SINGAPORE: The man was seated quietly in a corner table at a café in Holland Village, somewhat blending in with the surroundings - a contrast to his attention-drawing online persona.
Dressed in slacks and a blue jacket with sleeves folded to the elbows over a tee, 33-year-old Michael Petraeus was hunkered over the menu as I stepped up to introduce myself.
The Polish national is the man behind Critical Spectator, a commentary blog which caught the attention of the Singapore public at the tail-end of 2018 and beginning of 2019.
While early posts took on issues such as Brexit, and more recently China's work culture and US politics, it was his critical takes on Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and the positive portrayals of the Singapore way that undoubtedly cast his hitherto unknown blog into the universe of Singapore's alternative news media.
Some of the headlines of these pieces included: “Mahathir must step down”, “Malaysia can’t win with Singapore – but it can lose a lot” and, more recently, “New Zealand tragedy could have been avoided if the world had studied Singapore”.
Some who read the overwhelmingly positive Singapore slant taken by Petraeus in his commentaries wondered about his motivation. When he posted a link to “Malaysia can’t win with Singapore – but it can lose a lot” on Facebook on Dec 13 last year, one of the comments include: “Such a pity, he wants Singapore citizenship so badly.”
A similar comment was made by former Straits Times journalist Bertha Henson in response to his post on New Zealand, who wrote on her Facebook page: “Give this guy… a Sg passport!”
Speaking to CNA, Petraeus was candid about his blog, the motivations behind his commentaries and his pro-Government slant.
“When I started the blog in 2015 … I just wanted a place to vent about my thoughts, the business and life in general,” the self-professed “global nomad” said.
The marketing and design consultant moved to Malaysia for work in 2010 and made it his home base until 2014. He subsequently travelled to wherever his work projects took him, before landing in Singapore in 2016. This is now his base. But he has no fixed abode, usually renting or staying with friends, he said.
“JUST ENJOYING THE POPULARITY”
So what made him write about Dr Mahathir and Singapore-Malaysia relations?
“Back in December, I was so worked up about the issues between Malaysia and Singapore as both countries are quite close and I was like: ‘What the hell is going on? It wasn’t supposed to be this way and I was looking forward to the high-speed railway!’” Petraeus shared.
He admitted that it came as a surprise that the post got “really popular”.
“I thought: ‘Wow, I didn’t expect this response; I only wrote the post and threw in a few bucks on Facebook to promote it.'"
The Dec 3 post calling on Dr Mahathir to step down became the blog’s top-read entry. The post received about 150,000 page views, said Petraeus, as he showed his blog’s audience figures, a significant spike from the average of “about a few thousand” clicks per post.
Today, his Facebook page has more than 4,900 followers while his Twitter account has 47 followers (at the time of writing). There are no figures for his blog itself as he said he doesn’t have a subscription model.
The high readership for some blog posts has motivated him to write more, but he has never thought of doing so as a business.
“Right now I’m just enjoying the popularity,” Petraeus said. “It’s like: ‘OK, well if people are coming and reading, I’m happy to deliver.’”
He added that in terms of material, “Malaysia kept delivering” whether it was the water agreement issue or plans for a flying car. “Just when you think: ‘OK, they’ve chilled out a minute, wham, something else.”
SHILL FOR THE SINGAPORE GOVERNMENT?
He was, however, keen to point out that he is not part of any alleged “Internet Brigade” (IB) or a shill for the Singapore Government.
“Singaporeans are good (to me), but there are some complainers who’d say: ‘Oh, the Internet Brigade is here.’ I don’t really care about this very much.”
He added: “(I mean,) I can barely pay for my (Web) hosting with the few dimes I get from the articles.”
As to whether he has an axe to grind with Malaysia, he begged to differ.
“I like Malaysia and I have Malaysian friends,” Petraeus said. “Both (Singapore and Malaysia) are in the position to cooperate and are both small compared to their neighbours. So what’s the muscle flexing for?”
The question was posed to him whether he has considered his position as a foreigner commenting on domestic and foreign policy issues concerning Singapore.
But Petraeus said no one in authority has contacted him.
“Some friends I have … I know that some people are curious (about my motivations). ‘Who’s this guy who keeps writing about Singapore and Malaysia?’ But I don’t think anybody made any further enquiries - at least to my knowledge,” he said.
They wondered if he had any plans for his blog, if he was someone’s propaganda tool or he was a fake persona, Petraeus elaborated.
“I am going to withhold my journeys across the border for a while (though),” he said, somewhat in jest. “Better be safe than sorry.”
SHIFTING THE FOCUS
As for his blog receiving foreign funding, the Pole said: “The only foreign funding comes from my own pocket!”
He recounted how someone had commented “who’s so rich to sponsor your post” after noticing that one of his Facebook posts was sponsored.
“It’s like I just threw in S$10 to sponsor the post on Facebook to get some traction initially,” he explained.
Ultimately, the Polish national who has made Singapore his home base feels that there is nothing wrong with a foreigner commenting on local issues and politics, although he feels some of the comments he gets are unwarranted.
“I’m here to say, from a third-person perspective, that you don’t know how good you have it,” said Michael.
“It’s like HDB apartments. You don’t get HDB apartments, social housing, anywhere else; it’s just for a tiny layer of the society at the very bottom. I think most people here own it, means you can live in a fairly affordable apartment. It’s not a condo with fountains or whatnot, but it’s an apartment that you have.
“Appreciate what you have; (most) people don’t have it. If you go to Hong Kong, you’d have to pay a million bucks for a 500 sq ft-apartment.”
He said he welcomes valid arguments against the points made in his commentaries, but instead he sometimes gets things like: “Oh, foreigner, f*** off”.
“I’m talking about the real estate market and complaining about other places, what are they getting so worked up about?”
He said he recognises the need to move away from writing just about Singapore and Singapore-Malaysia ties, as he is unsure of a lasting appetite for such content.
“I don’t want to write about Singapore so much, so I want to reshape the website a little bit and make it more global but from a Southeast Asia/Singaporean focus,” said Petraeus.
“At least now, people will know that I’m not a bot (for hire) from China,” he said.
This profile on Critical Spectator is part of a wider series looking at Singapore's alternative online news scene. You can read more about the industry here, or the other profiles on Observer+ and Rice Media.