Thursday, 4 February 2010

ST's Rachel Chang accuses Singapore government of being polarised

A friend forwarded me the text of an opinion piece that I hear from another friend appears on Page 2 of today's paper - since I no longer subscribe to the paper, I have no idea.

The reporter, Rachel Chang, was apparently tasked to trawl online through forums and blogs that speak ill of the Singapore government to search for news fodder. Well, I must say that the reporter seems to appreciate the dire nature of the Singapore political landscape.

In her article, off the bat she refers to the Singapore government as the proverbial bogeyman and goes on to compliment how “people who oppose the Government have become scary in their own right” – justification that the balancing power of the internet has been able to stand up to this bogeyman of sorts.

Pointing to the recent incident where the boastful Mr Sear Hock Rong, chairman of the Eunos Community Centre's Youth Executive Committee (YEC), had indicated on his website that his clients included Residents' Committees (RCs) in Eunos, she went a step further to actually confirm these very allegations that he had in fact used “his grassroots connections to drum up business for his events management company” - the Eunos constituency office revealed to her that he had indeed taken on “jobs as master of ceremonies at grassroots events”.

Then, using clever comparisons with Malaysia, she contrasts how “the blogosphere in Singapore seems so much more mean, vicious and illogical” and squarely points the finger at the government by declaring this situation “the natural result of a political landscape that has been long dominated by one party”. She also sadly admits that Singaporeans who are “faced with a government-influenced media, have no recourse but to go online”, and with the media not doing its part, she laments how this “distrust of the ruling party and the media often reaches the point of paranoia”.

The reporter then goes on to attack the PAP government outright by pointing to studies done by one American scholar on the American media. Although the almost-extreme opposites of the American and Singapore media climate make the application of American research findings to the Singapore context well-nigh impossible, she nevertheless draws out the fundamental argument of the findings to bring to bear on the PAP leaders.

Defining the situation within the PAP government so succinctly, she states “when people interact with others who share the same views, they tend to become more extreme - in other words, polarised”, and added the stark contrast where “the opposite is also true: people who interact with people who disagree with them often emerge with their views moderated to some degree” – an obvious nod to the fact that more opposition members were necessary within the Singapore government.

And before ending her stinging critique, she candidly admits that “the mainstream media self-censors” and the fact that Singaporeans have “no mainstream channel through which they can criticise the Government freely”. She warns that “the Internet has become an increasingly influential player in politics” and calls on “the online community in Singapore to build up websites that are credible and respected, and pry control of the Web away from the ones who dominate it now”, much like how sites like The Online Citizen (TOC) have been working diligently to break down the barriers put up by the system.

I think it is quite bold of Rachel Chang to condemn the government like this and speak of the truth so openly. It is also commendable that she used a lot of hard data to back up her arguments. I do hope that her career is not unduly affected by her controversial article.

Power of the Net to polarise

There is a need to build up credible and respected websites


By
Rachel Chang

THERE is a cliched warning parents like to use with their kids to discourage wrongdoing: 'You better not do xx, or the police will come after you.'

The Singaporean version of this replaces 'police' with 'the Government', an indication of how the Government is larger than life here.

But that is not the only bogey in Singapore. The people who oppose the Government have become scary in their own right.

Virulently anti-People's Action Party personages on the Internet have claimed victims of their own, including members of the PAP's youth wing, Young PAP.

In recent weeks, one of my assignments has been to cover the public spats such members have had with netizens.

Mr Sear Hock Rong is one.

The chairman of the Eunos Community Centre's Youth Club had boasted on his website that his clients included Eunos residents' committees. Netizens seized on the link, accusing him of using his grassroots connections to drum up business for his events management company.

A check with the Eunos constituency office revealed that his business dealings with it amounted to no more than a few jobs as master of ceremonies at grassroots events.

The vitriol one might face on the Internet is just politics, one might say. By advertising their political affiliations, Young PAP members were asking for their views to be challenged.

But are the actions of some overzealous netizens - doctoring pictures of Mr Sear to look like an animal and a eunuch - challenging his politics?

And what about when netizens attack someone who is in no way an affiliate of the ruling party?

One such victim is Ms Gayle Goh, a former Anglo-Chinese Junior College student who ran a well-written political blog until 2007. Her pieces contained sharply critical observations of Singapore society and politics.

She stopped writing, in large part because of the harassment and abuse she was subjected to by some netizens.

The World Wide Web can be a scary place. It is a no-holds-barred arena, and its denizens have little care for decorum and personal space - or facts, for that matter.

Part of this is the result of the boldness that anonymity bestows. Like driving carefully on Singapore roads but speeding on Malaysian highways, Singaporeans seem to relish lawlessness when they find themselves outside their accustomed boundaries.

The few, such as Ms Goh, who have dared to identify themselves on the Net, have been scarred into retreat. When announcing the closure of her blog, she said that she still had much to say, but she would perhaps now say it anonymously.

A newsroom colleague who hails from Malaysia observed the other day that the blogosphere in Singapore seems so much more mean, vicious and illogical than in Malaysia.

Some say the online vitriol is the natural result of a political landscape that has been long dominated by one party. Dissenters, faced with a government-influenced media, have no recourse but to go online, they say.

Whether or not that is true, it does not justify the malice often displayed on the Net. The distrust of the ruling party and the media often reaches the point of paranoia on political websites and forums.

To be sure, the level of discourse online may have much to do with the nature of the medium itself.

Mr Cass Sunstein, an American legal scholar who now heads the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, has written about the phenomenon of 'cyber polarisation'.

Quite simply, when people interact with others who share the same views, they tend to become more extreme - in other words, polarised. Racists, for example, become more racist if they are surrounded by other racists.

The opposite is also true: people who interact with people who disagree with them often emerge with their views moderated to some degree.

The Internet - in making it easy to find people who share your views, and to interact with them with greater frequency - brings polarisation to a new level, Mr Sunstein theorises.

For example, in a 2006 study of political websites, he found that four-fifths linked only to websites that shared the same political slant. It is becoming possible to interact only with people who share, reaffirm and enlarge your ideas, rather than challenge them.

And the same is happening online in Singapore. The political forums and blogs, embittered and united in their detest of the ruling party, egg one another on to mow down minnows like Mr Sear and Ms Goh. It's the cyber equivalent of a witch-hunt, and they are the virtual scapegoats.

Does it matter? The Internet is what it is, some might say; enter at your own risk. Cyberpolarisation happens in all countries; why should Singapore be different?

But I cannot help wondering if the political landscape has contributed to the situation.

Dissent in Singapore through channels such as political parties and the media is seen as weak. Some Singaporeans believe that they can only find fearless discussion of policy issues online. They believe the mainstream media self-censors.

The other extreme, a lack of self-censorship, prevails in cyberspace. In some forums, ugly impulses like a blanket racism towards all foreigners have become de rigueur.

So long as a segment of Singaporeans feel there is no mainstream channel through which they can criticise the Government freely, more will gravitate towards the Net. And once there, they may forever be beyond the reach of the ruling party.

The Internet has become an increasingly influential player in politics everywhere. With a 'mini election fever' in the air as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong noted recently, it is time to ponder its power.

The urgent task for the online community in Singapore is to build up websites that are credible and respected, and pry control of the Web away from the ones who dominate it now - the ones who hide behind nicknames and prefer personal attacks to policy discussion.

The same ones who will probably shoot me nasty, unsigned e-mail messages after reading this column.



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7 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

No doubt, Rachel seems to be criticizing the government at some points. However, these are merely red herrings for the main point of the article is about the Bad Bad Internet and how it polarizes. She does seem to admit that the political climate is a cause, but she doesn't quite blame the government for it.

5 February 2010 at 22:18:00 GMT+8  
Blogger Ganga said...

Well, I've decided that since practically no one at ST is able to write a straight story, then the only thing left is to read it with coloured lens to balance.

5 February 2010 at 23:25:00 GMT+8  
Blogger Alex Tan said...

Rachel Chang is doing her best she could to criticize the government in public.

we have all forgotten this is Straits Times after all. the reporters might be young and independent, but their reports all turn out otherwise.

why?
the Political Editor of Straits Times admitted she was an ex-staff of Internal Security Department.

the other editors are likely not from reporters background, but ex-civil servants. they are devils who twist and turn words and meanings to suit their political masters.

i believe Singapore reporters here are fighting for Press Freedom.

we must help them by providing more news-worthy articles and give them every reasons to believe that their editors are wrong.

6 February 2010 at 11:04:00 GMT+8  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

An interesting follow up on Chang's article. I believe though that Chang presented a much more balanced view of the political arena in Singapore - whereas this blog has at best misrepresented her intentions.

It's slightly unfair to put what Chang has quoted others, into her own mouth (e.g. Then, using clever comparisons with Malaysia, she contrasts how “the blogosphere in Singapore seems so much more mean, vicious and illogical” and squarely points the finger at the government by declaring this situation).

The above wasn't her words - and to write that she did isn't doing justice to anyone.

A thought-provoking post nonetheless!

6 July 2010 at 12:23:00 GMT+8  
Blogger Ganga said...

Yes, the article deliberately takes the original story out of context and paints a biased representation. The purpose is to ridicule and to subject the mainstream media to the same treatment it inflicts on anyone with an alternative viewpoint.

6 July 2010 at 18:47:00 GMT+8  
Anonymous 'Mat said...

Matilah, even ShittyTimes' leeporter is taking pot shots at the PAPayas.
Perhaps Jessica Cheam is right when she said that they are pushing the boundaries from the inside, using baby steps... I'd like to see more, and can you leeporter guys try to step it up as GE is around the corner? You need to catch up on the 50 years you have lost.flagr

9 December 2010 at 11:19:00 GMT+8  
Blogger dana said...

probably the best shot taken at the PAP by a ST reporter, so far. bear in mind, it still had to get past her editor.

yes, being surrounded by like minded people does make one braver, more extreme and convinced of one's viewpoint, even if it may be skewed. same for netizens, same for PAP.

still - can't agree that Singaporeans have become xenophobic. i think deeply frustrated is much more like it.

27 April 2011 at 14:46:00 GMT+8  

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