Wednesday, September 12, 2007


Social networking platforms such as Facebook and MySpace are emerging as the next big thing on the internet. They are already used extensively by politicians elsewhere. Candidates in Singapore would presumably be allowed to use these to put up information about themselves and their positions, as such use would fall within the "positive list" of permitted uses of websites under the Parliamentary Elections (Election Advertising) Regulations (PER).

More intriguing is whether social networking platforms would get around the PER's current restrictions on using e-mail to spread campaign messages. The regulations allow parties to mail to their own mailing lists, but parties can't encourage chain letters: an e-mail is not supposed to invite readers to pass it on to all their friends. This prohibition limits the powerful viral potential of e-mail communication.

The interesting thing about Facebook and the like is that the viral quality is built in. These platforms introduce you to friends of friends in a way that doesn't seem to be captured by the PER, which was formulated back in 2001. Furthermore, what is technically being passed around is not a campaign message but the electronic version of a business card, which again falls outside the scope of the PER. However this particular type of business card can of course be linked to substantive content, including campaign ads.

Of course, everyone, including the regulators, knew that the 2001 regulations would rendered redundant by evolving technologies. Social networking services are just one more step towards the inevitable. The question now is whether the government will try to cover social networking in the next round of regulatory innovation, or if it will retreat.

Friday, August 31, 2007


A close look at 10 years of internet content regulation shows that the authorities have generally kept their promise of applying the law with a “light touch”. Also as promised, the light touch policy has not meant a totally hands-off approach. The government has occasionally felt compelled to use strong measures where subtler controls may have sufficed in the pre-internet age. This suggests that the entry of new kinds of insurgents into Singapore's media space is straining the government's calibrated approach to coercion. Read the full report here.

Friday, July 13, 2007


The Li Hongyi controversy is another case of Net-induced disclosure of government information. Pre-internet, such an incident would have been confined to coffeeshop talk; mainstream media may have been pressured to suppress it. Nowadays, it’s much harder for the authorities to sidestep the gossip; the pressure is on them to engage it openly. However, it would be a mistake for bloggers to get carried away by a misplaced sense of power. Post-internet, Singapore still has the SAF Act and the Official Secrets Act, under which the circulation of Li’s email could quite possibly constitute an offence. Full posting at JOURNALISM.SG - click the title above to go there.

Friday, July 06, 2007


JOURNALISM.SG is my new website dedicated to press issues in Singapore. Do visit.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007


At the New Media @ Arts House forum today, Charles Lim of the Law Reform and Revision Division, Attorney General's Chambers, shared certain guiding principles that he believes to be important in internet regulation.

1. The practicability/workability of laws. However, even if it is not practicable to enforce a law, it may have symbolic value to signal society's disapproval, or what the Europeans call "signposting".

2. Regulation should not stifle innovation. Hence, Singapore's "light touch" approach.

3. Protection of intermediaries. If content merely passes through them, they need not be considered content providers, and they can therefore be insulated from certain legal risks like being sued for defamation.

4. Risk-based and principle-based approaches. Instead of heavy handed prohibitions, attention can focus on sites that are the pose the greatest risk to society. A principle-based approach would set out certain broad-brush principles (such as honesty); the regulator would need to cite these principles to justify its interventions transparently (presumably allowing them to challenged in court).

Wednesday, May 09, 2007


At a Young PAP dialogue*, Lee Kuan Yew expressed his skepticism about censorship.

He recounted his input to the Cabinet discussion on the Crazy Horse topless revue: "I said, Look, once upon a time, Singaporeans watched peep shows. You know, you pay 10 cents and you turn an old film in a box at Chinese wayangs. Today, they are going to Paris, they go to the Folies Bergere. I mean it doesn’t make sense any more. I said, ‘Let it go’. So they said, ‘No, we must stop this, stop that’. I said, ‘You either go with the world and be part of the world, or you will find that we become a quaint, a quixotic, esoteric appendage of the world’.”

On the balance that Government has to strike: "We have to decide on behalf of society what is the long-term effect of this, and if you prohibit it, will it work? And if it doesn’t work and it is flouted, does it do harm? Which is better – to let it run freely or say, ‘No, have it surreptitiously flouted at the margins’? You’ve got to weigh the two odds."

Later in the dialogue, he said that internet censorship is impractical: "We have created a society which is totally educated. You are all able to go on the Internet. So all this censorship and so on makes no sense to me. You are on the Internet 24 hours, broadband. We’re going to have Wi-Fi throughout the whole city. We cannot stop this. If we stop this, we stop the progress. We are marginalised.”

My take on these comments:

Mr Lee's words were quite remarkable, suggesting that the days of censorship are over. However, one shouldn't overstate their significance. We shouldn't look at what he said as a statement of immediate media policy, but rather as a broad, long-term principle. Anyone who takes his comment too literally would no doubt be struck by the contradiction between words and actions. Within a few weeks of his speech, we saw the government ban Martyn See's film on Said Zahari. There was no evidence there of the kind of thinking Mr Lee was advocating.

So, it is more realistic to consider Mr Lee's words as referring to a long-term trajectory. In the short term, the government can be expected to continue applying censorship powers in old fashioned ways. This gradual and controlled pace of liberalisation, with occasional reversals, will continue to be the pattern, because in Singapore it's the government that sets the agenda. It's unlike other countries where people can, for example, invoke strong constitutional guarantees to achieve quantum leaps in freedom of communication.

Even in the long term, though, it is not the case that a censorship-free system is either possible or desirable. Any society will still want to be able to protect its interests in certain broadly agreed areas. Whether it's tobacco advertising, hate speech or child pornography, there may continue to be a strong justification for censorship. In some areas, I would favour more, not less, censorship. For example, Singapore protects children against advertisers less than some developed countries. And our radio deejays on some stations sometimes cross the bounds of what others would consider good taste.

So we should not think that no-censorship is some communication nirvana we should be heading for. We should be aiming instead for a regulatory regime that more accurately reflects the interests of society. In some areas we should be loosening up, in other areas there is a case for tightening.

* Reported in "Adjusting to the realities of a globalising world" by Peh Shing Huei,
The Straits Times, 23 April 2007, p. H5

Saturday, March 10, 2007


Notes on a book chapter I'm working on.

Up till now, mainstream media such as the national newspapers and broadcasters have been equated with a cluster of attributes: they are profit driven, resource rich, professionally run, mass oriented, large in readership and viewership, highly public, and regulated through discretionary licensing. Alternative media such as independent websites and blogs are associated with the converse cluster of attributes: they are not for profit, resource poor, run by amateurs and volunteers, niche oriented, limited in penetration, semi-public, and free of discretionary licensing requirements.

This neat dichotomy has allowed the government’s dual regulatory regime to operate relatively smoothly: regulators apply far stricter standards to mainstream than to alternative media. In theory, in an age of digital convergence, regulations that are not platform-neutral will be unsustainable as they will generate inconsistencies. In practice, however, convergence has not run its course in Singapore; the dichotomy between offline mainstream media and alternative online media persists.

The dichotomy is unlikely to persist indefinitely. It will be pressured by the following possible developments, which, while not guaranteed to occur, already show signs of surfacing:

In the mainstream sector
  • Erosion of journalistic standards within mainstream media, due to the growing dominance of entertainment values.
  • Under-investment in editorial departments by mainstream media, for cost-cutting motivated by short-term shareholder greed.
  • Greater focus on niche products targeted at demographics with advertiser interest, at the expense of serving the wider public interest.
In the alternative sector
  • Growing online participation of experts and specialists who are no less authoritative than full-time professional journalists.
  • Greater involvement of universities, think tanks, civic groups and foundations with the resources to support online ventures in the public interest.
  • Growing sophistication of peer-to-peer and collaborative projects allowing part-timers and amateurs to approximate (and even exceed) professional standards.
  • A growing culture of self-regulation and peer review/moderation among the most serious of alternative sites
These developments will challenge various aspects of Singapore’s media system. The following questions will surface:

1. If online media are maturing to become as influential as traditional media, why should the two sectors be subject to different levels of control? And if regulations are to be harmonised, should regulations for online media be tightened, or should regulations for traditional media be liberalised?

2. If mainstream media are growing increasingly commercial and abdicating their fiduciary responsibility to the public interest, why should they continue to be protected by regulatory barriers to entry? Shouldn’t publishing and broadcasting licenses be given out more liberally?

3. If online media show themselves to be capable of self-regulation, and the public shows that it is not prone to run amok when encountering inflammatory speech, should Singapore not review its paternalistic media management philosophy – for traditional as well as new media?

4. If traditional media are declining in their capacity to command the attention of the mass public, should the government not wean itself off its current attention-on-demand model and build its capacity to compete for attention?

These are years of profound change on Singapore’s media landscape. Stakeholders can help shape that change, in directions that serve the greater good.

The mainstream media. The journalistic profession, ensconced in mainstream news media organisations, needs to come to terms with the fact that it is not a closed shop. With the democratisation of influence, professional journalists must be able to articulate to themselves and to others what makes them worth paying attention to – and, more importantly, live up to their promises.

Alternative media. Proponents of an emerging new media order must go beyond predicting the future and start building it. If the new media are to be more than about merely the right to individual self-expression and are also to achieve a social purpose, they need to be more organised, reliable and accountable than they are at present.

Official newsmakers. Officials need to prepare for a new order in which influence is democratised. The new media, unlike the traditional media, will not give officials the final word simply because of their rank and status. Officials need to develop the skills to compete for influence on more equal terms, within a culture of transparency and discussion. This can contribute positively to a mature polity. On the other hand, a reactionary response will lead to a schizophrenic media world, with a cognitive dissonance between mainstream and alternative media content.

Regulators. Media regulators will need to separate the hitherto inseparable: the interests of the party versus the interests of the nation. Only then can a more rational and sustainable media regulatory regime be shaped. Aspects of the current controls, designed to serve narrow political interests more than the broad national interest, need to be modified.

The public. The public should demand greater accountability on the part of media, even as the government loosens its control. This can be effected through various non-government mechanisms and at different levels, to address ethical breaches and push for higher journalistic standards. With more accountability mechanisms in place and a stronger culture of consumer rights and self-help, the use of governmental power can be left as a last resort in solving problems with the media.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007


I was quoted in Today (last Friday) as saying that if the government insisted on a firewall between mainstream and alternative media, we would end up a schizophrenic nation, with the national press and the blogosphere offering us two entirely different worlds. The solution, I suggested, was to give the mainstream press more political space to reflect the perspectives one finds online.

Mr Wang was not convinced that schizophrenia is such a bad thing. He said: "So in the end, we all become highly specialised, highly niche consumers. Faced with a vast number of options, each of us makes our own unique set of choices. We go for exactly what we like. Each of us ends up reading different stuff, and some of us will read extremely different stuff from the rest of us. That's what Cherian calls schizophrenia. But is that really unhealthy? I. Am. Really. Not. Convinced."

Thanks for the opportunity to elaborate.

Of course, like Mr Wang, I want to pursue my own personal interests and develop my own unique identity. I associate that with a better quality of life. And the greater the political and economic space that Singaporeans have to make their own choices, the more we can consider Singapore a developed society and our "best home", to borrow the PAP line.

That's all well and good. But the issue is what happens if we focus entirely on our private interests and end up sharing no common spaces or common media experiences. This is a problem because geography still matters. We cannot escape inter-dependent relationships with people around us - including with people with very different interests from our own. We may wish to completely privatise our lives, but it would be a mistake to lose sight of this connection with the wider Public.

First, even if we try to mind our own business, other people's business can affect ours. You may be a contented birdwatcher, until urban development suddenly destroys the habitat that was once your favourite haunt. You may be running a religious school according to your own values, until a new education policy suddenly imposes new requirements on how you operate. (These are not made-up examples; they come from recent history.) There's little point protesting after the fact. To protect and further your private interests, you need to be plugged into the wider public conversation, have your say at the right time, and help others understand you better.

Second - and this is just the flip side of the first point - your private business can affect others'. Your consumption decisions are never purely private, but have social and environmental implications for people near and far. The way you put your private beliefs into practice also affects others, and can encroach on their space - as anyone who has been a victim of aggressive religious proselytising would attest to. In a crowded and diverse world, individuals have a duty to understand others' needs, interests and rights. Wealthier Singaporeans may be able to insulate their lives quite effectively from the rest of the public most of the time, but most cannot - which means that everyone, including the rich, owes it to the rest to take part in the wider conversation.

These are the reasons why we need bridges between the niche spaces where most of us enjoy spending our time, and the public space where we practice toleration, negotiation and compromise. If Singapore's media policy maintains a firewall between these two worlds, the public conversation will be like a stage-managed performance presenting an artificial consensus because other voices have been shut out. It will all seem calm and harmonious, but only because divisions in society have not been allowed to surface in the mass media.

Friday, January 12, 2007


An extract from my presentation at the IPS Year in Review Conference, 11 Jan 2007.

The mainstream media are being challenged on a number of fronts – revenue, readership and viewership, and influence. Blogs and other user-generated content are only part of that challenge, and indeed the mainstream media were in gradual decline long before blogging. The audience’s attention is dissipating across a wider diversity of media. At the same time, the advertising revenue that used to reward newspapers for their ability to congregate the masses now have alternative outlets such as outdoor platforms and events.

This decline needs to be put in perspective: newspapers are still the most profitable media businesses, and still occupy the commanding heights of the news business; it is just that its degree of dominance is on the decline. Mainstream media’s superior resources should mean that they will continue to be able to offer greater quantity and quality of content. However, as general interest media, the mainstream media cannot cater adequately to every specialised niche. It is impossible for the national media to serve all of the people all of the time. As Singapore society becomes increasingly complex and variegated, as sub-cultures proliferate, and as tastes become increasingly specialised, it is getting tougher for the national media to serve all of the people even some of the time. Mainstream media companies around the world are responding by spinning off more niche publications and supplements.

There are two problems with this approach. One is that not all readers are created equal in media companies’ eyes. If you have the disposable income to shop for luxury watches, designer clothes, spa vacations or cars, media companies will pander to you in order to deliver you to their advertisers. Singaporeans who are not PMEBs might as well be aliens from space as far as media executives are concerned.

Another problem with going niche is that it will shrink our common space. While we each want to nurture our own unique identities and pursue our own interests and lifestyles, society as a whole would be poorer if there were no common spaces left. If the national media appealed to all of the people none of the time, one would have to ask if there is anything Singaporean about Singapore any more. Therefore, the mainstream media need to balance the desire of an increasingly diverse audience for niche content with their role as a space for social conciliation and national discussion. This is easier said than done, but must remain a top priority.

A further challenge faced by mainstream media is their handicap in reflecting alternative views. This handicap is the result of two distinct attributes. The most obvious is the burden of operating under a government licence. The regulatory regime requires mainstream media not to try to set the political agenda, which in practice means that editors are expected to filter out or at least not over-amplify views that contradict government positions on key principles or policies. Alternative media on the internet are not subject to discretionary licensing and therefore enjoy much wider latitude in expressing contrary views.

In addition to political constraints in countries such as Singapore, the mainstream media around the world also operate with a technical disadvantage. Paradoxically, the professional operations and high production values associated with mainstream media seem to be creating a counter-demand for a more personal, supposedly authentic experience via “cottage-industry” media. This phenomenon is not unique to the news media industry: it seems to apply to most cultural and lifestyle products. Thus, we have beer drinkers who would shun Tiger and Heineken and opt for microbrews, despite the latter’s inconsistent quality; similarly, music lovers may scoff at assembly line boy bands, no matter how slick, and seek out underground, garage bands. This tendency may also explain the aforementioned appeal of You Tube despite the obviously superior standards of the TV industry. The imperfect but personally crafted and authentic is being embraced as an antidote to the impersonal and industrial, no matter how professional the latter.

Can Singapore’s mainstream media overcome this twin handicap of licensing and industrial standards? The dichotomous regulatory regime – with stricter supervision of mainstream media and more latitude for niche and/or alternative media – is likely to stay. Since think tanks are supposed to think the unthinkable, I would be shortchanging the IPS Year In Review forum if I failed to at least raise the question of reviewing the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act. It is noteworthy that in Malaysia, which has a comparable newspaper permit system, the Malaysian Human Rights Commission (Suhakam) has called for the following amendments: making permits permanent rather than requiring annual renewal; making the granting of permits automatic, subject to objections from security agencies; and requiring the government to publish reasons for permit rejection, which can then be challenged in court.

However, since Singapore is unlikely to engage in such discussions anytime in the near future, it may be more practical to consider less out-of-the-box options. Even if the letter of the law is not revised, the government needs to adapt to a changing environment and calibrate its controls accordingly. In supervising the mainstream media, regulators and internal gatekeepers need to beware of a widening gap between mainstream and alternative media. I hesitate to call it a credibility gap, because most people do believe that the mainstream media are by and large accurate and believable. For reasons I have touched on earlier, it should perhaps be called an authenticity gap – the mainstream media are seen as somehow failing to provide an authentic experience; to be presenting the news accurately, yes, but not for you and me – unlike a favourite blog.

Mainstream media can try to respond by providing more space for user-generated content and providing a sampling of that other world, which is precisely what The Straits Times is trying to do through STOMP and what Today tried to do by enlisting the blogger, Mr Brown, as a columnist. The failure of that experiment and its backfiring on Today’s reputation showed how dicey this challenge is. Although it is unclear whether the authorities wanted Today to terminate Mr Brown’s column, they obviously believed that the particular offending article should not have been published in that form. Mainstream media editors have thus been sternly reminded not to abdicate their responsibility, as gatekeepers of the formal public sphere, to filter the strident voices and other noise of the hoi polloi.

Yet, for the mainstream media’s own good as well as for Singapore’s, we should avoid erecting a firewall between mainstream and alternative media. We need ideas to flow between the two. Therefore, the national media should have the latitude to reflect the buzz of alternative spaces. But, after the government’s statements in 2006, can they? I do not pretend to be able to read the government’s mind, but I suspect that it would not be opposed to newspapers reporting or republishing online viewpoints as long as three criteria are met.

First, of course, the statements quoted must not cross any boundaries of law or good taste. Second, avant-garde or minority views should not be misrepresented as reflecting mainstream or majority views. Third, the mainstream media should be mindful of the power they possess to bequeath symbolic status on the people and perspectives they give space to, and should therefore be judicious in whether and how they do so. These may seem onerous rules, but they are not impossible, as existing journalistic conventions allow newspapers to have their cake and eat it too. The trick is to signal clearly to the reader what editing standards are being applied to an article. This is how established newspapers carry diverse content of various standards. For example, regular readers know that the views that The Straits Times regards as most authoritative are to be found in its own editorial and in columns such as “Thinking Aloud”. At the other extreme are its user-generated content pages – and even among these there is a clear hierarchy, with the “Forum” page at the top and other sections for reader contributions – including online views – given lower status. Similarly, clear signaling tells the reader that YouthInk is not to be treated as seriously as more grown up columns.

This is cheap speculation, and in hindsight, but Today’s mistake may have been to give Mr Brown’s column the same look and feel of its more elevated columns, thus apparently giving the editors’ stamp of approval to the arguments therein. Today’s relatively small staff of full-time writers creates a greater reliance on user-generated content, which is not distinguished particularly clearly from more authoritative viewpoints. To borrow the words of Singapore’s eloquent former information minister George Yeo, Today’s design was and continues to be a case of boh tua boh suay.

All in all, though, mainstream media editors can probably be trusted to preserve the distinction between formal and informal public spheres, and not to go overboard with user-generated content. After all, it would be self-defeating to do so, compromising their main competitive advantage in professionally produced content.

However, there is a real risk that certain other professional standards will be compromised due to the competitive pressure posed by alternative media. Digital delivery and fewer layers of checks sometimes enable alternative media to be the first with the news. Professional journalists know that they are supposed to “get it first but first get it right”. Unfortunately, once the alternative media release a piece of news, there is pressure on mainstream media to publish it on the grounds that it is already “out there”. There is plenty of evidence worldwide to suggest that this risk is already materialising, short-circuiting the standard, rigorous checks that journalists know they are supposed to exercise. Usually, newspapers will try to cover themselves with a fig leaf by saying that the unverified gossip that they are recirculating is newsworthy because it is creating a buzz and not because it is necessarily true – sometimes adding for good measure their disapproval of the very sources they are quoting. Singapore’s national newspaper is not immune to such tendencies: the front page of The Sunday Times was recently splashed with sexy photos of a model that, according to online speculation, was the Mongolian woman who had been murdered in Malaysia. It turned out that she was a Korean model unconnected with the sordid affair.

In appealing to the mainstream media not to imitate the alternative media in some respects, I do not want to give the impression that the national newspapers and broadcasters are always the paragons of virtue and guardians of high standards, while the alternative media are irresponsible and anti-national. On the contrary, with mainstream media becoming increasingly commercial in its impulses, the informal public sphere is seen as the more hospitable space for many Singaporeans who want to contribute to public life and culture regardless of profitability. Indeed, one could say that there is at least as much nation-building going on in the alternative media as there is in the national mainstream media. Of course, if you define nation-building in old-fashioned top-down terms – equating it merely with treating the nation’s leaders with deference and amplifying their messages – then the mainstream media have the edge. However, if we adopt the contemporary understanding of nation-building as a bottom-up process of active citizenship, a la Singapore 21 and Remaking Singapore, then the action is really in the alternative media. In an increasing number of sectors – heritage and history, the arts, natural history and the environment, local music and culture, even the National Service experience – the most passionate and knowledgeable efforts to connect Singaporeans with their nation are taking place in the informal public sphere.

Increasingly, the national media are adopting commercial marketability rather than nation-building as their touchstone. They are getting away with it partly because they are careful to continue playing their traditional top-down nation-building role and thus appease their political masters. They have also succeeded in convincing us that they are in a life-and-death struggle for survival and that they have no choice but to be more commercially-driven. They are businesses after all, it’s their money, and it’s their prerogative to make investment decisions. Leaving aside the fact that newspapers are still among the most profitable manufacturing industries around, there are two problems with this logic. First, in the Singapore context, media giants are protected by government licensing. As custodians of scarce, publicly granted publishing and broadcasting permits, they owe a fiduciary responsibility to the public that we should never let them forget. Second, if the news media choose to be ever more entertainment-driven, consumer-driven and accommodating to advertisers, then the traditional professional values of journalism as a public service will be increasingly marginalised. This is a worldwide trend, prompting the Economist last year to speculate that the mission of high-quality journalism will have to find a new home, migrating from newspapers to other types of organisation, such as NGOs and citizen groups.