The purpose and mission of TOC is found on its website:
TOC began in December 2006 with a simple aim in mind: telling the stories about Singapore and Singaporeans that weren’t being told in the mainstream press.
TOC is a blog site which endeavours to reflect the views and opinions of ordinary Singaporeans. It is a platform which welcomes contributions from the man in the street, the average citizen who is concerned about issues facing our country.
Here at TOC, Singaporeans share their honest opinions.
TOC does not pretend to be right all the time in what we say. We are open to corrections and even criticisms. It is our hope that through the honest and civil exchange of views, all of us will benefit and perhaps take public discourse, especially on controversial issues, to a higher and mature level.
TOC, as our tagline says, endeavours to be a Community of Singaporeans – concerned citizens who care enough to express their views.
On Journalism.sg, media academic and former Straits Times editor Cherian George described TOC as one of the bright spots in citizen journalism in 2008. He said: "Serious-minded and purposeful, [TOC is] emerging as the medium of choice in its chosen niche: alternative, independent analysis of Singaporean public affairs. It has also engaged in offline activism, strengthening its branding as a believer in active citizenship."
TOC has also been featured extensively in the mainstream media. A full-length feature article about TOC appeared in The Straits Times on 3 October 2008:
Won't play HIDE & SPEAK
By Jeremy Au Yong, Political Correspondent
WHAT really sparked it all off for Mr Andrew Loh was a half-hour television news bulletin in May 2006, focusing on the General Election. He timed the coverage given to contesting parties: 28 minutes for the People's Action Party (PAP), and two for the opposition.
The tally dissatisfied him. Insufficient air time was being given to opposing views, the then 40-year-old felt. So he decided to start a blog.
He could afford the time: he was helping his brother run a restaurant then, and had no other job.
And of course he was a tad partisan: He was at that time helping the Workers' Party team in Ang Mo Kio GRC.
At around the same time, and unknown to Mr Loh, a National University of Singapore law student was toying with a similar blog idea. Mr Choo Zheng Xi, then 21, manned an online mailing list for university students called Young Republic.
It took one of Singapore's most famous Netizens at the time - Miss Gayle Goh - to bring the two strangers together. She knew both and told them of each other when she heard their similar ideas.
She had hit the headlines that year for her own blog entry which took issue with remarks made by Mr Bilahari Kausikan, Second Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in a speech at her junior college.
Through Ms Goh, the two met over coffee. That same December, The Online Citizen was born.
The rise of The Online Citizen
IN THE beginning, the site was largely indistinguishable from most other political blogs. In its first few months, it received an unremarkable 100 to 200 hits.
This figure would grow and grow over the next two years, but the site really entered national consciousness only this year, after it started to make its presence felt offline.
First, they hit the streets, conducting a poll together with Nominated MP Siew Kum Hong. They did face-to-face interviews with 478 people in Jurong GRC in August to get their thoughts on whether a by-election should be held in the constituency after the sudden death of MP Ong Chit Chung.
Mr Siew presented the results in Parliament during a debate on the by-election.
Two weeks ago, the new media advocates went even more old-school, taking to the soapbox at Speakers' Corner in Hong Lim Park to protest against public transport fare hikes.
The event drew a crowd of 150 people, the largest at Speakers' Corner since protests were allowed there on Sept 1.
The move out of the cyber world into the real one, they explain, is a way for them to walk the talk, and lend more credibility to the calls for policy change they make online.
Says IT consultant Gerald Giam, 31, one of the blog's four founding members: 'If you want to achieve the kind of change we claim to want on our blog, we have to get our hands dirty and get on the ground, rather than preach to the converted. People in cyberspace who read blogs are a small minority in Singapore. We have to step out of our little sandbox if we really want to make some change.'
The site now gets up to 10,000 hits a day, coming from around 5,000 visitors, making it the most popular socio-political blog in the country.
As of yesterday, The Online Citizen was the 1,925th most-viewed site in Singapore, according to web information company Alexa.
In contrast, two other popular socio-political blogs - Yawning Bread and Mr Wang Says So - are ranked 3,927th and 6,307th respectively. The official Singapore Democratic Party website is at position 2,742.
In fact, traffic to the site was so high in the days following the Olympics table-tennis saga in August that their servers crashed.
From just a handful of writers putting up a few articles every week, the blog now has a team of 40 helpers, with some focusing on making videos and graphics for the blog.
Who are the Citizens?
INSIGHT met 17 of them last week to talk about The Online Citizen, or TOC as they call it.
The group is a mix of people of different ages, with different jobs and backgrounds. But they share one common passion: they each want to say something about politics in Singapore.
Among the most politically active are Mr Loh and Mr Choo. Mr Loh quit the Workers' Party this April to focus on the site. He had earlier stopped helping his brother to run his restaurant. He has been living on his savings, he says.
Mr Choo, now in his third year as a law undergraduate, served as a legislative assistant to West Coast GRC MP Ho Geok Choo between August last year and this March. Eight years ago, at age 15, he became the youngest person ever to make a speech at Speakers' Corner.
TOC's youngest member is 17-year-old Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts music student Mervin Lee.
Its oldest is 60-year-old Tan Kin Lian, the retired former chief of insurance firm NTUC Income. Mr Tan, alongside Mr Leong Sze Hian, 59, the president of the Society of Financial Service Professionals, are the two most recognisable faces in the team. Both write weekly columns on various topics on the site and see it as a valuable platform for alternative views.
Says Mr Tan, who also has a personal blog: 'I hope The Online Citizen can be a channel for Singaporeans to read the views of other people that are different from those of the mainstream media.'
Mr Leong was so enthusiastic about the platform that he initially submitted articles every other day.
'But Andrew kept rejecting my articles,' he laughs, as Mr Loh explained that they needed to give other writers a chance. They worked out a compromise, with Mr Leong appearing only on Mondays.
While Mr Leong was actively courted by Mr Loh to join the team, most of the others sent e-mail messages saying they wanted in. No one has yet been turned away.
No one gets paid for contributions.
The entire endeavour did not generate a cent until a few months ago. Even then, the first two cheques they received for Google Ads on their site were for $232 and $311.
'It's barely enough to cover the cost of web hosting,' says Mr Giam. A web host is a large computer that is on all the time. Websites pay to rent space in such computers.
How they work
WITH a team now big enough to run a small newspaper, it is perhaps no surprise that they are adopting some of the processes of a newspaper. No story goes onto the site before one of their editors looks at it.
One member, Ms Selene Cheng, 24, who works as an editor for an oil and gas magazine, came up with a stylebook dictating how certain words and phrases should be used. 'But nobody follows it,' she laments.
The main team - Mr Loh, Mr Choo, Mr Giam, Ms Cheng and communications undergraduate Terence Lee, 22 - choose when to put out stories.
They censor some articles submitted. 'Anything that looks defamatory is out, as is anything to do with race, religion or personal attacks,' explains Mr Choo.
Mr Loh goes through comments on the site to make sure the discourse remains civil.
Unlike many other blogs, TOC requires writers to reveal their identities. Only under certain circumstances - like when the writer's employer forbids blogging - do they publish a piece without a name.
Says Mr Loh: 'One of the biggest criticisms against bloggers is they are anonymous. TOC has shown we are not people hitting from the shadows. We are here, this is our real name and we have come out into real life.'
And though they insist anonymity does not automatically result in a lack of credibility, their policy has made people take their views more seriously.
Mr Leong, for example, says he occasionally gets invited to meet representatives of government agencies because of articles he has written.
'They will explain personally why certain things can be done and why certain things cannot,' he says.
A PAP front?
TOC has drawn its share of flak. Some Netizens take issue with what they regard as an overly moderate point of view and cast aspersions on the site's true motives.
One persistent rumour is that The Online Citizen is PAP-run, a bid by the ruling party to control online discourse. There is even talk that Mr Loh was once a PAP member.
Not true, he says.
They scoff at talk that they are on the PAP payroll, saying the attacks on their site are coming from a small minority with an axe to grind.
In particular, they note, most of the criticisms have come out of one blog known as Wayang Party.
Says Mr Choo: 'Any time there is something that is competently run, people will say the PAP is behind it.'
The team stresses they are neither pro-PAP nor pro-opposition, and want simply to advocate what they think is right.
'We have been critical but we won't be critical for the sake of it. We will give credit where credit is due,' says Mr Choo.
While much of the site contains criticisms of government policy, an occasional piece takes issue with the opposition.
A recent one, called 'Flawed statement of an opposition politician', rebutted statements from Singapore People's Party chairman Sin Kek Tong. Mr Sin had questioned if political issues could engage Singaporeans' hearts and minds, while their standard of living was kept high.
Still, with no shortage of articles taking aim at the Government, the writers say some family members worry about the possibility of a backlash.
Says Ms Rachel Chung, 30, who runs a website selling clothes: 'They have this niggling feeling that I will be ostracised, like it will be harder to get a flat or harder for kids I may have in future to get into good schools.'
Some like Mr Terence Lee prefer not to discuss the matter with their parents at all, while others like Mr Choo say his parents - his father is a real estate agent and his mother, an assistant at a provision shop - are supportive although they warn him to be careful.
'When I was 16, my mother gave me an autographed J.B. Jeyaretnam book because she knew I was interested in politics. But she put a Chinese saying on the cover - 'A battle is won on the skulls of a thousand' - to warn me that politics can be dangerous.'
Not surprisingly, when asked if they would consider joining politics, 16 of the 17 shake their heads. Only Ms Selene Cheng says she is considering it.
ASKED if the team hope to some day be the Singaporean equivalent of popular Malaysian news site Malaysiakini, the answer is a simple 'I don't know'.
'We are focusing on our short-term projects,' says Mr Choo.
They are trying to build a network on social networking site Facebook and to get tie-ups with other publications.
Their Facebook group has some 200 members and they recently entered into an agreement with Malaysiakini to allow them to publish some of the site's news for free. They are also starting a new section targeted at youth and youth issues, like tuition fee hikes.
Mr Loh hopes his work on the site will someday bring in a profit, but he stresses he is pragmatic about the endeavour.
He says: 'We are real people. If we don't help ourselves, we cannot help anyone. At the end of the day, if there comes a time when I can no longer sustain it, I'll just take it down. It's just a blog.'