The subject of national identity has caught the attention of Singaporeans. Who is a Singaporean? What makes a Singaporean? Some think you have to be born and bred on the island, using terms like “true blue Singaporean” or “native Singaporean”. Others think that time and commitment is enough. Still others don’t think that it matters at all.
Even before the great reveal of the Population White Paper people were already talking about the Singaporean identity, drawing lines between citizens, new citizens, Permanent Residents (PRs), foreigners, etc. All of this informs the way in which we perceive one another, which in turn affects our views on policies, entitlements and rights.
When I first came to Cardiff University I wanted to do my Masters dissertation on the government-launched National Conversation. I wanted to track the progress of the conversation and what effect or impact it had on the populace. But as time went by I realised that there was another conversation going on, by far more interesting and more important to Singaporean society: that of nationalism and national identity.
In my dissertation I compare mainstream and alternative media coverage of three case studies: Amy Cheong’s racist Facebook comments, the SMRT bus strike and the Population White Paper. Looking at The Straits Times, TODAY, The Online Citizen and Temasek Review Emeritus I paid particular attention to who got the loudest voice in the media and how issues or groups were framed to invoke ideas of nationalism and a unified Singaporean identity.
The final product is a 184-page (including appendices) beast made up of content and critical discourse analysis. What it found was that the mainstream and alternative media use remarkably similar tactics to construct nationalism and national identity, addressing Singaporeans (almost exclusively) and encouraging them to think of themselves as a single cohesive group. Both mainstream and alternative media play on the ‘Us versus Them’ dichotomy to get Singaporeans to identify with one another while juxtaposed against ‘Others’, and were more than willing to feed a ‘siege mentality’.
However, there was one major difference. While the mainstream media’s ‘Us versus Them’ binary was usually just about Singaporeans contrasted against everyone else, another dichotomy was found in alternative media: Singaporeans versus the State. While the mainstream media would include the government – and by extension, the People’s Action Party (PAP) – as part of ‘Us’, the alternative media was much more likely to exclude them.
This isn’t particularly surprising; the mainstream media has long been known to favour the establishment, and therefore much more likely to be on the side of the ruling party. Meanwhile, the alternative media has provided a platform for those with different perspectives, and predictably skews away from pro-government sentiment. The political implications of these different platforms have been examined, but my dissertation focuses on the social implication and finds that between the mainstream and alternative media we find very different formulations of what ‘Singaporean’ refers to.
I cannot say which formulation is right and which is wrong; in fact, I don’t believe there is an answer to this question. I also pass no judgement (in this dissertation, at least) about whether nationalism in Singapore is a bad or good thing. What my findings indicate, though, is that alternative media platforms have provided Singaporeans with a new, easily-accessible opportunity to challenge the establishment narrative, and to become the authors of our own identity.
(I have to admit that the results of these challenges aren’t always positive: there’s no shortage of angry, exclusionary, xenophobic bile in alternative media.)
At the end of the day, this was an academic piece of work. I have many connections to the alternative/online media scene in Singapore, but in this research I have tried to be as balanced and critical as possible. In fact, I would be the first to say that my analysis of mainstream and alternative media articles has shown that there is a lot of pretty objectionable stuff in alternative media.
I don’t know how many people will read this; considering the length, probably not a lot. But for those who do, I hope that it’ll contribute to the ongoing discussion.