Friday, January 12, 2007

Talk of the town

Is it a waste of time to spend three hours talking to a minister on national television?

IN ITS own inimitable way, the local media are warming up to the idea of blogs – by treating the concept like a wounded animal to be handled only with a long and pointy stick. It is the premise of a new, amusingly titled television show on blogs called (no kidding), hosted by two surly looking curmudgeons who look like they have to be paid to smile on national television.

In a video on the programme’s Web site (conveniently, also, a co-host who goes by the Flying Dutchman, is going into a spiel about parents blogging. “Parents and blog,” the Flying Dutchman says in nearly pristine English, spitting out the ‘blog’ word like a peppermint that was a bit too hot to handle. He is wearing a forced smile and a T-shirt that says Class 95, and shows steepling fingers, a sign of authoritativeness in body language. That kind of authoritativeness is undermined by the fact that neither host is an expert on anything remotely to do with the Internet, never mind blogs. (What are the odds: they look well into their forties, and talk about technology like the Queen of England would talk about an Aston Martin.)

Just the stage, then, for the programme’s showpiece: a conversation between a handful of the local blogosphere’s choice bloggers, and a minister who has caught the blogging bug, the foreign minister George Yeo. The taping itself encountered a minor kink, when, asked if she read Mr Yeo’s blog, Gayle Goh said no.

“Why?” The question shot back immediately, despite there having an obvious answer. Back in the day, when Mr Yeo’s blog was fresh and new, journalists and bloggers alike, including the esteemed Mr Wang, united* to call his blog “interesting”. Mr Wang himself now has a radically different opinion, having no doubt discovered blog posts in the Singaporean blogosphere of a similar ilk to Mr Yeo’s ‘Mass at Punggol’s Nativity Church’ in the intervening time. “After the initial burst of public interest,” he says, neglecting to add that he himself was part of this fuss, “hardly anyone bothers to read him anymore.”

Being the brave girl that she is, Ms Goh replied that she had more interesting things to read than the extra-curricular activities of a (gently) balding old man on a generous salary, and right to his face too.

“Boy, my ego was so bruised I couldn’t sleep all night,” Mr Yeo admits on his blog after the taping. “But I gave what I thought was a clever† reply, my teenage kids didn’t read my blogs either, except when I asked them to. Ditto my wife.”

You and whose army

GOODNESS KNOWS what the several of them discussed in the three hours – it could not have been very much, not because of a lack of intellect among the participants (which does include a minister, an articulate 18-year-old, and a PhD holder, lest you forget), but simply because it has such a quaint premise. Nobody elsewhere is making whole programmes about the effects of blogs, because there is very little need to overcomplicate what is a simple and elegant concept.

The wider world has just chosen to accept blogs as just what it is – a new medium to be embraced and enjoyed. Newspapers of all descriptions, like the New York Times and the Times of London, now in fact have their own dedicated topical blogs maintained by real journalists, whereas in Singapore the biggest priority is placing an artificial barrier between the so-called hazardous world of blogs, and the so-called professional world of journalism¶. Others did muse about the same things local television has only come to wonder about now, but that may be as long as half a decade ago, and even back then it certainly was a less tedious debate than the one that exists here and today. So the world out there has choice words for Singaporeans afraid to dip their feet in the cool blogging waters: don’t be such a goddamn sissy.

Talk shop

BUT THERE is a greater malaise than just the premise. Explaining why he turned down the chance to spend three hours with the foreign minister on national television, Mr Wang says that “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”, the counterpoint being the enthusiastically patriotic 18-year-old Gayle Goh, who would burst with emotion given that opportunity.

Ms Goh is unforgiving in a needlessly lengthy rebuttal:

I am rather confused by Mr Wang’s train of thought here. He acknowledges that the blogosphere has come a long way. To me, this is a positive thing, and something to be celebrated… Nevertheless, one can’t help but admit that this is a net benefit to the blogosphere regardless of my personal sensibilities, especially with regards to my own personal cause of citizen participation in politics, which I should hope Mr Wang shares, when the focus turns on to citizens with something to say about socio-political issues and the interaction between the government and the people.

Mr Wang makes it sound like it is a trivial, unimportant and passé that an opportunity is given for a blogger to speak face to face with a politician. Well it is not unimportant. Will it change the world? Of course not. Will it change anything? Not directly. But is it worth three hours of your time? Yes, definitely. Bloggers often feel themselves to be at liberty to pass comment on political issues and politicians.

They do have, and must have, that liberty. But I cannot help but feel that their commentary and criticisms would be taken so much further, and would be delivered/crafted which so much more insight and clear-mindedness, if they were willing to step up and say these things openly and face to face with the person/policymaker they are criticizing, so that the latter will have the right of reply and also so that you, as a commentator, do justice to your views.

And there is so much wrong in these words. It is perhaps ironic that someone as Ms Goh would like local blogs to follow a more Western style of criticism in blogs – she talks of liberty – and then patently refuse to follow its format. With things like freedom of speech there is no such thing as an uncomfortable in-between: either you have it fast and flowing, as it is in most of the Western world, or stoic and restricted, like here. Western blogs, even those from columnists in national newspapers, mercilessly lampoon and caricature their political figures to an extent that is unimaginable in Singapore without there being lawsuits involved. It goes without saying that nobody there bothers about “right of reply”, which is a concept unique to the local government. The real question, rather than being one of the inclination of Singaporeans to say something, is one of whether the government has the class to allow this abominable ugliness to exist. Only with that ugliness can all the tapestries of vibrant debate flourish.

It seems that the common expectation in Singapore is that the debate go solely towards constructive purposes. But that, combined with the litigious society that Singapore happens to be, demands tact and measure. (Even that, as Catherine Lim has shown, is not enough.) That, in fact, explains what Gayle Goh complains to be a lack of insight and clear-mindedness, rather than because Singaporeans don’t want to talk, which is a monolithic and increasingly irrelevant line of reasoning. The panel of bloggers invited to make the show itself illustrates this point clearly: all the bloggers are conciliatory and public-spirited. A Yawning Bread or a Xenoboy, who would have more unpredictable, rabble-rousing qualities, would be an abject choice of blogger to appear on national television next to the foreign minister. As for “citizen participation” in politics, well, this isn’t a joke, is it?

So what, ultimately, is the point of spending three hours with a minister filming a programme on blogs for state-owned national television? It has a flawed premise in every sense, and the only thing one is left is to sit next to a gently balding old man on an enviable salary for that three hours talking about topics others were done with half a decade ago.

“BG Yeo,” the 18-year-old patriot Gayle Goh says, referring to Mr Yeo’s previous in the army, “himself seems a nice man – soft-spoken, mild-mannered, with a faintly bewildered and endearing air about him.” It reminds us, of course, of the small matter of free political advertising on blogs – there is no such thing as a grumpy old minister in Singapore.


* This blog could scarcely be bothered, calling it “ludicrously ordinary”, and advised Mr Yeo to feature more pictures of the family cat. And this note exists to gloat about how right it was. Huzzah!

† It was a 7.5/10 reply.

¶ Both cannot coexist in Singapore, but the limitation lies in the professionalism of the journalism here rather than the potential of blogs.

taken from Two Steps From Twilight

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