February 5th, 2010
Former Nominated Member of Parliament Siew Kum Hong painted an optimistic picture for the future of the local new media sphere in a discussion held in Nanyang Technological University (NTU) last Thursday. He had been invited by the university’s sociological society to speak about the new media and political participation in Singapore.
Siew was particularly upbeat about the role new media entities were playing in cause-based advocacy and in raising the profile of the civil society here. According to him, one of the reasons for the growth of new media in Singapore was its ability to organise people behind various causes. Dedicated websites and Facebook pages increasingly allow like-minded individuals to find each other easily. The ‘Day Off’ campaign, which calls for a regular day off for domestic workers, and the ‘Say No to Rape’ campaign were a few causes he cited that latched onto the Internet to increase their reach. However, he also expressed concerns over what he called the ‘echo chamber’ effect, as Internet users are at risk of embedding themselves in virtual enclaves where everyone had similar views.
Siew, who tabled the petition in parliament to repeal section 377A in 2007, shared with the audience the expressions of public support he garnered through the new media during the period. Although parliament eventually retained section 377A, the debate underlined the influence of the Internet, which was the main platform on which members of the public expressed their views on the matter.
Siew also identified the fact that the dynamics of political engagement in Singapore was changing, partly due to the effects of new media. The Internet he said, allowed robust debate to be brought straight into the domain of establishment figures, without the filtering that may occur in the mainstream media. Foreign Minister George Yeo’s Facebook page is one such example, as opposition figures such as Chee Soon Juan and Goh Meng Seng have engaged the minister through the social networking site. From the controversial Sammyboy 3-in-1 forum to the government’s feedback portal Reach, there has been a considerable increase in political discourse between Singaporeans as compared to two decades ago. Nonetheless, Siew added a caveat on this matter, stating that ‘online participation does not necessarily translate into actual votes’.
When asked whether the new media would pose a threat to the legacy media, Siew opined that socio-political websites such as The Online Citizen and Temasek Review had the potential to directly challenge their mainstream counterparts. He said this could be done if the websites invested in producing more original content, instead of remaining purely reactionary.