K Shanmugam is one of Singapore’s most successful lawyers, enjoying a dual and very well paid role as law and foreign affairs minister, but yet appears unable to grasp the very real legal facts driving tens of thousands of protesters onto the streets of Hong Kong. Rather than painting a picture of “anti-China bias” in the “Western media”, he would do well to review the Basic Law of Hong Kong, which guarantees a democratic future for the Special Administrative Region and serves as the constitutional document for the former British territory. The people of Hong Kong have been promised democracy, but the Chinese Communist Party is denying them that right.
Tag Archives: Freedom
“We, the citizens of Singapore, pledge ourselves as one united people, regardless of race, language or religion, to build a democratic society based on justice and equality so as to achieve happiness, prosperity and progress for our nation”
The transition from post-colonial or authoritarian rule to more democratic methods of government is something that Asia has witnessed a number of times in recent decades. It is important to see this for what it is – progress. People prefer to be free and attain self determinism, and that is precisely why the goal of building a democratic society is enshrined in the National Pledge. And while recent events in Hong Kong bring the question of democratic progress into focus today, it is the lessons of other countries in the region that are more relevant to the path Singapore is on. Can Singapore take the next step towards democracy?
“Cockroaches”, “Fucking vermins” and “Scum shit heads” who should “Please fuck off and die”. Some of the language used online against the local Filipino community is disgraceful and completely unacceptable. It pains me not only to see Singaporeans speaking in these terms, but also to see others – who should know much better – refuse to condemn such hateful language. This is racism pure and simple, and Singapore is heading in a very bad direction if such behaviour becomes ingrained as an accepted feature of our national discourse. Government policy may be the root cause of unhappiness, but unhappiness with the government is not a valid justification for racism. Nothing is, and this fact has to be called out.
My initial reaction on hearing that Gilbert Goh had planned to carry out the burning of an effigy of transport minister Lui Tuck Yew was shock and disappointment. There’s got to be a better way to express one’s dissatisfaction with the government and their increasingly authoritarian system. A pile of ashes is not going to contribute much to nation building, not least if it distracts from much more important questions around an economic model of state control in key industries that leaves citizens short-changed. I’m still glad that the act didn’t go ahead, but when The Online Citizen reported that the government had gone so far in 2008 as explicitly stating that burning of effigies would be legal at Hong Lim Park, it became clear that there is another side to this story.
Singaporeans have been implored by media regulators to “read the rights thing”, but that didn’t seem to prevent the government controlled Straits Times from writing a spectacularly wrong story about how North Korean leader Kim Jong Un supposedly executed his own uncle by feeding him alive to starving dogs. The Straits Times’ prevaricating response to criticism of its decision to run a story pegged on an unverified event eloquently reminded readers that the truth can often be subjective and elusive. Yet the subjective reality which hinders the reporting of absolute truth brings many Singaporeans full circle, raising questions about the Media Development Authority’s apparent desire to regulate news websites for the accuracy of their reporting.
If xenophobia is defined as an unreasonable fear of foreigners, then the Media Development Authority may have some explaining to do. An obvious fear of foreign influences permeates the piles of paperwork which the MDA requires news websites to submit as an apparent condition of operating. Those burdensome sheets seem to have overwhelmed former Straits Times associate editor Bertha Henson and her fledgling Breakfast Network site has now been shuttered. Losing a professional journalist from the online media space is a significant loss, although she has committed to continue her personal blogging. But one question remains – should foreign influences really be excluded from Singapore’s media landscape? Is the fear of foreign meddling in local politics well founded, or is the MDA acting irrationally?
Xenophobia or hypocrisy?
The fear of foreign influence on local politics may appear well founded on the surface – Singaporean media for Singaporeans, right? But the most cursory of analysis reveals that the government position on this topic is hypocritical and untenable. One of the conditions that publishers are required to submit to is that they receive no foreign funding for their site. “Foreign” includes Singaporean permanent residents and companies with more than one foreigner (again, including PRs) on the board. The first whiff of hypocrisy comes from Mediacorp. I’ve not checked all their passports, but it does appear that at least one member of the Mediacorp board is not a Singapore citizen. Temasek Holdings, which owns 100% of Mediacorp, appears to have two board members who might fall foul of those same regulations. So is the MDA acting hypocritically in holding non-government linked news websites to a more stringent set of rules than those which Mediacorp appears to operate under?
More significant than the presence of a few overseas board members however is the explicit platform that foreigners are often given by the mainstream media to engage on local political matters. This being despite the MDA continuing to re-iterate that “politics must remain a matter for Singapore and Singaporeans alone” as they chase Breakfast Network off Facebook and other social media. The most obvious and recent example of this double standard is Parag Khanna. Parag Khanna is a foreigner (a PR) in the terms set by the MDA, yet he is given an open invitation by the mainstream media to speak at length in an effort to influence Singaporeans’ views on contentious local political issues – such as the population white paper. This is a clear violation of the MDA’s principle that politics should strictly be for Singaporeans, yet they apparently decline to censure the Straits Times for canvassing his views so openly.
This peculiar double standard however is easy to resolve once we understand the relationship between the government and mainstream media. Of course, Parag Khanna is given a government sponsored platform – and coming in the form of the government controlled Straits Times, the platform definitely is government sponsored – precisely for the purpose of speaking in support of the government and their unpopular policies. This is in contrast to the stated fear of foreign influences online, where perhaps it is not so much a fear of foreign voices exactly, as it is a fear of critical voices, which coming from overseas are much harder for the government to manage and contain.
As with many things in Singapore then, this is a power play by a ruling party which fears any dissenting voices that cannot be coerced or bullied into line. Foreign influences beyond the control of the government are kept on a tight leash, yet at the same time, foreigners who wish to influence the political landscape in support of the ruling party, enjoy the most sizable of platforms to put forth their views. In taking this approach, the government is attempting to ensure that the flow of information is always in their own favour.
The closed circle
This is therefore another example of the closed circle, wherein legislative and institutional structures which should be independent are actually designed and aligned to support the power of the ruling party. While this double standard on foreign voices influencing local political issues makes little sense superficially, the deeper principle is an immutable truth about Singapore. The government controls the media to support their goals and motives, through the availability of a monopoly platform for supportive voices, while simultaneously maintaining a significant legislative arsenal – which includes the MDA and the their licensing framework, but also defamation and contempt of court laws – aimed at silencing independent and critical voices.
The way forwards
If we sought to resolve the hypocrisy problem, there are two obvious approaches – a uniform ban or a uniform acceptance of foreign influences on local political matters – the latter of which is obviously preferable and clearly less xenophobic. But once we accept that the double standard is in fact by design, the claims of hypocrisy and irrationality directed at the MDA begin to melt away, for while to some their actions may seem heavy-handed and blundering, the fact remains that the MDA appear to have served their political masters successfully. And political is exactly what this situation is. Stripped of the hypocrisy and irrationality, the heart of the problem is obviously a political and partisan effort on the part of the ruling party to control the flow of information their own favour.
So if the problem is political, then the solution should be political too. A dismantling of the closed circle of power that the PAP have built over many years seems essential. A total reform of the laws making up our media landscape should also be front and centre, including mainstream as well as digital and social media. These changes will not come easily however, the PAP are certainly not going to give up control of the media voluntarily. The only real solution is political, through the ballot box, and it can only come by replacing the PAP with parties committed to making the necessary reforms.
Alex Au’s civil society supporters have scored an important if subtle victory in round one of his looming legal battle against the AGC. In making their call for the statements in question to be publicly rebutted, it appears that the AGC’s hand has been forced. The AGC has apparently agreed to a public hearing of the case, an outcome that – perhaps surprisingly – was never guaranteed, and which may shine a politically awkward light on the details of the case against Au.
Baey Yam Keng, MP for Tampines GRC and self-styled Minister of Selfies posted this image to Facebook earlier in the week in reference to a session on social media he held for “senior Vietnamese government officials”. Why the Vietnamese government need to learn about social media by coming to Singapore was never explained, in fact a more compelling case could be made for the PAP seeking to learn from the hardline stance taken against internet freedoms in Hanoi. Recent developments in the High Court against Alex Au unfortunately throw this question into stark relief.
Kenneth Jeyaretnam used an interesting phrase to describe the nature of political power in Singapore recently – he described it as a “closed circle“. To me, this seems apt. From institutionalised patronage, to co-opted public bodies, and through the crushing of independent centres of influence, power in Singapore has been successfully arranged to support and promote the position of a core group of self-anointed leaders, while at the same time marginalising and excluding critical or alternative voices. An emergent alternative force – civil society – has started to (re)take root in recent times and poses a threat to the ruling party’s monopoly of influence by pushing back on the walls of the hard-state. It should come as no surprise then that the ruling party would seek to reclaim its turf, and we got a glimpse of that this week in the form of a somewhat incongruous government organised civil society conference.