Chapter 8. Alternative Online Media: Challenging the Gatekeepers
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158 Freedom from the Press 158 8 C H A P T E R Alternative Online Media: Challenging the Gatekeepers While the People’s Action Party government was able to secure its freedom from the check and balance of an adversarial press, it found it much harder to shield itself from watchdogs in cyberspace. The growth of the internet since the mid-1990s created spaces with entirely different rules, opening up unprecedented opportunities for the expression of interests and perspectives that had not been fully represented by the mainstream media. Within a decade, it was clear that the internet was transforming Singapore’s political culture. The government could no longer so easily set the national agenda by silencing dissenters, who now had the ability to magnify their voices well beyond their economic or institutional heft. Nor could the government demand respect merely by virtue of rank or position. Online, more and more Singaporeans flaunted an irreverence that in the past was only betrayed in private circles and hushed tones. This steadily eroded the old culture of fear, even offline. There was also an impact on mainstream media. In the pre-web polls of 1988, the government got the news media to downplay the entire general election and treat it as almost a non-event. The keenest contest, for Eunos GRC, was practically blacked out — a crude strategy expected to favour the incumbent party. In the internet age, however, the government had to accept that doing such violence to the national media’s credibility would only result in a mass migration of readers and viewers to independent online media, where it would have a harder time winning hearts and minds. Chap8 (158-182) 158 Chap8 (158-182) 158 4/2/12 2:54:20 PM 4/2/12 2:54:20 PM Alternative Online Media: Challenging the Gatekeepers 159 Less clear was whether such internet-induced changes to the texture of Singapore politics would have any electoral impact. The results of the 2001 election, five years after the internet’s “big bang”, did not suggest an impending democratic revolution. Called shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States and in the midst of a recession, Singaporeans upped their support for the tried and true PAP. More than 75 per cent voted for the ruling party, returning only two opposition candidates to Parliament. Ten years later, though, there were heightened expectations of a new media effect on the 2011 polls. The technologies had matured and ripened. Social networking platforms, especially Facebook, were widely used, and smartphones freed netizens from their home and office computers. Like citizens elsewhere, Singaporeans had been inspired by the role of social media in Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008. Earlier that same year, they had seen the government in neighbouring Malaysia suffering historic election reversals, with Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi admitting that the ruling alliance had lost the internet battle. Objectively, good old fashioned economics was always going to be an important factor in Singapore’s 2011 general election. Three externally triggered recessions over the previous decade, with dizzying growth spurts in between, had played havoc with government planning in key areas such as public housing and transport. Slow to admit its mistakes and address genuine grievances, the PAP entered election season with public confidence at a nadir. Such fundamentals, normally the focus of election punditry anywhere, were downplayed by the foreign press, which was instead seized by the sexier story that the medium was the message. The international media, which had been taken by surprise by the recent net-assisted ousting of dictators in Tunisia and Egypt, now wondered if a social media revolution was underway in Singapore’s impending general election. In some respects, the internet in the 2011 general election lived up to the hype.1 Every statement by PAP politicians was nitpicked ruthlessly by anti-government netizens. Opposition parties used their own web platforms, including Facebook and YouTube, to bypass mainstream media gatekeepers. The most aggressive user of these new technologies, the Singapore Democratic Party, was the election’s most improved party in terms of vote share. And, in at least one local contest , the result was hard to ascribe to anything other than a social media battle that captured the whole nation’s attention. This was the election for the five seats in Marine Parade. The PAP team in this Chap8 (158-182) 159 Chap8 (158-182) 159 4/2/12 2...