Calvin Cheng versus common sense, the law, businesses, the internet and the world

Calvin Cheng just can’t let go of a bad argument, no matter how clearly the counter points are laid out. His incessant desire to push his belief that the Media Development Authority clamped down on Breakfast Network as a corporation rather than a media entity flies in the face of common sense, not to mention MDA’s own press releases and relevant legislation. There seems to be no limit to the levels of intellectual dishonesty Calvin will resort to in defending his position, offering arguments that an Oxford educated scholar could not possibly be foolish enough to believe, arguments that undermine Singapore’s hard-earned reputation as a business friendly destination for foreign capital and which display a fundamental misunderstanding of why the internet is one of the most important creations of modern times. His defence of last resort – launching personal and offensive attacks on critics is completely unbecoming of a member of Singapore’s Media Literacy Council.

Calvin Cheng versus common sense

Calvin’s assertion that the MDA was trying to regulate a corporation rather than a website appears strange. To be accepted as true, he needs to prove it, but in fact he presents no evidence to support the claim. In his latest counterpoint, he describes as a “fundamental mistake” the suggestion that the MDA was seeking to regulate “the website” as opposed to “the company”. Most observers however can see that the Media Development Authority’s remit is concerned with media entities – the clue is in the name – rather than corporations generally, which are regulated for example by the Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority. His baseless assertion is thus hard to accept, but when challenged on the point, Calvin will point you to an MDA press release which contradicts his position.

MDA vs Calvin Cheng

The above image is collated from Calvin’s Facebook page. His argument that the corporation rather than the website is the target of regulation is completely undermined by the first sentence of the MDA press release which he purports to rely on. The statement “MDA had required, operated by Breakfast Network Pte Ltd, to register under the Broadcasting (Class Licence) Notification” has a clear and obvious meaning. The URL, which refers to the website, is the target of regulation. The phrase between commas “operated by Breakfast Network Pte Ltd” is background information about the website. The grammatical meaning of this is simple enough, but let’s analyse some similar sentences just to drill the point home.

“Lee Kuan Yew, father of current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, is an MP in Tanjong Pagar GRC”.
Who is the MP in Tanjong Pagar, Lee Kuan Yew or Lee Hsien Loong?

“A US military drone, operated remotely by airforce personnel at Forte Meade Texas, was shot down over Pakistan”.
Who or what was shot down? It’s obvious, right?

“MDA had required, operated by Breakfast Network Pte Ltd, to register under the Broadcasting (Class Licence) Notification”.
The website, not the Pte Ltd entity, was required to register

The website, not the Pte Ltd entity, was required to register. It’s obvious, and Calvin, if he can read, must know it. His most brazen assault on common sense comes from relying on an MDA press release to support his position when that same press release obviously contradicts it. An Oxford educated scholar, sitting on the Media Literacy Council, makes a very strange argument, fails to provide evidence, but relies for support on a document which anyone who reads it knows contradicts the point? Is this credible?

The fact that the website, not the corporate entity, was the stated target of regulation further calls into question MDA’s subsequent attempts to chase BN off Facebook and Twitter, but that is another story.

Calvin Cheng versus the law

Reading a press release is one thing, but press releases are not the law, so to really understand the regulatory manoeuvering here we need to read the relevant legislation, which the MDA press release helpfully tells us is the Broadcasting (Class Licence) Notification. That document at paragraph 3 describes the types of entities subject to regulation. “Internet Content Providers”, which includes websites, are subject to the regulations. Corporations are not. So another point against Calvin’s argument, and another authoritative source he either hasn’t read, or assumes no one else has read for it directly contradicts his position.

Licensable broadcasting services subject to class licence
3. The provision of the following licensable broadcasting services are subject to a class licence:
(a) audiotext services;
(b) videotext services;
(c) teletext services;
(d) broadcast data services;
(e) VAN computer on-line services; and
(f) computer on-line services that are provided by Internet Content Providers and Internet Service Providers.
Broadcasting (Class Licence) Notification. Revised Edition 2004

Calvin’s preoccupation with the supposed regulation of the corporate entity is further called into question by the definition of an “Internet Content Provider” which BN falls under. Let’s have a look.

For the purposes of this Notification —
“Internet Content Provider” means —
(a) any individual in Singapore who provides any programme, for business, political or religious purposes, on the World Wide Web through the Internet; or
(b) any corporation or group of individuals (including any association, business, club, company, society, organisation or partnership, whether registrable or incorporated under the laws of Singapore or not) who provides any programme on the World Wide Web through the Internet,
and includes any web publisher and any web server administrator;
Broadcasting (Class Licence) Notification. Revised Edition 2004

Clearly the MDA can regulate a corporation, but only in the sense that a regulated “Internet Content Provider” is defined as possibly being a corporation. But an internet content provider could also be a club, a society, an organisation, a partnership or any “group of individuals”. In the regulations, there is clearly nothing significant or distinctive about regulating a website run by a company over a website run via any other structure. The definition is made as wide as possible presumably to allow the MDA to regulate websites run in any manner, by volunteers or not. Furthermore, there is literally nothing in that Broadcasting (Class Licence) Notification document about foreign funding or the importance of preventing it. So Calvin’s statement that the corporate entity is the subject of regulation is explicitly contradicted by the law. And the possibly xenophobic stated justification – the desire to prevent foreign funding – is further not grounded in the relevant legislation, and looks more like an excuse than a meaningful reason.

Calvin Cheng versus businesses

Singapore’s economy has been built in no small part by an ability to attract foreign investment and on a reputation as a convenient place to do business. Just last year the World Bank ranked Singapore the easiest place in the world to do business. Singapore came top not just this year, but the year before as well; and in fact has won this award for six consecutive years. However with Hong Kong ranked second and Malaysia ranked sixth on the same index, Singapore’s goal of being a regional hub for various industries could easily come under threat.

A large part of the debate around BN’s closure hinges on whether the MDA’s regulatory requirements are actually troublesome or onerous. Troublesome and onerous regulations will scare businesses away, threaten investment and see Singapore’s reputation tarnished as Hong Kong and even Malaysia prepare eat our lunches. For this reason, Calvin’s dismissive attitude towards the regulatory difficulties reported by Breakfast Network is dangerous. It is important to not under-estimate the significance of this question, since Singapore has billions of dollars riding on plans to become a “global media hub” and the MDA has a central role in achieving that. So while many observers are concerned about the hurdles MDA placed before a fledgling media company – hurdles which tripped that company up – Calvin takes a very dismissive stance, essentially saying that since one company alone has successfully negotiated the course, we should assume that the process is just smooth enough. Nevermind that there is in fact a 50% failure rate from a sample of two companies, a failure rate that would surely win no global awards for regulatory simplicity, a single success is apparently enough for Calvin.

We should also mention that the supposed success of The Independent SG which Calvin relies on did not come without some difficulties, the operators of that site also commented on the arbitrary manner in which the MDA altered the forms they were asked to submit while the registration process was still ongoing. Changing the rules while the wheels are in motion is a special form of regulatory incompetence that will have investors particularly nervous, and it is not hard to argue therefore that the MDA has a 0% success rate if we count the number companies that completed the process smoothly and easily. Calvin’s apparent inability to grasp the significance of this, or rationally assess the impact of MDA’s regulatory mis-steps on the local business environment speaks volumes.

One other thing Calvin appears to struggle with is the very reason companies exist.

A company is set up in order to establish a commercial, profit-making enterprise. A company has directors and senior employees also have to take responsibility for the actions of the legal entity.
Calvin Cheng. Beyond The Emotive. 30 December 2013

Strictly speaking, companies are not set up for commercial or profit-making reasons. Sole proprietors and partnerships are also set up for commercial and money-making reasons. People often attempt to monetise and turn a profit on their hobbies. Companies actually do exist to create a legal entity separate from the owners and directors, which takes on certain legal responsibilities separate from the owners who are not necessarily responsible for the “actions of the legal entity”. The knowledge that decisions can be made under the authority of a company, with liability separate from the owners is a powerful spur to innovation. This is the opposite of what Calvin apparently argues. A company can go bankrupt without the directors having to pay off the debts personally. A company can be sued and pay fines without the directors necessarily being personally liable. In fact in many jurisdictions a company is legally a person and has many of the same rights and liabilities as a person, except that those liabilities belong to the company not the owners themselves. For this reason, the MDA’s apparent attempt to make the owner(s) of the company behind Breakfast Network liable for its actions is arguably strange, yet Calvin appears to miss this very significant point, despite having an MA in Management from Oxford University, as he argues in support of the MDA from a position which is in fact contradictory to the fundamental reason for why business owners actually choose to operate as companies.

Calvin versus the internet

Few people would disagree that the internet is one of the most significant creations of modern times. The way that barriers are broken down and information can be freely shared instantaneously across the globe has made the internet central to modern business and life itself. Particularly in repressive countries like Singapore, this free flow of information can have a huge democratizing effect, and for that many are thankful. In Singapore we should be particularly thankful, not least because the alternative is our 149 ranked, “read the right things”, state controlled media. So Calvin does us all a grave disservice with his untenable argument that the internet is “just another media”.

The internet is just another media, and should be subject to the same laws that cover all media, be it print or broadcast. It is not special.
Calvin Cheng. Beyond The Emotive. 28 December 2013

This argument is problematic for a few reasons, not least because it consists of an assertion with no proof or explanation. The internet is nothing like television or radio where the limited availability of frequencies makes allocation to hobbyist broadcasters extremely wasteful. Conversely, the internet has virtually unlimited capacity to support the rantings of any amateur, and while the government in 2013 sought to impose twenty-four hour take down notices against certain websites, no such regulation is at all meaningful for broadcast media. So it seems that Calvin’s “laws that cover all media” do not in fact exist, or if they do he doesn’t explain what they are. Certainly he doesn’t seem to be referring to rules against foreign funding, as the Broadcasting (Class Licence) Notification which BN was asked to register under contains no such terms. Perhaps he means laws on defamation, sedition and the like, but these already apply equally online and offline, and there is no obvious need for the MDA to ask BN to fill in any forms to cover that. So again, Calvin’s argument does not appear to be well founded in reality.

Calvin Cheng versus the world

In closing, Calvin describes as “ridiculous” the suggestion that the government has failed to explain itself with respect to the MDA’s recent regulatory manoeuvering. Nevermind that a significant debate with global reach was sparked in 2013 by regulatory changes which were never satisfactorily explained and basically made no sense to anyone who was paying attention. Calvin suggests that critics of the MDA “should seek expert advice” if they cannot understand the rules. The Economist apparently understood the rules well enough to describe them as “draconian“. Reporters Without Borders, probably the world’s leading media NGO – certainly it would be hard to find a more authoritative expert – described the government’s justification for last year’s changes as “utterly absurd“. Yet to Calvin, apparently all is well. Perhaps RSF are just another authoritative source, which despite being relevant and contradictory to his stance, Calvin just hasn’t bothered to read or conveniently chooses to ignore.

* * * * *

Sometimes one person’s arguments are almost too unbelievable to entertain. Calvin appears to have discovered a special form of propaganda which is so poorly thought out, that just by its very existence it actually undermines the position it purports to support.

In terms of his central claim that the MDA sought to regulate Breakfast Network the company rather than the website, he displays a possibly unparalleled level of intellectual dishonesty. Yes, a child-like ability to read and understand the very first English sentence within the MDA press release Calvin points to proves him wrong. Yes, the Media Development Authority regulates media entities not companies – we know this from common sense, not to mention actually looking at the legally defined list of entities that the MDA is allowed to regulate under the relevant legislation, which the MDA even points to in that same press release. Yes, Calvin, the Oxford educated scholar, who never cites or quotes the relevant press releases or legislative documents, will call you “dumb” for pointing out these flaws in his argument. This is the behaviour of a member of Singapore’s Media Literacy Council, an organisation tasked, amongst other things, with promoting responsible creation of media content. It hardly seems believable. Is Calvin Cheng fit to be a member of this entity? You can be the judge.


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13 responses to “Calvin Cheng versus common sense, the law, businesses, the internet and the world

  1. Richard Lang

    Calvin Cheng is an idiot, plain and simple. Or he is simply a rabid dog barking ineptly at the bequest of his white clad masters.
    Either way, someone needs to shackle him.

  2. Hi Andy,

    Thanks for writing about this. We (at BN) had not wanted to spend the energy to refute Calvin Cheng, but you have done a good summary here. Many other things go on away from public view that undermine his arguments, but there is no need to go into them here.

    It would be good to clarify that BN was indeed asked to undertake not to receive foreign funding, although the Class License itself doesn’t require this (by legislation), Singapore’s laws are written broadly enough to allow the MDA to demand this of certain sites/media apart from the actual Act.

    • Thanks for commenting. Although Calvin keeps arguing the point, I think MDA’s press release was quite clear in stating that the website rather than the corporation was the target for registration, and this seems to be supported by the wording of the class license legislation. Did the MDA cite any legal basis for prevening foreign funding? I’m interested if they have any legal power to do that since, as you say, it isn’t actually written into the class license itself.

    • MDA has plenty of legal power to do that. 🙂 Most of Singapore’s laws are written to capture the universe, then the G will decide who they want to hantam. FOr example, dropping a skin particle in public is by definition littering, but police won’t bother you for it.

      MDA says that Pte Ltd companies are more susceptible to foreign funding and, through that, influence by foreign agendas. I don’t see the sense in that argument, but they don’t need to win that argument because the law is on their side.

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  4. Cy Chin

    Anyone or any entity can be susceptible to foreign funding or any sort of malfeasance not just pte ltd companies. Looking and the back and forth in this saga, it seems that the website is being regulated through the recognised legal entity operating it i.e. the company. Seems that MDA is telling companies to register, not individuals however. A media enitity more often than not is a company.There is a logic to Calvin Cheng’s argument. BN may have other businesses which would not ne affected hence the distinction for the website to register through the company.

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  6. dotseng

    This is off topic. But can someone please help me. Does anyone here happen to know the recipe for baloney ghoulash?

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