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.