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.
Tag Archives: MDA
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.
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 http://www.breakfastnetwork.sg, 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 http://www.breakfastnetwork.sg, 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.
This is part two of my year in review, you can read part one on justice here. 2013 has seen significant changes in Singapore, some real and some illusionary. Ironically the changes which were hardest to believe were often the ones most hyped up by the government and their supporters, whereas the most significant and regressive changes were downplayed as if they were of no significance whatsoever. Perhaps most interesting however were the number of cases where the government said one thing, and then did almost exactly the opposite. Let’s take a look at a few.
The biggest u-turn this year, in fact the most significant explicit policy change overall was probably the government’s decision to renege on “light touch” regulation of the internet with the introduction in May of burdensome licensing requirements for loosely defined “news websites”. Despite a large public relations effort to downplay the impact of the new regulations, government claims that changes were required to synchronise rules for online media with those for mainstream media did little to dispel fears that this was a thinly veiled attempt to chill freedom of speech. The Economist described the change as “draconian“, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) called government justifications “utterly absurd“. Many expect Singapore to fall further down RSF’s annual press rankings next year, the city-state already languishes at 149, one place below Russia.
One of the hotter policy topics this year has been the structure of Singapore’s public transport operators. With two state linked companies enjoying a cozy duopoly, the government’s plans to inject some competition into the market by tendering certain routes to private operators were warmly received. Hopes for market principles to take hold in centrally planned Singapore were however dashed when the government did a u-turn and awarded the first such tender to the state linked parent company of an existing operator. Neglecting to award the tender to a true new entrant was a missed opportunity to introduce new ideas into a transport sector which while high profitable, has a growing reputation for poor service standards.
From maintaining an existing monopoly to creating a new one, this time in telecoms. The IDA did a u-turn in allowing state controlled Singtel to buy out previously independent fiber broadband network builder OpenNet through its wholly owned business trust NetLink, giving Singtel a monopoly over the next generation broadband network in the process. At the same time Singtel won a four-year extension on its mandatory divestment of NetLink, a move that is predicted to entrench their incumbent monopoly power, and which drew stinging criticism from industry players.
The most recent and probably most superficially annoying u-turn of the year came just last week on the “do not call” registry. After years of planning the government pulled the plug on key features of the scheme just days before it was due to go live in an all too predictable sop to business interests. Consumers can unfortunately expect to continue receiving unsolicited messages after the registry goes live in January.
Any government u-turns missing? Speak up in the comments if you can think of any others.
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.
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.
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.
Singapore’s Media Development Authority have gone to some lengths in an attempt to downplay the chilling effect on freedom of expression likely to result from the recently announced licensing regime for news websites. One of the more peculiar claims was that the changes are intended to bring about “parity” between online and mainstream media sources. Reporters Without Borders quite rightly described this suggestion as “utterly absurd”. When it comes to broadcasting television programs over the airwaves, regulation and licensing is required because there is a definite lack of broadcasting spectrum, the allocation of which needs to be carefully managed. Given the relative scarcity of available frequencies, there is an argument to be made for creating an artificial barrier to entry to discourage wastage. It should be obvious that no such argument exists online – in fact the power of the internet is that the opposite applies – anyone with a single meaningful thought can and will share it with the world at the click of a button. For this reason, MDA’s purported intent – to create parity – is detached from reality.
Furthermore, the mainstream media in Singapore which MDA seek to bring websites into parity with are far from a beacon of excellence. Singapore’s television and print media are so cowed by the spectre of government interference that they score lower than that of Vladimir Putin’s Russia in RSF’s press freedom rankings. It seems clear that the parity MDA seeks establish is one wherein both online and offline media are equally lacking in the freedom to express views critical of the government. To deploy the over used butterfly and toad-in-a-well analogy, it seems that MDA wishes to kill the butterfly of online freedom and throw its corpse down the well, to rot in parity with the shackled toad.
In spite of all this, Singapore’s ruling party present us with one further paradox of parity. Alex Au of Yawning Bread fame argues – in a magnificent post which makes the point through images rather than words – that the government does not have any intrinsic desire for parity. When it suits them – for example on the question of 377A – they are quite happy to avoid a form of parity apparently on the grounds that some segments of society find it offensive. The contrast with MDA’s latest antics is stark. Again, some segments of society find these regulatory changes extremely troubling, but here the government are apparently happy to enforce an unwanted form of parity without so much as a single minute of debate.
So it seems obvious that an intrinsic desire for parity is not the true driver of this change. Silencing critics by squashing the butterfly of internet freedom however does appear to be much more consistent with the way Singapore has been ruled since independence. The obvious inference to draw is that this – not parity – is the driving force behind the new licensing regime.