Reactions amongst citizens to the news of the gazetting of alternative online news site, The Online Citizen, have ranged from outrage to Schadenfreude to a mild shrug. As a liberal party and an advocate for democracy, The Reform Party believes in and champions freedom of speech and abhors these clampdowns.

TOC recently held its fourth birthday party and for at least the last two years it has operated just like a media company although without paper. TOC is already an organisation with managers, editors, contributors, roving reporters, photographers et al. In fact TOC is sending no less than four reporters to cover our Democracy picnic and pre-election Rally on Saturday. I’m sure this notice of gazetting won’t interfere with relationship building and in fact we may be able to help TOC navigate the minefield of red tape and the Political Donations Act.

The editors of TOC are well known. Many of the editors and writers all seem to be connected to various political parties whether as former key figures, current active candidates or wannabe politicians.  It therefore comes as no surprise to some that they are being defined as a ‘political organisation.’  That does not mean it is right or apt.

One leader of an opposition party, on hearing the news about TOC, did rather blur the boundaries between commenting on politics and being in politics by posting, “ Bloggers Unite!” on his Facebook page. But despite this there is a real difference between being a politician or activist and writing about politics.

The Reform Party is clearly a political organisation. Our stated aim as written in the constitution that we filed with ROS is to form an alternative government.  The Reform Party also advocates transparency and accountability. In the world of bloggers these aims are mutually exclusive. As the TOC debacle has shown us, for a political blog commenting on Singapore to survive it must go underground, overseas and act anonymously. This removes any ability to be transparent, open or accountable. The restrictions and legal climate here have themselves produced bloggers who are working in a way that would in an open society be the antithesis of democracy in order to bring about democracy. One way to counter this   would be for bloggers to variously subscribe to a common voluntary code of conduct with right of redress. This need not hamper or censor their political content and punch but would obviate the need for the heavy hand of the PAP law machine.

The most interesting aspect of this news is the fact that it begs the question; have the incumbents found a way of controlling and censoring the World Wide Web without closing it down? To most of us it would seem that if the TOC is a political organisation then all the companies of SPH are also political organisations. Why are they allowed to receive advertising from foreign corporations if TOC is not?  It will clearly be banned from accepting donations from abroad. In their statement ROS said, “..As a website that provides coverage and analysis of political issues, TOC (The Online Citizen) has the potential to influence the opinions of their readership and shape political outcomes in Singapore…It has been gazetted to ensure that it is not funded by foreign elements or sources,”

Rather rich when you consider the foreign funds flowing into the country from Shell, Exxon, Phillips, HP and other multinationals. So it is all right for Singaporeans to work for foreign companies and be influenced by foreign advertising but we are not able to make a rational choice when it comes to foreign ideas?

However, I don’t believe the incumbents much touted light touch on cyber space will now turn out to be the heavy hand of the law casting a long shadow on all cyber citizens. That is not how the incumbents work. They will pick off one or two key blogs and individuals. Those deemed too popular or too big or maybe even those who do a deal with them. This will allow them to point out all the thriving non-gazetted blogs in order to shrug off accusations of injustice or unnecessary censorship.

The rest of the censorship will be left up to the citizens themselves. I recall the time when we were promoting our recruitment event. At around that time Abdul Malik, now of SDP, was questioned over his Facebook posts. The fear spread across Facebook like a virus in a school dorm. Suddenly all kinds of people were posting and messaging and emailing, telling us not to say we were recruiting a small ‘army’. Just in case! This despite the fact that The Salvation Army in Singapore has a website covered with military terminology and they have yet to be arrested for sedition. No, it does not take much to spook the horses in Singapore.

There are differing trains of thought as to how useful online media in Singapore actually is to the election campaigns of the alternative parties. The influence of alternative media is undoubtedly growing exponentially but this coming GE will still be the first one where we actually see if its influence has any demonstrable effect on the results at the polls.

TOC itself has just turned 4 having been birthed after the last GE. Meanwhile some of the alternative parties are almost silent online, whilst some take their presence in the new media so seriously that they seem indistinguishable from the very same sites which exist merely to comment on political agendas. Others such as the Workers Party famously ban their candidates from commenting on blogs in their own names.

All political parties here are severely curtailed and restricted by the same restrictions that TOC is going to come under. But whereas bloggers are largely unpaid volunteers, political parties need funds to campaign successfully.  So, I will be watching with close interest to see whether TOC is able to maintain its advertising arrangement with The Economist. Currently it is a grey area. Will advertising from a foreign source, even one where Temasek Holdings owns shares in its parent company (Pearson), be viewed as a foreign donation and therefore banned?

Foreign Press commentators reporting on the news about TOC have observed that opposition politicians complain of bias in the Press. I wish it were just bias. Actually it bears more resemblance to Harry Potter’s cloak of invisibility. Our appearance in the main stream media is severely limited as ultimately the entire main stream media is controlled by the government through the Newspapers and Printing Presses Act and the Broadcasting Act. The foreign press itself, even those publications from countries which tout their belief in independence and freedom of the press, regularly caves in to the pressure of curtailment on their distribution agreements and seems unable to defend its rights of access to the Singapore market through the World Trade Organization with the same vigour as manufacturing or technology companies routinely do in China and other places.

So it would seem that the new generation of media and the widespread influence of social networking sites would be a godsend to the opposition. But there is a genuine fear that too much cyber involvement displaces action in the real world.  We have all seen the phenomena of armchair warriors and keyboard critics but little real support in the flesh. So is all this unrestricted criticism, dissent and sheer hostility on the web actually keeping Singaporeans in a permanent state of self righteous anger? Does the act of venting online serve as a pressure valve and therefore act as a barrier to real political representation? And in their efforts to circumvent restrictions on freedom of speech are the parties so keen on using the new media that the boundaries between blogging and political representation are in danger of disappearing? If so, that would be an unmitigated disaster for the opposition, for the advocacy of democracy and for the citizens of Singapore. The PAP themselves are keen to convince Singaporeans that online interaction with government avatars is much better than having an Opposition in Parliament!

One thing is for sure. Singapore’s online political commentators have gone through an evolutionary process. They have moved away from discovering the web as a way of circumventing restrictions to using it as a channel for challenging the status quo and now they are in the phase of being able to set and drive a political agenda. I do hope that the gazetting of TOC will not have the same effect on the evolution of our political blogs that meteors had on the dinosaurs. But I very much fear that TOC will become neutered and the NMP of the blogging world.

This is one reason why the Reform Party puts so much effort into its outreach campaign. Although we have an amazing new digital media platform nearing completion, if all of our new media channels failed we would still be able to campaign for change through our outreach activity.

Meanwhile the writing on the wall should be plain to everyone else. The incumbents have got every area of possible political expression and activism sewn up.  They control it. NGOs are gazetted. Political blogs are gazetted. Constituencies are gerrymandered into impregnable GRCs. PAs and other grassroots organizations are not gazetted even though they clearly operate with political bias. Citizens are paralyzed by fear and neutralised by 50 years of brainwashing. Blogging is not really going to help you much in the long run.

The only option left to you for genuine representation is to join and support a political Party.  If you want to see a change and to have any hope for increased freedoms for Singapore in the future then this is only avenue left to you that has not yet been totally curtailed. Your actual participation in the real flesh and blood world is really all that remains. Along with your vote if you are lucky enough not to live in a walkover ward.

So come to Hong Lim Park on Saturday. Show the world that you, the individual, can’t be gazetted. Join us, before it’s too late.