6 Dec 2005

Election watch: politics & the Singapore bloggers

From JGNews who also maintains his own blog.

Expect Singapore bloggers to be the target of new legislation or rules that will govern electronic communication during the next general election, which must be held no later than July 2007. Online political expressions have consistently surged in Singapore during periods leading up to national elections. These expressions are often discussions and debates centered around the rules and processes of the elections. But their special emphasis has always consisted of alternative reportage of election rallies and other elections-related news.

Monday, 07 November 2005

by James Gomez

Expect Singapore bloggers to be the target of new legislation or rules that will govern electronic communication during the next general election, which must be held no later than July 2007. Online political expressions have consistently surged in Singapore during periods leading up to national elections. These expressions are often discussions and debates centered around the rules and processes of the elections. But their special emphasis has always consisted of alternative reportage of election rallies and other elections-related news.

Presidential elections do not cause a stir on online forums. The first election for the Elected Presidency was in 1993. The mainstream media supported the PAP government’s favoured candidate Ong Teng Cheong, and at the time there were no personal websites or such things as blogs promoting either Ong or his rival, a former civil servant. Online discussions in forums in 1993 such as soc.culture.singapore did carry discussion on the criteria of selection for presidential candidates. Similar discussions in other online forums continued in subsequent presidential elections in 1999 and 2005, but these were again mostly confined to the procedural issue of selecting candidates and candidates’ qualification criteria. But online postings in discussion forums about the presidential elections have been low compared to general elections because of the absence of real contests.

Although the ruling party places legal and structural obstacles in front of opposition parties, it has been unable to totally prevent opposition parties from contesting the general elections. This, plus the general view that opposition parties do not get fair coverage in the local media, especially during elections times, has made the online domain an important avenue where alternative election “reporting” or postings take place. Either individually or in an organized manner, forums and overseas-based websites have been platforms used to make available alternative reports on general elections in Singapore. Blogs hold the potential to widen the coverage for individual reporting on future elections.

General elections and online alternative reporting

Even before the internet was widely available in Singapore in 1995, the Bulletin Board Service (BBS) at the National University of Singapore was used to discuss politics during the 1991 election and the 1992 by-election. The BBS was run by Technet that allowed staff and students to post text-based content on an electronic notice board, some of which were alternative reports of the elections. All these postings however could only be viewed internally and were not accessible to the general public, although staff and students from the Nanyang Technological University could also access it.

It was after the internet was widely made available in 1995 and the establishment of various online forums and websites that alternative reporting of election rallies and other election related news began to appear. This was most notable in 1997 and in a reduced form in the 2001 general election. But what was typical was that during the run up to each election, the PAP government introduced new legislation to control online political expression. In July 1996, a regulation called the Class Licence Scheme was introduced that required websites dealing with political and religious issues register with the authorities. It also made website owners responsible for all the contents on their sites.

Nevertheless, during the 1997 election, Sintercom, founded by an early user of soc.culture.singapore, Tan Chong Kee, became a front runner in election reporting online. Also, Sintercom was exempted from registering under the Class Licence Scheme after negotiations with the authorities, who were assured that Sintercom’s editors and site owners would “exercise responsibility, intelligence and maturity” when managing the website. Sintercom organized teams of volunteers to attend various election rallies and write reports on them. The website also put up past election results, constituency maps and extracts from the various party manifestoes. Some postings on soc.culture.singapore by individual posters were also compiled and carried on the Sintercom site. Tan claimed that overall, Sintercom’s reportage was timelier and fairer in coverage than the mainstream Singapore newspapers.

Ahead of the November 2001 general election, the Parliamentary Elections Act was amended in October to allow and set conditions for political parties to campaign or carry out “election advertising” on the internet. However the rules forbid the websites of non-political party groups or non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to do the same, thus restricting the space for online election activities to only political parties. It was only a few months earlier, in July 2001, that Sintercom was compelled to register under the Class Licence Scheme with no room for debate. Tan refused to register the site and shut it down instead, leading to the loss of a major source of online alternative reporting, as Tan had made plans to continue the tradition of election reporting that Sintercom had done for the previous general elections. The new laws prevented local NGOs from taking up the job of election reporting or advertising. Think Centre had to remove some articles from its site during the run-up to the election after the Elections Department demanded that it remove material that could be construed as elections advertising, in one instance specifying a particular article.

But overseas-based websites could escape Singapore government censure. Those such as the Singaporeans For Democracy (SFD) site carried news reports and articles about the 2001 elections in a section labeled “elections 2001”. These were mainly from international news agencies, news magazines and newspapers, as well as opposition leaders and academics. It also featured letters from the public about election issues, and also contained a number of links to elections-related websites. However the SFD site has stopped uploads since 2003.

The 2001 legislation made alternative reporting on the election suffer a setback. While the mainstream media was still deemed to be too biased in their election coverage, the volume of reporting on election rallies dropped, mainly because of the closure of Sintercom. However, the mantle of non-mainstream, alternative election reporting fell onto certain individuals who continued to report on election events. These were posted largely anonymously on forums like sgForums.com and Sammyboy’s Alfresco Coffee Shop, and were not journalistic reports but personal accounts of observations and experiences at opposition rallies. Sometimes these postings were contested. However, the number of postings about the elections was small and not coordinated.

Blogs and political expression

Starting in 2004, Singapore has witnessed an explosion of blogs. It has been estimated that there are between 2,500 and 15,000 blogs based in Singapore. Only a handful of these are overtly devoted to politics. Most blogs are personal diaries and journals, others ranging from social commentary to humour and satire, with some political issues thrown in. Some blogs provide more specific socio-political commentary. Although the number of political blogs have been increasing, most of these are “nameless” entities whose authors do not provide their real names or email addresses.

Chee Soon Juan is probably the first opposition politician to have a personal home page. It came as a “Chee Soon Juan” link on the Singaporean For Democracy website which is hosted overseas. Between 1997 and 2001, it carried alternative news reports on the activities of Chee as well as some of his speeches delivered at various conferences. Much of such information has been incorpaorated in the SDP website after it was launched in the run-up to the 2001 general elections.

Individual press releases issued by JB Jeyaretnam, former secretary-general of the Workers’ Party began to appear online after he left the party in 2001. In the beginning he would fax his press releases to Think Centre, and the NGO representatives would type this up and upload it on their website. Such releases would also be sent through the Think Centre mailing list. In 2004, a JBJ supporters’ website was set up by volunteers. His press releases would be faxed to the volunteers who would then type it and upload it. In 2005, in order to take advantage of the blog technology, a blog was set up specifically to upload his press releases. Again the role of a volunteer to upload data is still essential.

The 2005 presidential election saw some political traffic online. Seen as a potentially eligible candidate, Andrew Kuan set up a personal website promoting himself as a candidate. His website contained information about his background, qualifications, curriculum vitae, various other details about his life and beliefs, all for the purpose of advocating his candidacy for the office of the elected president of Singapore. In addition, after he was deemed unqualified to run for president by the relevant government committee, an online petition supporting him as a presidential candidate was also started.

With arrival of blogs, a small number of opposition figures have started blogging, namely Goh Meng Seng, Melvin Tan and James Gomez, all from the Workers’ Party of Singapore. Goh is a member of its executive council and in his blog, entitled Singapore Alternatives, identifies himself as a member of the party and states that he will write on various policy views and personal beliefs. Melvin Tan’s blog is entitled Singapore Loyalist but does not list is real name, and states that his writings are done on his personal capacity and do are represent the official positions of the Workers’ Party. He also takes part in forums under the handle “SgLoyalist”. James Gomez is an assistant secretary-general of the party and has a personal website as well as a blog. His personal website became active in early 2004, and showcases his publications, conference trips, meetings, and his professional work. In October 2005 he created a blog dealing specifically with his work with the Workers’ Party.

Blogs and other personal websites dedicated to politics have emerged because there are persons engaged in politics who are able to generate a sizable amount of information. This means there is a latent pressure on politicians who are able to generate large amounts of information to move towards individual websites or blogs. Whether they do so or not depends on personal inclinations, the political value of doing so, and the capacity to engage with new technology. The number of politicians with individual online presence is also an indication of the digital divide both in terms of technology and mindset within the opposition movement in Singapore.

Conclusion: Blogging and freedom of expression

Blogs represent the newest medium for expressing independent though and reaching out to the larger world. It is also becoming the area where threats to freedom of expression have been increasing. The Singapore authorities and other establishment figures have taken action against individual bloggers or internet users whom they deemed to have disparaged against them or broken some laws.

The first official case against a blogger was in late 2005 when Chen Jiahao, a student and former government scholar based in the United States, had allegedly written posts in his blog criticizing some of the policies of the Agency for Science, Technology and Research. The head of the agency, Philip Yeo, then threatened Chen with legal action if he did not remove all of the offending material. Chen apologized to Yeo and shut down his entire blog in order to be completely safe from prosecution.

The next prominent cases that came a few months later involved three internet users who were charged under the Sedition Act. The first incident saw two ethnic Chinese bloggers in their 20s charged with sedition for making inflammatory postings on the internet against Muslims. The second incident involved a third ethnic Chinese male in his teens who was similarly charged for making inflammatory posts in his blog.

Although not related to legal actions, other developments are changing the blogging landscape in Singapore. Several secondary schools and junior colleges have asked student bloggers who criticized or insulted their teachers online to remove the offending remarks or posts, with some of the students being suspended for a few days.

From the 1990s to 2001, only organisations, real or virtual, came under the purview of the law. These cases, however, have since set a precedent for prosecuting individual bloggers or other internet users. Hence, raising the profile of bloggers especially those who provide alternative sources of news and commentary in restricted societies is important. In particular, to highlight threats and actual attacks against freedom of expression on the internet.

The upcoming general elections are seeing another surge in online political expression. Given developments in technology, blogs have come to occupy an important part of Singapore’s online landscape. But it remains to be seen if bloggers would be willing to venture further with online political expression, thereby risking a clampdown by the authorities; or whether they would be pressured by existing laws to impose constraints on themselves. One way or another, during the run-up to the next election, Singapore bloggers are likely to be the target of close observation.

Blogs can and are increasingly fulfilling the role of watchdogs, alternative news sources and even non-partisan political players because they are crossing beyond the boundary of their original uses as vehicles of personal expression. They have extended their reach to promote and debate topics as diverse as governance, integrity and fair dealing, and in doing so may effect positive changes. In countries with restrictive environments, it is important that bloggers be properly protected by law from arbitrary or unfair prosecution. Only by doing so can blogs be another frontier of freedom of expression.


Anonymous said...

Yoz! People of Singabloodypore! Is there really that much unhappiness and grievences in your life here as Singaporeans as to demand for (how) more freedom of speech? To post all these comments condemning the republic?

Do all of you sincerely think that SDP or Dr. Chee will be a more competent leader than our current's? Is there really beyond any doubt that by having everyone saying anything he or she believes in will contribute to a better society?

Isn't it an irony also that you people, who constantly advocate for free speech are so fast as to belittle pro-government views as being oppressed, as being unintelligent, as being myopic, as being plainly conformist!

I wonder how much of a credibility you all actually have to offer? I wonder for what reasons do you all think your view had been justifiable quantitatively?!

For heaven's sake, a third world country was ranked higher than Singapore in terms of media openness. If you ask me, it just speaks volumes about little about the importance of media openness in the well-being of all in a country or a society.

So stop harping on the nitty-gritties of your life and move on. A civic society is not one that only voice high notions but one that put in actions! How many of you were indeed active citizens beyond this blogshere (where a mundane blogger like xiaxue.blogspot.com can register more visitors than yours)?

Ever tried community service or attempt to help the less fortunate? Ever tried to understand the world beyond WWW by travelling and living away from Singapore?

Singapore is not prefect, it's not meant to be. Because, people like me and you living here ain't! Likewise everywhere else!

Taiwan had secret society linked politicians abeit being the model of democracy in Asia.

India has a caste society despite being the largest democracy in the world.

USA has even a more dubious record even as it claim to be the global protector of human rights and democrary!

Australian?! They should start learning to stop hate Asians for a start before even threading any further on greater issues of philosophical significance!

So for your own benefit, stop seeing what you don't have but start seeing you preciously owned! Make a change positively but not by tarnishing the name of your own country! W

Anonymous said...

to the above commentor:
actually, through these criticisms, they're bringing social awareness to their readers. society needs to have its flaws pointed out in order for there to be any sort of progress. so in that, the "people" of singabloodypore are making a positive change. 'sides, no one is making you read this. if you don't like it, by all means, read xiaxue.

Anonymous said...

Ya, that's right. Go and join the PAP and promote your ideas about them, Anon 3.16, since you're such a pro-PAP. Why read this blog and be so disagreeable, so unhappy and so agitated.

chris said...

lol... I bet he's shocked from reading so many things that he would never know about from reading the PAP's papers, and as usual, being suddenly exposed to a different angle of what Singapore is like, thus foaming at his mouth, and gapping, and tongue-tied, and could only post what he effortlessly recalled PAP's ever-rightful words:
"The Downfall of PAP = The Downfall of Singapore"
"Opposition = Brainless, malicious, shady people who conspires to bring suffering and downfall to people of Singapore."
"Press freedom does not affect economic freedom, thus it is NOT NEEDED, and NOT what the people want. So there."

So there, he's brainwashed to such an extent that we cannot help him anymore, and he can go live in his happy world where everything is status quo. Perhaps also because he had never been in the lower-income group of Singaporeans who are suffering everyday and probably not even have enough money to send their children to school, thus he does not understand and he does not question, because questioning is not needed, only submissiveness. You think Singapore is a first world country already and everything is rosy and happy with the PAP like you see from all the election-time-articles in the PAP paper? I say there is still lots of improvements needed.

Anonymous said...

There again "brainwashed", "pro-PAP"...etc...

There seems to be a serious lack of acceptance for alternative views here as much as there profess to exist in PAP's Singapore!

The crux of my first post is justification and judgement! And indeed it is frustrating to see people hammering upon their own nation and avoiding debates in an open setting to sort out the kinks.

I didn't claim that PAP is perfect, but rather is seeking a justification for the reasons to believe any of the opposition or a hawkish anti-PAP stances will be much better. Are you people telling me that more than 70% (in terms of popular vote) is wrong, while the remaining 30% are right and were the actual ones to see the light? Even if you people are on a moral high ground, does that means that the remaining seeking a better material life rather than political activeness are wrong to do so? Ain't the act of belittle others of a different view (especially a majority) contrary to the ideas of democrarcy? And further to all this, do any of you know the political history behind the lack of influence of the opposition?

One should note that in any political system, the parties in power will do all possible to maximize their legislative majority. Oppositions are almost always in a disadvantage. The same applies to PAP when they first contested. So there is no such thing as the oppositions being unfairly treated and oppressed, it is purely a matter of competence or at least public percieved competence of the parties.

You all claimed by raising these issues, you're promoting social awareness. That much is agreeable. However the stance demonstrated is one that is obvious anti-government. It should be noted that promoting social awareness doesn't equal anti-government. What awareness are you all promoting? How successful is this approach?

Promoting freedom?! How do to quantify the level of freedom in the society? The French were the precessors of the International Declaration of Human Rights, yet they are now passing new laws to tighten controls in sensitive social matters. This is by no doubts a lost of freedom! The Australians and Americans too did likewise. If these were of any guide at all it is that freedom is a moving average of social markers. In an utopian state, where all were wise as Plato, freedom will then be completely exercise by all. If so, it is not difficult that every society have their own notion of freedom. Singapore has its unique notion too, we should not benchmark every little detail against the US or UK for that matter. Take the US for example, some half of the nation lost their rights to have John Kerry as the President and have to settle for Geogre W. Bush. Where is the fundamental freedom for these people then? Apparent, freedom is as far as it can be executed without hurting anybody else.

Now seriously, on the matter of awareness, how much then had you all done to the less fortunate of the society. I believe they too need a lot of awareness. Being such civic-minded people, I presume you all are way more involved communally that just virtually

Next you all claim press freedom is necessary for the well-being of the society - justify!
Do a country enjoy greater stability and social well-being by having greater press freedom? Where is your case? As far as, the study released by the Press Associates, it just demonstrate that there is is no strong positive correlation between ECONOMIC well-being and press freedom.

pleinelune said...

Mr. Anonymous-frothing-at-the-mouth, please do take a breath after that long rant.

Ready? Okay, you raised a lot of questions, and I am going to answer them, as well as be kind enough to point out your fallacies.

Firstly - you asked what use is it to promote awareness. The answer is simple: the mainstream media in singapore is tightly regulated. Only pro-government news gets through. Any negative stuff is immediately balanced by superlative compliments.

In this atmosphere, it falls to us, the bloggers, the only unregulated media in singapore to tell the truth behind the plastic smiles and watered-down news.

And the truth, as they say, shall set you free.

No matter how efficient an organisation, it is not wrong to point out their flaws so that they can IMPROVE. To give an analogy, Microsoft is a highly successful, multi-billion dollar MNC - does that mean it doesn't have problems? That's why Mini-microsoft started his blog - to tell the truth. He isn't Anti-microsoft, in fact, he loves Microsoft, and that's why he bothers to post about its flaws.

The same can be applied to us. If we didn't give a damn about Singapore, if we didn't care about freedom of speech and human rights, we wouldn't be wasting our precious time searching through the internet for articles, so that the public can learn the real truth.

Do not talk to me about doing my part for the community. I was in Red Cross for four years before this, and now in AFA. I've done countless hours of community work. I've stood in the streets with the sun blazing down on my back, running after strangers for loose change so that someone less fortunate could eat.

I cannot understand why everyone wants to link economic development and freedom of speech. The study says that they have nothing to do with each other, because they don't! Freedom of speech is about human rights. That's all. Do remember, as a democracy, the government has been elected BY the people, to serve the people. Not the other way around. So if the people want the government to serve them by abolishing the death penalty, they have the right to ask, and to be heard.

While we are on that topic, let me enlighten you on what precisely the white-shirt-and-pants guys do to ensure they remain in power. The election system, over the years, has been specifically tweaked to be in their favour. Political parties cannot campaign on air. They cannot campaign for funds. They are barred from producing films of any kind which might help their campaign. The recent introduction of GRCs ensure that the opposition does not enough candidates to stand in election. The result, many a time, it is a walkover.

That's just the tip of the ice-berg. Opposition party leaders are invariably either sued for libel, made bankrupt, exiled and even jailed, often on false charges.

The opposition might not be good enough. Granted. But the least we can do is to grant a fair election, to give the people a chance to reject or accept them. That's political fairness, and it is the lowest moral ground any party can stand on before they lose that ground completely.