TREmeritus’ change of tack and what it means for the blogosphere



February 24th, 2012

The rebranding of Singapore’s most-read political blog – greeted almost instantly with defamation threats from members of the establishment – has sparked a debate over the wisdom of its decision to operate more openly. Some of its readers welcome the efforts of (TRE) to increase its accountability. Many are scornful, saying that coming out into the open is asking for trouble in a country where freedom of speech is inadequately protected against a government that’s famously intolerant of criticism.

Speaking truth to power: 4 modes

The case illustrates a genuine dilemma:  there is no obviously superior way to engage in online criticism. Every strategy involves trade-offs, its benefits accompanied by costs. There are at least four approaches available to those who want to engage in critical commentary.

  1. Establishment critic

Establishment critics are those who try to stay within Singapore’s informal “OB markers” as well as within the letter and spirit of the law. This is the territory of the Straits Times, Today and Yahoo! (included here because its appetite for publishing articles that cross OB markers is not significantly greater than the mainstream media’s even though its livelier comments give the impression that it is more free-wheeling).

Anyone who wants use these channels to deliver a critical message must learn to say things between the lines, giving face to government and never challenging its authority. The vast majority of vocal netizens are contemptuous of such pussyfooting. But establishment critics recognise – even if they do not like – the dominance of the PAP. They believe that if you want change, you have to get buy-in from government, and that this is only possible if you maintain its trust by staying within OB markers.

  1. Gadfly

This is the term that Catherine Lim uses to describe her political role, and it’s an apt one to describe the many bloggers who, like her, are happy to cross OB markers. They include The Online Citizen, Alex Au, Ng E-Jay, Martyn See and others. They persistently irritate officialdom, having decided that the governments’ irritability is its own fault and that it needs to grow up and tolerate reasoned criticism, minus any comforting balm. Gadflies buzz about in the open, within slapping distance. They are not deterred by the risk of losing political capital because they do not need it – they tend to be self-employed and not dependent on the government’s blessings.

However, gadfly bloggers try (not always successfully) to remain on the right side of the law – including Defamation (which means refusing to circulate unverifiable rumours) and the Films Act (which is why Martyn See does not post his banned videos). By operating openly, gadfly bloggers can forge strong links with civil society groups and/or opposition parties, since face-to-face communication is still the best way to build trust.

  1. Guerrilla

By using this label, I’m not suggesting that this category is made up of violent individuals. Guerrilla warfare is a strategy designed to deal with much more powerful adversaries. It involves using non-legal methods to hit the enemy where it hurts, then retreating quickly to safe hideouts. Guerrilla bloggers, similarly, have no regard for either OB markers or the laws restricting expression. While traditional guerrillas hide in jungles, guerrilla bloggers use cyberspace to keep them safe. Most operate anonymously; those who use their real names are physically located outside of Singapore.

Temasek Review used to be the standard bearer of guerrilla blogs. With its change in direction, Sammyboy could be taking over this role. Guerrilla blogs are the natural outlets for whistleblowers. Their weakness, however, is that they unable to forge offline connections. Note that even opposition parties would be reluctant to embrace anti-government individuals who do not have the courage to come out into the open, since such people may not have the stomach or stamina for the kind of fight that the opposition is engaged in.

  1. Jiujitsu

This term comes from Gene Sharp, who uses it to describe the method of civil disobedience. Like the martial art of jiujitsu, this political tactic involves using the adversary’s superior strength against itself. It was perfected by the leaders of non-violent resistance in nationalist and civil rights struggles of the 20th century.

Jiujitsu politics is about deliberately and non-violently flouting laws that are seen as unjust; inviting and allowing the government to crack down forcefully; ensuring that everything happens in full view of the public; using the imbalance of power to provoke moral outrage; and thus swinging the tide of domestic and international public opinion against the government. Offline, the key Singaporean exponent of this method has been Chee Soon Juan. Online, the best example is Gopalan Nair’s “Here I Am” blog postings in 2008, when he publicly declared that he was defaming PAP leaders and provided his address and phone number so that they could come and get him. Given that the Singapore public has proven notoriously difficult to prod into moral outrage, it is not surprising that jiujitsu blogging is extremely rare.

Border disputes

Although blogs tend to plant themselves squarely in one category or another, there will always be disputes over where exactly the boundaries lie. This doesn’t affect free-floating individual bloggers, but can be a problem for organisations and group blogs. Since OB markers are often only apparent in hindsight, establishment media always face internal debate and dissension over whether a particular columnist is straying out of the establishment critic role and becoming a gadfly.

Gadfly group blogs, meanwhile, may have internal disagreements about legal risks. One example was The Online Citizen’s policy towards Cooling Off Day in last year’s General Election. When I interviewed founding editor Andrew Loh some months earlier, he made it clear that he was inclined to ignore the Cooling Off Day restriction on principle – this was meant to be a ban on campaigning, and he did not see why citizens should be stopped from discussing the campaign. The letter of the law exempts licensed news media from the ban, so it could be argued that the spirit of the law should give citizen media similar leeway. Loh was the editor in charge of TOC’s election coverage, and duly published articles after the guillotine time. He took the calculated risk that TOC could get away with it (which it did). However, I am told that his position was not unanimously supported within TOC – some felt the site should not venture into this grey area. (Ironically, Loh is now being flamed in some sections of cyberspace as a PAP stooge.)

Form versus content

One reason why the choice of strategy can be confusing is that there is no necessary correlation between the political acceptability of the words used and the strength of the criticism that those words contain. Some netizens suspect that if TRE commits to staying within the law, it will be less critical.  The truth is, criticism can be insulting, vulgar and defamatory – and still miss the target. Conversely, criticism can be polite and devastating.

Take, for example, Alex Au’s critique of Lee Hsien Loong’s leadership, published in Yawning Bread last May. Alex certainly ignored the OB marker that citizens should criticise policies but not politicians. But his blog did not cross any legal threshold, including defamation. Working in gadfly mode, Alex keeps within the law. The army of anonymous commentators in Singapore’s guerrilla blogs is much less respectful, but I have yet to read anything there that matches the power of Alex’s critique of the PM. Similarly, even establishment critics – take P. N. Balji’s columns in Yahoo!, for example – can deliver more substantial criticism than many netizens, even if the tone is gentler.

TRE’s dilemma

Considering the trade-offs involved in choosing strategies, it’s not surprising that TREmeritus’ change of direction has not been smooth. Moving from guerrilla to gadfly has alienated some of its core supporters. It has also had to scramble to manage comments that were in keeping with its old guerrilla mode, but now threaten its transition to gadfly blogging.

After the PM’s defamation threat, it faced a fork in the road. It could cut off Richard Wan – still the only openly identified editor – and return to guerrilla mode, or clean up and press on. It appears to have done the latter. This seems to have sparked something of a reader revolt: it has been swamped with defamatory comments, probably from those are against its tentative steps towards respectability.

The letter from Lee Hsien Yang’s lawyers opened up another possibility. For a moment, it looked as if TRE might adopt the jiujitsu stance. It appeared that it might rebuff the lawyers’ demands and go to court in order to press home its stand on freedom of expression. In every country, from established democracies like the United States to new democracies like Indonesia, Constitutional liberties have been extended through the slow and tortuous process of challenging government restrictions in court.

That was the significance of TRE’s brief relationship with human rights lawyer M. Ravi. Ravi is one of the only lawyers in Singapore who has adopted the mission of widening legal boundaries by fighting political cases – causes that may seem futile, but may occasionally succeed in generating judgments that produce incremental changes at the margins. However, Ravi and TRE parted ways after less than day. TRE’s editors clearly have no desire to be martyred.

Regulatory implications

Looking at the online landscape in this way also shows why the government’s use of defamation law against TRE can backfire. One would assume that it is in the state’s interests for critics to move from the guerrilla mode to the gadfly category (even if they don’t go all the way into the establishment critic box or the silent bystander territory, which is where most Singaporeans reside).

It is also clear, for reasons stated above, that such migrations involve adjustment pains and a certain amount of culture shock for the blogs concerned. Those in favour of TRE’s shift should be encouraging it – or at least not going out of their way to make the transition more painful. At last week’s public forum, TRE’s editor said they would welcome and publish government replies to their articles. As pointed out by The Online Citizen, the government could have chosen to reply to TRE’s offending article without the backing of a lawyers’ letter.

The defamation threats, issued within days of TRE’s much publicised change of direction, has basically strengthened the argument of the proponents of guerrilla blogging. Even if TRE stays the course and completes its makeover as a “responsible, pro-Singapore” website, there is little doubt that others will fill the space vacated by Temasek Review – and with more determination and drive, now that the defamation threats have galvanised them.

At present, Sammyboy’s political forum is probably the main beneficiary of these developments. I got this SMS yesterday from an old friend: “Quite a few of my friends are now reading Sammyboy regularly…. I knew of the website but never bothered before. I guess that is how website readership works.”

You can’t argue with the numbers. There is obviously an enormous appetite for no-holds-barred, publish-first-think-later commentary – not because people like nonsense, but because they want to decide for themselves what’s nonsense and what isn’t. Even the more responsible gadfly blogs seem to recognise the value of sites that have fewer compunctions about publishing possibly defamatory rumours: at last week’s talk, The Online Citizen’s Ravi Philemon said he passed a story to TRE because it was unverifiable and did not meet TOC’s stricter criteria; presumably, he was hoping that TRE would publish it. With such demand, I have little doubt that within a few months, a full-blown underground website will emerge to play the role of the old Temasek Review.

I assumed above that the government would prefer blogs to move from guerrilla to gadfly modes. But, this is not necessarily true. Many observers have pointed out that there is a certain futility in guerrilla blogging because it is a fundamentally individual enterprise. Sure, the numbers added up might seem impressive, but in the end isolated individuals never produce political change. One of Temasek Review’s little-noticed features was a paucity of hyperlinks to other sites within Singapore’s broad movement for democratic change – it had a big audience, sure, but few partners.

Individuals have to be organised before they are potent. This is the strength of the gadfly blogs. Their numbers may be smaller, but they are capable of getting things going. When they network with civil society groups and opposition parties, in particular, they are far more effective than the likes of Temasek Review. That being the case, cynics might conclude that the strong action by the government was deliberate – that, for all its protestations that it wants more responsible and law-abiding netizens, it is actually happier with guerrilla blogs than a growing swarm of gadflies.

Further reading:

  • My article on the different strategies of socio-political blogs in the 2011 general election, for a forthcoming book on the role of new media in the GE.
  • My 2006 book on alternative online media, with case studies of Sintercom and Think Centre.

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