Subtitled: Mr Wang is camera shy; why doesn’t Gayle Goh et al get it?

Honestly I don’t see why there is such a fuss about Mr Wang declining to speak on, and why people like Gayle Goh should find this surprising at all. Mr Wang is a private citizen with his own busy life; Mr Wang therefore has his own agenda with regard to what he wants to do and what he doesn’t. Mr Wang, unlike media celebrities and politicians, is not paid to become a public figure, so why should anyone have the right to criticize his actions?

There is a simple answer to the rhetorical question above: because Mr Wang has deigned to comment on sociopolitical issues, and in so doing, has nudged ever so gently into the political realm of the legislature.

So why the reticence?

Let me present two quotes, one each from Gayle Goh and Mr Wang:

“[T]he show itself, I am afraid, might be rather lacklustre [… H]onestly, I had nothing to say for most of it; it was all very politically correct and meditated.” - Gayle Goh

“Since [a year ago] the Singapore blogosphere has come a long way. Bloggers are no longer going to burst with surprise, delight or alarm just because the mainstream media or the government wants to talk to them.” - Mr Wang

Clearly Mr Wang had already correctly predicted what would happen, leading him to decline the offer. This is not just posturing ex post facto: has already been running for several episodes, apparently to general diffidence to the local blogging community.1 It is clear that is not doing a great job of living up to its hype.2 This is further substantiated by another observation by Gayle during the recording session:

We chatted after the show about a range of topics I must confess were much more interesting than the theme for the show (”Should politicians blog?” Sure, why not, who cares? Just another fish in the big blue sea), including the conscription of women and genetics.

Like everything else in our media, everything that is fit to show to the general public must be indisputably factual and accurate3 Mr Wang has already made it painfully clear on his blog that he does not approve of such sanitized content - he has carved a niche for himself by exposing how such content has been sanitized - so again, why should he lend credibility to a flailing enterprise which is a clear manifestation of what he doesn’t believe in?

There is a much deeper issue here - the need to air sanitized contents is concomitant with a complete avoidance of controversial topics. As any good debater should know, the best debates are borne out of controversial motions. (On a somewhat irrelevant parenthetical discussion, the question of a whether a politician should blog is misleading: there is a presupposition that one should do something, rather than not do something. The use of “should” brings up uncomfortable presuppositions on moral authority, that a given course of action is expected rather than chosen. As such the question framed is completely off-base: the question really isn’t one of whether politicians are expected to blog, it’s one of whether there are advantages to a politician blogging. One only needs to poke around to see that high-profile people in public office and senior management have already started many blogs, and that some have even stimulated direct feedback to the top, to answer that question on your own. The answers are patently obvious; ergo, there is not much room for an interesting debate.)
Even the quote about how George Yeo speaks is pretty illuminating, to those of you who don’t listen to every ministerial speech in existence:

Well really I say ‘chatted’ but it was more like him talking with a few of us offering the occasional comment. BG Yeo has one thing in common with all other ministers I’ve met in person — they talk slowly and at great length, making it difficult to interject, or feel like you should at all.

Every. Thing. They. Say. Carries. Much. Pomp. And. Gravitas. Like. Every. Word. Really. Means. Something. (How to talk like a minister 101).

Well, there you go! One of the glaring reasons why so many ministers4 are having problems connecting with the public is because they speak in a pompous, egocentric fashion. How can anybody other than a skilled orator and debater would be able to engage a person who spoke in such a fashion?

Let’s move on in Gayle’s post:

I am rather confused by Mr. Wang’s train of thought here. He acknowledges that the blogosphere has come a long way.

But a long way in what? I myself am rather confused by how Gayle can go on and on about how having “come a long way” is a Good Thing without elaborating about what it means to have come a long way. This must be why Gayle doesn’t get it: she doesn’t realize that she and Mr Wang are thinking at cross-purposes here. I guess Gayle means “come a long way” in the sense that there are more vocal bloggers in the local blogosphere, blogging about substantive issues ranging from the municipal to the geopolitical. But Mr Wang probably wanted to emphasize how the tone and atmosphere of the local blogosphere has changed in recent months. Although 2006 has offered unprecedented opportunities for bloggers in terms of voicing their opinions and taking part in conversations about the campaigns for the general elections, it also came in the immediate aftermath of a spate of legal activity against local bloggers. It’s not just the incidents of 2005: who can forget mrbrown’s fallout with MICA?

There’s also a more subtle change in the candor of online discourse. Like Mr Wang alluded to, the blogosphere has matured. Maturity brings more reasonable discussions. But with maturity also comes dogmatism, disillusionment, cynicism and self-censorship. One can no longer read any of the Singapore blogs literally, and at face value. One has to read between the lines, beyond the self-imposed filters and ask, “what’s really going on? what’s the real deal here?” In this sense, the new media has become a reflection of the old media.

The right of reply is a wondrous thing.

OK, back up here. What, pray tell is the “right of reply”? I would dearly love to clear my complete ignorance on this topic. Is this a right in the sense of inalienable right enshrined in constitution and legal works, or is this a convenient fiction that is repainted anytime the government feels like rebutting some criticism about itself? Gayle refers to mrbrown’s case, how people were clamoring for his right to reply. Well, did mrbrown simply choose not to exercise it, or could he not exercise it simply because it did not exist?

Because when a reply is made, it means it is no longer one man shouting at a brick wall of bureaucracy or the iron curtain of politics. A reply means it is a conversation.

This, unfortunately, I have to take exception to. In the best case scenario, a reply is the beginning of a conversation. In all the situations that I am aware of, the parties that have been able to exercise their “rights of reply” have unilaterally decided not to initiate a conversation, but to terminate it with what they present as an authoritative summary of the opponent’s points, and a point-by-point rebuttal. This of course, is a highly artificial kind of conversation, such as those that go on in debates: the timeframe is fixed and immutable. But unlike even debates, there is little incentive to continue the conversation when the “right of reply” is exercised. It is a significant drain on bureaucratic resources for government entities to craft an acceptable reply. Any rational entity with better things to do will choose the option so often exercised today: cut off the debate. The right of reply doesn’t stimulate debate, it stultifies it in favor of the replying party.5

[M]y perspective is always developed, because it has ventured out of its safety zone, and dared to engage. If we become blase and disinterested, distancing ourselves, then is it really the government’s fault when we complain of an affective divide?

While I agree with the general tone of the context, this feels like an overgeneralization on Gayle’s part. There is no mention of risk. For significant risk, one expects significant returns. On the other hand jumping into something without due diligence in assessing the risks of such an action are nothing short of absolute folly. It’s the kind of retardedness that burns unwary investors. Unfortunately, there do exist situations in which the risk of an activity cannot be quantified accurately without first doing it. Jumping on the engagement bandwagon appears to be such an activity. Why? Because of OB markers and shifting goalposts. Since Catherine Lim’s essay on the Great Affective Divide, the government has indeed acknowledged the existence of OB markers. However, their extreme reluctance to reveal the extent of the OB markers heavily skews the risk of engagement in favor of the government.6

Here is the crux of the matter: without an even playing field, engaging the government feels very much like prematurely taking part in one’s own danse macabre. One false move, and you’re toast.

About the Great Affective Divide itself: there have been signs of improvement since 1994, when Catherine Lim coined the term. However Gayle is either unaware of, or has conveniently sidestepped, the Catch-22 nature of the situation. The disinterest7 of the citizens has been the result of punitive measures implemented in the post-independence era. To cite just one example, defamation lawsuits, and threats thereof, have been used with relentless efficiency since the Anson byelections, if not earlier. It is not unjustified, therefore, to view the current exhortation to speak up, in historical context, as mere posturing. It is a view that is bolstered by the attempts of the Singapore government to moderate the discussions in the blogosphere. Gayle was not a prominent blogger, so she may be forgiven for forgetting (or being ignorant of) the smear campaigns brought against blogs, from dismissing them as being immature
“online diaries”, to suddenly doing a double-take to focus on the long-tail effect, while until incredibly recently ignoring the contributions of blogs such as Mr Wang’s old blogs and pre-2006 mrbrown in contributing to civic discourse online.

Gayle’s spirit and intentions are admirable, even worth encouragement. However, I cannot agree with the way she has tried to goad other “notoriously uncontactable bloggers” into action:

[I]f you are declining because you feel there is no point in talking with ‘the establishment’, or because you would rather remain safely incognito/distanced from a political arena perceived as dangerous, then I appeal to you NOT to. Xenoboy, Mr. Wang, Mr. Brown, and other notoriously uncontactable bloggers — you know who you are.

Perhaps in time Gayle will learn why most bloggers choose to write in pen names rather than their real ones, why bloggers’ online personae often are not the same as the masks we wear in public flesh, what bloggers may choose to do other than sit in front of a keyboard and blog, and how it is possible for online personae to not translate well into another medium, such as TV. Many of us have been burnt in our own danse macabre, or seen others burnt doing so. It is far from a simple conclusion that bloggers like them feeling that it is pointless to engage in the debate. The Government has to do their part too in liberalizing the media. Stop deriding us as immature and bitchy. Stop sanitizing our comments. Stop boxing us in and deciding what we can and cannot talk about. Stop misquoting us. Start engaging us in meaningful topics. Start giving us due credit without outright plagiarism and callous disregard for Creative Commons licenses. Start admitting that yes, like any human enterprise, the MSM can and does make mistakes. Start trusting us to be able to exercise our rights as adults, and wield them judiciously as is our responsibilities to do so. Only then can we begin to see real progress in seeing real discourse.

  1. Why do I say so? Because looking on blog search engines such as Technorati show that despite the resources of a MSM corporation, is ranked much more poorly than either Gayle’s blog or Mr Wang’s blog. Or even this blog, for that matter. And few of the links referenced on Technorati were anything more substantial than a blogroll or a token post saying “Hey look! A TV show about blogs!” I’m sure this is in part due to the atrocious design of the website. Having more than one inline video clip that all play simultaneously upon loading doesn’t result in a cool slick use of the latest in web video technology, but a cacophony of noise that is begging the user to press the damn mute button.
  2. The About Us page contains meaningless hypespin such as “It is a revolutionary talkshow that leverages on the power of the internet, radio and print to put a face to the muse behind the mouse.” The truth is that the interested user with a few minutes and some modicum of Google fu can do far better than that.
  3. This of course, is disputable. Just hunt around on the blogosphere for examples of the press misquoting people, including bloggers such as Alex Au and AcidFlask.
  4. Of course, not all politicians have this problem. Dr. Vivian B., in the pre-ca. 2002 era, was quite a vocal and intriguing political character. As are many of the WP candidates that were fielded in the recent general elections. Just to cite a few examples.
  5. The “right of reply” apparently is not recursive, in the sense that I have yet to see it applied to any of the “replies” made. If nothing else, the initiating party doesn’t get the chance to rebut the points made in the reply. The lack of reply to the reply may give the reply an artificial sense of correctness which may or may not be warranted.
  6. This is perfectly rational behavior in a game theoretic context. Whether or not this is the best situation in the context of the greater good of stimulating debate, well…
  7. Ironically, the notion of the Jeffersonian ideal of democracy hinges on disinterested citizens. The word ‘disinterest’ is not used in the contemporary, colloquial sense of being diffident; rather it refers to the ideal that citizens should distance any notion of personal gain from their participation in civic affairs.