Social Media’s Impact on Politics in Singapore

Media as politics in Singapore
March 26th, 2011 | Author: Online Press

Days before Singapore Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam announced the government’s 2011 budget in parliament, the political opposition offered a glimpse of how it would allocate the national finances in a “shadow” budget. The state-controlled mainstream media gave the opposition announcement scant coverage, but it was picked up widely by a number of alternative news websites.

To be sure, opposition criticism of the ruling party’s budget is nothing new. But rather than being forced to wait for parliament to meet to air their dissent, now opposition parties are able to post pre-emptively their criticisms online, shifting the time and space of Singapore’s political debate. Each opposition party’s posts of their competing budgets sparked robust discussions in a variety of online forums.

Singapore’s People’s Action Party (PAP)-dominated politics are increasingly being contested online and over social media like blogs, Facebook and Twitter. Pushed by the perceived pro-PAP bias of the mainstream media, Singapore’s opposition parties are using various new media to communicate with voters and express dissenting views. Alternative news websites, including The Online Citizen and The Temasek Review, have won strong followings by presenting more opposition views in their news mix.

With general elections expected to be held by June, it remains to be seen if opposition parties can translate their blogs, tweets and telecast videos into actual votes. The PAP, which has dominated Singapore’s politics since 1959, now controls 82 out of 84 seats in parliament. The PAP has come under consistent criticism of curbing the national debate through laws that suppress free speech and co-optation of the mainstream media. But new media platforms are fast changing the way politics are contested in this wealthy city state.

Although the opposition Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) is not represented in parliament, its news and events oriented website is the country’s most popular party site, far outpacing the number of hits received by the PAP’s site. The SDP’s website is regularly updated not only with the party’s agenda but also independent and often critical news not carried by the mainstream press. The SDP’s Facebook page, meanwhile, also works to raise funds for the party.

“[T]here are more younger people in this forum than older ones,” said SDP secretary general Chee Soon Juan at a forum last December. “I think [the Internet] is our best opportunity to bypass the traditional media which is pretty much controlled by the ruling party.”

The opposition Reform Party (RP) has taken a similar new media tack. The party’s secretary general Kenneth Jeyaretnam maintains a personal Facebook page where he interacts regularly with supporters and writes a regular blog where he posts at length on hot issues such as economic inequality. He says the blog receives around 1,000 hits per day.

“In a place where there is still a huge climate of fear that something will happen to them when they are seen to be critical of the government, there is a certain [comfort] of the anonymity online,” said Jeyaretnam. “Online platforms have become a space where we can reach out to people, bypassing other organs controlled by the government such as the radio and TV.”

Media machinations
Despite its democratic veneer, Singapore rates poorly in global press freedom rankings due to a deeply entrenched culture of self-censorship and a pro-state bias in the mainstream media. Reporters Without Borders, a France-based press freedom advocacy group, recently ranked Singapore 136th in its global press freedom rankings, scoring below repressive countries like Iraq and Zimbabwe.

The country’s main media publishing house, Singapore Press Holdings, is owned by the state and its board of directors is made up largely of PAP members or other government-linked executives. Senior newspaper editors, including at the Straits Times, must be vetted and approved by the PAP-led government.

The local papers have a long record of publicly endorsing the PAP-led government’s position, according to Tan Tarn How, a research fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) and himself a former journalist. In his research paper “Singapore’s print media policy – a national success?” published last year he quoted Leslie Fong, a former editor of the Straits Times, saying that the press “should resist the temptation to arrogate itself the role of a watchdog, or permanent critic, of the government of the day”.

With regularly briefed and supportive editors, there is no need for pre-publication censorship, according to Tan. When the editors are perceived to get things “wrong”, the government frequently takes to task, either publicly or privately, the newspaper’s editors or individual journalists, he said.

Because these complaints are neither formal in nature nor made in writing, they are difficult to prove and document. However, the behind-the-scenes pressure has resulted in endemic self-censorship, including only selective reporting on news about the political opposition, according to Tan’s sources.

Opposition leaders claim that their parties are frequently the subject of pro-government bias in the mainstream media.
“Reports by the mainstream media consistently focus us in a certain light, for example when we are fighting with other opposition members. They also report on the most insignificant part of our releases or events,” said the RP’s Jeyaretnam. “I often say that the mainstream media’s reporting of our press releases is like reducing War and Peace to a 140-character tweet.”

The country’s main newspaper, the Straits Times, has consistently stood by its editorial decision-making. Editor Han Fook Kwang said last year: “Our circulation is 380,000 and we have a readership of 1.4 million – these are people who buy the paper every day. We’re aware people say we’re a government mouthpiece or that we are biased but the test is if our readers believe in the paper and continue to buy it.”

The PAP-led government has long argued for a compliant rather than confrontational press. Until the advent of online media, that control had been enabled by the 1974 Newspaper and Printing Presses Act (NPPA), which stipulates that newspapers must annually renew their publishing licenses with state authorities.

Meanwhile, newspaper companies must by law be publicly listed with no shareholder owning more than a small minority of shares. The NPPA also provides for the creation of “management shares” which have 200 times the voting power of “ordinary shares” and whose owners must be government approved. The two-tier scheme, in effect, allows the government to decide on the newspapers’ board of directors and top office holders.

“Singapore’s newspapers are, at least in part, willing partners of the state … In the end it is difficult to avoid the conclusion, as much as one may want to, that Singapore’s political and press culture is sustained not just by coercion, but also by consent,” wrote Cherian George, an ex-journalist from the Straits Times and now the associate professor at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information at the Nanyang Technological University, in a paper presented at an international conference on media control and technology in 1998.

The foreign press have not fared much better. The government amended the NPPA in 1986 to allow for curbing the circulation of publications which were deemed to interfere with local politics. Tan noted that at first some of the foreign publications, such as the Asian Wall Street Journal and the now-defunct Far Eastern Economic Review, defied the government by refusing to print government replies in full. But after their circulations were cut down drastically, a move which affected their financial situations, they all capitulated and softened their news coverage.

“A number of defamation cases brought successfully by Singapore leaders and which resulted in substantial damages also blunted the foreign press’ enthusiasm for free-spirited reporting. Though not necessarily friendly, the foreign press now no longer reports on Singapore in the way it used to. It has been brought to heel,” said Tan.

Wired society
Singapore is one of the world’s most wired societies. In 1992, the government launched its so-called “IT2000″ master plan, which envisioned an “intelligent island” where information technology would permeate every aspect of society. Nearly 20 years later, in many respects, those state-led initiatives have worked.

Last month, technology website ZDNet reported that online research outfit Firefly Millward Brown ranked Singapore as the most evolved social media market in the world. There are currently more than two million active Facebook users among the country’s five million population.

“Singapore is one of the most advanced digital markets in the Asia-Pacific region,” said Will Hodgman, executive vice president of digital data provider comScore Inc. “The combination of high broadband penetration, heavy online engagement and the overall tech savvy of Internet users in Singapore make it an ideal market for the adoption of valuable existing and emerging digital technologies.”

With that captive online audience, Internet-based news websites and the growing popularity of social media have broken the mainstream media’s monopoly on news – though not completely. Singapore’s PAP-led government was one of the first in the world to devise content regulations for the Internet, issuing restrictions on topics it deemed as sensitive as early as 1996.

Authorities have since continued to roll out extensive regulations for using the Internet for election campaigns, according to ex-journalist and media expert Cherian George in his 2010 paper, “Control-Shift – The Internet and Political Change in Singapore.”

While political parties are broadly allowed to use the Internet to campaign, they were previously prohibited from employing some of the medium’s most powerful features, including live audio and video streaming and so-called “viral marketing”. Websites not belonging to political parties or candidates but registered as political sites have been banned from activities that could be considered online electioneering.

“While the possibility of regulating the Internet was in itself not surprising – except to those who had been seduced by the myth of cyberspace as some kind of libertarian sanctuary – Singapore’s approach to regulation was remarkable for its paradoxical breadth and self-restraint,” wrote George. “The government promised that it would regulate with a ‘light touch’, and largely kept to its word,” he said.

In early 2009, the government loosened some of its earlier Internet rules, in line with the recommendations of the government-appointed Advisory Council on the Impact of New Media on Society (AIMS). The ban on political films was lifted and parties are now allowed to produce and disseminate videos as long as they are “factual and objective”. Political party podcasts and vodcasts, which were banned for the 2006 elections, will be allowed during the next polls.

George argued that despite the growing influence of online media, it would be naive to conclude that the PAP’s days of domination are numbered. “While the government appears increasingly liberal towards individual self-expression, it continues to intervene strategically at points at which such expression may become politically threatening,” he said. “It is safe to assume that the government’s digital surveillance capabilities far outstrip even its most technologically competent opponent’s evasive abilities.”

Clandestine political conversations that were once held in homes and coffee shops are now usually carried out by e-mail and mobile phone text messages – both of which are considerable easier for the authorities to monitor and track, George said.

With snap polls on the horizon, the government appears to have targeted potential online threats. In January, it gazetted The Online Citizen under the Political Donations Act, a designation that will bring the independent news provider under de facto government regulation. The Online Citizen has vowed to continue its reporting activities as per normal.

At the same time, consistent with George’s analysis, authorities last week relaxed past regulations that limited the use of the Internet and social media for election campaigning. Political parties and candidates will be allowed to use a broader range of new media platforms, including blogs, micro-blogs, online photo-sharing platforms, social networking sites and electronic media applications used on mobile phones, for election advertising.

The loosening, however, only applies for political party-run websites, chat rooms and online discussion forums. Candidates must declare the new media content they intend to use within 12 hours after the start of the election campaign period. George warned in a recent blog entry that the new declaration requirements could open the way for PAP-led defamation suits against new media using opposition politicians. PAP leaders have historically relied on expensive litigation to suppress opposition and media criticism.

“The PAP won’t subject everyone’s postings to legal scrutiny. But if it decides that a particular opposition politician needs to be utterly demolished, you can bet that no tweet of his would be too tiny, no Facebook update too fleeting … in order a build the case against the individual,” George warned in a journalism blog.

Limited openings
Some contend alternative online media reporting has recently pressured mainstream outlets to show more objectivity.

“To be fair, there has been improvement from the mainstream media. We see journalists from mainstream media more keen to cover our events nowadays,” said Goh Meng Seng, secretary general of the opposition National Solidarity Party (NSP). “[This is partly] because of the [availability] of alternative citizen reporting sites such as The Online Citizen and Temasek Review. The mainstream media must [also] report and cannot be seen as hiding the truth because they risk credibility.”

For instance, state-influenced Channel News Asia recently broadcast a debate between opposition parties, including the RP, WP, and NSP, and the PAP. Despite some controversy over why the SDP was excluded and why the PAP was allowed two representatives while each opposition party was limited to one, it represented the first time that the government and opposition appeared together to debate politics on national TV.

While opposition politicians will rely more on new than mainstream media to communicate with voters, they already recognize that the use of social media will not necessarily translate into votes.

“[Online support] can give a too rosy a picture and false degree of comfort,” said the RP’s Jeyaretnam. “People who [interact with] us online are those who are already convinced with our messages anyway.”

“We believe that Singaporean voters still prefer to see their candidates in person to gauge their caliber and sincerity,” said Gerald Giam, Central Executive Council member of the Workers’ Party of Singapore. “We continue to take our house visits and ground outreach very seriously. Social media has been a good complement.”

by Megawati Wijaya

* Megawati Wijaya is a Singapore-based journalist.

Source: Asia Times

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