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A revolution? Who wants to offer his neck?

February 10, 2011

Reading these two articles – one by the Singapore Democratic Party and the other by Alex Au – there is apparently a difference of opinion on how effective new media is.

The SDP’s online effort to raise S$20,000 for its secretary-general to avoid being sent to jail was “a historical development”, the party says on its website. The funds were needed to pay the fine imposed on Dr Chee Soon Juan for speaking in public without a permit. If he fails to pay the fine, he would be imprisoned for 20 weeks, which would most likely mean he would not be able to lead his party in the upcoming General Election.

“More than just keeping Dr Chee out of jail,” the SDP says, “Singaporeans have rallied and sent a message that they will not sit idly by when the opposition is persecuted.”

It then goes on:

“This exercise has given civil society and the opposition a gauge on the power of the new media. It has shown that when we come together, we can be an effective force. We can only gain confidence as we build up our influence to open up society in Singapore.”

Alex Au, however, seems not too sure about this. “It does bring changes,” Alex says of new media,  “but these changes are incremental rather than revolutionising. I do not foresee new media upsetting the present socio-political situation and in fact, in some ways, it reinforces it.”

Alex’s post then takes a look at two “citizen journalism” website – Temasek Review (TR) and The Online Citizen (TOC).

In the end, he concludes, on the issue of an “information revolution”: “There is not enough pent-up hunger for alternative news, there is not enough pent-up frustration with the social and political situation. The demand side of the equation is just not there.”

It is, in my opinion, a chicken and egg situation. If (alternative) information or views can’t get out there to the masses, talking an “information revolution” is a misnomer. Yet, in order for information to get out there, one cannot just remain on the Internet.

This is where new media loses out, in my view, because most new media practitioners (the so-called ones who provide “alternative views”) are lodged safely – and anonymously – behind their keyboards.

“Technology alone does not produce the magic results. It is human organisation that makes the difference,” says Alex.

I agree with him. The problem is that most bloggers think that just writing opinion pieces on their blogs are enough to effect changes. There have been articles on TR, for example, which call for precisely what Alex mentioned – a revolution. One recent TR article even called for Muslims to conduct street protests against MM Lee Kuan Yew for his remarks on Muslims’ practice of Islam.

But writing anonymous articles urging others to do such things are like a pebble thrown into the vast ocean. It does nothing meaningful, really. It is an echo which goes into the darkness of space.

Alex Au: “So long as practitioners of new media continue to provide largely unorganised  information, or fail to organise themselves, or is forbidden to do so, or is unable to raise the needed resources, I do not foresee any overturning of the existing information landscape.”

Indeed. But here, another problem. How does one organise what is disorganised? Some years ago, there were attempts at bringing together bloggers. I know of two such efforts. Both of which failed miserably, the fire being put out by bloggers themselves.

But, you may ask, doesn’t the SDP’s success at raising S$20,000 for Dr Chee show that things are changing?

As they say, one swallow does not a summer make.

While I am glad that Dr Chee will be able to lead his party (barring unforeseen circumstances), and that it is heartening to see Singaporeans giving to a cause (S$3,800 was raised in TOC’s fundraising event for itself recently as well), it is too early to say these two events mean we have turned a corner in the effort to change mindsets and empower citizens.

What will determine if we really have climbed another step is how citizens/Singaporeans will react when the big hammer comes down – which it certainly will, given the paranoia of the current regime in power.

But back to new media.

My opinion is that mobilisation is the key. And in mobilisation, organisation is necessary. But in order to do these things, there needs to be people who will lead, and take up causes which resonate with the average person. It is no coincidence that the SDP’s success in raising the necessary funds parallels the party’s focus on bread and butter issues in recent years, away from its obsession on more esoteric and – to most Singaporeans – irrelevant issues like human rights.

That’s where too the powers-that-be is uncomfortable – when its very legitimacy, its ability to deliver these economic goods, is questioned, challenged and highlighted.

Will new media be able to do this?

Yes, but it will need to take a more concerted effort and include more tools of social networking such as Facebook, Twitter and new technology such as the iPhone and its applications.

The government, I am sure, is well aware of the potential of these. Just witness what is happening in Egypt, which mirrors, in a way, what had happened in South Korea and Malaysia. Yes, it could happen in Singapore too.

But, I would like to quickly add, not in the near or foreseeable future.

As Alex said, we are in a chicken and egg situation at the moment.

Who’s going to lay his neck on the line?

That ultimately is the real question.

Takers, anyone?

Categories: Media
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