Offline discussions on new media and socio-political discourse on the platform always seem to converge on three points: new websites challenging the dominance of the mainstream media, the regulation of the Internet, as well as the future of new media in Singapore. And the same happened at the “YOUthSpeak Forum” last Tuesday, when I – alongside Dr. Jack Lee of the Singapore Management University and Member of Parliament Mr. Baey Yam Keng – was invited as a panellist for “New Media: A Light Touch Approach?”
I was flattered to be part of the panel la, especially when I only occupy a small space on cyberspace. So perhaps I should be less critical about the conversation. Yet with amendments to the Broadcasting Act to be expected this year many of my perspectives were speculative.
From the get-go Dr. Lee gave an overview of the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act and the Broadcasting Act, and explained how they were sophisticated modes of control. The media, never seen as the fourth estate in Singapore, should instead secure the conditions for good governance. Moreover within these legal frameworks there were out-of-bounds (OB) markers, and together with the value of political capital self-censorship is practised. With the frequent mention of “parity” when 10 news sites were required to have individual licences – despite the lack of consultation, clarity, and consistency through the episode – one could argue that the government did not want online writers to enjoy immunity from the OB markers.
How the Internet should be regulated is less clear. Already news sites have independent editorial and moderation policies, and having a loose collection of writers or websites to decide a reasonable Internet code of conduct would be near-impossible. Mr. Baey described the Internet as “[a] space for voices which are more marginalised”, and as a “neutral platform where [Singaporeans should] learn to accept diversity, as well as contradicting values, interests, and positions”. “A marketplace of ideas” was the phrase Dr. Lee used.
There was also a question about Mr. Roy Ngerng and the defamation suit, but I thought the answer to misinformation and disinformation was still media literacy.
The question – in Dr. Lee’s opinion – is whether the government can shed its cautious approach, to “trust that people on the Internet can act in a mature way”. I agree. A friend of his had produced a documentary on female suicide bombers arrested by the Israeli police, and even though views from the victims’ relatives and the suicide bombers were sought, for balance, the censorship advisory board thought that society was not mature enough, that some might not be able to discern the nuances. Progressively Dr. Lee reckons, as more intelligent Singaporeans express the views the sensible opinions, like cream, will rise to the top.
Towards the end when an audience member asked about the future of socio-political discourse on the Internet in Singapore, I made three points on the difficulties that news sites or community blogs might have:
– Monetisation of online news sites – that is, to move beyond the model of subscription (or donations) and advertisements – will be a challenge.
– Sustaining websites is difficult, and certain niches have not been filled. It is too convenient to regurgitate content, and opinion pieces are ubiquitous (the irony, haha). When I interviewed Miss Bertha Henson she spoke of her inability to get an experienced economics-finance writer for the Breakfast Network, and I believe the absence persists.
– Writers and websites are contending with online content from the mainstream media, which has already made tremendous inroads on the Internet. User-generated content or commentaries and the freedom of content space are no longer advantages.
These predictions will eventually count for little. Some of us might have left more enlightened, yet it might be time to move along – and ahead. Dwelling on old points in a new environment will not bring us very far.