Blogger's take on self-censorship, media scene

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The following are excerpts of an interview with Kirsten Han, a prominent Singaporean blogger and activist, with an interest in social justice and human rights. The interview appeared in Mumbrella.

What’s the secret to growing a following as a blogger in Singapore?

Honestly, I don’t know! I just focus on writing what I want to write about (and unfortunately I haven’t updated my blog as often as I would like recently), and hope that it resonates with others or makes them think and want to engage. That said, I think it helps to be open to other people’s views. I don’t really moderate comments that I get on my blog or my Facebook, and I very, very rarely ban people. I believe that when people see that you can be patient and respond and engage with others they appreciate it.

Say or write the wrong thing in Singapore, and you can get into serious trouble. Have you ever self-censored?

I can’t think of particular examples right now, but I’m sure I must have in some shape or form. I think most Singaporean writers are in some way very conscious of what they write and how they write it. That’s not always a bad thing but I think the danger is when people stop saying what they think not out of a sense of responsibility but a sense of fear – that’s when we stop having the important conversations that we need to have about our society.

What do you feel the public perception is of the blogging community compared to the mainstream press in Singapore, and how do think that perception is changing?

It depends on who you speak to. Some will say that bloggers are all irresponsible trolls trying to bring Singapore down, while others will swear blind that the mainstream press and the journalists who work within it are lapdogs of the government and that the only truth is to be found in the blogs. I’m not sure if these perceptions are changing. I’m hoping that people start to see that it’s not as clear-cut as that, and that we should be critical about what we read regardless of where it comes from. It’s easier said than done (I know I’ve failed often enough myself!) but once we get into the habit of it it’ll get better and better.

How about the government? What do you feel their view is of Singapore’s blogging community?

I think the government seems to be very confused by the blogging community; they don’t seem to understand what bloggers want or are trying to do. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are politicians who believe that bloggers are just there to be ungrateful and make trouble for them. I wish we could all – bloggers and government alike – see that this binary isn’t helpful.

Also, it’s important to note that issues about bloggers in Singapore cannot be extricated from the wider picture of media freedoms in Singapore, as well as the issue of freedom of information. The government might demand high, professional standards from amateurs, but it’s unfair to constantly try to discredit bloggers for not being balanced or not giving the whole picture or giving constructive criticism when there is a huge asymmetry in power and information in Singapore. Sometimes bloggers are unable to give the whole picture because it is so difficult to get access to the information that they need. Government ministries have also been known to ignore or shut down requests for information.

What’s your take on the MDA’s new rules for news websites?

The rules are very dangerous. With the definition of ‘Singapore news’ as broad as it is, it could very well extend to blogs, especially community blogs like The Online Citizen. All we have right now is the government’s assurance that they won’t do it, but the fact remains that if you look at the legislation they very well could if they wanted to in the future.

What do you feel the perception is of Singapore’s media overseas, and do you feel that perception is fair?

I’m not sure what people think about Singapore’s media – very often it seems that people don’t know very much about Singapore to start with. But I have met people who don’t treat Singapore as a democracy. When I was younger (around 17 or so) I used to get quite insulted by this but upon reflection now I think it’s fair for them to say that.

Would you write about a brand if you were paid to? What’s your view on bloggers who are paid by sponsors to write about their products?

I’d probably take a commission to write a piece for them if they want me to, for their own websites or use… I am a freelance writer after all! But I wouldn’t want to write advertorials for my blog, because that is very much my space. I don’t have a problem with other bloggers writing advertorials, though. That’s their prerogative for their blogs, and not my business!

What do you think Singapore’s media scene will look like in five years’ time, with the way things are going?

I don’t know if we’d be able to break the government’s control over the mainstream media; I doubt that we’d see an independent broadsheet, for example. I think we have to look to the internet – I hope that there will be more investment in online news so that journalists in Singapore can do their work at a professional standard rather than just being bloggers or volunteers.

If you were in power, what’s the first thing you’d change about Singapore’s media scene?

I would free the mainstream media. I don’t think the government should get to appoint key board members of the media, and I believe that we should allow more plurality in the media landscape.

Kirsten Han is author of the blog #Spuddings. She has written for Asian Correspondent, The Online Citizen, Huffington Post and Yahoo! Singapore, and is the co-founder of a campaign against capital punishment in Singapore.