Singapore’s online army falters, fails to make any impact

Singaporean political blogs have not been able to influence governmental policy in the same way other nations media outlets have. Many of the population still support the mainstream media. It’s lack of objectivity means an alternative is needed.

By Oliver Ward

When Tan Kin Lian spoke in front of more than 1000 people gathered in Hong Lim Park in 2008, it represented a new era for journalism in Singapore. 10,000 investors had just lost S$500 million (US$354 million) in high risk minibonds when the Lehmann Brothers went bankrupt. The Online Citizen broke the story and organised the event at Speaker’s corner in Hong Lim Park to call on the government to investigate the firm for any illegalities, which they eventually did. It was one of the first occasions that an online, alternative news source had generated a storm large enough to have an effect on the political scene in Singapore.

Since then, political blogs and the online army of political commentators have failed to generate enough fervor to make a significant impact. Unlike neighboring Malaysia, political blogs in Singapore are unable to attract the substantial numbers required to reach political change.

Online blogs struggle to secure political change in Singapore

Online blogs have championed many causes in an attempt to ignite political change. The Online Citizen (TOC) for example, have run stories calling for better treatment of migrant workers since 2009. They were one of the first news outlets to bring attention to the problem. Throughout 2009 and 2010 they ran articles aimed at obtaining better living conditions for the workers and have continued to do so well into 2017. However, they have still been unable to secure political change for their cause.

One of the problems with online blogs is that they create an “echo chamber”. They attract people with similar thoughts and values and are able to crystallise opinions but are unable to persuade those outside their mindset to adopt their way of thinking.

Their reach is too limited still

Their impact in a general election is limited. The online readership for political blogs is made up of a majority of young Singaporean voters. The rest of the population still relies on traditional media outlets. A Nielson survey in 2013 found that 65% of Singaporeans aged 15 and over still read a hard copy newspaper every day. During the general election, this is heightened. In the 2011 general-election, the IPS found 90% of the population depended on traditional media outlets for their news and only 12% of the population admitted to using social media and political blogs for news.

Many people still associate the internet with less trustworthy information. It is not clear who operates and runs many political blogs and many people see them as more biased.

Government orders to remove false information from online blogs has only reinforced this belief. In 2015, TOC was forced to remove an article which outlined plans to build an underground city to house 10 million people after it was deemed to be incorrect information. Incidents like these have not instilled the same level of confidence in alternative media in Singapore, as other ASEAN nations have.

The emergence of blogs in Singapore

Singapore’s youth have given birth to the online forum as a place for political debate. started in 2013 and their first story drew so much traffic their servers crashed. A year later they were drawing 300,000 viewers a month, which grew to 1.2 million in 2015 and now stands at 1.5 million for January of 2017. The Independent boasts viewership figures of 430,000 a month and TR Emeritus reaches around 210,000.

These websites have taken on a new role in recent years. They now publish their own content instead of republishing and commenting on mainstream news stories. The Online Citizen are reporting and covering news stories themselves now. Former nominated MP, Zulkifli Baharudin said “Alternative sites are becoming more and more responsible.” They will be hoping this increased level of responsibility manifests itself into public trust and allows them to branch out from their core youth following.

Malaysia’s alternative news source, Malaysiakini makes an impact

Just across the Causeway, Malaysiakini has become an established alternative news source. The website draws 400,000 readers a day and has over 844,000 twitter followers. But why has Singapore’s alternative news been unable to replicate this success?

The main reason is funding. Malaysiakini has been able to drum up funding and support domestically and internationally. The Political Donations Act makes this almost impossible to replicate in Singapore. The act prohibits any political associations from receiving funding from overseas. In an attempt to control the distribution of information online, in 2011 the Singaporean Government made The Online Citizen a Political Association. This immediately curbed their overseas funding, and therefore reduced their exposure and influence.

Malaysia’s mainstream media is also more firmly under government control than in Singapore. Malaysiakini emerged out of necessity to challenge the mainstream media. The gap between the reality people were talking about in the streets and what was being printed in the press was becoming too great. In Singapore, while the press is partisan and at times biased, many more people trust the basic accuracy of publications like The Straits Times. They do not feel the need to turn to alternative online news sources. Even though they know every word may not be true, they are still willing to pay for a professional mainstream news provider to give them the basic facts correctly.

Mainstream media sources should be a critical voice

Mainstream media in Singapore can be trusted for basic accuracy, but it still suffers from the pitfalls of a news outlet under government pressure. The days of Lee Kuan Yew and his aggressive control of the media are over. But the 2016 World Press Freedom Index still had Singapore ranked in 154th position.

According to academic and author of Freedom from the Press, Cherian George, “Many Singaporeans feel that we deserve more than we get in our national press.” Publications like The Straits Times are not critical enough of government policy. For example, in 2012 many critical discussions and alternative media sites were discussing income inequality. People were calling for the government to take measures to reduce income disparity. When the Straits Times reported it, the issue was sidelined and the articles were almost totally void of government criticism.

This is not an isolated case. Lei Wei Ling, the daughter of Lee Kuan Yew, has refused to write for the Straits Times because of “editorial curbs” imposed on her by the media outlet. Other ex-writers for the Straits Times have described similar practices. Reports have emerged of reporters altering their stories at the last minute because of interference form a government departments. There have also been descriptions of controversial stories being shelved without explanation. Australian Journalist Rodney King said The Straits Times “live in dread of offending the government”. The public cannot rely on mainstream media to voice concerns against government policy.

Alternative news sites provide much needed critical discourse

Given the shortcomings of the mainstream media, alternative news sites are essential to maintain a channel of critical discourse against the government. Sites like Mothership and The Online Citizen are able to publish what they deem to be newsworthy, not what the government deems newsworthy.

These sites are still open to bias depending on who provides the funding. One reason Mothership has excelled in Singapore is because it is funded by a social enterprise called Project Fisherman. Without politicised owners with an agenda, Mothership has been able to focus on providing authentic news and is bringing together the youth of Singapore. The three editors are not politically affiliated and self-proclaim that they offer “something different”.

The public deserve a media outlet prepared to voice their concerns on a platform that will draw sympathetic ears to the cause. With the mainstream media unwilling to criticise government policy, alternative sources have had to step up and provide an outlet. While the mainstream media may not be deceiving people, it leaves people under informed and undermines the public´s intelligence and hunger for objective news.