Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Post No. 103: Interview Questions & Answers -- "New Media And The Politics of Singapore"

What follows below is a transcript of an email interview between myself and an honours year NUS student majoring in communications and new media for her thesis on “new media and the politics of Singapore”.

Section A: Personal sentiments

1. What motivates you to write about political issues online? Do you think twice about writing objectionable or alternative views on political issues? Do you have any personal guidelines, opinions of what you can blog or not? How?

Well, to be perfectly honest, when I started my blog, I did not think in my mind: “I am going to be a socio-political commentary blogger”. Instead, my initial aim for my blog was to use it as just an outlet for me to express & share my thoughts & opinions about issues & topics that interest me. It just so happened that I have a long & strong interest in issues & topics related to politics, philosophy & history and thus, most of my blog posts tend to be related to these topics & issues. Hence, I suppose one could say that I am motivated by both my interest in political issues and a desire not to bottle up my thoughts & opinions when writing about political issues online.

I do not think I consciously “self-censor” myself from expressing alternative political views but I do try to make sure that my facts & information are accurate and in order and that I do not put out unfounded claims which I cannot reasonably defend. Also, being a law abiding Singaporean, I try to ensure that I do not run afoul of the law with what I write in my blog posts.

I would like to think that I operate on a “politely offensive” model. That is, while I do not intentionally write things to offend people, I would not shy away from writing stuff that may perhaps be offensive to certain groups of people when there is no other way around it. And when I do write something which I think may offend people, I will clarify that I am not intentionally doing so and will apologise for causing them offence. In other words, while I will not purposely step on someone’s toes, I will also not walk far away from people just to avoid stepping on their toes and if I have no other option but to step on the toes of certain people, I will apologise for the temporary annoyance I caused them.

2. Do you see yourself as playing the role of an “active citizen”? What roles in society do you perceive yourself to be in when articulating “sensitive” issues online? Pushing for an agenda? For instance: playing the role of a citizen, imposing checks on the government, air alternative views which might be censured by the state?

Do I see myself as an “active citizen”? Well, I suppose there will be people out there who would argue that the real “active citizens” are those who not only voice out their opinions on local socio-political issues but also act upon them. To those who think this way, I suppose they would perceive people who, like me, only voice out our opinions on local socio-political issues but not act upon them by being involved in some form of local socio-political organisation (e.g. political parties, NGOs, civil society organisations) as being only “armchair critics” or as “NATO” (“No Action, Talk Only”).

Well, I think it should be noted that, due to a range of possible reasons, there can be people who actively voice out their opinions on local socio-political issues but do not involve themselves in a local socio-political organisation. And it is not always the case of these people lacking the courage and/or commitment to act upon their opinions. It may be that they just do not have the temperament to do so. There are people who are “do-ers” and there are people who are not “do-ers” but are perhaps “thinkers” & “observers”. I mean, even the late S. Rajanatnam, when he was still a journalist and have yet become involved in party politics, once said this: “I have a political temperament but I do not have the temperament to be a politician” (or something along those lines; I cannot remember the exact words he used). Thus, in the end, we need to recognise that while action speaks louder than words, words speak louder than silence.

I do not think there is a specific role which I intentionally try to fulfil. However, if there is indeed a role which others may perhaps perceive me as fulfilling, I would hope that that role is that of a “thought-provoker”, in that I hope that my blog posts provoke people to think more critically about certain issues or think about them from a different perspective. In other words, I hope to be, like Socrates, a “mid-wife” of other people’s ideas.

3. Do you perceive there to be a presence of surveillance forces which may lurk among the internet in Singapore’s context? In what forms do you think they manifest in?

Hmm… I suppose there is the strong likelihood that there exist different groups of people who are monitoring activities on the internet for different purposes. These groups would most probably include the security forces (who monitor the internet for any possible/potential security threats), members of the local mainstream media (who monitor the internet for anything newsworthy that they can report) and, as we all know now, “anonymous” members of the PAP who monitor the internet to counter any “anti-establishment” views.

4. Do you think the constitutional acts (such as the Broadcasting Act, Parliamentary election act) that perhaps perpetuate a sense of coercion, resulting in chilling effects?

Hmm… This is a very loaded question you’re asking. Well, I suppose that these laws which you have mentioned do create a sense of worry, if not fear, in people about being involved in local politics. It doesn’t help that some of these laws are so ambiguously worded that people are usually uncertain about whether they are doing contravenes these laws or not and thus, to be on the safe side, most people will refrain from what they plan to do and/or “self-censor” themselves.

Hence, it would be most helpful that if there are initiatives to allow people to increase their literacy on what they legally can and cannot do and not only find out where the landmines are when they have accidentally stepped on them.

5. What do you think constitute the notion of “active citizenry”?

To me, the most basic quality that one needs to have to qualify as an “active citizen” would be that of an awareness and concern about local socio-political issues. In addition to this, one would also perhaps need to voice out one’s opinions about local socio-political issues and, if possible, discuss them with people they know. And, of course, it would be best if one not only voice out their opinions but also act upon them. However, as I have already mentioned above in my answer to question 2, acting upon one’s opinions is perhaps not a necessary condition but a sufficient condition for “active citizenship”.

Section B: New media tools

1. Do you feel that the anonymity afforded by new media has allowed more freedom for citizens to articulate their more political views?

Firstly, I think I should point out that anonymity on the internet is perhaps a myth, considering that if there is a need to and if they want to, the authorities do have the resources & means to track down people who engage in illegal activities online (I don’t know how they actually do this but I guess they do through tracking down one’s IP address). I mean, just look at the recent cases of the seditious bloggers and that of the guy who “borrowed” another person wireless internet account to post a bomb hoax message in an online forum.

That said, I do agree that this supposed anonymity offered by the new media/internet do create the incentive for people to articulate their political views more freely and openly.

2. What is the rationale for posting with pseudonyms, unlike some other political webloggers who identify themselves?

Hmm… I suppose that, for the more cynical & pessimistic amongst us, they will say that people choose to “hide” behind a pseudonym because they want to hide their identity from the authorities.

On the more positive side, another possible reason for why people choose to make use of a pseudonym when they blog about local socio-political issues could be that they are of the opinion that “the message is more important than the messenger” and/or “What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” (William Shakespeare, “Romeo & Juliet”). In other words, these people feel that what their real name and/or identity is have no bearing on what they have to say; that people should focus their attention on the content of what they have to say and not on what their real name and/or identity is.

On a more personal note, I would like to think that I am not using a pseudonym for my blog, considering that “LCC” are the initials of my full real name and that since I have been using my initials to identify myself for quite some time already, people who know me personally should know who does “LCC” refers to.

3. Do you think the affordances of new media has ‘empowered’ or ‘disempowered’ you? How do you think new media has provided citizens a way to “counter-inverse” and/or survey the institutional traditional surveyors- the government? To what extent do you think citizens can make use of such empowerment?

Personally, I think that the emergence of the new media has perhaps empowered me in the sense that it provided me with a cheap (in fact, free) and easily available platform for me to express my opinions and share them with others.

Hmm… If I have understood this question of yours correctly, I think I would have to agree that the new media has indeed become a venue for people to acquire, share and discuss alternative news which are perhaps not as readily available in the local mainstream media.

However, perhaps I am being too pessimistic but I think while there may perhaps be a significant number of people who do engage themselves in the realm of new media, either as content producers or viewers/readers, there remains an even more significant number of people who are insulated from the realm of new media, in that they don’t make use of new media frequently, if at all.

Section C: Censorship policies

1. Do you think that there is an existence of any real or perceived fear among society when people voice their political views which might be in opposition to those by the state?

Despite what the authorities have been saying, I do agree with the sentiment that there exists a sense of worry, if not fear, in most people to express political views which do not coincide with those of the state.

In my opinion, the examples of Dr. Chee Soon Juan, JBJ and other opposition figures, extreme examples they may be, have perhaps created a “杀鸡儆猴” (translation: “Killing the chicken to scare/silence the monkeys”) effect on most Singaporeans.

And, as I have already mentioned above, it does not help that some of the laws which may perhaps pertain to local politics are so ambiguously worded that people are uncertain about the scope of them.

Of course, like what Dr. Cherian George has highlighted in the recent NUSDSC seminar on the topic of freedom of speech, this worry, if not fear, by Singaporeans is perhaps unwarranted as only certain forms of political expression are perhaps perceived as undesirable by the state.

In the end, like what my PS2249 (“Government & Politics of Singapore”) lecturer, Associate Professor Hussin Mutalib like to say: “In politics, sometimes perception matters so much that it becomes reality”. (note: these are not his exact words but what I remember of them). Thus, the (mis)perception of most Singaporeans that all forms of political expression are not welcomed by the state is something which needs to be corrected urgently.

2. Do you think censorship policies are restricting and limiting civic expression online? Do you support/ deem the censorship policies necessary?

Hmm… In some way, I do agree that some of the censorship policies do act to restrict and/or limit freedom of expression (be it political and/or artistic expression). However, it is very tricky to say whether these policies are necessary or not.

On one hand, one may possibly argue that these censorship policies help to uphold societal norms and that while there may be those who think that these policies are too restrictive, there remains a majority of those who feel that the policies are just fine, considering the prevailing conservative zeitgeist in Singapore.

On the other hand, one may also perhaps argue that these censorship policies, which are implemented by the authorities, are too outdated and are there to maintain the status quo; that these censorship policies are perhaps just part of a self-fulfilling cycle, as in the policies contribute to continuing of the conservative zeitgeist and this zeitgeist in turn contributes to the continuing of the policies.

As for me, I would say that, as of this point in time, I’m undecided on the issue, as I can appreciate the merits of both schools of thought as expressed above.

In the final analysis, we need to recognise that what sort of censorship policies we have depends on the level of maturity and/or acceptance that society has. For example, if, suddenly, tomorrow, Singaporeans unanimously express their opinion that they no longer mind foreign pornographic materials being sold publicly in Singapore, I suppose we will start to see magazines such as “Playboy” and “Penthouse” appearing on our local newsstands (and forcing “FHM Singapore” & “Maxim Singapore” out of business at the same time, I suppose).

3. What do you perceive of the “light touch approach” of Singapore’s censorship policies? Do you think that the censorship policies is an instrument of the government to “control” new media?

From what I can observe, it is my guess that the authorities may perhaps have yet come up with a finalised policy on how to deal with the emergence of new media in Singapore, in that they could perhaps be still figuring out a manner in which they can maximise the benefits that they can reap from the new media phenomenon while minimising the costs they may incur.

That said, it seems to me that the authorities may have come to the conclusion that it will be counter-productive for them to clamp down too heavily on new media, as it could contribute to a severe backlash, not only from Singaporeans but also from foreign entities. Thus, to borrow the words of Dr. Cherian George, the authorities may be adapting their policy of “calibrated coercion” to use in the realm of new media.

At the same time, in my opinion, the authorities, knowing that it is near to impossible to totally control new media (except to ban the use of the internet in Singapore which is too drastic a measure), are attempting to co-opt it to their advantage, hence the appearance of the P65 blog, blog entries by Minister George Yeo and most recently, the webcasting of the Budget Speech 2007.

4. Do you think the majority of political bloggers’ advocating for freedom of expression would provide weight upon the government to relax their censorship policies?

Well, as the authorities have, from time to time, reiterated, they do not think it is wise to govern through polls, referendums & popular votes.

With that in mind, while it is undeniable that opinions circulating in the local blogging community could contribute pressure to make the authorities rethink their censorship policies, I think it remains quite unlikely that the authorities would change their policies because a large number of Singaporean bloggers are advocating for it.

Also, we need to observe that while it is true that a significant number of Singaporeans are engaged in new media, there may perhaps be an even larger number of people who are insulated from new media, specifically the more “political” parts of it. Thus, it may be that a critical mass has yet to be achieved to make the authorities rethink their policies.

Furthermore, it seems to me that as long as online political expression continues to remain as just online political expression, the impact/influence of it will perhaps not be as evident and/or obvious as if it moves into the “real world”.

5. To what extent do you think that the online articulations equates to communicating the demands of the citizenry to the state? Do you think real actions/ policy changes could be enacted via such online deliberation, debates and discussions?

Hmm… I think the expression of political views online can only be equated to “communicating the demands of the citizenry to the state” to a limited extent.

I say this because, as I have mentioned earlier on, while it may seems that the use of new media to express political views is quite widespread, it could be that this phenomenon is one of a “vocal minority” and/or that of self-selection.

As for whether real actions/policy changes could be enacted due to online political expression/discussion, while I would not exclude the possibility of it happening, I think the possibility is quite low. This is, besides the reasons I have already highlighted, considering that most people could perhaps still have the mentality that political discussion and/or debate should be done face-to-face and in person, not through the medium of the internet and thus reducing the credibility of online political expression/discussion to people.

6. In April 2006, before the General Elections, the Parliamentary Elections Act (PEA) explicitly spelt out that new internet tools such as podcasting and video streaming would not be allowed during the elections. It also added that individual bloggers have to register with the Media Development Authority if they persistently promote political views. To what extent do you think that the (PEA) will be effective in thwarting content on elections? To what extent, do you think citizens would thus “tame” their comments online?

In my viewpoint, observing the proliferation of online coverage of election happenings by local bloggers during the last General Elections, the effectiveness of the PEA seems to be somewhat lacking so far. Of course, this lack of effectiveness could either be due to the authorities’ inability to enforce the PEA or to their choice not to enforce it unless the website in question is one which is maintained by local political organisations. For example, while Mr. Alex Au, of Yawning Bread fame, did not encounter any troubles (as far as I know) with the authorities for posting up a photo of the massive election rally held by the Workers’ Party, the Singapore Democratic Party was ordered to remove its podcasts from its party website.

As for whether Singaporeans would “self-censor” their online comments, I doubt so, considering that there is the widespread existence of “anti-establishment” views online, with some of them even perhaps bordering on extremism and/or being defamatory. Anyway, if Singaporeans are really “self-censoring” themselves online, the PAP would not have seen the need to send in “anonymous operatives” online to “counter” what they perceive as “anti-establishment” views, would they?

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