last resort, in cases when people act violently or incite others to violence. This approach is based on self-regulation, and puts trust on society's self-righting moral compass. Instead of hauling a racist blogger to court, for instance, it would name and shame him. If opprobrium does not work, then pressure via the media should be put on his social support system, his family, employer and friends, to do the right thing by condemning him or even sacking him. Essentially, the approach is to use society's own social immune system against its cancers.

Such a system already exists here. Almost every blogger deplored the three racist bloggers when the story broke. A few months after, many also derided the makers of the so-called 'RK Pork' skit posted on YouTube about two Chinese men harassing a poor Indian Muslim stallholder by insisting on ordering a pork dish. It showed that most Singaporeans were able to discuss the issue intelligently and responsibly: The spectre of racial violence that is being constantly warned about did not even threaten to happen. Equally important, even if the bloggers disagreed on whether the video was racist, the clear message was that racism was wrong.

Still, Singapore's social immune system needs to be made even stronger. One way is to get more segments of society involved in setting the moral tone. In the racist bloggers' case, it is unfortunate that civil society kept silent. Religious groups, especially non-Muslim ones which have a special duty to defend the 'other', ought to have come out to denounce the three culprits. Many opinion-makers - the business leaders, principals and teachers, counsellors and politicians - also failed in their duty to voice disapproval.

Contrast that with the case of the Bollywood starlet, Shilpa Shetty. When a racial slur was made about her by a fellow contestant in the British reality television show, Big Brother, almost the whole cross-section of society came out behind her. That she eventually won is an even more remarkable testament to the social immune system of British society.

Perhaps the silence of Singapore's civil society is a legacy of a political system that has set parameters on what is permissible debate on race and religion, and prefers instead to emphasise the importance of maintaining harmony in a multiracial and multi-religious society. If so, it is time to change that.

One key catalyst for boosting the social immune system is the mainstream media. Like for civil society, race and religion are viewed by the mainstream media as extremely sensitive, with the agenda on debate largely set by a Government whose view is that a managed discussion will be more productive. In the new approach, it will need a standard operating procedure. Among the steps it needs to take are to actively canvass the views of opinion-makers, and to do as many stories as it can to portray hate speech as aberrant and abhorrent.

Dealing with racist speech requires, in other words, practice, from individuals, civil society and the mass media. The Government will also have to stop fearing controversy. This is because controversy is often a virtue, allowing society to find a way forward collectively and through reason. Besides the changes to the Penal Code, the Government has also indicated its concern over the Internet by appointing in April a high-level panel to study its social and other impacts. This Advisory Council on the Impact of New Media on Society, headed by Singapore Press Holdings editorial adviser Cheong Yip Seng, is expected to give its recommendations next year. It is hoped that it will consider new ways of dealing with new media.

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

{Keywords: Singpore Internet Regulation, Hate Speech, Incitement and offensive speech, freedom of speech}

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