July 13th, 2007
The Li Hongyi controversy is another case of Net-induced disclosure of government information. Pre-internet, such an incident would have been confined to coffeeshop talk; mainstream media may have been pressured to suppress it. Nowadays, itâ€™s much harder for the authorities to sidestep the gossip; the pressure is on them to engage it openly.
The result is todayâ€™s story in The Straits Times, reporting that the young SAF officer Li Hongyi, incidentally the son of the Prime Minister, had been reprimanded for not following proper procedures when he e-mailed a letter of complaint to several other servicemen. The details have been reported and dissected elsewhere. For media watchers, however, the most interesting aspect of the case are the respective roles played by bloggers, the mainstream media and Mindef.
Liâ€™s email swiftly made its way to the blogosphere. The internet chatter was picked up by The Straits Times, which asked Mindef for a response. Mindefâ€™s public affairs department then issued a statement. ST reported the story today on page H4.
All this seems unremarkable, until one remembers how different things used to be: the government as a whole was stingy with information that it didnâ€™t think the public needed to know, and the SAF was particularly tight-fisted.
In 1991, for example, when an RSAF helicopter crashed and killed four on board, the military was furious with The New Paper for carrying a report that went beyond Mindefâ€™s brief official statement and quoted unnamed â€œinformed sourcesâ€. Nowadays, Mindef is much more forthcoming with details about such incidents.
Netizens probably canâ€™t take all the credit for the changes. Mindef would have probably become more transparent in its handling of majorly bad news with or without the internet. But the internet may be responsible for changes in the way the government handles less life-and-death gossip, such as the Li Hongyi case. With surprising swiftness, such controversies are moving from coffeeshop talk to official statements and public debates.
This trend dates back at least as far back as the Nassim Jade controversy of 1995, when the debate over the Lee familyâ€™s discounted condo purchases shot straight from the informal rumour mill to Parliament. This was a sign of things to come. Although the government, thankfully, does not attempt to respond to every online accusation, it does appear to be sensitive to fast-spreading gossip that threatens to erode public trust. And when ordinary citizens are behind the circulation of such gossip, the government is not above fighting it in the best way possible â€“ with more information.
In March this year, second information minister Vivian Balakrishnan noted: â€œThe most potent impact the new media will have on politics is that politicians will find it impossible to lie in the future. The truth will always be out there because somewhere, someone has the facts, or has seen something, and will publish it.â€
He added: â€œFortunately for us in Singapore, we have run a clean system, and hence have nothing to hide. That is the key reason we do not fear the new media.â€ However, even if the government had nothing to hide, it was accustomed to managing the flow of information on its own terms. If the Li Hongyi case had happened 10 years ago, officials may have asked the press to ignore or downplay the story, on the grounds that it was an internal SAF matter. Editors may have been persuaded that it was not a story of real consequence and acceded to the request. In many cases, in the absence of any on-the-record response from the parties concerned, a newspaper would be risking legal action if it went ahead and published rumours.
Whatâ€™s changed is that bloggers are pre-empting such negotiations and careful decision-making within the establishment. When the information is already â€œout thereâ€, it changes the calculations of both newsmakers and mainstream media.
However, it would be a mistake for bloggers to get carried away by a misplaced sense of power. Post-internet, Singapore still has the SAF Act and the Official Secrets Act, under which the circulation of Liâ€™s email could quite possibly constitute an offence. As far as we know, the authorities have not addressed this aspect of the case. This restraint on the governmentâ€™s part is politically wise â€“ but bloggers are by no means immune to legal action in similar cases in the future.
- The blogosphere steps up to bat By Choo Zheng Xi in The Online Citizen.
- The issue came to the fore when Lim Yee Hung, an intern working with SPH, published a piece on his own blog that would certainly never see the light of day in an SPH newsroom. In it, he decried the self censorship and paranoia of those who sought to drop the issue or warn others into silence. His plea to bloggers to shrug off the self- censorship that the MSM routinely practices was moving in its brevity: â€˜It shouldnâ€™t be this wayâ€™. That seemed to have been the proverbial kick in the butt bloggers needed to write about the issue: in half a day, almost a dozen blogs took the issue up.