Singapore’s online community was shocked last week by government plans to impose onerous licensing regulations on local news websites. The hastily orchestrated scheme which came into force on 1 June – just four days after it was first announced – requires sites to post a performance bond of S$50,000 and accede to take down requests at 24 hours notice. The ruling party’s latest attempt to assuage critics who see in these changes a crack down on freedom of expression came on Tuesday night when Acting Minister of Manpower Tan Chuan-Jin appeared on Channel News Asia’s “Talking Point”. His one hour contribution to the debate was particularly interesting because he neglected to re-iterate many of the arguments that the government had previously deployed in support of the proposed changes – arguments that were rendered intellectually untenable by the critical analysis of netizens.
The first government argument to be skewered online was the suggestion that only ten sites are affected by the regulatory changes. While it is true that the government published a list of ten sites that MDA seeks to bring into the new scheme, netizens were practically queueing up to point out the arbitrary and non-legally binding nature of the list – the legislation as written clearly has remit to affect many others. That the sites most critical of the government, for example TRE and TOC, now have a “Sword of Damocles” hanging over them was a point widely made. Despite receiving prominent coverage just a few days earlier in Singapore’s government controlled print media, the argument that only ten sites are affected by the changes had been rendered non-credible by the contributions of many bloggers – and it was therefore an argument the Minister apparently chose not to make. The reality appears to be that the government now accepts that other sites are affected, and knowing that this fact cannot be denied, the Minister had no choice but to ignore the point completely during the televised debate.
The second point the government has sought to make in support of the changes is of the intent to seek “parity” between online and offline news. Again, online contributors were practically falling over themselves to point out the incredulous nature of this claim – ably assisted by Reporters Without Borders who described the suggestion as “utterly absurd”. Many awkward questions arise from the suggestion of parity – and unless I mis-heard it is a word that the Minister neglected to mention throughout the show. The most obvious problem with parity is why it should be achieved by increasing regulation of one medium and not decreasing regulation of another. Given Singapore’s terrible position on global indices of press freedom it appears obvious that the government has chosen the wrong path to parity. Furthermore, the question of parity is particularly paradoxical in the context of Singapore where the government appears to have no intrinsic desire for parity in other aspects of individual freedom – for example on the question of 337A. Again, netizens have made all these points clearly and eloquently and the Minister appears to have chosen to avoid them by neglecting to utter the word “parity” – a telling sign that the government knows their purported stand on the new regulations is not tenable.
Many people who watched the Acting Minister attempt to defend the new regulation scheme appear to have been left unconvinced, probably in no small part due to the fact that he had no substantial arguments to make in support of why the impact on freedom of expression could be justified. Denied the above explanations by online critics, the Minister was left to re-iterate the redundant points about responsible reporting, but could not explain why existing laws on sedition and defamation for example are insufficient. The Minister further struggled to provide a compelling distinction between a blog and a news site – particularly in the context of the extraordinarily broad definition of “news” that the new regulations rely on. Indeed, it is the broad and vague nature of many aspects of the new legislation that lead many to believe that the true intent is not to enforce “parity” or “responsible reporting” but to give the government a means to silence their critics. Given the authoritarian manner in which Singapore has been ruled since independence, extending government control of critical discourse online is arguably an overdue move – and many in Singapore are in fact not entirely surprised to see it happen.