The MLC and the big fat white elephant in the room

Singapore does not do messy. If indeed we have to be messy, we should do it “selectively”. Messy selectively. This was the term used by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong when he was asked if Singapore’s leaders would allow some “mess” in order to foster a more vibrant and creative society.

“I will become messy selectively,” he said.

Which is why it is no surprise that the Government has announced the creation of a Media Literacy Council (MLC) on Tuesday. Incidentally, it is also the same day the Government revealed a new ministry – the Ministry of Information and Communications, the successor to the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts (Mica). The new ministry is headed by the same Mica minister, Yaacob Ibrahim.

Yaacob Ibrahim was also the one who mooted the idea of a code of conduct for online discourse back in November. He has been banging the drums for this ever since.

Cyberspace is the new frontier for the Government to tame, and it has made no bones about this. A code of conduct, and now the MLC. It is symptomatic of the way this Government sees things – the instinctive need to put a leash on things new or unfamiliar, or things which is seen to be a threat to its control. And for sure, the Internet has been and will continue to be a threat to the ruling party’s political power.

Back in 2007, it was reported in the mainstream media that the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) was “mounting a quiet counter-insurgency against its online critics. It has members going into Internet forums and blogs to rebut anti-establishment views and putting up postings anonymously.”

The idea behind it is control – and tidiness.

But we have come some ways from that – we now allow “selective messiness”.

That, of course, means that it is the Government which decides what sort of messiness is allowed, and where it will be allowed.

This, in a nutshell, is why a code of conduct or the MLC is ringing the death knell for a creative society.

The problem is not with the Internet, or its practitioners. The problem is not with bloggers or, as the Government like to call them, “netizens”. It is not a problem with those who are actually active online, as opposed to those who sit in their comfortable offices tucked somewhere in some unknown places dictating what and how the online landscape should look like.

Nah, the problem is with a Government which still wields much control, and which has little patience for messiness, for diversity, for spontaneity and indeed for robust debates and disagreements.

It is  a Government which, for all its claims and declarations of change, new era and all, still adheres to one fundamental philosophy which runs in the very core of the DNA of the PAP – control at all costs and by all means.

How will online users react to the code of conduct and the MLC?

I don’t know. But my take would be this: I have always said that it is the mainstream media which needs to be looked at, much more than a few bloggers online. The mainstream media reach a much much wider audience, through print, broadcast and radio. It is thus a no-brainer that the focus should be on the traditional media which, in all honesty, have been severely lacking in standards of any kind.

It is the big fat white elephant in the room which the Government keeps ignoring.

So we won’t see any move by the Government to address this, of course, for one simple reason – the mainstream media continue and will continue to be the Government’s mouthpiece. And that is enough. Why bother about standards when they are a monopoly and obediently do the Government’s bidding?

It really is sad to see this continue, for as Elaine Ee wrote here, and through my own interaction with some of the reporters and journalists in mainstream media, there are good journalists out there who try to do their best. But beyond that, Singaporeans deserve – and I mean this truly – a media which is intelligent, incisive, investigative, and independent.

I say this not because, as some say, this Government should be done away with, but because Singapore faces so many serious issues, going forward, that without such a media to facilitate debate and discussion, to inform and critique, these issues and policies, our nation will go down hill – and all of us will suffer.

So, this talk and all these thunder and fury about the online media is a red herring in toto. For the more important and serious concern should be and must be the appalling and ever-falling standards of the mainstream media.

But will Dr Yaacob care?

Will the Prime Minister care?

Of course not. For the mainstream media serves very well their party’s political agenda – an agenda which the Government now hopes to impose on the online media landscape.

That, in my opinion, must never happen – for it will mean we end up with a stale, mind-numbing, monotonous, boring drone of a PAP loudspeaker screaming morality tales, as Elaine said.

The best thing about the online landscape is the messiness of it.

And the best thing the Government can do is to leave it be.

Sadly, though, it seems the MLC is just a sugar-coated version of its 2007 “counter-insurgency” attempt at controlling the Internet – while it ignores the white elephant in its midst.

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