Tuesday 14 August 2012

The rightful slaughter of Three-Legged Chicken

Former editor of The Straits Times on why he barred pseudonyms in the Forum page 23 years ago - and why online forums should do the same
By Leslie Fong For The Straits Times, 13 Aug 2012

JUST two years into my 15-year watch as editor of this newspaper, I pushed through a major change in editorial policy - banning the use of pseudonyms in any of its pages. It was a controversial move. Most of my senior colleagues as well as some of my bosses advised me against it. They feared that contributions, especially letters to our Forum Page, would dry up. But I remained confident that even if there were to be a decline, that would be more than offset by the increase in the quality of public discussion that would come from doing away with pseudonyms.

Before the ban, effective from July 1, 1989, readers were allowed to use just their initials or fancy pen-names like Three-Legged Chicken. I had long been uncomfortable with the practice, which went against my conviction that public discourse in Singapore should be guided by openness, transparency and accountability. There should be no exception unless identification posed a real threat to life and limb.

What goaded me to act was the absurdity to which the use of pseudonyms had sunk. Three-Legged Chicken, for example, was the pen-name chosen by a senior government minister in a long-running debate on Singapore's political development. He wrote with flourish and argued his case persuasively but his use of the moni-ker deprived readers of a very pertinent fact that would have helped them to form their own judgment of the issues being debated - that his were not the views of an independent observer but those of a top leader in the ruling party.

I decided to end the fowl play.

In a signed notice to readers published on June 8 that year, I explained: "The change in editorial policy stems from our belief that it is time more Singaporeans stood up for what they believe in.

"In our view, space ought to go only to those readers who have the courage of their convictions to put a name to what they want to say.

"We believe too that identification will, in the long term, result in a better mailbag - greater accuracy, sharper arguments and more temperate language."

Well, the letters did not stop coming after July 1. Nor did quality suffer.

That was 1989. Now, let me fast forward to the present and ask aloud: Do the arguments against the use of pseudonyms apply to online discussion?

I would say yes, emphatically.

Nothing has changed, except the medium. If rational, responsible debate of policies and issues of public interest is the desired outcome, then why should not these principles that make that possible in print apply to online discussion as well?

Indeed looking at the amount of abusive language, wanton name-calling, deliberate distortions, outright lies and blatant character assassination that masquerade as online commentary, I would argue that the call for greater transparency could not have come any sooner.

Surely an online forum in which participants are prepared to stand up for what they say carries that much more credibility! Ditto for blogs. If nothing else, a writer not hiding behind a moniker is bound to be a lot less cavalier with facts and a lot more rigorous in his reasoning, and measured in his choice of words.

Doubtless some will argue that it is the quality of a posting that matters, not who wrote it. I beg to differ. Yes, one should judge the arguments raised on their merits but the identity of the writer is not unimportant. It does matter whether the author of a powerful piece advocating, say, the scrapping of group representation constituencies (GRCs) is an Establishment figure or a leading light in the opposition camp. Or whether he is from a minority ethnic group.

Others will say that a writer might not wish to identify himself because his employment terms forbid him from taking part in any public debate, especially on sensitive public issues. Or because the views expressed might lead to embarrassment or worse for his employer.

I understand that. All I can say in response is that first, that concern has not affected the development of the ST's Forum page. Of course I have no way of determining whether a lot more letters of high quality would have arrived in our mailbag had identification not been a hurdle for those worried about being penalised by their employers. I suspect it has not been the case.

Second, association between a writer and his company or employer is seldom immediate or apparent. And, more often than not, it is not even relevant if what he writes on has nothing to do with his company. For instance, I read a recent online piece on the values that should define a Singaporean. It was by someone using the moniker singaporearmchaircritic, and was well written. I am puzzled by his -, or her - choice of anonymity. And I see no good reason why an employer would want to take to task employees for expressing their views on a matter of great interest to our nation - and very thought-provoking these were too.

Finally, in this day and age, employers should desist from restricting their employees' right to free expression. They should be enlightened enough to distinguish between an employee's personal views and those that will hurt their business or reputation. Yes, a cigarette manufacturer has every right to look askance at an employee who speaks out loudly against smoking but will look downright silly for taking him to task for writing in support of, say, stiffer fines against litterbugs.

At the other end of the scale, tolerating the use of pseudonyms or monikers is an open invitation to individuals and lobby groups to push their vested interests without fear of discovery. The Internet, as a platform, is particularly vulnerable to such abuses, precisely because anyone can post anything without declaring who he is or for whom he is fronting.

I expect some will say that verification is going to be difficult. Well, maybe, but I choose to believe that it is not beyond the ingenuity or capability of anyone starting or running an online forum to think of some ways to verify that contributors are indeed who they say they are - if he is serious about it. All the more so if the postings are to be moderated beforehand. Yes, it will take a bit more time and effort but - hey, what's the point of rushing if the forum is to be a serious, credible platform for weighty, intelligent discussion!

To be sure, I know I will be mocked for trying to turn the tide back, or worse. And I have no illusion that pseudonyms online will disappear any time soon. But it is not as if as individuals, we are all powerless. For a start, we can stop visiting forums that permit, if not encourage, malicious raving and ranting by cowards who hide behind anonymity.

If enough discerning readers opt increasingly to read and take seriously only those who are prepared to stand up for what they want to say, then, over time, Singaporeans may yet see more and more home-grown, mind-broadening and purposeful discussion online.

I await the day when, to use a Chinese political expression, the fragrant flowers of rational discussion will displace those poisonous weeds of wilful guttersniping.

The writer, former editor of The Straits Times, is the senior executive vice-president for marketing, Singapore Press Holdings.

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