Thursday, October 20, 2011

Pritam Singh: New media is here to stay


“The government has, over the last few years in particular, referred to the new media in largely pejorative terms – the Prime Minister has previously referred to it as the “wild west” and more recently, as a “cowboy town”. But the reality is this – the new media is here to stay, and it will continue to eat into the mindshare of the mainstream media, no matter what the government chooses to call it. Temasek Review may have gone offline, but it is not going to be too difficult or technically challenging to bring 10 new incarnations of Temasek Review online overnight.”

                      -MP for Aljinied GRC, Pritam Singh

The following is the maiden speech by MP Pritam Singh (Debate on Presidential Address) in the 12th sitting of Parliament:

Mr Speaker Sir,

Please allow me to congratulate you on your election as Speaker of this House.

In his speech to this House, the President noted, “we must find ways to use the new media constructively, to connect with the digital generation and sustain fruitful conversations on issues concerning us all.” MICA’s addendum noted that the Ministry seeks to find innovative ways to connect with citizens and it plays an important role in driving and coordinating whole-of-government efforts in fostering an informed and engaged citizenry.

Mr Speaker Sir, my speech today relates to suggesting ways in which the government can foster an informed and engaged citizenry. It is divided into two parts. First I assess Singapore’s mainstream media landscape, which directly affects the online world. Secondly, I seek to provide suggestions to the government on how it can sow the seeds for a media and information environment where Singaporeans are as far as possible, inoculated from lies and misinformation online, and biased reporting from other media outlets in general.

Sir, the new media does not exist in a vacuum. Some Singaporeans routinely wonder why alternative political commentary websites are so popular among Singaporeans – these include Singapore Recalcitrant, Singapore Daily, Singapore Notes and sites from across the centre-left of the political spectrum like Yawning Bread, The Online Citizen and even some articles from the discontinued Temasek Review. Could it be because for every ounce of misinformation, perceived or otherwise, these websites and blogs also ask serious questions pertaining to governance in Singapore – questions that are sidestepped, diluted or even ignored by the government and mainstream media?

The government has, over the last few years in particular, referred to the new media in largely pejorative terms – the Prime Minister has previously referred to it as the “wild west” and more recently, as a “cowboy town”. But the reality is this – the new media is here to stay, and it will continue to eat into the mindshare of the mainstream media, no matter what the government chooses to call it. Temasek Review may have gone offline, but it is not going to be too difficult or technically challenging to bring 10 new incarnations of Temasek Review online overnight.

Rather than fear or castigate the new media, members need to consider how far the explosive popularity of the new media is partly a function of the PAP government’s politics of indirect control, and the boundaries successive PAP governments have placed upon the mainstream media.

In 2010, former MICA Minister, Mr Liu Tuck Yew stated “we want to make sure that the Press is, and is seen as, independent of the influence of Government.” This house would know, through conversations members must have had with their friends, that many self-respecting Singaporeans have well-founded doubts, perceptions though they may be, that the mainstream media operates with the long shadow of Government firmly cast upon it.

The perceptions of ordinary Singaporeans were somewhat confirmed when the Chief Editor of the Straits Times was quoted last year as saying, “We’re aware people say we are a government mouthpiece or that we are biased.” For me personally, this perception was somewhat crystallized when I recently read a chapter in former President SR Nathan’s memoirs titled “Entering the newspaper world”.

In page 459, he is quoted as saying (this is shortly after the corporate restructuring of SPH and the just prior to the launch of the New Paper), “privately, I was conscious that another outbreak of serious displeasure with the Straits Times could well result in demands for heads to roll and a return to the old idea of putting in a government team.”

Some members may feel that President Nathan’s views are nothing more than reflections from a bygone era. But in 2003 another episode occurred, euphemistically referred to as the Val Chua affair, this time with Today, the Mediacorp publication. The precise details of what happened, and why it happened are hazy, but what did happen is that the newspaper’s editor left his job shortly this episode.

Little wonder why some Singaporeans, particularly those in the post-65 generation have more faith and confidence in the new media, and why some may even tolerate misinformation or get taken in by disinformation to varying degrees online.

Mr Speaker Sir, this government is not in a position to change perceptions of the mainstream media unless there is a fundamental rethink about elements of the NPPA, and opening the mainstream media market to genuine competition – these are issues far beyond the scope of my speech.

But that should not stop the government from thinking about how it can prepare Singaporeans for a future – if it is not here already – where information will increasingly be at everyone’s fingertips, whether you are 9 or 90 years of age.

How do we make sure the overwhelming majority of our citizenry are readily able to seek reliable sources of information be it online or in the mainstream media? How do we convince our citizens that there can be various perspectives to an issue and to respect these various perspectives and narratives, even if we may disagree with them or if they differ from our own? Once more, the answers to these questions do not lie in the online world, but in the real world.

To improve communication with Singaporeans, this PAP government has to work hard to change the perception of its philosophy of indirect control of the mainstream media, and deliberately move towards a politics of empowerment when dealing with Singaporeans. The government should commit to share more information and in doing so, exorcise itself from its insecurity and paranoia, which makes less sense in view of the borderless nature of the internet and the speed at which information is exchanged and perceptions formed.

Mr Speaker Sir, I agree with Mr Lam Pin Min’s views that active citizenry in the real and virtual worlds are good for Singapore, and that good digital literacy and judgment is needed in future. I also support Mr Edwin Tong when he said government engagement with Singaporeans can build a new social compact and that what is required is trust and not blind faith. Ms Sim Ann alluded to the new normal and said that voters must be active participants so that rationality has the upper hand. Mr Baey Yam Keng spoke of an emphasis in research and the interpretation of information. Mr Cedric Foo arguably went the furthest when he highlighted the existence of information asymmetries in Singapore, suggesting that voters had no benefit of decisions made in the highest echelons of government. He also said that the government’s default mode should be to share more to secure greater buy-in from the public, so there is less room for the truth to be distorted. And Mdm Fatimah Latiff noted that government communication had to be enhanced and it was one of the weakest aspects of this government.

Mr Speaker Sir, with these words from PAP backbenchers which I support, I will now move into the second section of my speech that envisages specific legislation – that can protect Singaporeans from lies, misinformation and open up new avenues for the new media and mainstream media to promote a more informed citizenry.

I make 4 proposals, all of which call for more than, the digital education suggested by Mr Lam. Critically, my proposals seek to signpost the government to move beyond slogans such as the “new normal”, to substantive change with a view to promote active citizenry.

Firstly – a Freedom of Information legislation – an idea that has been repeated in the WP’s 2006 and 2011 manifestos. Mr Speaker Sir, a prospective freedom of information act will allow any Singaporean citizen to make enquiries with any public body for statistics and information, at a reasonable price. While I commend the government for the recently launched website and the regular public release of information by the Department of Statistics, these examples amplify the fact that it is the government that decides what it wants to put out.

What a Freedom of Information Act would do is to allow ordinary citizens to pull information from public bodies that have not put the information sought in the public realm. A Freedom of Information legislation is not meant to oblige the government to release sensitive data such as defence deployments and procurement. Exceptions are routinely scheduled in Freedom of Information legislation elsewhere, which prohibit government release of sensitive information. It is useful to note that Freedom of Information legislation is very much the norm in countries, which host a diverse and plural polity.

And in case some members feel such open-government legislation only originates in Western countries and that we Asians do it differently, the multi-racial Malaysian states of Penang and Selangor have opened a dialogue on the induction of such legislation. India passed the Right to Information Act in 2005, a high-water mark of the previous UPA government.

Lets try to envisage a Freedom of Information Act in practice. In the event, some misinformation is being peddled about on the internet or mainstream media, ordinary citizens and journalists can walk into any ministry, go to the designated information officer and seek official statistics on the matter. With this information in hand, the peddler of misinformation either online or in the mainstream media, would be found out, and the webpage or newspaper which hosted the misinformation would lose credibility.

No Singaporean will be able to accuse the government of selectively putting out information it wants to, since ordinary Singaporeans will be empowered to seek the information they require.

A Freedom of Information Act hosts other benefits too. Only a few weeks ago MCYS launched “Be the Change”, an initiative, which invites “young Singaporeans to step forward, share their ideas, and take the lead in turning their ideas into reality.” Such projects are likely to be far more successful, popular and broad-based if youth can make enquiries of government on data and statistics to ensure their ideas are workable and practical.

A second arrow in the politics of empowerment is an obligation by the government of the day to order the automatic release and disclosure of official information at fixed intervals of 30 years or so. In the United Kingdom, the Public Records Office manages this process. The disclosure of official documents, apart from introducing substantive accountability and transparency in government-decision making processes, will likely provide Singaporeans with valuable insights on why decisions were made the way they were by political leaders in the past. Such a repository of information is extremely helpful to ensure succeeding generations understand the circumstances behind the success of their predecessors while avoiding the very same mistakes and missteps.

Automating the periodic disclosure of official documents may necessitate a review of certain sections of the National Heritage Board Act. The government should not see such changes as an attempt to criticize and expose previous governments. But no politician should be beyond reproach and a commitment to open government files for historical scrutiny are important features of a politically mature society.

Thirdly, President Tony Tan, during his Presidential campaign revived interest in the office of the Ombudsman, a proposal first made to the PAP government by the 1966 Wee Chong Jin commission almost 50 years ago. The PAP government of the day rejected the Wee Commission’s proposal. The current Law Minister reiterated the call for an Ombudsman when he was backbencher less than 20 years ago in 1994. The office of the Ombudsman protects the interests of citizens aggrieved by official decisions. Currently, while the courts are available for this purpose, it is important to remember that judicial review, as far as Singapore law is concerned, only allows the court to adjudicate upon the process by which a government decision was made, not the decision itself.

The office of the Ombudsman reflected an important philosophy of government the 1966 Wee Commission recognised – that all political power has limits, and people have rights against government too, and the very individuals they voted into office.

More than just an institution, the office of the Ombudsman symbolizes a certain confidence and trust a government has in its people and vice versa. Establishing such a office today is likely to go some way to opening new channels of communication between citizen and state, regardless which government is in charge of Singapore. And it is a proposal this government would do well to reconsider.

Finally Mr Speaker Sir, in 2005, a Business Times article reported that speaker after speaker at a local conference called for Singapore companies to encourage whistle-blowing, to help ensure good governance. These speakers included Hsieh Fu Hua, special adviser to Temasek Holdings, former SMS Ho Peng Kee and former PAP MP Davinder Singh. Unfortunately on 18 May 2011, a week or so after the 2011 General Elections, a government spokesman with the Ministry of Finance announced that the Ministry had considered and decided to not pursue a whistle blowing law to protect corporate whistleblowers. This was in spite of strong calls by Singaporeans for whistle-blower legislation, partly because of the banking disasters that came to light in 2008, but more because of Singapore’s acutely important role as a financial and economic hub.

Singapore remains a prime target for economic crimes as so much commerce passes through our shores. Whistleblower and whistleblower protection legislation makes ordinary Singaporeans part of good governance process, not just the government and law enforcement agencies. It also protects ordinary businesses from rogue directors and employees.

Australia for examples has included whistleblower provisions in their Corporations Act. In view of the comprehensive review of our Companies Act currently underway, which coincidentally is modelled on Australian legislation, it may be apposite for this government to re-consider including whistleblower provisions in our statute books.

In case members think such legislation would stymie the business and cause the wheels of commerce to cease, whistle-blower legislation makes allowance for the prosecution of whistleblowers should their complaints be found to be vexatious and without basis.

Mr Speaker Sir, there is a lot of scope for this government to take good governance to the next level and divert the focus from misinformation or disinformation online towards building institutions that promote communication, transparency and accountability between the state and all Singaporeans. Any sincere effort by the government is likely to have significant knock-on consequences online. Each of these proposals, a freedom of information act, public release of official information, the office of the Ombudsman and whistleblower protection are key nodes in a system of trust that would give Singaporeans the tools necessary to rely less on the government for solutions and play their part in active citizenship.

In the early 1990s, before the advent of the new normal, then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong sought to usher participatory democracy in Singapore. This slogan did not last very long, and many Singaporeans do not remember the Goh Chok Tong era as opening to door to participatory democracy. In the course of this debate, close to 10 PAP members have called for the government to improve communication with ordinary Singaporeans. Without doubt, the time has come for the government to decisively move in this direction, not in words but in deeds.

Mr Speaker, I support the motion.

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