Monday, June 3, 2013

Tan Wah Piow: The real reason behind the Internet crackdown in Singapore

by Tan Wah Piow, Singaporean political exile in London


Lee Hsien Loong in his first national day speech in 2004 as Prime Minister invoked Chairman Mao’s “let the hundred flowers bloom”. He added “… we are going to do is to open up the Speakers’ Corner where you can go and make any speech you like and we are going to say, ‘Well, if you want to go there and have... an exhibition, go ahead.”

And now, less than a decade after his speech, not just a hundred flowers have blossomed, cyberspace and Hong Lim Park have merged into one gigantic political force never seen before in Singapore’s history. This certainly was not what he anticipated.

If Lee Hsien Loong’s 2004 speech was a branding exercise to distinguish himself from his father’s knuckle-duster politics, the latest regulatory framework to control news websites signals the end of the liberal pretence.

In essence, independent bloggers carrying news on Singapore can be required to put up a bond of $50,000 if so required by the government when they pass the threshold of readership. The new regulation would empower the government to impose a fine of S$200,000 or imprisonment of up to 3 years against those who fail to remove offending articles within 24 hours of being ordered to do so.

If there is an example of social control by stealth, this is one. The new framework was presented as an innocuous piece of regulation ostensibly to equalize the playing field between online and offline news. Of the 10 web-based media notified by the MDA as falling within their criteria for control, ironically nine of the ten are government-friendly, owned by Singapore Press Holdings, and Media Corp. The exception is Yahoo Sg.

Although the “usual suspects”, namely sites such as Temasek Review Emeritus (TRE), The OnLine Citizen (TOC), Public House sg and many others which provide alternative news forum are not immediately named by the MDA as falling within the ambit of their control, they are anxious that these new regulations would eventually threaten their very survival, and financial viability. They are also concerned that it could curb “fellow Singaporeans’ ability to receive diverse news information”.

The 21 leading bloggers and websites of Singapore were right when they pointed out in their joint statement that “These new regulations significantly impact Singaporeans’ constitutionally protected right to free speech, and they should not be introduced without the most rigorous public debate and discussion.”

This latest regulation attracted instant and universal rejection by netizens. But is this simply a stupid decision on the part of a single Minister or someone at the MDA? Or is it a case that the PAP has not learnt the errors of their way by misjudging the mood of the population?

I believe the answer is “No” to both questions. There are just a thousand days between now and the 2016 general elections. With the way the public has responded to issues such as AIM, and the Population White Paper, there is no reason for the PAP to feel confident that they could do better in 2016 than in 2011; and the outcome of the by-elections at Punggol East was most worrying for them.

The erosion of public trusts in the PAP, and their elites does not come from any of the opposition parties, or the opposition MPs. A new potent political force has emerged which is unprecedented in Singapore history. This force is far more radical, dynamic, reflective of the people’s mood, and certainly more threatening to the PAP than all the opposition parties combined. For want of a better expression, I will call this force the “Virtual Movement for Democracy in Cyberspace (VMD)”

It is a movement without leaders, organisation, or membership. Yet it has a capacity to grow, and is already setting the political demands for change. The power of this virtual movement lies in its ability to synergise the individual desires for democratic changes in Singapore into real collective political actions. The energy within this virtual movement comes from the decades of pent up frustrations, as well as the feeling of betrayal of the Singapore cause by the PAP elites who have, over the decades, evolved into a self-serving bureaucratic capitalist class. All of us are now part of this VMD.

It is this VMD which is now setting the political agenda in Singapore. The avalanche of criticisms against AIM, the Population White Paper, and now the control of the Internet are not led by any of the opposition party, but by the uncoordinated collective efforts of individuals in cyberspace. They include those who write articles, bloggers, those who make comments, those who distribute articles through facebook and social media. The VMD would not be a potent political force without a buoyant cyberspace. At the same time, the cyberspace in Singapore would be sterile without the VMD.

It is this symbiotic relationship between the VMD and cyberspace that triggered the need for control, hence the MDA’s new regulatory regime.

In the times before 2011, the government could look at those in cyberspace as irritating but tolerable armchair critics. After all, up to the 2011 elections, cyberspace and netizens do not reflect electoral intentions. By the time of the Punggol East by-elections, cyberspace becomes the mirror of the people’s mood for change.

Over the Population White Paper, the government not just lost their ability to set the news agenda, it could no longer control the contents. It was the various websites and the traffic in cyberspace that eventually brought the thousands to rally against the government’s 6.9m population policy at Hong Lim Park.

It is instructive to note how Cheong Yip Seng, the former Chief Editor of The Straits Times describes the government obsession over the control of the media: “The government sees this in terms of what it calls “setting the agenda”. It wants to ensure that at all times, it… not anyone else… controls the agenda.” [pg 427 OB Markers] And now they have lost that power.

To continue its position as a dominant party, it is crucial for the PAP to retain The Straits Times as the dominant paper. Yet the paper is increasingly referred to in cyberspace as “The S***ing Times”, while many are relying on alternative news websites to follow political events in Singapore. So long as The Straits Times continue to be the mouthpiece of the government, its relevance as a newspaper will decline. Equalizing the playing field in this context would simply mean that the government wants to put independent news media under such pressure of control that they would toe the line as The Straits Times does for commercial survival.

The government is certainly aware that this new regulation will incur the wrath of netizens. That, to them, is a smaller price to pay than to allow the VMD to grow unchecked as that certainly could threaten the PAP electoral fortunes by 2016.

Ultimately, the final solution is to vote out the PAP so that we can have the political space to restore our democratic constitutional rights. (see my Critique on Tharman’s Pap as a Dominant Party in TRE and Public House sg,). During the interim, we need more guerrilla-type bloggers and cyber-warriors to counter the current set of regulations. Each time we forward an article we like in cyberspace to our friends and acquaintances, we are actively undermining the legitimacy and dominance of the PAP. 

Meanwhile, may the VMD grow and grow.




Is the PAP government going back to its old ways? Dr Wong Wee Nam (here)