November 26th, 2009
Above: Malaysiakini editor Steven Gan with covers of censored Malaysian publications.
SINGAPOREANS may fancy ourselves the most envied nation in the region, but there are some things across the Causeway that make us wide-eyed with wonderment. Why is it, for example, that the average Malaysian roti canai beats even our most highly-rated prata in taste and texture? How in the world did Malaysia end up with the region’s most charismatic budget airline when we’re supposed to be the transport hub of Asia? And why, as Malaysiakini celebrates its 10th anniversary this weekend in Kuala Lumpur, are we still waiting for a Singaporekini?
I am not an expert in food or aviation, but I have been following the ups and downs of Malaysia’s leading independent news website over the years and can hazard a few reasons why Singapore has no equivalent. The theory you’ll most commonly hear is that internet laws in Singapore are more restrictive. In fact, the legal minefields in the two countries are basically similar. Indeed, the Malaysian government has been more trigger-happy than its Singapore counterpart with laws such as the Internal Security Act and Sedition Act. What’s more, it would be an insult to Malaysia’s activists to say that they are more active only because they face less risk. The ones I know don’t equate what is permissible with what is possible.
Instead, there are at least three more credible reasons why, compared with Malaysiakini, Singapore’s alternative media are still so kampung.
First, Malaysiakini benefits from the country’s more pluralistic politics, including a fractured political elite, strong opposition parties and energetic civil society organisations. These diverse forces ensure that the supply side of political news never runs dry. Their unrestrained, unpredictable contests make political news as gripping as the tautest thriller and as melodramatic as a soap opera. In contrast, a Singaporekini would be, most weeks, about as compelling as a commercial for detergent.
Second, Malaysiakini has been able to count on both domestic and foreign support that is not available to wannabes in Singapore. Domestically, Malaysiakini is embedded in networks of solidarity with various well-organised pro-democracy groups such as Suaram and the Centre for Independent Journalism. They don’t always see eye to eye, but they do make up a broad social movement that has no equivalent in Singapore. Malaysiakini’s overseas funding would also be tough to replicate in Singapore. Under the Political Donations Act, the government could ban overseas funding for a Singaporekini simply by gazetting it as a political association.
Third, Malaysiakini’s success has been built mainly on the mainstream media’s failure. Founders Steven Gan and Prem Chandran are not media superstars. They are simply competent, courageous, creative and conscientious journalists like thousands of their fellow professionals around the world. In Malaysia, however, they shine because their peers in the mainstream media are so smothered by government. Singapore’s mainstream media are also subordinate to the government, but there is a difference in degree that produces qualitatively different outcomes. At critical moments in Malaysia, government control did not just strain press credibility, it tore it up, crushed it underfoot and set it on fire for all to see, causing a mass exodus to alternative media. In Singapore, the likes of The Online Citizen might reach the heights of Malaysiakini if The Straits Times were forced to stoop as low as The New Straits Times.
Could all this change? Could a Singaporekini match Malaysiakini? Anything is possible. But, the odds are slightly higher of our roti prata becoming as good as their roti canai.
– A fuller study of Malaysiakini can be found in Cherian George’s 2006 book, Contentious Journalism and the Internet.
Several readers have expressed their unhappiness with my analysis above, posting comments at The Online Citizen, where my article was reproduced.
The claim that they find hardest to swallow is my third point, that Singapore’s mainstream press has not been as stifled as Malaysia’s, thus denying Singapore’s alternative media the success that Malaysia’s has enjoyed. One reader counters that the Singapore’s Straits Times is already “nothing more than the apparatus of the state”: “So hasnt it already gone down to the bottom of the barrel? What is a few more inches?”
Indeed, this issue of credibility is fascinating, and much more complex than it first appears. When I first started thinking critically about the press, I bought into the conventional wisdom that political control and the resulting lack of credibility would be fatal for any country’s media. This is a comforting theory for anyone who cares about freedom of speech (because it basically suggests that the market will rule in our favour), which is why I believed it for a long time. Unfortunately, the evidence has forced me to revise my own thinking.
There seem to be a few distinct ways of thinking about credibility.
- First, there is the kind of credibility enjoyed by fiercely independent media, in contexts where the public depends on journalists to stand up for their rights against powerful interests that are seen as illegitimate. Because of strongly and widely perceived injustice, people’s dependence on “Fourth Estate” media is intense and continuous – which means that many people are willing to pay (real money, not just compliments) for professional journalists to provide that service. The flip side of this coin is that government-controlled media that don’t stand up for the people in such times will be resoundingly rejected. You will see mass campaigns to boycott the media, and even without such campaigns, people will simply refuse to pay for such products (even in highly repressive countries, consumers have the choice not to buy). The net outcome is in line with conventional wisdom: non-credible media don’t survive.
- In a second scenario, there’s a kind of credibility that refers more to basic accuracy of most of the content, most of the time, such that consumers are willing to pay for the product. If people are not highly politicised, if the society has very limited political contestation, and if most debates are dealt with as technocratic policy choices and individual economic choices rather than political ones, then pro-government political coverage might not be such a turn-off that it provokes a consumer revolt. Readers may grumble, but they may still pay for the total package of information that the establishment media provides. Indeed, since their own lives are so affected by government policies, they need to know government’s thinking and may be willing to pay for a newspaper precisely because of – rather than inspite of – its reliable coverage of government news. On the flip side, aggressively independent news media may attract a loyal following among government critics, but may find it extremely difficult to persuade even the most vocal supporter of free speech to pay them anything (since many free speech proponents conveniently assume that free speech should be free of charge).
- Third, there is a qualitatively different kind of credibility that doesn’t refer to factual accuracy but to authenticity. Some media have poor quality control; their readers know they can’t believe everything they read there, but they may still believe in such media more than they believe in a highly accurate professionally produced medium that lacks the same authenticity. I think this explains why professional mainstream media find it impossible to beat alternative, amateur media. High production values can actually get in the way of an authentic experience – they can distance the media from the public. This is a great opening for alternative media, but unfortunately there’s not much evidence that people are willing to pay for it.
Back to Malaysia and Singapore. In the 1980s, both Malaysia and Singapore probably belonged in the second category. Since the late 1990s, political instability has pushed Malaysia to the first category, with some mainstream papers losing as much as 30% of their circulation. Singapore has remained in the second category: newspaper circulation declines have been in line with those of countries with a free press and nothing dramatically worse.
Comparing Malaysia’s press management with Singapore’s is getting harder. In both countries, protests are downplayed or ignored by the mainstream press. But this hurts the Malaysian media’s credibility more than the Singapore media’s, simply because Malaysian protests are so much larger. With or without mainstream coverage, everybody (or at least most urbanites) in Malaysia will be talking about the protest. The gap between what everyone’s talking about and what they see in the papers the next day is what hurts credibility. In Singapore, the gap is small because the protests are tiny.
The Singapore media usually takes a hit during elections, when that gap widens. But without fail, politics calms down after the elections, leaving the media commercially unscathed.
As for the third category, many small alternative media in Singapore belong here. Singapore’s mainstream media will never be able to beat them in this regard: they will always lack the authenticity of small alternative media. But, while the mainstream media may lose influence, they may not lose much money to these alternative media.
The above clarification won’t satisfy readers who still want to hold on to their opinions about media credibility in Singapore. But I’ve yet to see evidence that enough Singaporeans will either reward (financially) the alternative media they say they want or punish (financially) the mainstream media that they claim to detest. Nor are there signs that Singapore will move to the first scenario above, where people will suddenly put their money where their mouths are.