A masterclass in authoritarianism. Or how to criminalise your critics overnight.

The government of Singapore this week delivered a masterclass in authoritarian law making by imposing draconian licensing requirements on their most independent and vocal of critics. In a country often noted to lack avenues for freedom of expression, and one where practically all mainstream media is controlled by the government, online commentators had until this week enjoyed a limited amount of latitude to engage in both fair and sometimes scathing criticism. That all changes under the recently announced new licensing system, wherein local news and commentary websites will be forced to post an onerous good behaviour bond of S$50,000 and acquiesce to any government mandated “take down” notices within 24 hours. It was subsequently also reported that flouting the new regulations could land the owners of a website in jail for up to three years or on the hook for a S$200,000 fine.

The amendment to the Broadcasting Act requiring websites to submit to government licensing

The amendment to the Broadcasting Act requiring websites to submit to government licensing

Many observers have offered the reassurance that a stated list of only ten sites will initially be affected (nine of which are already controlled by the state), however this analysis is misleading. The so-called “list of ten” appears to exist in no more legally binding of a form than a press release. While government ministers may have briefed that the ten listed sites are the focus of the new system, that appears to be no more than a pre-emptive attempt to avoid the charge that these changes will have a chilling effect on certain other sites which are well-known for being critical of the ruling party. Press releases aside, the legally binding and objective reality is that the changes as enacted make no reference to a list of affected sites. Any site averaging as few as 50,000 visitors per month and publishing a broadly defined “Singapore news programme” as infrequently as once per week is automatically in scope. So while the public message may be that the government’s online critics are not being targeted, the legal reality is that popular local sites such as The Online Citizen and Temasek Review Emeritus, both of which easily surpass the licensing criteria, have been thrown into a state of limbo pending notification from the regulator that they must subject themselves to the draconian new system.

It is worth re-iterating that these changes have not come literally overnight, but apparently over the course of five nights. On Monday, a press conference was announced for the following day. On Tuesday, at that press conference, it was announced that an amendment to the Broadcasting Act would be published the following day. On Wednesday, the amendment introducing these changes was published, and it was stated to come into force on the following Saturday. Particularly noteworthy is the fact that on none of these days was any parliamentary or public debate on the matter held. That the changes – in the form of an amendment to the Broadcasting Act – have been made with no debate whatsoever betrays the authoritarian manner in which Singapore’s ruling party seeks to silence its online critics. Many Singaporeans will no doubt be left wondering about the value of our so-called democratic system when such changes can be made without reference to parliament but instead by the ruling party merely at the stroke of a pen.


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23 responses to “A masterclass in authoritarianism. Or how to criminalise your critics overnight.

  1. Reblogged this on Jentrified Citizen and commented:
    Jentrified – The way our govt rams through such laws is appalling. This would have been challenged by irate citizens in other developed countries. Here, do we even have any recourse to turn to the courts for justice? You all know the answer.

    • rampy

      Yes but citizens in other countries don’t end up like J.B Jeyaretnam if they speak their mind. Fear rules Singapore.

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  3. I disagree with the vagueness of MDA’s rule but as a point of clarification, the individual licensing requirement applies to a site prospectively only if the MDA issues a notice to the site. Unless and until MDA does so, the class licensing regime continues to apply.

    • That’s true. I did mention that they are in a state of limbo pending notification from the regulator. The problem is that this changes brings them into a system whereby despite there being a supposed “list of ten affected sites” there is in fact a chilling effect on those other sites that are clearly also “affected” in the sense that they now have this hanging over them. Essentially the government just has to write them a letter and they are surely out of business. That comes under my definition of “being affected”.

  4. Just dreadful. And how ironic that your government maintains all the formalities of the Westminster democratic model, even down to the language and typeface of the statutory documents. Only difference (UK) is that we manage to vote a different government in every now and then. Here’s hoping that with the technology lots of people find lots of ways around this draconian limitation on your freedom of speech.

    • Sadly yes. The system in Singapore is omni-shambolic. Not a democracy, not even a “flawed democracy” but a “hybrid regime” according to the Economist Intelligence Unit. To be fair this is just a continuation of the attack on dissent that the ruling party has been engaged in for decades.

      Ironically, despite modelling themselves on the Westmister system, the ruling party almost always cites dysfunction in US politics as the reason for not implementing a more democratic system …

    • eleanor

      When the gahmen start blocking sites because they won’t pay the bond (which is what this is really about) people will start using the same tool they use in China to get around the sensors – Tor.

    • Perhaps, but put yourself in the shoes of the editors of these sites. If for example TRE stays online and does not pay the bond, the editor faces three years in jail and a S$200,000 fine. Do you think it will stay up? Everyone knows who the editor is.

    • Jian

      You have hit the nail on the head. A cynical regime using their ex-colonial masters as an excuse to enrich themselves. Performing monkeys in a circus turning tricks for peanuts.

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  6. eremarf

    When will the PAP release their death grasp? I’m trying to mobilize awareness and action amonst my small social circle against this – more people need to do something.

    I wish we had some way to protest this, some ability to confront our elected representatives over this, to tell them we don’t support this. How can they pretend to represent me at all? They don’t even care how I feel about this issue.

  7. rampy

    The funny thing is that this attempt to muzzle freedom of speech will be totally ineffectual. People will use one of the onion routers such a TOR, which is free to download, and which will get around any block that is placed on web site.

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  9. Singaporeans long living under the dictatorship of LKY.

  10. Alan

    Was it LKY, already one foot in his grave, or his useless son who still wants to impose fear on his fellow citizens ?

    • Good question. It is likely to be a family affair. Just look at how many people in the Lee family bought cheap condos as part of the Hotel Properties scandal. Beyond that there may be other actors behind the scenes whom we are not aware of driving this. Singapore’s oversized defence budget is a bit of a red flag. It is possible that there are powerful actors in the defence / military sector with a vested interest in the status quo driving some of the initiatives that prevent democratic change. Just look at how many former military men are in the government / cabinet / state owned companies.

  11. Jian

    “Singapore’s oversized defence budget is a bit of a red flag”

    As a proportion of GDP, Singapore’s defense budget is more than the USA’s. People say that the UK’s defense budget is actually a cover for covert ops. If a defense budget can be diverted into covert ops, what else can it be diverted into??

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