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.
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.