New Naratif: Where activism meets journalism in the unlikely setting of Singapore

Singaporean journalist and activist Kirsten Han tells Mumbrella Asia’s Eleanor Dickinson why she decided to launch a new South East Asian media platform, how she will avoid government censorship and why her publication New Naratif will shun advertising

Kirsten Han is something of an anomaly on the Singaporean media scene. Having spent the bulk of her journalism career freelancing for Western press outlets and campaigning against Singapore’s death penalty, she has become a rare voice of dissent in a media landscape seen to be over-laden with spin and self-censorship.

Now, following a period of crackdowns against independent press in Singapore, the local hack has teamed up with academic PJ Thum and cartoonist Sonny Liew to found a new, crowd-funded platform for journalism, art and research covering South East Asia. Aptly named New Naratif, a beta-version of the site has already launched, and is expected to fully roll out as soon as the membership – and funding – increases.

Here’s what Han had to say to Mumbrella Asia about the progress of New Naratif:

As journalist in Singapore, what led you to go against the usual grain and work freelance as opposed to writing for the large mainstream press organisations?

“My first experience was as a blogger for [the independent media outlet] The Online Citizen, which was a very critical online space. And I wrote a quite a few critical commentaries for them and I have taken a strong activist role on a number of issues: I worked on the Anti-Death Penalty campaign plus a lot of free speech, LBGT and migrant worker campaigns.

“So when I became a professional journalist, I couldn’t go back and say ‘I was never critical or an activist’. I assumed I wouldn’t get a job in the mainstream media and I didn’t want to work for them anyway, based on what I heard from friends who had. So I have always worked freelance – for Australian and UK publications {including ABC and The Guardian} most of the time. Being freelance gave me the freedom to write about what I cared about, whether it was paid or unpaid. But it was through the activist work that I met PJ and Sonny, who became the other two founders.”

Why and how did you choose the name New Naratif?

“It was a long process. PJ, Sonny and I were meeting altogether for the first time in a cafe, discussing our plans, and got stuck for hours on a name. We didn’t get anywhere. And then we got a few more people in the group, and the name ‘New Naratif’ just came up: it seemed to fit because we want to change the way people think and relate to South East Asia. We also wanted to spell narrative in Bahasa because we wanted to reflect the connection to South East Asia. Down the road, our dream is to have content in multiple languages: but that’s a very long-term goal.”

There are a lot of media outlets in Singpore, both owned and independent. How do you plan to do things differently with New Naratif?

“What we’re doing is quite different from the rest of the Singaporean players. We cover South East Asia and not just Singapore. In terms of vision, we’re different because we’re not a media company. We’re not selling products in terms of stories; we’re trying to be more engaging than that. We’re trying to build a movement, to get people to connect with us and explore issues on a regional level. The way we describe ourselves is a member-funded, multi-media website covering South East Asian journalism, art and research. We will have comics, videos and  podcasts: we’re playing to our different strengths. Mine is journalism, PJ’s is academia, Sunny’s is comics.”

“There aren’t a lot of media publications out there that aren’t trying to beat the news cycle. We want to go deeper and not only report on what’s happened, but why.

“There is a gap of connectivity in that we all read in our own silos in South East Asia: Malaysia reads about Malaysia, Singapore about Singapore, and so on. And the news websites encourage that by dividing their sites into countries. We are trying to break that and look at issues rather than countries because there is a lot we share. As a Singaporean, I feel we are quite cut off from the rest of Asia. Do we know what’s happening in Cambodia and Vietnam? When I was growing up I knew more about the US and the UK than I did about my neighbours.”

How will you run the operation to begin with? Will you have a team reporting to you?

“We will have a team of freelancers who we will commission reporters in each of the countries. We want to avoid having just me writing stories from Singapore. There are lots of talented reporters in South East Asia and one of our principles is that we must pay them. When we have money, we will commission on-the-ground journalists. They don’t necessarily have to be South East Asian themselves, but we don’t want to just parachute reporters in to try and extrapolate Myanmar for example.”

And how do you plan to write critically about say Singapore and still bypass the defamation laws and the potential clampdowns here. Even if you are based in Singapore, are you registered here?

“No we’re not based here. We registered as company in the UK, so we have no legal presence in South East Asia. Because of that, everyone, myself included, is hired as a freelancer. We structured it this way to protect New Naratif as much as possible. There is only so much we can protect our reporters though.

“For the reporters, it’s important to me that they are comfortable with stories with their bylines. Because I have had experiences with editors in the West, who have edited my articles in a way that has made me unsafe in Singapore. It’s important to us that we have a dialogue with our reporters on what they are safe writing about. It’s very covert how they deal with the press here: if you’re Singaporean they may take you in for questioning, seize your phone and laptop. If you’re a foreigner they can cancel your visa. But in other countries, it’s much more overt. In the Philippines, journalists have been killed.”

Did you set up New Naratif partly out of the need for a more diverse media scene in Singapore, especially following the gazetting of The Online Citizen?

“Well when I first started in 2010, there wasn’t that much, but now there is a lot more. In that sense it’s good. But some of these sites, like the mothership.sg, a lot of questions have been asked about where the money is coming from. Sometimes they do advertorials and they say they’re sponsored, but they won’t tell you who sponsored them. These are problems that can make the online sphere more diverse than it is: there may be 10 blogs, but six may be owned by the establishment. That’s worrying. And that’s why it’s important for us to be open and transparent: if we say we stand for human rights and free speech, we have to stand as a model of that behaviour.”

Beyond crowd-funding, do you have any other monetisation plans in place?  

“Not so much. Yes we need to make sure we sustain ourselves and make sure everyone gets paid. In terms of business, we are probably a terrible business, but because we are non-profit, the money is only important inasmuch as enabling us to do the work. We’re focusing on the membership and getting people involved. We have a minimum goal of a 3,500-person membership [each paying $52 per year]; that would allow us to publish a few articles per week. When we reach 5,500, we can do one a day. And the dream of if we reach 12,000 means I can be a full-time staffer and we can do a wider range of projects; however at 3,500 I’m still working for free. We’re not making any money out of this.”

What are the ideal kind of stories you want to publish on New Naratif? Will the style be influenced by your interest in activist-related issues?

“Well they don’t necessarily have to be activism-related, but they have to be rich in context. Because we’re not doing the ‘breaking news’ thing, we have more time and to look into underlying factors. Hard news is often driven by events, but we want to look at the historical and political context, and look at what’s on the ground and see what South East Asians are experiencing. We don’t just want ‘this happened in Vietnam and now what is the US foreign policy interest in this?’. It really should be about the people here.

“In addition I want to cover stories to connect the region. We share a lot of issues we don’t realise we share. Singapore talks a lot about migrant workers, but so much of the coverage is Singapore-focused that we’ve forgotten these workers are our neighbours. For example, what is the impact on the Philippines when so many of their women leave to work as domestic help in Singapore? Or Indonesian workers?

“I once worked on a story that never got published about an Indonesian worker who was severely injured while working in Singapore, and just sent back. We followed her to Indonesia, saw where she lived and it was obvious that there is terrible regional inequality. And while the Indonesian government has said it will ban sending its women here, it is not strong enough to support them in Indonesia – there are not enough jobs. And that is something we just don’t talk about.

“In Singapore, we still look at migrant worker issues in a top-down way. We say ‘it’s terrible when a worker is beaten by their employer’, but we never look at the structural issues in place. Structurally they are in a very vulnerable position. Employers may look at the story, think it’s awful while not realising that by confiscating their worker’s phone and passport, they too are engaging in exploitation. That’s why we want to look at the underlying forces in this region.”

Does having a business model not based on advertising give you more freedom to write?

“Well, it means we don’t have to worry about the advertisers will say about our content. But also, governments can use that business profit motive to clamp down on [publishers]. For example, the Malaysian government caused The Malaysian Insider to shut down because of the pressure [they put] on the advertisers, so it ran out of money. We also have the principle that when you sell advertising, the advertiser becomes the customer and the audience the product. Instead, for us the audience are the owners and the co-creators so we do not believe in selling them to advertisers.”

What are the next steps to get New Naratif up and running?

“The main objective now is to boost the number of members and then it’s to build up the site. Right now we have the preview and then a basic, stripped-down version of the site. Then we want to add more features and just keep building it as and when we can afford to pay our developers. That’s the step-by-step goal, and now we’re discussing keeping people engaged while we do not have the full site. Even if it’s just on our Facebook page, it’s important people have some say and ownership in this project. We want people to pay for our project not because they want to get past a paywall but because they believe in the cause. We have a responsibility to them to build this together.”


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