I was recently approached by the Straits Times to comment on the current state of Singapore political and satire websites. In the light of my eloquently expressed views, the ST published absolutely nothing of what I said (but they were kind enough to publish an entire link to my site, wow!). Here is a full transcript of that interview.
I am a reporter with The Straits Times. I am doing an update on political/discussion/news websites and newsgroups on Singapore, so naturally I need to talk to you.
Hope you can answer these questions:
1) Would you like to reveal who you are? Or at least say how many of you there are, what are your age range, occupation types, and whether you are based in Singapore? (Kin Mun, some details would be nice about you, and how/why you started this.)
No, because I am a very private person who is afraid of divine retribution from the Gahmen.
But if you like, you can see my photo, my wedding photos, my toddler daughter photos, and one particularly good shot of Benedict Goh, on my website. Oh, and my name is on every single thing I have ever written.
Like I said, I am a very private person.
My site, Browntown (mrbrown.com) started in 1997, when the term Information Superhighway was still being used to describe the Internet. I started the site because a little Usenet (predecessor of the online forum) posting of mine called Singapore National Education made the rounds via email. I posted it in the soc.culture.singapore newsgroup (now owned by Google) and it spread like mad over email. I know it had been traveling because I received it a few weeks later in my own email inbox from someone who forwards jokes to me.
Sensing a Hollywood blockbuster in the making, I wrote another edition, and named it Singapore National Education Part 2. By the time I did Part 10, I got tired of readers writing me and asking for issues Part 1 to Part 9, so I set up the site to get them off my back.
I tried to rebrand the site sometime back because some kind readers pointed out to me that www.browntown.com was a porn site for people of colour. It is no longer in operation.
I am thirtysomething, living in the heartlands in a 4-room HDB flat, with a wife and one and a half kids (or 2 kids by the end of the year). I am a User Experience and Information Architecture consultant. And my wife is a fashion buyer. My daughter is currently unemployed but she is working on expanding her skill sets so that she can be World-class Toddler.
We are currently trying to get her into Singapore's well-oiled and well-funded school system for children with special needs. I hear they have managed to divert some of those Gifted Schools money (maybe the funds for the new Cray computers) to set up more special schools so that the waiting list can go down from 3 years to 2 years. Or something like that.
2) When did the website start? How has the site been doing in terms of visits, page views, and page hits. Could you provide figures for this month, say, and a year ago?
I started the site in 1997. I average a fairly consistent 200 to 300 visitors a day, and the highest day so far was July 14th 2003, when it hit 500 visitors. Even when I stopped updating for a year, I was getting about 100 visits a day. Not massive numbers but pretty good for a personal website that makes smart-ass remarks about the dysfunctional side of living in a very small, squeaky-clean country.
This month, my visitors hit 7000, probably because of the RJC video saga. My highest month was in August 1998, when I almost touched 10,000 visitors (but not in a personal way).
The figures above do not include the people who read my Singapore National Education postings via email. I reckon the number of people who read that and forward it to friends to be much much larger.
Aside from the local readership, I have readers from all over the world who have written me, even foreigners who cannot possibly be getting the Hokkien jokes, the local slang, or the local in-jokes. A lot of my readers overseas are either local students studying there, or Singaporeans who have migrated. You know, the Quitters.
3) What is your reaction to emergence of sites like The Optical?
They more the merrier. But they should have asked me first, before adding me to their Yahoo Group member list. But being a good Singaporean who is used to being opted-in automatically unless I choose to opt out, I did not have a cow about it.
5) How do you think your site is different from newsintercom, optical and especially Singapore Window, which like you also posts articles from various sources on Singapore?
My site is different because:
a. I do not post articles from various sources on Singapore. Unless the articles are funny and/or contain rude references to the body parts of politicians. I write most of my own stuff. The rest I steal.
b. The other sites post hard news and other material of journalistic integrity. I make stuff up.
c. I have animated gifs and graphics that move when your mouse moves over them. These other sites do not.
6) Does the Remaking Singapore etc make it different for the political environment, and does it have implications for the way websites like yours operate?
I do not think so. I was doing this site even before Remaking Singapore was called Singapore 21. I am still doing it the same way I did it 6 years ago. Waiting for a knock on the door at 2am.
Although I have to say that swanky sites like Remaking Singapore has put immense political pressure on me to revamp my extremely static site (circa 1997) with more sophisticated web features like a forum, quick polls, and scrolling news thingies.
I am seriously looking into introducing bungie jumping bar-top dancing on my site too.
7) Any other comments?
I think we should stop using the word Information Superhighway. And I think we should have a contest for Singaporeans to locate our OB Markers.
And where's Question 4?
Here is the actual newspaper report:
ST JULY 31, 2003
Mock(ing) water ads draw surfers
The 'ads' are among the varied, novel and sophisticated content of new alternative websites on S'pore affairs
By Tan Tarn How
WHEN Malaysia unleashed its newspaper advertisements on water against Singapore this month, it was not just the Government here that returned fire with its own advertisements.
An Internet website called The Void Deck also ran a hard-hitting campaign.
In one of eight made-up advertisements, it had the Malaysian government explaining 'Why Whack Singapore': 'Singapore is that tiny island, which we thought will die when separated from us. Forever doing better than us. So they deserved to be whacked.'
The Void Deck is among a handful of new websites that offer an increasingly varied diet of news and opinion on current affairs here.
Each is hoping to carve a niche in the alternative media, giving older and more well-known sites such as Sintercom a run for their money with more innovative content.
The Void Deck, for example, carries original material: comics and humour, such as its water advertisements, and online polls.
Its editors, who declined to be identified, added in an e-mail interview: 'Once in a while, we pretend to be like Straits Times editors and write our own column articles.'
Like other websites, it also carries foreign media articles and culls from other sites, including the popular satire site Talking Cock and discussion forum Sammyboy.
The novel content, such as the mock water advertisements, has led to an unprecedented number of visitors, according to its editors.
Another new political website is The Optical, which said it is aimed at politically apathetic Singaporeans 'who see political knowledge as less important than it really is'.
Like editors of The Void Deck, The Optical's editor insists on remaining anonymous, but lists 'herself' as female in a profile given for the e-mail address.
She and her four contributors are Singaporeans in their 20s and 30s, she told The Straits Times via e-mail.
About 2,000 subscribers have signed up since the site was launched in May, she said.
An up-and-coming rival is Singapore Review which started in January and is said to have 2,000 subscribers.
It claims to offer 'a fresh, frank and opinionated perspective' and an alternative 'to the Government-controlled and propaganda-ridden media', said its editor.
Choosing anonymity too, 'her' e-mail name is 'Melanie Hewlitt', which happens to be the moniker of an erotic pornographic writer on the Net.
But it is a sheer coincidence, said the editor, who would add only that she is a non-Singaporean journalist based overseas. She has two contributors here.
Some of the sites are more specialised, such as Ridzwan.com, which wants to promote inter-ethnic understanding.
Unlike the other websites, its editor is named - Mr Muhammad Ridzwan Rahmat, 23, a student from Australia's Curtin University of Technology.
On why they insist on anonymity, the other editors cited a fear of running afoul of a law which can require political websites to register.
Some editors said that by being anonymous, they can stay clear of this law and other curbs such as restrictions on political campaigning during an election.
Some, like The Void Deck, also register their websites overseas. Others, like Singapore Review, send out content by e-mail using mailing-list services.
Said The Optical's editor: 'The Singapore political system does not take too kindly to activists who are open about things - for example, Catherine Lim and the Think Centre.'
Associate Professor Ang Peng Hwa, dean of the Nanyang Technological University's School of Communication and Information, noted that the new sites are more sophisticated in their content than older discussion-only sites.
'This is partly the Internet growing up, becoming more serious, even though there is an element of playfulness.
'The playfulness, such as the satire, plugs a gap left by the mainstream media.'
Copyright @ 2003 Singapore Press Holdings. All rights reserved.