Our special issue on "Youth, ICTs and Civic Engagement in Asia" is published in International Communication Gazette!!! Thanks to my co-editor and project head Emmanuel Lallana, and dear collaborators Clarissa David, Mohammad Sahid Ullah, P. Vigneswara Ilavarasan, and Joanne Lim! Speical thanks to the editor, manager, and proofreader of this journal too. They are all so professional that this issue gets published smoothly and timely. Highly recommend my colleagues to submit to this journal!
You can download the entire issue HERE!
A table of content is found here.
[The following is my complete reply to an interview request from the Straits Time in August 2009. I have no idea whether they published my opinions and if not, it is all right. I still appreciate that they pushed me to think of what I am doing days and nights and put them into some writing that tries to make a bit sense to general readers.]
The first thing we have to realize is that youth today lives on new media such as cellphones, facebook, youtube, twitter, etc. By saying “live on”, I mean they not only use new media as sources of information, which is a role that traditional media often play, but also make things happen in the sphere of new media platforms. It is no longer clear that whether activism refers to online or offline activities. Both could be considered as actions that citizens can take towards certain ends. For example, a protest in the speakers’ corner is treated as political activism. Now you can sign an online petition on the same issue and it could be treated as activism as well. Since new media become an integral part of youth’s life, it is natural that they get engaged in various activities through new media. If everyone of your friends is on Facebook and joins a group, it is very likely that you will join the group as well.
In a global context, living on new media or living with new media has been well documented in the US (see Mimi Ito’s report “Living and learning with new media”) and the UK (see Sonia Livingstone’s book “Young people and new media”).
Second, a traditional theory considers three factors as crucial to participation in activism: 1. The opportunities – new media provide many opportunities to get to know about various causes (e.g., google) and to really contribute to such causes (e.g., online donation). But we also have to acknowledge that many governments, including Singapore, now try to open more channels for youth to be active. Governments in the US and the UK are often concerned about the relatively lower rate among youth in terms of participating in traditional forms of political activities (e.g., voting). They want to engage youth in ways that are consistent with their life style. New media is one key component of their life style. A good example is how Obama tried to reach youth by youtube videos. The Singapore government recently further opened up space for civil society to initiate social changes. Some social service groups are encouraged and supported by the government. This means the opportunities are more available and visible than before. 2. The motivations – as I mentioned before, the motivations of getting involved in activism may be higher if most of people in your social networks are doing that. Social media such as facebook and twitter give users a very good tool to monitor the activities going on within their social networks. Such tools are often strong enough to organize collective actions, too. Both factors may contribute to higher efficacy and interest, which are important motivations that influence participation. 3. The ability – the tool function of new media should not be ignored because it empowers youth to make a difference. For instance, making an online video that favors a cause and getting tons of audiences viewing it are differences that youth can clearly see.
Third, the global trend of new media activism can influence local youth. The Iran Revolution on twitter, the Obama campaign on the internet, the blog influence on Malaysian elections, and so on. These are all good examples that may inspire local youth.
In short, Singapore youth now has the ability to make a difference in the social sphere. Whether they can make a difference to policy-making, it depends on both the government’s degree of acceptance (which seems increasing) and the motivation of a big enough crowd who is dedicated to the cause.
AWARE is the well-known (well, known now) local women's groop which has gone through serious internal conflict recently. A group of new members took over the executive power by taking advantage of the tyranny of majority. They outnumbered supporters of the existing executive team in the annual election. The existing executive team is claimed to be too pro-homosexuality and has to be replaced all together. Out of the many dramatic stories unfolding themselves along time, I like the response from Minister in Prime Minister's Office the most. Mrs Lim Hwee Hua said: "This is not a national dispute and should not upset the balance and tenor of our open, tolerant and secular society."
If the society is already open and tolerant, how come we see dramas like this happening here and now? We tend to forget the reasons why we establish nation-states. It is exactly because civil society is not perfect and we need institutions to adress and solve serious conflicts within it. But I agree with Mrs. Lim that this is not a national dispute, yet...
The Hegelian state - The highest values and best traditions of a
society could be politically embodied and expressed by the state. - from Terence Chong's Embodying society's best: Hegel and the Singapore state.
The Foucauldian society - Social conflicts produce themselves the valuable ties that hold modern societies together and provide them with the strength and cohesion they need. - from Bent Flyvbejerg'sHabermas and Foucault: Thinkers for civil society?
One last note - please don't take me wrong. I am not asking for the state's intervention in civil society's affairs. I am asking for the state's tolerance of conflicts in civil society. Empower civil society to allow it to evolve through conflict solving, with the help from the state institutions when necessary.
Are the differences between traditional media and new media due to the level of trust, bias, and informativeness? Let us look at the 2007 Oxford Internet Institute survey. Among Internet users, Internet is a bit more reliable than TV (6.8 out of a 10-point scale vs. 6.7) and more reliable than newspapers (5.8). Among Internet non-users, TV is the most reliable medium (6.3) but Internet is rated the same as newspaper (5.7). Is it because Internet users are mostly wild wild heads who hate anything from the Easy Easy East, aka, the traditional world? Internet users score higher than non-users in confidence in the government (!), scientists, and not surprisingly, people on the Internet. They have the same level of confidence as non-users in doctors and people in the country. Only slightly lower than non-users in confidence in people they know (3.8 out of a 5-point scale vs. 3.9).
Are new media less informative than traditional media? When rating the importance of different media for information, both users and non-users choose talking to other people as the most important channel (3.7 out of a 5-point scale). The gap lies in Internet as information source. Users rate Internet almost as important as talking to others (3.6) whereas non-users treat Internet as the least important medium (1.7). So what can we conclude? It depends on who you are talking to. Informativeness is a perception measure rather than a factual measure.
How about the places "which are more considered, more moderated, where people put their names down and identify themselves"? Are they seldom seen online? I have no answer to this question. We have to do a comprehensive content analysis in order to have an answer. What I can say is the Internet and public sphere have been paired up for a long time. Researchers have witnessed many successful trials.
If there is a fatal critique to my discussions above, it will be "your data are not from Singapore!" Yes, you are right. But are there any such data? Let me know...
Mr Lee noted there will always be a role for traditional media to present trusted, unbiased and informed opinions even if some may feel that the information generated by traditional media is rather tame compared to what’s online.
“There is a place called the Wild Wild West and there are other places which are not so wild. And the new media, some of it are Wild West and anything goes, and people can say anything they want, and tomorrow (they) take a completely contrary view,” said Mr Lee.
Acknowledging that “that is just the way the medium is”, he added: “But even in the Internet, there are places which are more considered, more moderated, where people put their names down and identify themselves. And there is a debate which goes on and a give-and-take, which is not so rambunctious but perhaps more thoughtful.” That said, he noted traditional media has seen its viewership and readership numbers going up.
A bloggers' association will be launched in Singapore. This non-profit association "aims to raise the profile of bloggers and promote, protect as well as educate its members". The association has also received media invites to cover events.
To me, this effort is one that tries to recentralize the net. The decentralized net has excited many people as it may refuse one authority, one perspective, or one voice. Netizens are connected through a loosely organized network, which is in contrast to both the hierarchical structure and the market structure. Different from the rigid structure of hierarchy, there are no fixed centers in networks. Collective action may emerge from anywhere as long as the causes it advocates attract enough people. What is often ignored is the difference between the market structure and the network structure. Free market is supposed to be totally decentralized. Buyers and sellers get in touch with each us purely based on needs and offers. The price system, according to Sunstein (see Infotopia), is the only mechanism that connects actors in market. Network is thus situated between market and hierarchy. Although Sunstein entertains the idea of using a price system to organize online behaviors (e.g., the reputation system on ebay or the recommendation system on myspace), netizens engage in other fashions, as much as if not more, in the market fashion. Look at facebook.
The point is, the net has never been completely decentralized. Rather, it seems to support different modes of interaction if we look at different applications. Various efforts try to make the net even more centralized. Bloggers' association is one. It creates convenience for the government to address bloggers as one section of constituency as if they share a common interest. It also provides a touch point for the commercial forces to access the mysterious and invisible internet users.
One may argue that it is impossible to put all bloggers into one association because there are millions of them. It is like having an association of voters. However, I think it is possible if we define bloggers as those netizens who express a public appeal to the rights of being bloggers. Political activists are always few compared to the silent majority. In a small country like Singapore, it may not be that hard to organize blogger activists into one association. The last question is, do all blogger activists in Singapore want to join? See this...
Association of Bloggers (Singapore) : Singabloodypore
Update: Feb 03, 2009
I now actually expect to see a successful collective action among bloggers. Whether it has to take the format of association, I am not sure. But the news piece below really shows the key problem of this association. Whether it has a cause that alludes bloggers and a structure that fits the way blogsphere is organized.
The word that strikes my nerve recently is legitimacy. The first time this kind of thing happened to me was when I read Althaus writing that representation is to present again. Legitimacy and representation are two great examples of concepts that we think we know what they mean but when pressing for accurate definitions, they evade into the light of eternity.
From a normative perspective, the legitimacy of a political system is defined as the consistency with the ideal model. If you are a supporter of deliberative democracy, legitimacy means the political system conforms to the principles of deliberative democracy, i.e., it should be open, fair and reason-centered. However, when we ask the question why we should want deliberative democracy, one of the reasons the theorists offered is that it grants legitimacy to the decisions generated by such a system. Here, legitimacy becomes an empirical concept, which can be measured and may vary in degree.
From an empirical perspective, legitimacy is defined as an observable object that varies in degree. How to measure it often determines the way it is defined. If it is measured through self-reports of individuals, such as agreeing to be ruled, legitimacy is a perception of the rightness (worthiness in Habermasian term) of the political system. Then it does not distinguish between the different ideals individuals hold about the political system, whether the system should be a deliberative one or not. If it is measured by the performance of the political system, such as economic growth and national security, legitimacy is defined as consequences or effects. Many governments such as the ones in China and Singapore take advantage of this utilitarian approach to justify their ruling. The two ways of measurement are definitely intervened with each other. If the government can successfully persuade the ruled that legitimacy should build upon the effectiveness of governance, then we expect to see the perception of the rightness becomes a covariate of the performance of the political system.
What become really interesting, then, are the sources of the perceived legitimacy.
Two pieces of facts caught my interest these days.
Fact 1: The recently revived Speaker's Corner in Hong Lim Park attracted two protesters on September 1st, its first day when restrictions were officially eased. Media reported that there were more audience than actors.
Fact 2: Advisory Council on the Impact of New Media on Society released a consultation paper on August 29th, urging the Government to interact with Singaporeans via new media.
When I watched news on Fact 1, I cannot stop thinking of Fact 2 and say, come on, because we have the Internet. Our speaker's corner nowadays is the cyberspace.
Here is a commentary on the consultation paper.
TODAYonline:Can Radical Also Be Right?
In other words, if the Government wants to engage citizens in the new
media as the report envisions, it cannot always set the agenda. This is
quite radical, given that the Government’s prerogative to set the
agenda has remained one of the fundamentals in Singapore since
The quote above is very interesting because it triggers my mental link between e-engagement and radical democracy. Radical democracy, according to Cohen & Fung, embraces two ideas: Participation and Deliberation. The news author is right to say e-engagement is radical because he realizes that e-engagement gives citizens direct roles in policy-making. The officials will have to respond to citizens' concerns rather than setting the agenda for them.
However, the author more or less used radical as a negative word considering that he doubted the co-existence of radical and right. Cohen & Fung's definition implies that radical democracy definitely can be right because it is based on deliberation. So I think the real concern here is not whether e-engagement is radical or not. It is the problem of the tension between participation and deliberation. How does a public decision-making procedure become widely participatory and highly deliberate at the same time? Especially when the Government disagrees with its citizens on what is considered as deliberate. And when the citizens disagree with each other.
I am an Associate Professor at Department of Communication and New Media, National University of Singapore.