June 23rd, 2011
Citizen journalism in Singapore appears to have made a major breakthrough, with the Tony Tan Campaign for President inviting some of the country’s most influential political bloggers to its press conference announcing his candidature this morning. Along with mainstream media reporters, The Online Citizen and Lee “Mr Brown” Kin Mun were also at the Elections Department to witness Tan pick up his eligibility forms. For a change, independent websites did not have to pick up the intelligence through backdoor channels, or need to gatecrash the event. TOC, Mr Brown, Leong Sze Hian and other bloggers received the information from Tan’s office yesterday and honoured the embargo on the news.
After coming face to face with the presidential hopeful, the persistently irreverent Mr Brown tweeted, “Dr Tony Tan not only has presidential hair, he has really good skin.” At the press conference, TOC lived up to its progressive values by asking Tan for his views on the use of defamation law against critics, and on the exercise of the presidential pardon in death penalty cases. Leong, Singapore’s most numerate citizen journalist, asked Tan how much money he stood to lose by giving up his GIC and SPH posts.
I am told that Tony Tan’s aides decided on yesterday’s invitation list independently; it was not orchestrated out of the Istana. But as the presumptive government-endorsed candidate, Tan’s move could become a landmark in relations between the state and Singapore’s intrepid and often unruly alternative online media. Until now, the government has refused to treat any of these sites as engaging in bona fide journalism. Bloggers have long complained that government departments do not respond to requests for information. When The Online Citizen organised a pre-election forum for all political parties to share their ideas last December, the People’s Action Party would have nothing to do with it. TOC highlighted the ruling party’s conspicuous absence by leaving an empty chair on stage. The election regulations’ ban on campaigning on the “cooling off” day and polling day also discriminate against citizen journalism: only licenced news organisations are exempted.
The decision by the Tony Tan Campaign to loop-in bloggers is undoubtedly one result of May’s groundbreaking general election. Online media were obviously influential, and sections of the establishment may have decided that they have no choice but to do business with them. Tony Tan’s likely challengers, Tan Cheng Bock and Tan Kin Lian, have lost no time in courting alternative media coverage.
If the government were to follow the presidential hopefuls’ example, it would be a calculated risk. While officials probably still can’t stand TOC’s guts, such sites represent the more rational and reasonable end of the ideological spectrum in cyberspace. TOC, together with Alex Au’s Yawning Bread and some other individual blogs, have been noticeably pushing for more credible online journalism within their extremely limited means.
Most importantly, they have shown some commitment to accountability. They operate openly rather than behind cloaks of pseudonymity, they are not above correcting factual errors when these are pointed out to them, and they practice either pre- or post-moderation of comments to keep discussions within certain bounds. Of course, if government wants an echo chamber, it will remain bitterly disappointed by the alternative media. If, however, the goal is to divert some of the cyber chatter from flowing underground and into the gutter, it makes eminent sense to start taking Singapore’s more serious citizen journalists more seriously. Even if they are not as experienced as professional journalists and lack the reach of mainstream media, they can at least be treated as unusually engaged members of the Singapore family. This message was not lost on TOC, which posted on Facebook, “Foreign press not invited to Dr Tony Tan’s press conference. TOC is.”
This morning’s move is something of a leap of faith. Assuming it is not a one-off and is instead a sign of things to come, there are bound to be teething problems. Each side will probably start off with unrealistically high expectations of the other. If these expectations are not moderated, the experiment could end prematurely and sullenly. Bloggers will have to understand that the huge and complex machinery of government is not going to transform itself overnight. Indeed, a blogger-friendly media engagement policy is probably easier to implement for a small and discrete Presidential Election campaign office than it would be for any government ministry.
On the establishment’s part, officials need to be clear that the success of the experiment cannot be measured by how quickly bloggers and their readers are led to the “right” answers or to a “consensus”, but by the inclusiveness and civility of the conversation: as long as more and more people are trying to persuade one another – rather than ignoring or shouting down one another – such engagement between government and alternative media would be strengthening Singapore’s governance and civic life.