South China Morning Post
If street protests in Tunisia and Egypt demonstrate a proclivity among the masses for greater democracy, then it is the blogosphere that works the magic for Singapore’s citizens. Last month, bloggers from The Online Citizen, a critical news portal, made headlines when they agreed to the government’s request to have the site registered as a political body.
This means the portal must operate within regulations that could make it harder for the site to continue as a community blog. For instance, it must not receive funding from foreign or impermissible sources and must maintain an open register of its employees. Had the site opted to close shop or operate clandestinely, free speech advocates could easily have touted this top-down imposition as a textbook case of Singapore’s unflattering censorship policy at work.
Yet to pose as helpless victims of autocracy would not advance the fight for a more open society. Complying was a cleverer strategy; it turned the tables on Singapore’s conservative policymakers.
For political opponents of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), this surprise move signals that the latter’s iron-clad grip on the media is somewhat rusty when it comes to the internet. There is little doubt that the opposition would strive to capitalise on this blind spot.
More significant is its potential eureka moment for the common man. The bloggers’ bravado serves to puncture the myth that Singaporeans are politically apathetic. The epiphany for ordinary citizens is this: if the option to participate legally in the political process was before only desirable if one were to join the PAP, that option today is open to an ordinary citizen who wants to publicly air his criticism of government policies without joining any political party.
Indeed, Singapore’s new media landscape suggests a leaning towards political activism. The Online Citizen is not the city-state’s only critical blog, though it is probably its most popular.
Will a critical citizenry buoyed by the blogosphere lead to the end of the PAP’s hold on power? Consider the harrowing experience of another long-lasting ruling coalition, the Barisan Nasional, in Malaysia during the 2008 election. After it lost its two-thirds parliamentary majority for the first time in almost 40 years, its then premier cited online citizenship journalism as a key cause.
Of course, dissimilarities between the two nations make any strict comparison spurious. For one, Singapore’s state of race relations is not as precarious as Malaysia’s.
But, regardless of the electoral issues, there is no denying the blogosphere’s potential for breaking the grip of long-standing ruling parties in politically conservative nations. If The Online Citizen has set any precedence at all, it is that denizens of the Lion City can now roam freely as political animals. For a nation long postulated to be indifferent to politics, this is nothing short of a paradigm shift.
With speculation that general elections will be called later this year, nothing can be more encouraging for the future of Singapore’s democracy.
Nazry Bahrawi is a socio-cultural commentator pursuing doctoral research at the University of Warwick