By SEAH CHIANG NEE
IN the real world, the economy is humming strongly, more jobs are being created than at anytime in the last 10 years, the stock market is near record high and so are high-end properties.
The Singapore dollar has strengthened to around S$1.55 to the US dollar on speculation that economic growth would quicken, thus encouraging investors to put more funds in the city-state.
The sanguine mood is reflected on the streets. With the school holidays on, the crowds are out in force. At night, it is virtually impossible to get a cab in the city centre without prior booking.
Restaurants and shopping malls are full, and people are spending ahead of a hike in Goods and Services Tax from 5% to 7% next April.
Year-end festivals are a month away but a fairyland of lights already covers the kilometres stretching from Orchard Road and Bras Basah Road to Marina Bay.
While the mood is upbeat, the Internet world, however, is painting a very different picture. Here, the talk is of continued weakness, rising unemployment and people committing suicide.
Forums are still full of tales of retrenched managers driving taxis, and 70-year-old “uncles” cleaning tables when they should be enjoying their sunset years. They also feature pictures of homeless families sleeping in housing estate lobbies.
To the cynics, the government has lost its economic way, unable to steer Singapore to a better future. “They’re so desperate they need casinos to get out of the rut”, is a frequent comment.
Ironically, this is happening as the city is flourishing with growth expected to reach 7.5% to 8% this year and new jobs created – 132,000 in the first nine months – being at a 10-year high.
So who is right? Are we in a time of boom or doldrums? Why is there such a large disparity between the real world and the blogosphere?
To market analysts, the question is not whether there is a boom. It is: Can the boom be maintained?
A Citigroup analysis recently asked if it is sustainable or heading for a bust like that in the 1990s when the economy fell into a recession. By keeping labour plentiful and wages low, it said Singapore should continue to perform strongly.
Other reports predicted a 6% annual growth for the next 10 years. There is a caveat, though: the wage gap between rich and poor will continue to widen.
The Internet community, which considers itself an alternative information source, carried few, if any, of the good news.
Even the most serious bloggers are indulging in predictions of doom-and-gloom with young people talking of migrating or seeking jobs elsewhere.
It is a problem for Singaporeans who believe that the mainstream media are too controlled to give them a balanced, objective coverage and who turn to the Internet to seek it.
“If they think the newspapers are too pro-government, reporting only the good and avoiding the bad news, the Internet isn’t any help either,” commented a surfer.
“That’s because it is providing the exact opposite; that the government can do no right, magnifying the negative and ignoring the good news (like the current economic boom).”
So why is there a credibility gap? There are several reasons.
Firstly, the growing influence of a liberal-minded Internet, which often paints the sufferings of a minority as a city-wide phenomenon.
Secondly, Singaporeans, by nature, find it easier to believe the bad news more easily than good news.
Thirdly, the society has become more divided. Unlike their parents who tended to believe whatever the government told them, today’s youths are more cynical.
The Internet is still in transformation, not as mature as civil societies. The easy availability and anonymity are giving people a cover to say anything they want without being held responsible.
In 20 years of growth, the web hasn’t really built a better-informed Singapore as was once hoped.
Those who argue for an anti-government Internet as a means to counter a pro-government media are themselves contributing to its lack of credibility.
This poses a problem for the government if the Net continues to spread negativism as it tries to rally its citizens and dispels pessimism.
How serious is it? A recent government survey on the influence of the Internet on the young surprised me.
Published by the Media Development Authority of Singapore (MDA), the survey showed half of all teens between 15 and 19 are on the Internet, blogging or podcasting.
It meant about 120,000 of these teens take part in web activities. Among those aged 20 to 24, some 46% are participants, and the figure dropped to 18% for those between 39 and 49.
Not all youths take part in political, let alone anti-government, discussions. The majority, I suspect, are just passive readers indulging in teenage chat-rooms or simply posting diaries of their personal activities.
But the extent of their participation surprised me, though. I had thought it amounted to no more than 10%.
Which brings me to a serious point: if the youths are so active and the Net is anti-government (a government backbencher said she was shocked to find they made up 80% of postings) it is a worrying trend.
A rising number of youngsters have stopped reading the traditional media, or what the government says, and have cocooned themselves into a sub-culture group that just talks to each other.
By ignoring this group, or, worse, treating them as enemies instead of engaging them, the government may be in danger of losing these young citizens by default.
Until a clear policy surfaces, it doesn’t augur well for Singapore.
Seah Chiang Nee is a veteran journalist and editor of the information website littlespeck.com