Tag Archives: Censorship

The truth about Temasek, CPF and Lee Hsein Loong

Temasek doesn’t really make 16%
Your CPF money isn’t really safe.
And Lee Hsien Loong is a coward.

Sometimes we get so caught up in the day-to-day arguments that crop up on Facebook, social media, and even in real life, that we lose track of the big picture. Despite the very obvious question marks surrounding the way CPF funds are managed, though the government, through Temasek, through GIC and ultimately by the Lee family, I realise that I’ve written almost nothing on the topic. Given Lee Hsien Loong’s sustained and ethically dubious attack on fellow blogger Roy Ngerng, now seems like a good time to visit these topics.

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What Vincent got wrong

Facebook was a particularly lively place these last few days after claim and counter-claim of cyber-bullying and sexism amongst some of Singapore’s most prominent civil society activists triggered significant debate. The incident was sparked by contentious comments on a blog posting by Jeraldine Phneah and her decision to apparently involve university authorities in seeking a resolution. This situation could have been the starting point for a crucial debate on freedom of speech and the appropriate way for individuals who put themselves in the public spotlight to seek redress when offended by vocal critics. However that debate appears to have been somewhat derailed by Vincent Wijeysingha’s decision to apparently criticise Jeraldine and her handling of the original incident in particularly personal, strident, and to some extent, sexist language. By bringing his own selection of offensive words to the fore, Vincent did civil society a disservice by distracting from the much more essential debate on freedom of speech in a democracy.

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DRUMS? Or noisy government propaganda?

Singapore government dials propaganda machine up to eleven in effort to drown out voices of concerned citizens

Singapore government dials propaganda machine up to eleven in effort to drown out voices of concerned citizens

The importance of a compliant, government controlled media to support the misdeeds of authoritarian governments is not lost on the PAP. Lee Kuan Yew, the political godfather of Singapore, spoke eloquently in opposition on the evils that could be achieved in such an environment. As long as no voices exist to either contradict the lies or highlight the failings of a ruling party, there is almost no limit to the level of deceit that can be inflicted on unsuspecting citizens. The threat posed to such a government monopoly by independent voices online is increasingly forcing the Singapore government propaganda machine to be dialed up to eleven.

[A]n intimidated press and the government-controlled radio together can regularly sing your praises, and slowly and steadily the people are made to forget the evil things that have already been done, or if these things are referred to again they’re conveniently distorted and distorted with impunity, because there will be no opposition to contradict.
Lee Kuan Yew as an opposition PAP member speaking to David Marshall, Singapore Legislative Assembly, Debates, 4 October, 1956

An intimidated press is the model under which Singapore’s ruling PAP have governed for decades, however in recent years increasingly vocal online critics have challenged the government’s monopoly on news and analysis. Missteps, greater numbers of corruption cases and unexplained policy u-turns have increasingly been cited by online critics as indications of a government that does not plan or execute with a level of excellence most would expect in the context of their self awarded gargantuan paychecks. In response to the threat independent critics pose to the government’s monopoly of mainstream news and analysis, the ruling party has recently resorted to ever-more desperate efforts to silence, intimidate or discredit online commentators – the most recent example came a few weeks ago when Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen went so far as to suggest that online sources of misinformation could hamper Singapore’s Total Defence efforts. It appears that the existence of online voices critical of the ruling party has forced the government to turn their own propaganda machine up to eleven in response.

This is a sign of how much times have changed since Lee spoke in 1956. Having gained power for his People’s Action Party he would ultimately perform the most hypocritical of u-turns. Over the follow decades practically every democratic principle he spoke in support of in the years before he became Prime Minister of Singapore was abandoned, and there are few examples of this which are more glaring than his cultivation of the sort of intimidated, government controlled media that he opposed in 1956. The seeds of this were sown in the 1970s (and well documented by Francis Seow in his book “Media Enthralled”) when Lee cracked down on independent newspapers, but to this day Singapore’s mainstream media remains moribund, languishing below even that of Vladimir Putin’s Russia in international rankings for freedom.

In recent years however the media landscape has changed significantly. In Singapore, as in practically every country around the world, the emergence of the internet represents a revolution in the way people communicate and share information. And for the government here, as well as authoritarian governments around the world, this revolution represents an existential threat to the power of the ruling party. By giving ordinary citizens a means to not just by-pass but also directly challenge and contradict government lies and propaganda, what Lee described as “the evil things that have already been done” are harder to forget. The carefully stage-managed reputation for excellence that has been cultivated over the years is ever more difficult to maintain. The rudderless policy u-turns can no longer be executed in complete silence, since it is hard to pretend one has not changed course when a dozen bloggers are on hand to remind their readers.

All the above brings us to the crossroads Singapore current sits at. In one direction lies greater freedom of expression and a government that is constrained from mischief by the voices of ordinary Singaporeans speaking up when they feel something is wrong. In the other direction lies a return to the past, where ever fewer Singaporeans have a voice or a platform to speak out if they are concerned about the way the country is being run, and where the government has greater freedom to distort the truth and cover up its mistakes. While most Singaporeans would prefer more freedom to express themselves – and most importantly be listened to – it is clear the government wants to take Singapore down the much darker, regressive path. We see this in the MDA’s recent licensing changes. We see this in numerous attempts to malign and discredit bloggers (not to mention making inexplicable late night phone calls). And now we see the government going so far as to suggest that careless online comments can threaten the very defense of Singapore itself – the desperation betrayed by such extreme levels of propaganda should be obvious.

The desperation of the government may be obvious, but we should be careful to consider the question of why? Why is the government so desperate to lead Singapore down a regressive path, restricting freedom of speech? Restricting freedom to criticise and critically analyse government decisions and mistakes? Does the government covet the power spoken of by LKY, to distort the truth? Does the government wish that we, as LKY warned, forget some evils that have been done in the past? Is government policy so directionless that complete u-turns on policy will need to be performed without explanation? Who really benefits from the government’s stance on this? It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the government seeks to lead us down the dark and regressive path because it is the best way for the current leaders to maintain power, rather than because it is best aligned with the wishes of ordinary Singaporeans or the best way to make Singapore better. Is there anyone outside the PAP who believes Singapore would be better of with an increased rather than reduced government monopoly over news and information?

As Lee senior knew very well all those years ago, government controlled media is bad for citizens, but good for governments with dirty secrets to hide. So then why does his son’s government increasingly try to drown out the voices of ordinary citizens with noisy propaganda, intimidation and utterly absurd legislation? One can only guess.

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Singaporeans are fed, up with censorship

Many have speculated about what is the true intent of the Singapore government’s recently announced new licensing regime for news websites. We of course got some insight from Minister Yaacob Ibrahim’s statement about the need for Singaporeans to read the “right” thing online. More important, but less widely reported, was his definition of what the “right” things might be. A more complete quote of what he said to the BBC is:

“We want to protect the interest of the ordinary Singaporean. As long as they go online to read the news I think it’s important to make sure that they read the ‘right thing’, insofar as if there’s an event yesterday it is reported accurately.”

MDA appear to have re-iterated the point on accuracy and good intent in their emailed response to Mr Ngerng who blogs at The Hearth Truths. They wrote inter alia

“Nowhere do the guidelines state that news sites cannot question or highlight the shortcomings of government policies, as long as the assessments are well-intentioned, and not based on factual inaccuracies with the intention to mislead the public”

The obvious issue emerging from both these quotes is the question of legislating or regulating for accuracy, as well as whether an article is “well-intentioned”. There does not appear to be any objective means by which the MDA intends to assess any given “Singapore news programme” for accuracy or good intention before exercising their power to issue a take down notice. To see why legislating in these terms is a very short step from outright censorship, we only need to look briefly at the history of state censorship of print media in Singapore. Since MDA has oft-repeated their intent to seek parity between print and online media, the government’s stance on accuracy and intent in the context of silencing critics in the print media is particularly enlightening.

I’m sure most readers are familiar with “mr brown” – real name Lee Kin Mun – who is a prominent blogger, tweeter and general internet pioneer in Singapore. But mr brown in the past has not just enjoyed online fame – I’m sure many are also aware he used to write a column for Today newspaper – until he penned a satirical and stinging critique of the ruling party in June 2006 titled “Singaporeans are fed, up with progress“. The government of the day – under the leadership of Lee Hsien Loong – were extremely displeased with the article, making assertions that it contained inaccuracies but also proceeding to denounce it in extremely strong terms. mr brown was suspended from writing his column within a week and I believe has never returned to the pages of Today newspaper. Let us be clear that the outcome of this episode was that mr brown’s voice – critical of the government – was silenced from the pages of the mainstream media. In light of MCA’s stated intent to regulate websites along the lines of accuracy and good intent, as well as on a par with print media, it is interesting to note the extreme terms in which the government framed mr brown’s criticism in the lead up to and aftermath of his suspension.

Printed on the first working day following publication of mr brown’s article, MICA wrote to Today, denouncing mr brown for “distorting the truth” and asserting that he “poured sarcasm on many issues”.

“mr brown is entitled to his views. But opinions which are widely circulated in a regular column in a serious newspaper should meet higher standards. Instead of a diatribe mr brown should offer constructive criticism and alternatives. And he should come out from behind his pseudonym to defend his views openly.

It is not the role of journalists or newspapers in Singapore to champion issues, or campaign for or against the Government. If a columnist presents himself as a non-political observer, while exploiting his access to the mass media to undermine the Government’s standing with the electorate, then he is no longer a constructive critic, but a partisan player in politics.”

No less than PM LHL himself apparently followed up on this, stating “mr brown had hit out wildly at the Government and in a very mocking tone” and as such the government had to respond, otherwise “untruths would be repeated and eventually treated as facts”.

In the context of regulation versus censorship, this is where the contention will surely arise. It is not hard to imagine MDA writing to a blogger or news website using similar language as when they wrote to Today in response to mr brown. If the bar is set as low as “pouring sarcasm”, MDA will have their hands full. If MDA are waiting for an online commentator to “hit out wildly at the government and in a very mocking tone” before issuing take down notices, then still – they are likely to be busy. If “diatribe” in lieu of “constructive criticism” is deemed to not meet MDA standards of good intent, I fear our regulators will be overwhelmed with complaints. Via all these avenues – and no doubt more exist – just as the critical voice of mr brown was removed from the pages of Today, so the critical voices of many contributors are liable to be removed from the pages of Yahoo! and presumably also TOC and TRE in the future. For all of these reasons, it seems clear that the new regulations will have a silencing effect on Singapore’s online contributors.

It is important to re-iterate that what mr brown wrote in 2006 was in fact not particularly unreasonable. The freedom to engage in stinging or harsh criticisms of government failings are essential to democracy and good governance. Inaccuracies can ordinarily be corrected or apologised for – if in fact they can objectively be shown to exist. Whilst most bloggers do not have the wit of mr brown, equally scathing criticism of the government is as common online in 2013 as mr brown’s article was groundbreaking in 2006. If the government – as they state – seeks to hold online contributors to the standard that they held print media in the form of Today newspaper in 2006 then a lot of take down notices will be issued, and a lot of performance bonds forfeited between now and the next general election. It is this – and the fact that it embodies nothing less than government censorship of criticism – that underpins many of the concerns around MDA’s new licensing regime.

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Local bloggers force Singapore government onto back foot over net regulation

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.

Singapore government's idea of media parity

Singapore government’s idea of media parity

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.

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A total fallacy. The Online Citizen “not affected” by licensing changes.

I alluded in my previous post to the fallacy of MDA pretending that The Online Citizen and Temasek Review Emeritus are not affected by the recently announced licensing changes. Today’s “The New Paper” helped MDA to re-iterate the fallacy by running the below headline “The Online Citizen not affected”.

MDA's fallacy that sites are not affected by licensing changes

MDA’s fallacy that sites are not affected by licensing changes

Of course, this claim cannot possibly be true. “Affected” is a word that can cover many states of existence. On Sunday last week an editor may have enjoyed some freedom to operate under the existing “light touch” system of group class licensing. By Tuesday afternoon however – less than 48 hours later – it was clear that many sites had been thrown into a state of legal limbo. As a result of the licensing changes, sites popular enough to meet the 50,000 visitor threshold suddenly have a sword hanging over them. The sword being that a faceless bureaucrat can, at the stroke of a pen, impose onerous financial and administrative restrictions on their publishing. Restrictions so onerous that when the sword falls, it could easily put a site out of business. Clearly, such a sudden transition to such an arbitrary and threatening model is a huge change and sites are most definitely “affected”.

MDA’s position however seems to be that an editor is not affected by a sword hanging over his head as long as it has not yet fallen and crashed through his skull. That MDA has empowered itself to hold the sword is particularly galling. Our supposedly highly educated ministers and civil servants have perhaps forgotten the story of Damocles – that the presence of the sword is more than enough to instill fear. On second thoughts perhaps they have not forgotten the story at all.

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