In page A8 of The Straits Times today (Thursday, October 18, 2012), The Straits Times had written the following: “Instead of blogs and social media, he (Mr Bryan Chow) took to The Straits Times Forum Page to air his views. “Its readership is much wider (than social media) and provides for more credibility,” said the second-year medicine student at the National University of Singapore.”
The aim of this statement is three-fold.
1. The newspaper wants to slight blogs and social media as being media platforms which are not credible. It wants to discourage the reading of blogs and social media.
2. The newspaper wants to justify that it’s worth your effort to write into the Forum Page, instead of create your own blog or use social media, by highlighting its “much wider” readership.
3. In doing so, if you are less likely to set up a blog or use social media, and more more likely to write into the Forum Page, the newspaper would be able to centralise discussion on that platform. If their strategy works and you do not see the need to create too many competing platforms, then they would be able to effectively centralise and control the discussion in Singapore, by publishing only letters which are “approved”.
As it is, over the past few months, the newspaper has been forced to also cover news which have been discussed like wildfire online and so, to be considered credible, they had no choice but to cover those news.
See, the strategy of Singapore’s mainstream media is to allow for online “noise” to be contained in that domain. However, if it spills over when the population at large starts discussing about what had been brought up online, the mainstream media will have no choice but to pick up on it. And it gets tiring for the mainstream media to do so, because then they would have to provide alternate viewpoints, which as a controlled platform, makes it difficult for them to keep up with a consistent national propaganda. By covering alternative news, they are allowing Singaporeans to think and question in a way that is not aligned to the overall propaganda.
So they’ve moved into the next stage of their media framing strategy – take a more aggressive stance towards blogs and social media, render them as being less credible and refocus attention back to the mainstream media.
The strategy for the Forum Page is two-fold:
1. Ensure a consistent national propaganda is followed through in a consistent fashion in letters published.
2. Publish letters which offer alternative views which they find easy to stomach and does not upset their stance in an adverse manner, so as to appease the alternative voices. But will the suggestions be acted on? Or will it be aired and ignored? That is the question.
In today’s Forum Page, the newspaper had decided to do a feature which “reprises 11 letters in print.” According to the Forum editor, Yap Koon Hong, the letters were chosen based on three values. “First, contributions are voluntary … It is, in this age of social media anonymity, an unusual trait in public discussion, and we think, a very good reason for Forum’s credibility (again, thumping their own credibility and making a snide remark at social media) … The second principle was an organizing one, which was to reflect the variegated nature of last year’s issues. Politics was the runaway hit powered by the watershed elections … Finally, we kept the selection to one person, the Forum editor, because picking letters for publication us ultimately a judgment call.”
The Forum had purported these three values to look objective. They have also added this disclaimer – “Mea culpa if you don’t like them, and if you do, thank you. Either way, enjoy.” Sounds a bit like we have enough of you knowing that we have an agenda, but you know what, we couldn’t care less. We are tired of having to be honest.
(I was informed by a friend that “mea culpa” means “my mistake” or “my fault”. The Straits Times had clearly added this disclaimer to cover up for their lack of transparency, responsibility and credibility. By using a Latin word to describe how they know that by displaying the 11 selected letters that are biased, that they know they are hypocritical at criticising others (bloggers and social media users), they tried to cover up for their hypocrisy by saying that they are sorry by not exactly saying they are sorry – by using less known phrases.
In effect, The Straits Times knows that it is an irresponsible and biased media channel which takes clear sides, and they are trying to admit to it, but only as a disclaimer to people who will catch them out, as this article has.
So, lets take a look at how they have put their judgment call to good use – noting the selection is done by only one person, and if the letters are representative of the viewpoints of Singaporeans at large – though this isn’t actually one of their selection criteria.
“Having a single party allows the leaders to steer the country in one direction.
On the other and, a two-party or multi-party system forces each party to serve party interests, sometimes at the expense of the country’s progress.
I believe it is because our single-party government steered the country in one direction.
Bigger nations with a two-party or multi-party system can afford to falter and recover. For a small country like Singapore, there is no room for second chances.”
“The opposition’s role in a democracy is not to take over the government to form another one-party government.
For a democracy to be effective, the opposition does not have to form a new government; it simply needs to form a capable party which can represent alternative voices in Parliament which seats members from two or more parties.
Singapore has come far since its independence, and the PAP deserves great credit for this.”
“Although the PAP lost in Aljunied GRC, I have great respect for the losing team helmed by a Foreign Minister George Yeo.
Mr Yeo and his teammate, Minister (PMO) and Second Minister for Finance and Transport Lim Hwee Hua, paid tribute to Aljunied voters and congratulated Mr Low This Kiang, who led the Worker’s Party to victory in the constituency. I was impressed by Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Zainul Abidin Rasheed’s apology.
The pressure is now on Mr Low and his team to perform well or face defeat at the next general election. I hope the winners will not be carried away and will be prepared to work hard for the elderly in Aljunied who face problems like rising cost of living, transport costs and the escalating cost of utility bills.”
I don’t have to go into the details of her letter. We would know enough if it by now. (If I were the newspaper, I would be secretly happy that netizens have chosen only to focus on this letter but not notice the other letters.)
You just need to read between the lines to understand how the government wants to position itself.
Is this credible? The Straits Times Forum Page wants to see itself as such. However, if the mainstream media is biased in their selection of articles and letters, how credible does that make them? If they want a credible discussion to happen online, do they have to take the lead to be responsible in the news they put out? If the mainstream media puts out news which are biased, netizens are only going to learn from this media platform which has a “much wider” readership, and learn to also be biased – they swung the other way. If the mainstream media does not set an example on good media and reporting values and techniques, does it expect the online and social media to take the lead? This is a case of the pot calling the kettle black.
This must be the largest propaganda exercise that the government has conducted this year – behind the guise of the seemingly harmless Forum Page, so as to catch people off-guard and not rouse any feathers.
Let’s be brutally honest here. No government will want to be truly honest to its people. They want to maintain enough power to be able to do certain things. This is more so in Singapore where the government believes in making strong, firm and fast decisions. And truth is, the people accept that and want that.
However, this paradigm is premised on a balance that is achieved by the government enacting policies which address the people’s needs and the people trust the government to work for their interests. So, if the balance is toppled, this paradigm will fall apart and people will stop believing in the government. And so, now we realise the pitfalls of having a strong singular government which continues to push through with its decisions, which are not made in accordance to our needs.
And that’s why we wake up to the notion that we need to have alternative voices. But how? We have the opposition but they cannot build up a strong enough presence in Parliament. We can go online and use social media but we haven’t learnt how to organize ourselves on it. For now, the government can still buy some time while the opposition and netizens figure themselves out. Meanwhile, the government can continue on its rampage. Or not.
See, at this point, if the government does the right thing by ensuring the people’s needs are met, we can bring the paradigm into balance again. Question is, will the government? Singapore is ruled like a company. This is an open secret. Our President and Prime Minister is the Chairman and CEO of Singapore Inc. We are workers. And simply put, workers have no rights. We should only work and help generate profits. Singapore Inc. isn’t Google. It’s primarily focus isn’t on welfare or innovation. It’s more aligned to Foxconn. Work and produce.
So, now the people are saying – we want to be like Google. We want balance, we want benefits, we want rights. Of course the government is resistant. If you want rights, companies will feel threatened. Their bottom line will be affected if they have to fork out more to pay for the welfare needs of its workers. Hell, no!
So, necessarily, the people’s wants are in direct opposition to the ruling principle of Singapore Inc.’s Chairman and CEO. If we give them rights, companies will find it more expensive to invest in Singapore. Our profit margin will drop. We become less influential on the international stage. So, what’s best for Singapore Inc.? Find a way to appease them and centralise all communication. We want to buy them over as cheaply as we can and to get them to buy into our propaganda – so cut the noise online.
But fortunately, Singapore Inc. is not an exact replica of Foxconn. Foxconn can settle it behind closed doors and put out a press release saying that there wasn’t any riots. God knows what they did to those who had protested. Singapore Inc. has an effective set of laws to curb protests. However, they are only in the physical space. In a knowledge economy, you cannot control the Internet. No one does that in a global capitalistic society. Once you do that, you become North Korea and Iran. As if it’s not already bad that people already criticise Singapore for the lack of human rights. But that has been for decades since, so the government can choose to blindside that criticism. But once we enact laws to control the Internet, we will immediately become like China. China has the size to play punk on the international stage. Singapore doesn’t. Once we become like a mini China, we immediately render ourselves irrelevant in the world economy. Even China won’t need to take us seriously.
So, what’s the solution? The government has to stop being a Foxconn and start being a Google. It has no choice. As much as the government wants to control the people, Singapore is only a very small country which is part of a larger sea change of things. In the developed world, people are talking about work-life balance, human rights, rights for workers etc. Also, as we move into the knowledge economy, we have to start being innovative and be critically engaged in the mind. These are all the things that Singapore fail on the international stage. Yet, the government wants to hold on to its control. The question now is, how far and how long more can the government hold on to it? It has to change. It’s not a choice. It’s a must.
Right now, the government is held ransom by four major events in the world. First, the current uncertainty in the world economy does not allow the government to take a drastic course of action. It’s focus would be on ensuring that the economy is kept afloat. Second, the American Presidential Elections and China’s political transition is currently taking place. Once this is over and the world’s two largest economies refocus their energies onto the economy once again, things will take a different turn – the government hopes that business-oriented politicians win and even if it’s not good for the welfare of the American people, Mitt Romney is who the government is betting on. Third, the world measures economic success by GDP. As long as the world continues to do that, Singapore cannot change its course. It has to ensure that it can keep growing economically, in terms of GDP, so as to stay relevant. And this means to work the people to the max. A fourthfactor, which is not so much related to world events, but more as a consequence of Singapore’s location is our location in a region where the countries continue to aim for economic growth, and thus as much as Singapore might be in a position to slow down, it cannot let up because of the pressures in the regional economies. Businesses have many opportunities to move their investments elsewhere and Singapore simply has to keep up with the pressure to stay relevant for them.
What can the government do then? Very simply, the government’s current strategy is in the right direction. Here, I focus on two of them – inculcating values and innovation and a focus on productivity growth. As we move into the knowledge economy, we need people who are able to think critically, constructively and in innovative ways. In a way, the older generation educated on a system of efficiency and structured ways might be a lost cause in the new economy. But the government can groom a new generation of thinkers for the new economy. But it would take another 20 years for the new thinkers to emerge and become workers. Second, the government’s focus on productivity growth is right. They seemed to have started to lose steam in this area because of the difficulties of doing so – but this is due primarily to their lack of willingness to invest financially and directly to boost productivity. They want to take a back seat to encourage companies to fork out some of the expenses as well. Therefore, what this means is the government has to pump in more direct investments to force companies to adopt technology to ensure increased output, at lower manpower numbers.
In the short to medium term, this is why it is necessary to have foreigners come into Singapore to mediate for the gaps in our talent pool of thinkers and lower productivity output. However, what this also means is the government has to fast track it’s focus and not leave it up to schools or companies to find enough value for reinvestment to take place.
No matter what, change has to happen. It’s a change that is taking place globally and Singapore has to go with it. The government might want to hold out for a bit longer, because it wants to tide itself through the current economic uncertainty. But once this is over, the government would need to double and triple up on its efforts to push forward directly with its focal areas, to make bold moves to change Singapore and take us to a next level, not just of economic development but into the new era of human, social, emotional and intellectual development.
Only because the government has to.
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