The Government has sent shock waves across Singapore by ordering The Online Citizen, one of the country’s most popular socio-political websites, to be gazetted as a political organization. This gazetting means that The Online Citizen (TOC) will not be able to use any of its new media platforms during the upcoming General Elections to voice its support for any political party or personalities, according to the TOC website.
If successful, The Online Citizen will be the first blog not only in Singapore but perhaps in the world to be classified as a ‘political organization’. The reaction towards this political gazetting of one of Singapore’s most successful socio-political blogs has been largely critical, with many also believing that it is the first step before several other socio-political blogs are classified too as ‘political organizations’. What then, many may fear, is a complete blackout of alternative news sources and forums during the period of the General Elections.
The Online Citizen’s proud history over the years include touching on topics such as the mandatory death penalty, the situation of the homeless in Singapore, Mas Selemat’s escape from a high security prison, to its extensive coverage of the AWARE incident and everyday bread-and-butter issues confronting the common man on the street. Most recently, it organized a highly successful forum, Face2Face — in which a member of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) was invited but did not show up — that brought together key figures of the opposition parties in Singapore such as Chee Soon Juan, Chiam See Tong, Low Thia Khiang and Kenneth Jeyaratnam together for the first time in many years.
The vitriolic response to what many see as an attempt to control The Online Citizen threatened to boil over with hundreds of frustrated comments left on several other popular blogs and forums in Singapore, such as the Hardwarezone forum and Temasek Review, that provided coverage of the event. Most urged The Online Citizen not to back down in the face of a possible gazetting as a political association, and encouraged it to continue its operations. Some suggested far-fetched ideas of mirroring The Online Citizen to a foreign server, in order to bypass this mandatory registration.
In the eyes of many, the justification of the political gazetting of The Online Citizen, because it “has the potential to influence the opinions of their readership and shape political outcomes in Singapore”, is a terribly weak one. Given this line of argument, should not other instruments such as the REACH website, The Straits Times or even the NUS Political Association for that matter be similarly considered as independent political entities, and not be allowed to pledge any form of support for any one party or personality using their respective platforms during the General Elections?
Although the Government’s rationale for this mandatory registration of The Online Citizen as a political entity is to provide accountability of their funds to ensure that no ‘foreign’ element is covertly supporting the publication, the move should surely not extend to prevent the news portal from reporting the situation on the ground, during an important time such as the General Elections, as it sees fit. In all of its history, The Online Citizen has never outwardly signaled an allegiance to any political party or personality — in fact, the roots of its origins can be most aptly described as a coming-together of several individuals who were interested in getting their voices and views heard in the online community of Singapore. The background of the people who run the publication, from the regular writers and editors to the voluntary contributors, can be said to be infinitely diverse and is most certainly not traceable to any one political organization.
If anything, The Online Citizen ought to be proud of its history of independent journalism and reporting. To many other aspiring voices on the internet bandwagon in Singapore keen to discuss socio-political issues, the publication has left an indelible benchmark of responsible writing, of a fair and balanced viewpoint and a willingness to stand out and admit its mistakes, whenever it makes one. To the Government’s call for Singaporeans to be more active in the happenings of their own country, The Online Citizen has certainly done that, arranging a plethora of discussion forums, outdoor events and providing independent and extensive coverage of issues that concern our home.
Whether this gazetting will affect The Online Citizen, or if it will emerge stronger from this episode is something only time can tell. As it is, however, this move has only succeeded in galvanizing the independent blogs and forums in Singapore in support of The Online Citizen, for many see the gazetting of the publication as the first of more to come. If the reaction from this move is a quiet one, the hunch is that it may embolden the control of more independent new media outlets on the internet in Singapore. For Singaporeans, most felt for the first time, today, a very real fear of losing their source of free speech and thought on the Internet. What happens in the future will surely rest on the shoulders of those who have the chance to respond to this episode, right here and right now.