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The Government should let the hotel open a bak chor mee stall

Here is an archived article which I have written in Singapore Angle on demarcating the boundaries between mainstream and citizen journalism.

Demarcating the Boundaries of Mainstream & Citizen Journalism

We live in a brave new world. With the advances of internet technologies, citizen journalism has been touted to be an alternative challenge to the mainstream media. Recent events such as the Singapore Elections 2006 and the Mr Brown affair have created ripples that can tilt the balance on the Singapore government’s control of the internet. In this article, we analyze the issues that are discussed in the political roundtable organized by Straits Times (ST) last Tuesday. The discussion centered around three themes; one, mainstream media vs online (or new) media and two, regulation and control of both media by the government and three, freedom of speech and expression in the new media.

Author’s Disclaimer: By the time you read this blog entry, four days have already passed since the political roundtable (consisting of Ms Penny Low, Dr Gan Su-lin and myself) in Straits Times. The article is published today [0]. Based on a gentleman’s agreement between the ST journalists (Chua Mui Hoong & Li Xueying) and Singapore Angle, we have to adjourn the publication of this article till today (22 July 2006). The other contributors in Singapore Angle have already been informed privately (and on Tuesday) on how the whole event transpired. What you will hear, are my perspectives and opinions towards the issues discussed in this roundtable. The opinions here expressed are strictly my own, and do not represent the organizations (including blogs) which I work for.

Before I continue my thoughts about the roundtable discussion, my definition of citizen journalism follows from an earlier article I wrote on the trends in the blogosphere. The rise of citizen journalism came about because of the emergence of new technologies. With the recent transition into the web 2.0 phenomenon, the internet has become a better marketplace of ideas and creativity because the new technologies are geared towards integrating online communities and enabling the common man with tools to generate new media content that can easily propagated across the world in a short time. For the context of this article, both the terms “online media” and “citizen journalism” are synonymous.

In Singapore, citizen journalism (or online media) takes on a different role. It is filling up the space which is left open by the traditional media which has always taken a pro-government position. It has been touted to be a possible disruptive technology that possess the potential to subsume the mainstream media. The constant discussion on political issues has turned citizen journalism in Singapore into a force that is constantly challenging the OB markers set forth by the government. The government has decided after the elections that they will take a “lighter touch” in engaging the internet and not create the “blogger registration act”. However, the recent Mr Brown incident [1,2,3] has changed the view that the government is not really serious about adopting a softer stance towards online media. (Please refer to the appendix below for my position on Mr Brown incident)

That set forth the background for the panellists to discuss the future of mainstream media and online media. Technically, the whole discussion can be broken into three questions:

  1. Should we hold online or new media (blogging, podcasting and videocasting) to the same standards set forth by the Singapore government as mainstream media? Afterall, a citizen journalist can get away with seditious and defammatory remarks by remaining anonymous, but a mainstream journalist cannot.
  2. Can the cyberspace be controlled or regulated with new legislation or to be explicit, how do we deal with potential abuses arising from the internet?
  3. Where do we go from here? Should the government continue their two-prong approach to both online and mainstream media?

With these questions in mind, we proceed to review the different points raised in the roundtable and elaborate more on my position over the issues discussed.

Should the internet be regulated like the mainstream media?

Let us relook at the government’s position on the Mr Brown affair. For the comments below, I shall sum up their statements and call it the MICA doctrine.

“It is not the role of journalists or newspapers in Singapore to champion issues, or campaign for or against the Government. If a columnist presents himself as a non-political observer, while exploiting his access to the mass media to undermine the Government’s standing with the electorate, then he is no longer a constructive critic, but a partisan player in politics.”
– K Bhavani [2]
“I said that we will look at how we can help have a lighter touch in regulating the internet during the elections. Mr brown’s comment was not posted in his blog. If he had posted the same comment on his blog, we’ll treat it as part of the internet chatter and we would have just let it be! But he didn’t post it – he wrote it and publish it in a mainstream newspaper! That’s the difference!

….. And that’s always been my position, or the position of this Government – that the mainstream newspaper must report accurately, objectively and responsibly. And that they must adopt this model that they are part of this nation-building effort, rather than go out and purvey views that would mislead people, confuse people, which will in fact undermine our national strategy!”
– Dr Lee Boon Yang [5 ]

The MICA doctrine is specifically targetted at the following point. If a blogger moves out of the internet and become a mainstream journalist, he is not allowed to write articles that performs two specific positions: (i) taking a partisan stand and (ii) champion issues. However, if the article is published in the internet, the government will let it pass and consider it as “internet chatter”. The Bhavani quote is important because it relates to what the boundaries and restriction that seperates a mainstream one from an citizen journalist.

We will come back to the problems posed by the MICA doctrine near the end of the article. Let us return to the one of the main questions discussed on the round table. Su-lin posed this question during the roundtable and took the conservative position in order to encourage a proper discussion over the issue. Her assertion is that the internet media should be regulated with the same legislation like the mainstream media. If the internet is exploited by an individual or a group of people to propagate an opinion like a journalist, why should we hold double standards by not conferring a ST journalist with the same kind of freedom that a blogger enjoy? Think about it, why should STOMP be regulated like the way ST do, while the rest of us in Singapore Angle, Singabloodypore, Yawning Bread can have the freedom of expression on our positions. In essence, she has inverted the age old issue that we should have more freedom of speech, into we should regulate more because the people in ST is suffering a lack of freedom as compare to the citizen journalists. One thing I do end up agreeing with her in the course of the roundtable, is that anyone who publishes or publicizes his or her viewpoint, be it online or offline, is propagating or promoting his/her point of view.

Throughout the roundtable, I chose to answer the question at the end. My conclusion is that the new media should not be regulated in the same way like the mainstream media, and the advancement of my position is that the establishment should lower the standards on the mainstream media. Let me take you through my train of thought and you can decide whether my position is tenable or not. In simple words, my challenge to ST is to let STOMP run similarly to like the Singapore blogosphere [6].

  • Which is more influential, the mainstream or the new media? Of course, based on Tarn How’s earlier report [8], most people in Singapore relies on mainstream media for information, compare to the new media. Actually, one interesting statistic is that most bloggers have to read Today and Straits Times first before blogging. If you notice, most blogs in Singapore are passive, i.e. they usually provide the alternative viewpoint or criticisms set forth by the content in the mainstream media. Consequently, the citizen journalists will quote the mainstream media and publish their rebuttals and disagreement on the interpretation of the news. Very rarely, citizen journalism takes premptive action to publish news before the mainstream media except for the bullying girls case and the Tammy video.
  • Will Singapore end up adopting internet policies from China?: If Singapore wants to be an information hub, it is almost impossible for the government to control both the speed and transmission of information. For every method to suppress information, the netizens will find an alternative method to spread information to the masses. If you want examples, think about all the uploaded videocasts and podcasts during the Singapore Elections 2006 and how quickly the videos of opposition rally are uploaded into the youtube and Google video.It is often claimed by some bloggers that Singapore might eventually end up adopting policies what China is currently doing with Google, Yahoo and Microsoft. I want to dismantle this claim by arguing that It is not in the economic interests of Singapore to do so. China can maintain the control of the internet based on its economy. China possess both natural resources and a large market, hence it is an attractor of foreign investments. Most companies, for example, Google and Microsoft, wants access and penetrate their products into this huge market. In doing so, these companies are willing to compromise at the expense of internet freedom. On the contrary, Singapore does not have any natural resources (only human capital) and a small marketplace. In order to ensure its continual survival, Singapore will be forced to move along with the forces of globalisation as an information gateway in Asia. If they suppress the internet like China, there will be no incentives for companies to set up shop in Singapore.
  • Freedom of speech and expression: The blogosphere has offered a real alternative to the mainstream media because it allows the freedom of speech and expression. The ability to remain anonymous and post your opinions on issues gives Singaporeans a new avenue to express their thoughts. There exists the possibility that we will eventually mature into a truly democratic country in the future.If we want to encourage creativity and growth in Singapore, having laws to tighten control over online media will do the exact opposite. It will be akin to suicide. It’s a matter of space, I guess, because once you tighten this space that people have, you will be restricting their freedom to express what they truly want to say [9].
  • It’s not the information, but the process of assimilating information: The internet generation, particularly our youth, are susceptible to the innundation of information. There are two issues which arise from this problem: first, plagiarism and second, interpretation. The first concern came about due to the rise of plagiarism in students in copying off content from internet to submit their work. It ties with the second point that our youth are mature enough to discern whether the content on the net is true or false. In my opinion, it is important to subject the youth to the information and guide them to draw their own interpretation rather than to molly-coddle them to believe otherwise. This is in line with the argument I spoke earlier that we need to create a marketplace of ideas so that the readers can review the arguments from both sides of the house and decide their position on the issue.
  • Engage and educate rather than legislate and control: As we have observed in the growth of blogosphere, most bloggers look to “thought leaders” for credible content. If we truly live in an ideal society (in the virtual world), social online communities will start to self-regulate and moderate against people who will put up offensive and seditious remarks. The real crux of the issue is that the internet is fragile. If the internet goes out of control and even the online social communities and thought leaders cannot deal with it, the government will definitely enter into the picture with the legislation.

Problems with the MICA doctrine

There are problems of interpretation in the MICA doctrine and some of the points have been discussed (see [3, 4, 7]):

  • If a journalist writes an article that praises the establishment, does that mean that the journalist has taken a position that is contrary to the MICA doctrine? Let’s reverse the position. Suppose, a journalist writes an article about a particular policy and praises one of the opposition parties for their contributions to the policy, does it equal to the earlier case? If so, perhaps, all ST journalists are allowed to praise and not allowed to criticise.
  • If we can only champion issues and take a partisan position in the internet, we can twist the argument and start an online newspaper instead of a printed newspaper. Only in that setting, you are allowed to champion issues and take a stand, because it is classified as “internet chatter”.

So, here is the way to illustrate the contradiction in the government’s position using a thought experiment. I shall term it the “Chua Mui Hoong (CMH)” paradox. She is an established political journalist in the Straits Times. Imagine that Chua Mui Hoong starts a personal blog and writes a blog entry with content that is promoting the opposition’s point of view. Does she violate the MICA doctrine because the journalist is not supposed “to champion issues, or campaign for or against the Government”? Or instead, will she be let off because the government has declared they will not restrict anything online because any blog entry is constituted as “internet chatter”? If that is the case, the citizen journalists in the blogosphere are enjoying a kind of freedom that our poor ST journalists don’t have. That is the paradox that the establishment needs to grapple. The logic presented in this thought experiment will inevitably lead to a position of perverse incentive: if the journalist do not want to be locked in both contrary positions, the only way for him or her to get around is to be anonymous or take a pseudonym in her blogger persona.


Where do we go from here? We must continue to engage the establishment on issues from the blogosphere. I like to end this article with a metaphorical answer brought forth by Xueying, “Did the government really shut down a bak chor mee stall?” My answer is that the government has not really shut down the bak chor mee stall. They just allow bak chor mee stalls to only be set up in hawker centers and food courts, and not let high class hotels (our mainstream media) to do that. Perhaps, they should give the high class hotel the licence to have a bak chor mee stall too.

An afterword will be added within the next two days

BL thanks the participants (Ms Penny Low, MP and Dr Gan Su-Lin) and moderators (Li Xueying and Chua Mui Hoong) of the ST roundtable for an interesting and enlightening discussion. He credits Gwen (from SG Entrepreneurs), Hui Chieh, Legal Janitor and Grey for critical and helpful comments pertaining to the discussion of this topic.

[0] Li Xueying, Did the Govt really shut down a bak chor mee stall?, The Straits Times, Insight S10, 22 July 2006. The full article can be found in Mr Wang’s blog.
[1] Mr Brown Singaporeans are fed, up with Progress, 30 June 2006, Today.
[2] K Bhavani, Distorting the truth, mr brown?, Today, 3 July 2006, Today.
[3] A good collection of opinions and commentaries are compiled in Govt Gets Touchy, Tomorrow.sg. I highly recommend articles by Mr Wang, Yawning Bread, Kway Teow Man, Molly Meek, Xenoboy, Kway Teow Man.
[4] Ringisei, On the rectification of mrbrown and the Void Deck, Let’s Negotiate, So Say We All , Soon Sze Meng, Is it legitimate to explicitly limit our journalists and newspapers as to what they cannot do? and Wayne Soon, Innovative vs Democratic Outcomes.
[5] Lee Boon Yang, Unjustified comments on govt policies will undermine confidence in govt: minister, ChannelNewsAsia, 12 July 2006.
[6] Cherian George, Is STOMP Citizen Journalism?.
[7] Tan Tarn How, The Management of Dissent
[8] Tan Tarn How, “Citizen Journalism and the 2006 Elections”, Session IV, IPS Post-Election Forum, dated 2 June 2006.
[9] The same paragraph is quoted in the ST article today. To give credit to ST, they asked me to clarify a statement I made during the interview. I was given the opportunity to redraft that statement and they quoted the whole statement accurately without any changes.

Appendix: My position on Mr Brown’s affair

I want to state my personal position on the Mr Brown’s affair. Before I convince Hui Chieh to start the new Singapore Angle, I belong to the group of “apolitical” specialist bloggers , in comparison to Mr Wang, Yawning Bread, bloggers from Singapore Angle, The Void Deck and Singabloodypore in the Singapore blogosphere, because of my work in SG Entrepreneurs.

Here is my overall view to the whole Mr Brown event and the response from MICA:

  1. Mr Brown’s article “Singaporeans are fed, up with progress” [1] is not a blog article. It was first published in Today and not in the blogosphere. The only association is that he is a popular blogger. My view is that the his Today article is a mainstream media newspaper article. It cannot constitute as a blog article, and hence if the blogosphere was attacked because of the article, the inference is not correct, because we should dissociate the article from the person.
  2. On the MICA response, I believe that the government has every right to respond to the points brought up by Mr Brown. However, there are two things which I felt that Bhavani’s reply was uncalled for. The first was the fact that she accused Mr Brown of hiding behind anonymity. For the longest time, ten years ago (when I was an undergraduate in NUS), I have also read Mr Brown’s earlier “National Education” series. Everyone knows that Mr Brown is Lee Kin Mun. Second, with all due respect to MICA, Ms Bhavani has hit below the belt by bringing up the fact that Mr Brown is the parent of an autistic child. If the MICA response has been focussed on the issues, I would have no problem because if the blogosphere upholds the freedom to express your opinion, we must let the other side of the house to give their side of the story. That is the platform for civil and rational discourse in a democratic society.
  3. While I agree that the MICA’s response was routine of the government, I disagree with the characterization that the bloggers should retreat with the view that it is the same like the past events, for example, Catherine Lim (1992). I agreed with Ringisei’s earlier article [4] and I added one more thing to the equation. My general view is that Singaporeans are too sensitive to criticism, whether it is the government or the people. If we agree that our government behaves like a nanny, my sense is that the Singaporeans share similar behaviour being conditioned by the government. If being challenged on a viewpoint or criticised, most Singaporeans will dig a hole and hide there, instead of standing up on what they believe in. If you truly believe your position, you need to stand on your own ground and defend it based on firm principles and intellectual honesty.
  4. It is important to note that the decision to suspend Mr Brown is announced by Today. As we cannot ascertain the truth in whether Today is “coerced” into censoring Mr Brown or they self-censored themselves, they remained to make the biggest losses in this whole affair.