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NOVEMBER 3, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 43 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK


Munschi Ahmed for Asiaweek.
"Few things are too offbeat or radical for Shame. It is young, hip and colorful. But no one will be too old too like it".

Testing Political Limits
A new magazine rides the Internet wave
By JACINTHA STEPHENS Singapore

James Gomez thinks of himself as a "political entrepreneur." His dotcom enterprise, the Think Center online network, sells political products. To keep customers interested, says the 35-year-old onetime student unionist, he must come out regularly with new and innovative items. First came his website, on which he has posted articles on such controversial figures as longtime prisoner of conscience Chia Thye Poh and exiled oppositionist Tang Liang Hong. Next was Gomez's provocative self-published book Self-Censorship: Singapore's Shame, which criticized what he saw as citizens' unwillingness to challenge authority. The Think Center then began a series of public forums on sensitive topics from human rights to the role of civil society. And when the government recently launched a Speaker's Corner in a public park to foster public discussions, Gomez showed up with his colleagues in a T-shirt sporting the face of Anwar Ibrahim, Malaysia's jailed former deputy prime minister.

Now Gomez has released yet another eyebrow-raising product to test Singapore's traditionally buttoned-up political culture: Shame, a magazine offshoot of his book. Debuting Oct. 7, the journal had a print run of 5,000 copies and a price tag of $4.90. "Shame furthers the discussion of politics locally," said lawyer Kevin Tan of the discussion group Roundtable at the publication's launch. "That is a very good sign." The event coincides with signals that the government may be willing to loosen the boundaries of public debate as it seeks to make Singapore a high-technology hub in the Internet age.

Shame was launched to mark the first anniversary of Think Center, whose stated agenda is to examine local political development, rule of law and human rights. Its archives provided some of the material that appeared in the magazine. Some of the articles focus on the group's evolution, especially its growing pains during the past year. Others are opinion pieces by, or featuring, civil society leaders as well as Singapore and Malaysian oppositionists like J.B. Jeyaretnam, Chee Soon Juan and Lim Guan Eng. "The target reader is anyone who is interested in politics, but generally 18 and up," says Gomez. "Nothing is too offbeat and few things are too radical for Shame. The magazine is young, hip and colorful. But it does not allow anyone to be too old to like it."

Gomez has avoided government censors for now, since the magazine is a one-off edition. Such publications don't require a license. (The authorities license some 16 dailies, 22 local newsmagazines and 114 journals under the "entertainment" label.) But if Think Center wants to publish follow-up issues, it will have to obtain one. Gomez tapped his relationship with leading local publisher MPH, which had launched his book, to help distribute and sell the magazine.

The debut of Shame came a month after that of Speaker's Corner, modeled after its famous namesake in London's Hyde Park. There, citizens are free to speak their minds, provided they register first and avoid topics like race and religion. Though public response has been tepid, advocates of civil rights are enthusiastic. "Civil society now stands at the cusp of a new era," says lawyer Tan. "Much of society and even the government have moved beyond the outmoded thinking of treating all [NGOs] as opposition surrogates."

The key to the change in official attitudes may be the Internet's rapid advance in Singapore. Some 59% of local households own computers and 42% have online access. "While restrictions have long forced groups to comply with all sorts of regulations on meetings and registration, the virtual environment has opened up the vistas," says Tan. "No longer are civil-society actors constrained by the shackles of official rules." Singapore authorities are well aware of the trends. "To serve the nation in the digital economy," said Defense Minister Tony Tan recently, "the government is prepared to do things differently." Though he referred specifically only to ongoing efforts to liberalize telecommunications and encourage information-technology projects, many listeners heard broader implications.

The media industry is livening up as well. In June, Information and Arts Minister Lee Yock Suan announced that the two main media groups would be granted licenses for new ventures — Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) to publish two new dailies and run a pair of television channels, and MediaCorp to put out a newspaper. "Our media must keep up with the competition or lose their relevance," said Lee. "Competition will be particularly intense for the attention of our young, who are more educated and Net-savvy."

For media professionals, that means more resources and jobs. P.N. Balji, a 30-year SPH veteran, has moved to MediaCorp to start the nation's newest paper, Today, which launches next month. "Newspapers still have to get a license and renew it every year," he says. "But the room for maneuver is now bigger. By how much, we will only know when a raw nerve is touched and a reaction comes." For the moment, though, Singapore's libertarians are excited enough.

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