ST Digital Life: More netizens open up to BLOG scene

Will politician bloggers and groups sorting through heaps of posts on local issues open up the social and political awareness space? FENG ZENG KUN looks at the changes

The local blogosphere has evolved in the past year – not just growing in numbers but also in opening up public discussion spaces.

A survey released in March by Singapore’s Infocomm Development Authority estimated 862,000 bloggers and 958,000 blog readers currently in Singapore. The same survey last year tabulated the blogging population at 502,000.

The new converts include at least 21 politicians, compared to four blogging politicians before last June. (See ’24-hour Hotline To Ministers’)

The move from personal blogs to more public and social ones also involves more blog aggregators and group blogs, like, Intelligent Singaporean and Singapore Angle.

Aggregators collect posts on personal blogs onto a single site, while group blogs are authored by teams of writers.

The power of the masses provides more breadth and depth of online conversation, according to those sites’ editors.

For this work, averages about 100,000 page views monthly and Intelligent Singaporean, 45,000. Singapore Angle gets about 50,000 monthly hits. In comparison, popular blogger mr brown gets 150,000 monthly page views, as does veteran aggregating site

Associate professor Ang Peng Hwa, chair of the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, does not think this expansion is surprising.

Dr Ang, 50, said: “With bloggers like mr brown and Xiaxue going mainstream by appearing in widely-read newspapers, there was more curiosity about blogs.”

Mr Benjamin Koe, 27, a new media specialist at public relations firm Hill and Knowlton, also noted that the changes here reflect the patterns abroad.

He cited the recent embracing of new media like blogs and YouTube, a video aggregator, by United States presidential candidates like Democrats Hillary Clinton and Chris Dodd, and corporations like General Motors and Marriott International.

Mr Koe said: “When more people inhabit the blogosphere it becomes more important to do so.”

What difference it makes

Like many, however, he was less concerned with the causes of the local changes than with their effects and potential.

Dr Bernard Leong, 32, editor of group blog Singapore Angle, thinks that a larger blogosphere makes for better social debate. And that, he said, is where aggregators and group blogs have a role to fill.

Dr Leong cited the recent controversy over local playwright Alfian Bin Sa’at. When Mr Alfian was dismissed as a relief teacher for undisclosed reasons in May, hot heads led conspiracy charges against the Ministry of Education on their personal blogs, before cooler ones pointed out the lack of proof and information.

The aggregation of these posts on and elsewhere put forward a more balanced picture, and prevented the blogosphere from degenerating into a link-to-link echo of conspiracy.

Mr Andrew Loh, editor of group blog The Online Citizen, also said that these more public sites provide an equally loud voice to all Singaporeans.

He pointed to the Derek Wee incident last year as one such instance.

Last October, Mr Wee, 36, blogged about his economic insecurities of growing old in Singapore. These were dismissed as laziness on the part of the insecure, by teenage blogger Wee Shu Min on her blog, which in turn, brought both views to national attention.

Mr Chua U-Zyn, 24, founder of aggregator, added that multi-author sites have a wider catchment than personal blogs.

Mr Chua cited the breadth of discussion on his site, which ranges from the local blind-dating scene to issues of meritocracy.

For all these reasons, Mrs Kerlyn Yang is glad for these sites. An avid reader of and Intelligent Singaporean, the 28-year old banker said: “They show important alternative views of Singapore.”

Others, however, still rely mainly on newspapers for their information. Like 42-year old taxi driver Bala Jaganathan.

He said: “These sites are good, but they lack resources newspapers have, like access to information and full-time writers.

“So, right now, I think they’re playing catch up with the mainstream media, although they might be better at exploring less well-known topics.”

Free speech on the Net

A Digital Life check on the blogosphere found that no fewer than 21 politicians have set up blogs within the past year, their ranks ranging across the political spectrum.

These include the People’s Action Party MPs Michael Palmer and Jessica Tan, Young PAP members Elaina Olivia Chong and Donald Aw, Workers’ Party members Yaw Shin Leong and Perry Tong, and Nominated Member of Parliament Siew Kum Hong.

Previously, there were no dedicated PAP bloggers, while the Workers’ Party had only three.

Where the PAP bloggers are concerned, the surge is not surprising as Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, the Second Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts, had said during a media gathering in March that the Government intends to “move into cyberspace in a big way in order to further government-citizen engagement”. As it stands, seven in 10 homes have Internet access, and seven in 10 netizens are bloggers.

The politicians said that their blogs, which do not espouse official party lines, aim to inject personality into politics, give insight into the politicians’ views, and act as a platform for citizens to voice their views.

There is no censorship.

NMP Siew Kum Hong, 32, said that his only censor is time.

Nor are their posts vetted in any way, said Mr Teo Ser Luck, Parliamentary Secretary for the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports.

Ms Elaina Olivia Chong, who posts on the Young PAP blog, said: “We write about anything and allow all comments in order to spur discussion.”

So far, their posts have ranged from local issues like foreign talent and transcripts of Parliament sessions to the personal lives of the politician bloggers.

Some have also written about their colleagues’ work and their own.

NMP Siew Kum Hong, for example, writes evaluations of his speeches, as well as comments on several instances where he felt that ministers had not answered his questions during Parliament question and answer sessions.

In March, for example, he asked Dr Ng Eng Hen, Minister for Manpower, how many of the new jobs created in 2006 were taken up by Singapore citizens, permanent residents and foreigners, and if the Government did not have these figures, whether it could derive them from income tax and CPF data.

Dr Ng replied they did not have such figures, and did not answer the second question, prompting Mr Siew to write in a March 27 post that “the Minister basically dodged the question”.

On viewership, most of the bloggers said they do not track numbers. But judging by the number of comments left, the Young PAP blog is the most popular.

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