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Government should choose engagement over confrontation with TOC

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By Ghui
Now that The Online Citizen (TOC) has been publicly named and shamed by Minister Shanmugam over the Benjamin Lim tragedy, some have gone on to speculate as to why the government has not engaged with TOC.
PN Balji in his recent article has made an educated assumption and suggested that the lack of traction between the government and TOC is because “the government does not see TOC as a “friendly” website like, for example, The Straits Times. It is one of a couple of websites that has not had an interview with a Minister, yet another indication of where TOC stands in the government’s popularity scales.”
I cannot agree with this astute presumption more. From its lack of engagement with TOC to it gazetting TOC as a political organisation to the raft of online media reforms, the message that TOC is not the government media outlet of choice couldn’t be more apparent. Yet, it cannot have escaped the government’s observations that TOC is undoubtedly popular, which begs the question of why the government does not see fit to engage the oldest existing website in Singapore’s social-political, and instead appeared to have done everything possible to limit its resources and reach.
Perhaps we can begin with ascertaining the meaning of a “friendly” website. To me, a “friendly” website would be a website that seeks to publish facts and well thought out commentaries without favouritism.
While I do not possess sufficient information to pronounce TOC as such, I would not classify TOC as necessarily unfriendly to the government. There have certainly been occasions where TOC has published articles that have been favourable to the government. Based on my years of reading and writing for the website, my experience has been that it has always attempted to show both sides of the story.
Why then has the government given TOC the cold shoulder? Could it perhaps be that they have a very different idea as to what constitutes friendly? Are they only interested in engaging with sites that will only publish their versions of events without further question or investigation? If so, is that approach still relevant in our digital age?
Indeed, some very learned individuals have observed that with the past two general elections, the level of political awareness has only increased and Singaporeans are now clamouring for more alternative voices in government. And there is no stronger proof of this than the electoral reforms proposed by PM Lee to ensure at least 12 opposition candidates in Parliament. In response, shouldn’t the government also embrace the desire for the same diversity and have a more open mind towards alternative media outlets?
benjamin limI can understand that the government would have concerns with websites that seek to needlessly incite violence and tension just for the sake of it, or media outlets whose sole aim is to bring the government down without rhyme or reason. Given that TOC has attempted to reach out to the government over the Benjamin Lim case, the government should have been assured that TOC is not one such website. While it most certainly is not a website that will simply be a mouthpiece for the government, I don’t see it as a website that will set out to irresponsibly tarnish the government’s reputation, if all it seeks is both sides of the story.
Our government has been in power for over 50 years. Given its many accolades of which we are constantly reminded of, surely they don’t need to have an overly compliant media that can only report their version of events? Surely an independent website giving the mainstream media some healthy competition is a boon? Couldn’t the government also glean some useful information from engaging with an entity which will not simply kowtow?
Besides, aren’t we all adults who have to learn to work with people we may not always like or agree with? Such is life! The government may not like TOC but is that really the point? Whether it likes it or not, TOC is considered to be a credible alternative news outlet by the online community. The online community grows by the minute and these are people who are or who will one day be part of the voting public. Surely engagement with TOC would be a positive forum for the government to give its side of the story and challenge TOC directly on its version of events?
Perhaps the government does not want to legitimise TOC by engaging with it; but that’s just unrealistic and ignores the fact that TOC has already earned a high level of legitimacy among its sizeable readership, who know what TOC can deliver and are comfortable with it. Indeed, there is a good chance that Minister Shanmugam’s latest remarks has only cemented this credibility further.
This is something that the government must accept. I don’t know enough to say whether or not TOC’s reporting is always spot on, but I do know that the quickest way to dispel any rumours on the part of the government is to publicly engage with TOC and discredit it point by point.
It is the failure to engage, not what TOC actually publishes, that would cost the government its public reputation, even if it has absolutely no desire to cover up anything.

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