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I am in Singapore

In Politics, Society on August 17, 2013 at 5:06 am

It’s tough trying to think when you are sitting in a coffeeshop on a Saturday morning with shouts of kopi siu tai and kopi pua sio flying over your head. (Why on earth would anyone drink lukewarm black coffee?)

So I gave up thinking. If you really want to know, I was thinking about what to write for pre-National Day Rally. I took to people-watching instead.

There were two gruff-looking men sitting on the next table. Polo tee-shirts that had seen better days, shorts and dark gold/gold coloured watches on the wrist. They seemed to be arguing over nonya bakchang. In Hokkien. (Rice dumpling season over, right? They should be talking about mooncakes…).

An elderly couple and someone who looks to be their daughter were talking about someone else who bought three units…of something. (In Hainanese lah…which I don’t quite understand). What is clear that they were taking the piss out of that buyer of three units of something…Smirks, grimaces and one “ptui’’ on the coffeeshop floor.

A young mother and two daughters were tucking into what looked like a very big breakfast. Individual plates of mixed
vegetable rice, from the “economy’’ stall. (Only 10 am and lunching already?) They were too far away for me to eavesdrop but the mother was clearly upset with the older daughter who can’t be more than 12. A lot of fork-pointing on the mother’s part. (About school work?)

Milo peng! (Who would want to drink iced Milo in the morning? Something like that would wreak havoc on my tummy!)

The screamer was one of two brothers who ran the coffeeshop, always with a grin. He even offered to give me “credit’’ when once, I left my wallet at home. Pai seh, I told him. Ten cents interest, he said. Okay, I replied. I can afford to pay that grand total of $1 for the coffee I owed, a lot cheaper than Starbucks…

But the next time I returned to pay, he had forgotten all about it. He took the money
anyway…Typical Singaporean, I thought.

Yes, this is Singapore. And Saturday is the best day to watch the people who make up the core of the country. That’s when the working crowd comes out to do their marketing. The men, usually with a newspaper stuck under armpit. The
women, pushing trolleys filled with plastic bags of vegetables and meat. (Do they recycle, I wonder)

Plenty of young couples as well. The scene has changed somewhat from 10 years ago. Young men also throng the stalls, foreign maids have picked up the buying and selling patois and you can tell the new residents who have moved in from the old-timers.

Earlier on at the wet market, I watched bemusedly as an Indian couple found themselves elbowed by middle-aged housewives at the vegetable stall. The trick is to wave those sticks of carrots you are holding in the stallholder’s face, I wanted to say. But then, I was in the queue, or something close to a queue, too.

The stallholder, a woman has run it for more than 10 years, weighed my basket of sayur bayam, Romaine lettuce (yes, wet market also got), siao pai cai, cucumbers, carrots, Chinese cabbage expertly and wrapped them in newspaper. “Serai, two,’’ I told her. One swift turn and the lemon grass was in the big red plastic bag. She also dumped some Chinese parsley, red chillies and chilli padi into the bag. No, I didn’t ask for them. Gratis.

That’s why I like shopping in wet markets. So Singaporean.

I had less luck at another stall when I asked for 20cents worth of tow gay. Nothing less than 30 cents, I was told in Mandarin. I paid up, muttering that I was only cooking for one…(Hah… I thought,no wonder your stall not crowded).

At the coffeeshop, people were content to rest and relax. Never mind that some seemed to have bought cooked food for home. (Goodness, cold already!) Everyone seemed to be enjoying a lazy Saturday. At one table was a three-generation Malay family. A father, his son and two little girls. (Been to Mecca already, I thought looking at the white haired older man who had a white skull cap on. Where’s the daughter-in-law, I wondered).

Two tudung-covered and very well made-up middle-aged women were tearing apart their roti prata at
another table. Next to them, a Chinese man did the same, while trying to read The New Paper.

This is Singapore. We don’t just celebrate different festivals in the same place. (Would our Muslims have made a fuss about Buddhists making use of their prayer room, I wonder). We eat together. Elbow to elbow. Cheek by jowl.

Across the coffeeshop are the small neighbourhood shops. They’ve “changed hands’’ over the years. From big unit to half a unit to…nothing. A provision shop I’ve patronised for years sold his place to one of those budget store chains a couple of months ago. But I still bump into the provision shop owners; they still live above their old shop.

The four bakeries have changed hands so many times, but they still serve up the same things, $1 sliced white bread, assortment of buns and butter cake. Ubiquitous fare. But they have been experimenting too. For $1.20, I get an egg-covered folded-over bread with tuna or chicken and lettuce on the inside. Enough for an eat-and-run breakfast.

Teh si…neng puay…There he goes again.

Two glass mugs appear…and go directly to a table where…. my neighbours sat. We nodded to each other in acknowledgement. Don’t know who they are but it’s so good to be among familiar faces.

So this is Singapore.

Not the Singapore of skyscrapers and gardens. Not of casinos and cosmopolitan-types. Real flesh-and-blood people in down-to-earth places doing everyday things.

And what about my pre-National Day Rally column? What can I add to the hints already dropped on what the Prime Minister will say tomorrow?

You know, I feel too at peace to really care…

I am in Singapore.

This piece first appeared on http://www.breakfastnetwork.sg

Just how did Dinesh die Part 3

In News Reports, Politics, Society on August 13, 2013 at 8:18 am

Looks like the death of the 21-year old prison inmate raised enough eyebrows to lead to questions being raised in Parliament. Leave you to judge, however, whether you’re satisfied with the questions – and the replies.
So Second Home Affairs Minister S Iswaran gave a long spiel laying out the timeline between day of death and day of reckoning in court.

Year 2010
Sept 27 Dinesh dies. Home Affairs ministry notified. Police get cracking on case. Prisons start reviewing procedures.
Nov 4 Police gives preliminary findings to Coroner. (Not sure what happens to the Coroner’s side here except that no inquiry took place. Maybe Coroner already knew it was going to be a criminal case, so he sat and watched. Then when the criminal case was over, there was no need for it.)
In the meantime, police interviewed 130 people, most of them prison guards and inmates. Even flew to United Kingdom to find out about control and restraint procedures, which Singapore had copied.
Year 2012
Aug 17 Police hands over full findings to Attorney-General Chambers.
Year 2013
Feb 4 After looking over findings and asking more questions, AGC says, okay, prosecute.
March 1 Police tells Home Affairs ministry investigations all done. (Don’t really know why they waited till March when they could have told the ministry in August at the same time as they told AGC. Maybe police didn’t want to bother ministry until after the AGC gave the go-ahead or not.)
Minister says must convene Committee of Inquiry. Review prison processes. Recommendations, please. COI gets cracking.
June 4 Home Affairs ministry accepts findings and recommendations of COI.
July 19 Case in court. Prison supervisor pleads guilty to a charge of death by a negligent act. Sentenced to $10,000 fine.

So many months, 28 or so, of so much police and prison activity – and it was made public in one day in court. Then case closed.
Mr Iswaran said the Shane Todd case took 13 months with 60 over witnesses. Yishun triple murder, which had 68 witnesses, took four years to conviction. To make the point that it wasn’t such a long time. But, hey, it wasn’t like the police had to go and hunt down suspects or anything. The last time we heard, the prison was a pretty secure place.
Never mind how many months police took, you almost wish the charge was murder – so at least the prison supervisor would have to have to go through a trial and the public can hear more about what happened. That would, of course, be too much. There was surely no malice intended on the part of the prison guards to make them under such an ordeal. Right?
So just how did Dinesh die?
Mr Iswaran didn’t go into all the mechanics of how many people pinned Dinesh down when he started flailing at them or whether they threw water on his face after he was taken to solitary. But it seemed the eight or so prison guards did not “maintain constant communication’’ with Dinesh “as required by SOP, to monitor his overall condition’’.
(So he might well be dead before he was hauled into the solitary cell. No one knows. Or no one is telling.)
Mr Iswaran also said something interesting about “positional asphyxia’’. You know, Dinesh was supposed to have died because he couldn’t breathe after he was placed face/body down. Mr Iswaran said that the guards have been given “new protocols’’ in the wake of this death; they should control and restrain violent inmates in a “standing position’’ to “reduce the risk of positional asphyxia’’.
What does that mean? That the prison guards pinned him down to the ground too forcefully? Did they use “reasonable force in a controlled manner’’ as they have been taught to do?
The police investigators and those on the COI would probably know. After all, they would have had to examine the body. So what did the post-mortem report say?
According to ST, MPs such as WP’s Mr Singh later rose and pressed for more transparency, including making the COI findings public.
Mr Iswaran reportedly replied that the COI’s purpose was not to establish criminal guilt or liability. Rather, it was to audit the prison system and its processes, and identify additional measures to prevent a recurrence.
This is all really, really too odd.
What is the problem with making the COI findings public? Didn’t the Our Singapore Conversation make it clear that the people want more, not less, information? Is giving out more information going to destroy the trust level between the people and the G? Surely not. Or is the G sticking to its position that no one needs to know so much. That’s enough that we have “handled’’ it. Or worse, raising questions on the death of Dinesh is equivalent to banging drums (Distortions, Rumours, Untruths, Misinformation and Smears)?
Mr Iswaran took pains to point out that the prison environment is a dangerous one. Last year, there were 61 cases of assault: 40 against fellow inmates and 21 against the guards. Over the past four years, the guards had to use control and techniques 331 times. No one has ever died or have been badly injured. Until now.
WP’s Mr Singh also asked if the coroner’s inquiry could be re-opened. But the minister said it was not unprecedented nor uncommon for one to be discontinued at the state coroner’s discretion after the accused had pleaded guilty. Lawyers acting for the inmate’s family also did not object to the inquiry being discontinued.
The thing is, this is a death in a public institution. It would be better to let it all hang out. The people who don’t believe the G’s story will still stick to their guns whatever the G says. But there are also people who want to hear more, because the case is simply baffling to the layman.
What of Dinesh’s next-of-kin? They, at least, are entitled to know what happened. Their MP Ang Wei Neng said Dinesh’s mother had complained to him that prisons officers did not give her the full story until the court case.
Presumably, she knows everything by now? The MSM reported the court case in such a confused and conflicting manner that those who were not in court would be hard put to piece the “full story’’ together. It seems that in Parliament, Workers’ Party’s Pritam Singh referred to the conflicting news reports which led to Home Affairs Minister Teo Chee Hean interjecting to say that his point was not relevant. Speaker Halimah Yacob agreed. (This was also reported in Zaobao today.)
Mr Iswaran told the House that the G and the family are in discussions over the matter of compensation. The G “accepts liability’’, that is, it acknowledged that it was responsible for Dinesh’s death. The sum is apparently being negotiated. You know what people will say… That there will be strings attached, like some sort of gag order.
It will be good to know the final sum. Let’s hope the G response is not that this is a “private matter’’ or that “the family requested privacy’’. It is taxpayer’s money paying for G liability, which should over-ride any private interest. Also, something like this could set the benchmark for other cases (touch wood!) that pop up in the future.
Again, just how did Dinesh die?

This article first appeared on http://www.breaknetwork.sg
Oliver et al and other BH readers, if you are more used to reading your email, then surfing websites, just go to Breakfast Network once and get an email subscription!

Singapore’s mid-life crisis

In News Reports, Politics, Society on August 12, 2013 at 2:57 am

I couldn’t help it when Goh Chok Tong said Singapore was facing a mid-life crisis.
Here goes…

Can you believe I’m actually 48?

Sheesh, not too long ago, I was scrabbling the dirt, trying to think about how to survive after I got kicked out of my old home. Now, I’m driving fast cars, drinking champagne at $1,000 per pop parties and flirting with exotic foreigners. I wear so much bling, I am weighed down. (That reminds me.. I should pay up my credit card bill..)

But, hey, I am welcomed everywhere. I am a brand name. I yell that I am SINGAPORE and the world falls to its feet…Okay, not literally.

How dare people say I am going through a mid-life crisis! I am at the prime of my life even though my old man, LKY, who is even older, thinks I might be heading downhill. Can you believe his book? All forlorn and pessimistic. He’s joined the rest of the country in the gloomy stakes. Hah! I’m still going at 2.5 per cent to 3.5 per cent a year. My neighbours can eat the smoke from my Ferrari. Oh…did I just beat a red light?

I break out in hot flushes (or is that only a female thing?) whenever I think about those people telling me to change. Look at all those complaints and suggestions disguised as “reflections’’ in that report! They’re telling me how to age gracefully! I am NOT old, just middle-aged. In fact, I don’t even qualify for senior citizen discounts!

But, frankly, I don’t mind an elixir or two. My knees are getting creaky. The calcium tablets aren’t working. I am thinking of getting more vitamin supplements to boost my immunity but some people say I’m already taking too much. So I guess more of those foreign workers need to go and I’ve got to grow more fruits, vegetables and medicinal herbs in my garden. Something organic. I will still need my foreign help to water them though.

I went to the doctor the other day.

I think I’ve got cataracts developing. He says I just need reading glasses. You see, I can’t see properly, especially what’s close by and right before my nose. I am tripping easily (actually I think I’m being tripped up on purpose by pesky people with their computers). I am even banging into coffeeshop tables, hindered by people who don’t wear white and who got to the coffeeshop before me.

(That’s why recently, I’ve only been eating at high-class restaurants where the waitress will show me my table. Half the time, though, I have trouble ordering food. The waitresses can never understand my English, not even my Singlish.)

Maybe, I will get those reading classes after all. The doctor says it will open up a whole new world for me. That I can finally see the faces of people around me. Familiar faces. He tells me though that I have to change the way I talk to them. Look them in the eye, he says! Tell them more about yourself, like what’s in your bank account, he says.

Now that’s a bit too much. I don’t quite trust them to know too much. They will get unreasonable and demand a lot of things. Do they even know what they are talking about? I’ve been doing quite well, thank you, for the past 48 years!

Anyway, I told the doctor I will go to an optician. He says surgery might do the trick too. But I looked at his medical charges…and I nearly fainted. Something has got to be done for older folk and their medical bills. I told that old man’s young man to do something. He said, sure. Wait a week or so for me to announce something, he said, and then go for surgery.

I also asked him (my doctor, not the old man’s young man) for those little blue pills. Very casually, you know. At my age, performing in the bedroom isn’t always a success. Not that I have much time for it. Too busy living the high life. I only hope those big-time scientists I’ve brought from theworld over will discover a cloning technique, besides finding a dengue vaccine.

Oops! I am digressing…you know what’s it like with older people…They ramble. They have gaps in their train of thought, like that big gap on my head. My hairline is receding… Been thinking of wearing a toupe but I’ve been told that’s old-fashioned. The new trend is to go bald.

I should have shaved my head for my 48th birthday. Everyone threw a big party for me on Friday! Those people in white finally realised that they should wear MY colours, red and white, not theirs. Clapping. Fireworks. Dances. Performances. Songs. You name it…they really laid it out for me…and then they left their rubbish behind…

I need to go now…Find the valet to fetch my Ferrari. Got to go back to someone’s Good Class Bungalow for another belated birthday party. Oh wait. I got the address wrong. It’s some HDB void deck party… Dammit! Should have bought those reading glasses.

This article first appeared on the Breakfast Network.

Calling out the MDA

In News Reports, Politics, Society on June 2, 2013 at 11:37 am

On Friday, I was approached to put my name on the media statement calling on the online community to join a series of online/offline protests against the Media Development Authority’s licensing scheme for news websites. I asked for time to think. I also asked to see the “link’’ that people would be directed to that was on the statement. But that “link’’, which turned out to be FAQs exhorting individuals to sign up, wasn’t ready. So I didn’t sign.

I do not like the MDA scheme at all. To think I left the traditional media which was bound by the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act to be subject to yet another similar instrument! But I am not subject to it, not as a blogger in any case, as MDA has clarified. So Bertha Harian is safe. But what about Breakfast Network? That’s still a question mark because the MDA can’t seem to get its act together to give clear answers. Am I to assume that Breakfast Network has the all-clear too because The Online Citizen has pressed its case for licensing and it has been “rejected’’? BTW, Good game TOC!

So it seems whether a website is worth being licensed despite fulfilling content and reach criteria is something for the MDA to decide. What does this mean? That a site has to keep within acceptable boundaries when reporting local developments and write the “right stuff’’ if it wants grow the number of eyeballs beyond 50,000 visitors and not put up the $50,000 bond? Guess what? This could mean the G considers TOC “acceptable’’ – kiss of death or what?

Or maybe the G’s real target is Yahoo, the only non MSM on the list of 10 websites. Dear Yahoo, what did you do wrong? Or were you making too much money off Singapore news?

There was an interesting piece in Singapolitics (yes, MSM) on the difficulties of controlling the Internet. The column did not slam the licensing scheme (it is, after all, MSM) but went into how the G was stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to regulating the Internet. By its very nature, the Internet can’t be regulated. It is too free-wheeling and there will always be ways to get out from under anybody’s control or oversight. Other countries have tried to do so and the attempts have been seen as “censorship’’ of free speech – a very bad word.

The G could try clarifying the term “news website’’ further but it would lead to the following scenarios:
a. Say Facebook and forums which fulfil the content and reach criteria also comes under the ambit of the scheme. There’s better clarity now BUT the outcry would be tremendous! Poor sammyboy and PropertyGuru etc. Plus there will be arguments on who really is the Facebook owner? Maybe Facebook should put up the performance bond.

b. If there’s further clarity, then people would simply jump to platforms that won’t come under the scheme. So we jump to, say, Twitter. If Twitter is covered at a later stage, then we can cry foul and say this is not fair, you didn’t cover Twitter in the first place.

c. If the G starts covering all sorts of aggregators and whatever else with a local IP address in the scheme, then it would really amount to a draconian approach to control the Internet universe. It won’t have a leg to stand on when it talks about being more transparent and open to views.

d. So you jump to a foreign server to escape but then again, the G have already said it would move in on these people who report on local developments from abroad. How would it do so and how would it enforce this is unclear – and will be interesting to watch. Wow, is the BBC and CNN going to have to put up a bond too?

That’s probably why the G phrased its definition of “news site’’ so broadly and then tries to appease the rest of the world by saying it won’t be using the stick too much. In fact, what it is saying is: “Trust us not to be unreasonable. After all, we haven’t been unreasonable have we? Only one “take down’’ notice over the years…’’

That’s really the problem isn’t it? It’s about giving the executive arm so much/too much discretion. Now what happens if one day, the executive decides to “get unreasonable’’ and start issuing take-down notices – because it can? Do we then mount a challenge in the courts? Pretty tough since the issue wasn’t debated in Parliament and the courts can’t depend on the “will’’ or “intent’’ of Parliament to reach a full verdict. It might have to dig back to the days when the NPPA and the Broadcasting Act was first legislated – the dinosaur era.

The G’s next argument would be: Then the people had better make sure that good, reasonable people are elected so that executive powers won’t be abused.

It’s a line that it doesn’t really believe.

Look at how the Elected Presidency was introduced as a safeguard on the nation’s reserves so that if terrible people are in power and start raiding the reserves, we won’t be a bankrupt nation.

One other point: It has noted that the opposition parties have never called for a repeal of newspaper or broadcasting laws, because it would serve their interests to have them controlled should they be in power one day.

Hmm. That’s true.

Why do opposition parties keep railing at the pro-G MSM but not buckle down to actually doing something about it? Like getting the media laws repealed?

Perhaps, everyone has given up on that territory and now want to ring fence the new territory from G intervention. Hence the protests and such like.
Would I have signed the statement if I had time to think? Maybe.

The statement calls for action. A repeal of the scheme. Perhaps, it should have called for a conference with MDA first and have it out with the officials? Or would that be too lame? But just because the MDA doesn’t “consult’’ doesn’t mean the online community has to resort to the same tactics. Will the MDA talk? My guess is that it didn’t reckon with the kind of outcry the move has drawn. This is a far more discerning electorate than the one which accepted the old media laws. This is a community with a vested interest in keeping some territory to itself.

Note that objectionable content is already under the classification regime and other laws can be used to deal with the malicious and the mischievous. If the concern is the standard of professional reporting online, then other methods can be agreed upon, such as insisting on the right of reply and a policy of correcting errors for news sites with the content and reach envisaged. Perhaps, news sites can commit to a policy to have public comments only by readers who are ready to be identified, as it is for the letters pages in mainstream newspapers. That would be parity with MSM that some in the online community could live with.

I mean, I could live with that.

Perhaps I should have signed the statement if only to bring MDA to the table. But in the end, I am glad that I didn’t sign, because what I saw of the initial FAQs that were made public left me wondering if the online community was shooting itself in its own foot.

There was, for example, a quip that STOMP would be the first to be taken down. Was that necessary? Or is this only because STOMP belonged to the mainstream media which the online community likes so much to criticise. Is this fact or speculation? In any case, this phrase was deleted later.

Okay then.

Then there were the “personal’’ FAQs on why individuals should sign. To people who blog, it said: “Sorry to break it to you, but if you have more than 50,000 unique views a day, you better have $50k to pay.”

MDA has already said bloggers are excluded. But the group did not mention this caveat, and appears to be proceeding on the assumption that MDA isn’t saying so in good faith.

This phrase was subsequently amended to add this point:

“Even though MDA said that blogs do not fall under the licensing scheme, this is not reflected in the wording of the legislation. It leaves the door open for blogs or any other site to be forced to license in the future without any change in the law.’’

So much better.

Then there was the call to mainstream journalists. They should join the protest if they “have an iota of professional pride’’.

“If you belong to one of the publications who have been asked to license under the Licensing Regime, consider this: you are soon going to belong to an organization that has to pay money to guarantee its continued good behaviour. Is that what you went to J school for?’’

The group forgot that the MSM journalists already work under the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act and Broadcasting Act. Or they wouldn’t have mentioned anything about “professional pride’’. (So they already lack that even now?) Not quite the way to make friends…In fact, MSM might well retort that the group should have asked for “parity’’, to have the current MSM laws should be repealed as well.

In any case, the answer has been amended to this :

“Journalists in the mainstream media have long worked under the control of the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act (NPPA). If you have ever experienced how editorial control stemming from the NPPA chafes at your journalistic sensibilities, why would you desire that potentially any expression online to be subject to NPPA-like controls?’’

Hmm…good sleight of hand.

Herein lies the difference between online reporting and MSM. Because it is definitely the case that online sites can make corrections quickly, even surreptitiously, compared to MSM which has to live with their mistakes in print for all to see. This is one factor that makes MSM careful about their reporting and ensure that facts are checked before publication.

But in the initial as well as current FAQs is this assumption that was made about “pro-PAP’’ websites and how they would be “happy that anti-PAP websites now have to live under a cloud of fear’’.

The group’s answer on why they should join the protest: “Your joy could be short lived. Elections come around every 5 years, and there’s no guarantee that the PAP is going to be in power forever.
“One day, you might live under an opposition government, who could very well use these press laws against you. Remember, the PAP was once part of the opposition too…’’

Now, that’s a bit unfair on pro-PAP websites. Just because they support the PAP, does this mean they would agree automatically with the diktats of the G? And what does that make the group behind the protests? Anti-PAP? Are we to assume that only anti-PAP people would decry this legislation? Why do we need to fracture the online community like this?

In any case, I will be at Hong Lim Park to do a hopefully professional job of reporting. Now I can only hope that no one takes a “if you are not with us, you must be against us’’ approach to those who declined to add their name to the petition. Because one of the great things about the online media is this: It allows for a plurality of views

Expressedly depressed

In News Reports, Politics, Society on May 29, 2013 at 12:13 pm

When word started going around that news sites were going to be licensed, my first instinct was: I want to be there when they announce this. I tried to wrangle an invite but was told I am not “accredited media”. (By the way, I don’t think Yahoo! News was invited either. And the news site is going to have to get a licence and put up a $50,000 bond.)

I wanted to be there because I am still, at heart, a curious journalist. Second, I write a blog and am now trying to build Breakfast Network by experimenting with alternative ways of telling the news in a moderate voice. Third, because I am a concerned citizen who wonders why we need more, rather than fewer, rules to govern what we say.

I wanted to ask questions. Now I wish I had banged the door down because the MSM did a pretty poor job of asking tough questions going by all the reports I’ve read so far. Maybe they have been “gagged” or given some deep background briefing that is off the record that convinces them of the need for such licensing. Maybe they too believe that the licensing of sites is the right thing to do since they already have to obtain licences for their newspaper products. I doubt though that any self-respecting journalist would adopt such a dog in the manger approach. More likely, they would want parity to go the other way: If online sites are not licensed, newspapers shouldn’t be too.

Which is why it’s really odd for the Minister to talk about being “fair” to mainstream media by imposing the same rules for online sites. It makes MSM look as though it were them who asked for a level playing field. That, I cannot believe.

Now, it’s no secret that the G has been looking for ways to keep online commentators in line. We just have to refer to the rush of letters of demand in recent time. Sure thing, some comments are egregiously damaging, undermines trust in institutions and plain false. To keep policing by throwing the law at individuals looks like a pretty tedious process. Hence, why not a blanket approach?

Perhaps, as an online community, we have failed to police ourselves. The G might well argue that it had wanted an Internet Code of Conduct in place but the online community who see this as a censorship threat was reluctant to co-operate. It might well say this: “It’s your fault. And that’s why we have to resort to such a blunt instrument as licensing.”

The funny thing is, when the announcement was finally made, the G merely extended it really to just one site, Yahoo! News. The other nine are owned by MSM. So this is the light touch? Or the thin end of the wedge? It cannot be that the G is worried about MSM content. It has so many ways to make MSM compliant. It is probably worried about bloggers and sites that have a reach which will grow to rival those of MSM. So it’s a pre-emptive strike.

It will backfire.

Anyway, what are the questions that should have been posed?

a. How did the G come to the 50,000 visitors figure?

b. How did it come up with $50,000 performance bond?

c. How did it come up with something like this as a content criteria: Report an average of at least one article per week on Singapore’s news and current affairs over a period of two months? It looks tailored….

d. Is it entirely within its discretion which sites to “notify’’ for licensing? If so, does this mean it might well not bother with some “nice’’ sites even though they meet both criteria on reach and local news content? What about individual bloggers and Facebook commentators with huge followings?

e. That 24-hour deadline on “take it down’’ or else. Who will determine what should be taken down? Is there an avenue of appeal? Does this mean that the current classification guidelines and code of conduct aren’t working and hence the need for this sledgehammer approach?

f. Can it cite instances when guidelines were regularly breached and by who or which site? In other words, who or what is it really targeting? Socio-political sites? Sites with shady foreign funding? Black ops type of sites? It can’t be just those 10 sites!

g. Are the current laws too weak to deal with egregious breaches?

h. How would it justify licensing in the light of what has been said about having an open, transparent conversation in a new normal Singapore?

i. How would it answer accusations that this would constrain those who have something constructive to say that might not be to its liking? Or those who say that it is adding to a “climate of fear’’.

j. Does it believe that engagement with the online community is a way to add to civic discussion? Did it engage the online on this licensing scheme at all?

Given the round of condemnation online so far, no one has been been consulted on this brainwave. So the licensing scheme has been imposed from up high. And there I was thinking that Singapore had entered a new era.

I would rather the G level with us and tell us exactly who or what it is targeting than put up that fig leaf of 10 sites. Can the G at least be honest about its intentions and upfront about what else it intends to do in the future even if it thinks the likes of us online aren’t worth engaging?

My more immediate question is: What should I do now? Odd that my fellow members on Breakfast Network and I would have to think about how NOT to make ourselves so popular that we would breach the 50,000 threshold. Even if we have $50,000 to spare, it’s not nice to have to wonder about phone calls in the night or an email to demand that a post be deleted. And it’s not nice to have to second guess what the G (or which god in which department) thinks about this post or that and that particular god-person’s threshold of “sensitivity’’.

I gather I cut too close to the bone sometimes when I write – even when I wield a scalpel and not a cleaver. Maybe I should stick to writing nice, boring stuff. But that isn’t me.

This is depressing.

This article first appeared on http://www.breakfastnetwork.sg

An unlicensed conversation

In News Reports, Politics, Society on May 29, 2013 at 1:55 am

Inside a bunker in Singapore, two bureaucrats, Chin Oo Eng and Nina Kan, are discussing ways to control the universe. They’re starting with the Internet.

Chin: Okay, we failed to get those Internet fellas on board that Code of Conduct. And all those letters of demand, Sedition Act stunts we throw at them… don’t seem to be working. Boss now says we tighten the screws. I’ve been thinking for a long time… We can do it like China and just shut or block out stuff we don’t like. We can hire all those PMETs in the Singapore core to sit around and monitor sites. Below $4,000 a month, so that we can give them Workfare increases. It’ll make us popular.

Nina Kan: Don’t be silly. Just come up with a licence like under Newspaper Printing Presses Act. Annual. Renewable depending on whether they toe the line or not. And they must say who owns the site, editor, publisher etc. All these shady characters who give money to slam us will now have to emerge. Or if they don’t want to, they will have to close down. Yeehhahaaarrhaaaa! And throw in a $50,000 bond as well so that the smaller fellows who can’t afford it will have to close down too. Heeyaaaharrrr.

Chin: Eh, if they go to China and use servers there how? Some already do. Can’t even identify the buggers.

Nina Kan: That’s stage 2 lah. Now we just get those “friendly’’ sites under the umbrella. MSM fellows can’t object. Won’t object anyway. In fact, let’s get the boss to say that we’re just being fair: “Our mainstream media are subjected to rules … Why shouldn’t the online sites also be part of that regulatory framework?” Something like that.
If you really worried, we can say we targeting “commercial’’ sites that take in advertising. Like this, even Yahoo can come under licence. And I think that Marissa woman won’t mind $50K. Nothing to Yahoo…

Chin: You’re so good, you’re evil. But you know, if Yahoo won’t play ball…Anyway, if we only say commercial sites, then we have to rule out those bloggers and those very oo eng people who write about all sorts of stuff pro bono. We need to catch everyone!

Nina Kan: Hmm. Tough. We better come out with some conditions first. We can try this: Under the licensing framework, online news sites will be individually licensed if they (i) report an average of at least one article per week on Singapore’s news and current affairs1 over a period of two months, and (ii) are visited by at least 50,000 unique IP addresses from Singapore each month over a period of two months.

Dear reader, don’t get irritated, but I need you to move to another place… For the rest of the conversation, pse go to http://www.breakfastnetwork.sg

In the aftermath of the “solidarity” rally

In News Reports, Politics, Society on May 13, 2013 at 12:51 am

An exchange between two foreign workers in Singapore:
(Ordinarily, I would have tried to mimick the accent of foreigners. But I don’t know how to. And don’t want to be accused of stereotyping!)

FW1: These Singaporeans really love us! They held some candlelight vigil for Malaysians last night. Even though there was a police warning and all.

FW2: Don’t be silly. Not many people turned up. Scared off. Only a few hundred versus 4,000 or so at that Population White Paper rally. Don’t forget some Malaysians got arrested too earlier.

FW1: But that they even turned up at all was quite something no? People say Singaporeans very, what they call it? kiasi. Seems some of them aren’t that afraid. They were even taunting the plainclothes policemen!

FW2: Hey, don’t you read what some people on the Internet said? They think Singaporeans shouldn’t be protesting on the Malaysians’ behalf. Frankly, Singaporeans should mind their own business. What can the people in this small country do anyway? They’re just asking for trouble.

FW1: But some Singaporeans have always done so. For the Indian gang rape victim, displaced Sri Lankans and I don’t know who else. There’s actually some support for those of us who work here. A good sign.

FW2: You’re being too optimistic. Have you counted how many of us have been sent home because our passes haven’t been renewed? I tell you, we’re not welcomed here. They say we are taking away their jobs.

FW1: Hah! As though Singaporeans want to do the work we do. They need us to build those flats they live in.

FW2: That’s easy for you to say. You’re in the construction business. I’m in F&B and my boss says there’s a quota on hiring foreigners. My pass is up for renewal. I think I might have to go home.

FW1: Can’t you go to those migrant centres? They are very good to people like us. They pay legal fees, fight for our salaries and let us stay in their quarters. Even in their homes. Ask them to petition or make a case for you.

FW2: Are you mad? What if my employer finds out? What if police found out? You want me to be roughed up like those Chinese SMRT bus drivers?

FW1: But police said that didn’t happen. You can’t believe everything on the internet!

FW2: Well, you can’t believe everything the police say! In fact, I am going online to tell the Singaporeans what I think of them! These lazy fellows who don’t want to do the dirty jobs and then complain when people like us do. We’re doing it for so little money!

FW1: But more than what we’ll make at home, I think. My family is very pleased that there’s money. Except I’m getting worried. My boss hasn’t paid me in two months. You think I should complain to someone? To mother?

FW2: You mean that place in Havelock road? Useless, I hear they will ask you for so many different documents and you have to keep returning. You think your boss won’t find out where you’ve been? He’ll probably put you on the next plane home. By the way, how’s that girlfriend of yours? The one working in that big house?

FW1: Terrible! She wants me to marry her. She keeps forgetting I’m already married. I am just afraid she will kill herself, or worse, kill me! I’ve been reading so many such stories in the newspapers.

FW2: Well, the good thing is that the police don’t care how many women we run around with. They only care if it’s a big name civil servant. Anyway, I’m off for a beer. Thank goodness for 7/11.

FW1: Okay, I have to run and meet my woman now. Her employer is out of town. Big house! I think I built it!

Cracking three hoary old chestnuts

In News Reports, Politics on April 28, 2013 at 11:03 am

Chestnut No. 1:
Whoever said politics in Singapore isn’t exciting hasn’t been following news events recently. A confrontation appears to be looming between the establishment and civil society groups over the same hoary old chestnuts – freedom of expression and the ability to criticise the judiciary and institutions without running afoul of the law or being branded as renegades out to erode confidence in the system.

These tussles have never quite died down but it seems the civil society types are upping the ante and gaining more traction. Their amplifier is the internet and social media, aided by an environment which is admittedly less respectful of authority and more inclined to criticism than conciliation.

The wonder is that civil society groups are leading the charge rather than the opposition political parties in questioning the agenda and actions of the G and, yes, sometimes making statements bordering on the scurrilous. The parties are keeping quiet and seems content with organising policy forums and presenting policy papers. Perhaps, the political parties prefer to be seen as professional politicos in public and leave the guerrilla warfare to groups and individuals, whether or not they are aligned to the opposition cause.

The G is getting a drubbing by bloggers, cartoonists, online sites, advocacy groups and the like. The level of vitriol is increasing and will not go down despite the G’s recent actions and statements. Either a consensus or compromise must be reached on the rules of engagement or there would be no end to the scepticism over the citizens’ to ability to engage the G outside G-sanctioned parameters.

The statement by the Manpower and Home Affairs ministries to a joint statement by some civil society groups and individuals over allegations of police brutality towards a couple of SMRT bus strikers was a super quick response. Clearly, there is official irritation at how that the SMRT saga hasn’t died down.

The thing is, in the digital age, nothing dies. The MSM may decide to “end’’ public discussion but online, news will surface and old news rehashed and sometimes passed off as new. Given that people do not make news reading a daily habit, any satisfactory solution or compromise reached can be easily missed. Nuances will be lost, the tone revised. Anger resurfaces.

Yet the noise in Singapore is no different from the noise wherever there is an educated populace. The only difference is that Singapore is a smaller place than most. Noise can reach all parts of the island in double quick time, moving from the virtual to the real world. The G’s protective stance towards public institutions is correct. It will not do for public trust in agencies that enforce the rules to be eroded. But the question is: How should it react to those who want fuller answers from agencies in the spotlight?

By accusing advocacy groups of exploiting foreign workers “for their own political ends’’, as they did in the SMRT bus drivers’ case, they are reverting to their old tactic of labelling aggressive critics as having “an agenda’’.

Here’s what happened for those who haven’t caught up:

Police internal watchdogs have investigated the allegations of brutality against the two Chinese nationals who spoke in a video that made the rounds of the Internet. They found them to be “baseless’’. A statement was issued last weekend in which MHA noted that “neither He nor Liu had made any allegations of physical abuse during Police investigations even though they had had many opportunities to do so”. They could have spoken up while they were in the lock-up, in court, while out on bail, when a doctor saw one of them for grastic pains, when they were on trial. Neither they nor their lawyers no the Chinese embassy did so.
(The possible cynical retort to the above could be: They were too scared lah.)

The ministry pointed out that even after the videos were released, both men and their lawyers did not report the allegations to the authorities, although the lawyers would have known that would be the proper course of action.
(Again, the possible cynical retort could be: They were too scared lah. Also once the allegations were out in the open, then the expectation would be that the G wheels will start grinding)

But when the two men and their lawyers spoke to police internal affairs, their statements were found to be “inconsistent’’. They subsequently retracted their accusations.
(Possible cynical retort: They got scared again lah)

One of the bus drivers, now back in China, have again repeated the allegations, denied retracting them and insisted that when he said he would not pursue his accusations of police abuse, this did not mean that “those things never happened’’. Implicit (or explicit) in his remarks was he feared what would happen to him if he pursued the case, giving grist to the mill to those who believe that Singapore is a lawless country which punishes real and imagined critics mercilessly.

The advocacy groups have weighed in, asking for clarifications and more details about the investigation into the statements on police brutality: How were they baseless or inconsistent?

Seems they trust the word of the Chinese drivers more than the police. Can the police give more details than what they already have in the interest of placating the groups? Would that not, however, would be setting a precedent of sorts? Surely detailed police investigations cannot be released on demand, unless demanded by a court?

Thing is, the groups have found the wrong examples if they want to make a political point about suppression of labour rights and other wrongs. It is unlikely that the police would have done anything untoward towards foreign nationals in a high profile case, especially with diplomats from a big country watching.

The groups might be better-off if they had Singapore workers instead of the bus drivers as their “poster boys’’. If suppression of labour rights and the role of MOM and unions is an endemic problem here, there would be rather more Singapore workers who could be held up as examples.
Of course, this is not to say that everything is hunky dory here. If anything, the actions of the SMRT bus drivers have led to changes and brought to light several worker-management issues. Manpower officials will probably be more alert to disgruntlement in the worker rank and file. Unionists will also have to think about going back to basics, whether in ensuring better salaries for locals or watching the impact of foreign workers on the livelihoods of members – which appear to have passed them by over the years!

Now what?

The majority of Singaporeans probably have enough faith in the integrity of the institutions but there will always be some who don’t. Since it’s clear who some of these people are, is there some way the G could unbend enough to sit down with them to talk? Advocacy groups are good for the development of civil society but not if they are so apart from decision makers that the adversarial relationship leads to just more words and no action. They are volunteers with special causes, giving off their time and energy.They shouldn’t be dismissed like just so much trouble makers.
Note also that they are unlike political parties which have as their ultimate goal the formation of an alternative government.
The sit down and talk proposal is probably idealistic and even naïve but it is made in good faith. We don’t need too many fractures in society.

Chestnut No.2
Now what about the actions taken against online cartoonist Lester Chew who is “helping police’’ with investigations with regards to the Sedition Act? The Attorney-General’s Chambers gave the longest response so far on how it wants to deal with comments and criticisms. Here’s a look:

a. Every day, there are hundreds of commentaries, if not more, on socio-political matters both in the mainstream media and online. Many of these do not contravene the law, and no legal action will be taken by the Attorney-General’s Chambers on behalf of the State, even though some may contain factual inaccuracies. Some of these statements may defame or otherwise cause damage to an individual; whether any action is to be taken is generally a matter for that individual.

In other words, you can say what you want so long as you don’t break the law. No one will come after you even if your sometimes inaccurate. Beware though the consequences of defamation. The G can’t sue, but individuals sure can.

b. However, racial and religious harmony is vital to our society and has enabled Singaporeans to live together in peace over the years. Words or deeds touching on race or religion have the potential to create fault lines within our society. Such bonds, once frayed, let alone sundered, cannot easily be repaired and we must therefore remain vigilant against any threats to racial and religious harmony.

Very clear. No one would object to this.

c. Where statements are made, or actions are taken, which insult a particular religion or race, or seek to engender hatred amongst races or religious groups, or which suggest that the Government is using race or religion for its own purposes, then a response will follow. Where the statements or actions are heinous, a firm line will be taken. For example, the burning of the Koran or the Bible will not be allowed in Singapore under the cover of freedom of speech or expression.

Here’s the problem : what’s an insult or could engender hatred to some could be satirical to others or even humorous. Or justified as “awareness raising’’. Think Porn Masala. Second thing: That the G is using race or religion for its own purposes. What does this mean? That the G is using race or religion as a policy tool to benefit itself or protect its members? If people are questioning the G’s use of race and religion, then there is something wrong in the first place – there is no agreement on both sides on the rationale, much less the use.

d. On the other hand where comments are made in the heat of the moment, or by relatively immature persons who did not know better, a more nuanced response may follow. Much will depend on what is uncovered by investigations

There is a bit more clarity here. You are forgiven if you “let yourself go’’ in the heat of the moment. That is, you misspoke and didn’t go on and on. Then age matters. The young and immature will be forgiven, maybe counselled? but they won’t get the book thrown at them in the face – or not full on anyway. That leaves the older folk whose racist remarks ecetera form a pattern or a trend.

e. Similarly, the rule of law is another fundamental tenet of our society and action will be taken in respect of any statement or action that seeks to impugn or undermine the independence of the Judiciary. Unwarranted allegations of bias or partiality strike at the heart of the judicial process, threatening the very institution that protects the rights of all Singaporeans.

Okay, this is the famous contempt of court thing that keeps cropping up which critics say is a muzzle on freedom of expression. In this, they have on their side that a member of the British House of Lords who has described the Singapore version as “outmoded and archaic’’. Plus, in Britain, there is a move to remove the offence of “scandalising the judiciary’’. The AGC is sticking to its guns on this so it’s not likely to be abolished. But one thing is happening: The Law Ministry is looking into “codifying’’ the law of contempt which it has described as a priority. Now just what is “codifying’’? Making the lines clearer? The ministry had better work a lot faster then.

Chestnut No. 3
In the wake of Mr Nizam Ismail’s departure from the Association of Muslim Professionals, Ms Braema Mathi of Maruah has written to ST Forum page to ask for a clear stand on the participation of politicians in groups that receive state funding. Apparently, Mr Nizam’s participation in opposition forums and his sometimes controversial views have led to some pressure on him to leave.
That, plus a statement from a minister that state-funded groups should not be used as a platform for people to be involved in partisan politics.

Ms Mathi’s query deserves an answer. She did not give a number on how many People’s Action Party MPs are involved in volunteer groups , but the bet is probably quite many. Ms Mathi said that MPs’ participation would elevate their political profile and hence, the profile of the PAP. In other words, the charge of using a VWO as a platform for partisan politics would apply to them too.

How will the G answer? That the PAP MPs were “invited’’ by the groups who already know that they are partisan? So there is a difference between an aspiring politician who intends to make use of a platform and an elected one whose presence was asked for to burnish a VWO’s credentials? If so, then there should be no objection to Opposition MPs sitting on board state-funded groups as well. Are there any?

Even if the G somehow makes the case for elected PAP MPs, it has to reckon with aspiring PAP politicians now sitting on VWOs. Using the Mr Nizam example, they should be booted out too, especially if they speak at PAP-organised forums or join in partisan political activities. Looks like a whole can of worms is about to be opened.

Maybe every state-funded VWO should ask members for their political affiliations and screen them all out just to be safe. Maybe this is why no one wants to be in politics or get involved in politics. Maybe it’s best to stay apolitical.
That is surely not what the G wants.

Or maybe that really is its aim – to make sure politics in Singapore is as unexciting as can be.

Rules of engagement need negotiation

In News Reports, Politics, Society on April 24, 2013 at 2:16 am

Sometimes, a word or two whispered in the right ear will do the trick. Sometimes, the whisper can be as simple as “What’s he doing in a place like that?’’ Depending on the status/standing of the whisperer, the person being whispered to would have to guess at what the whisperer truly meant. An innocuous question? Or one that has deeper meaning?

Seems that Mr Nizam Ismail, a now former director of the Association of Muslim Professionals, has been the subject of some whispering. He told The Straits Times that AMP had informed him over the weekend that two ministers had “expressed concern” about some critical views he had put forth online and his participation in the two events. He declined to name the ministers.

ST reported: He said he was presented with two options. One, if he did not “tone down” his activities, the Government would withdraw funding from AMP. Two, dissociate himself from AMP if he wanted to continue with civil society activities.
Of course, no one in the AMP or the G is going to admit to “political intervention’’ as Mr Nizam has described it. He quit, they said. The retort would be: Did he really have a choice?

Muslim Affairs Minister Yacob Ibrahim gave a roundabout response, or at least, that was how the ST report appeared:

Asked by reporters last night on the sidelines of a dialogue organised by government feedback unit Reach, Dr Yaacob said: “AMP is an important partner. In our discussions with AMP, we have never touched on their internal organisation, how they are being managed.”

(Okay, so he’s saying it doesn’t matter who is doing what in AMP, so long as the work gets done properly. Mr Nizam was head of AMP’s research arm and its former ex-chairman)

He also noted that the association has “written in its Constitution that whoever is involved in AMP must be non-partisan and we assume therefore not involved in politics”.

Some questions:
a. What’s non-partisan? A card-carrying member of a political party? By extension, this should disqualify AMP members who are members of the ruling parties too. Are there any? Mr Nizam has said he is not a member of any party, nor intending to be one.
b. What’s getting involved in politics? Seems Mr Nizam’s participation at the Population White Paper protest and a Workers’ Party forum counts. Would it help if he made it clear at those forums that he was speaking in his personal capacity and his views do not represent those of his organisation? Not enough? Well, Mr Nizam is going for a hattrick; he’s down as a speaker for the May 1 rally at Hong Lim Park. Would he still be speaking? Nothing to prevent him now really….Or he could ask if he could speak at the NTUC-organised May Day rally!
c. If getting involved politics – broadly defined – means running afoul of the constitution of an organisation, then too many people will be disqualified and proscribed from speaking up. Or should they only do so at government-sanctioned events, like the Singapore Conversation series.
He said the Government was more concerned with the work they do as they receive public funds.
Dr Yaacob added: “Money which is given by the Government to Malay-Muslim organisations must be for the purpose of voluntary work that will help the community move forward. It is not for the purpose of creating a platform for people to be involved in partisan politics.”
(Okay, the AMP gets funding in the form of a $1m matching grant yearly for five years. Other organisations which get any form of G funding might want to take note, like arts groups.)

So did Mr Nizam quit voluntarily or was he pushed?This is what he himself said in a posting today:

“I received a surprise phone call from Mr Azmoon Ahmad, Chairman AMP on 20 Apr 2013. He informed me that he received separate phone calls from two Ministers to the effect that they were concerned about (1) my participation as a speaker at the Hong Lim Park protest; (2) my participation as a panelist at a Workers’ Party Youth Wing Youthquake Seminar and (3) my critical leanings on social media. Mr Azmoon had relayed a message that he said he received for me to “take it easy” and refrain from such activities. Otherwise, the Government will withdraw all funding from AMP. This puts AMP in a difficult situation. Mr Azmoon also painted the alternative that if I were to continue with my civil society activities, he suggested that I “disassociate” myself from AMP.”

Mr Nizam also cited instances when he alleged that threats to pull funding was made:

“For instance, State funding of AMP’s programs were cut in the wake of a proposal for a collective community leadership during AMP’s 2nd Convention in 2000. Threats of funding cuts were also made in reaction to a proposal for an independent Community Forum made by AMP during its 3rd Convention in 2012, as that was seen as a threat to the State-sponsored Community Leadership Forum (CLF) – which ironically, was perceived to be set up as a reaction to the Collective Leadership proposal made earlier by AMP.”

At least, Mr Nizam doesn’t need a lawyer which is what Demon-cratic cartoonist Leslie Chew now has. Online media (link to yahoo) said he was held in custody and questioned over the weekend, and was released at 8.45pm on Sunday after posting bail of S$10,000. The police confiscated his handphone, computer and hard disk. He was also asked to surrender his passport to the police at the Cantonment Police complex.

Mr Chew has been warned twice over his cartoon strips, first for scandalizing the judiciary with a cartoon strip that refers to the removal of a judge and second, for running foul of the Sedition Act with a second strip that talks about the Malay community’s fertility rates. He has refused to take them down, nor apologise for them. Crossing the Sedition Act can lead to $5,000 fine or up to three years, or both.

In his defence, Mr Chew pointed to the disclaimer in each of his cartoons which says that the portrayals in them “are purely fictional”. “I also explicitly stated that Demon-cratic Singapore is an entirely imaginary country and is not the Republic of Singapore,” Mr Chew said. He added that most fans know that Demon-cratic Singapore is fictional and “just for laughs” said Chew.
“Even when there are new readers who thought otherwise, they are usually quickly reminded by other readers that everything on my Facebook page is fictional.”

Hmm. Wonder what sort of defence this is. It’s a silly person who can’t connect his cartoons to Singapore developments. He might be better off suggesting that his cartoons are satirical takes and produce evidence to show that his audience treated them this way.
As if both incidents are not enough to make one wonder about the G’s approach to differing views, then comes an intriguing message from the organisers of that May 1 protest in Hong Lim Park: Foreigners, please do not attend.

The NParks has told organisers to get a police permit because a “Police Permit must be obtained if permanent residents of Singapore are speaking or organising a demonstration, performance or exhibition, and/or if foreigners are speaking or participating in or organising activities at Speakers’ Corner.’’ (link to transitioning.org site)

No foreigner is behind the rally or will be speaking, the organisers claimed. They didn’t apply for a permit for the first rally in February either. Like the Nizam case of getting “involved in politics’ , just what amounts to “participating in’’ activities at Speakers Corner? A curious tourist looking on? Would having a police permit mean that security measures must be taken to ensure that foreigners are screened out? The organisers do not want to apply for one. They should. To see if they get it and whether it comes with strings attached. They should cover their bases.
What to make of all this after all the warning letters shot into the blogosphere in recent time?

A coming confrontation between civil society and the G? The G attempting to impose some order on what it deems as freewheeling, chaotic discourse? Or part of the process of a maturing society, in which both sides are negotiating the rules of engagement?

Hopefully, the last option.

The G’s new dartboard: the blogosphere

In Politics, Society, Writing on April 22, 2013 at 12:26 pm

Does anyone think that the G is getting too trigger-happy shooting off warning letters into the blogosphere? I’ve lost track…

There’s the set that was sent to administrators of Facebook pages which contained comments on the 25-month jail sentence on the Chinese national who went berserk in Changi airport, carjacked a cab and killed a cleaner (contempt of court). Then there’s the Council for Private Education upset over some emails a blogger sent to the media (defamatory). Then a stiff clarification from the Singapore Land Authority to another blogger whom it said got his facts on the Pulau Ubin saga wrong (misleading readers).

Oh! The most recent: the Manpower ministry takes issue with a Yahoo news report on the SMRT bus drivers’ alleged grievances (failed to verify facts). And a filmmaker says she’s likely to hear something from the G on her video of those Chinese SMRT bus drivers (false allegations of police brutality).

The G and its agencies are really on a roll!

What is the message here?

Well, at least the G is responding to the blogosphere. (Hear me out, okay?) It’s better to be noticed than to be ignored although this is probably the kind of attention the online bloggers wouldn’t want…But, hey, it shows that there is some kind of official recognition that online commentators have some clout to sway opinions.

It also puts the online community on its toes; restrain your fingers before you shoot off your mouth. Engage mind before mouse. In the Pulau Ubin case, the point the blogger about not compensating the islanders for 20 years is way off the mark. They are tenants, not owners, and have actually been living rent-free. It’s a significant fact. And the SLA probably has a right to feel aggrieved. Of course, the retort could be that the G started the whole thing anyway with that silly clearance notice by the HDB which got everyone suspicious about its intentions.

The more important thing is to come to grips with why people are so angry over some things that they see red and see, yes, just half the picture. That 25-month jail sentence was astounding, for example, even though the judge made clear he took into account the Chinese national’s mental state. Didn’t anyone expect that there would be outrage? And if someone did, wouldn’t it better to make sure that judgment was clear and very, very full? Judges can’t be living in ivory towers. (Oops! Am I not even supposed to say that?)

Contempt of court is a concept that the layman finds difficult to grapple with. Does this mean it’s best not to criticise a sentence at all? When is criticism warranted and will not be construed as contempt? Maybe you can criticise the sentence, but not the judge?

Thing is, should everyone online know everything about what is “on” and what is “not on”? I suppose if people want to take on the role of journalists, they should strive for the same standards as the professionals. Quite tough, when even journalists can get it wrong. Top pointers would be: Get your facts right, verify allegations and get the other side of the story. Oh! And get a good tutorial on libel laws and contempt of court. You might want to add the Official Secrets Act as well.

Although the G is responding to the blogosphere, it seems to be responding only when things don’t go its way. It’s a negative reaction, hardly the engagement that most people would desire. Would the agencies, for example, respond to requests from the blogosphere for more information or clarification? Or would this be too much trouble? Would they enlarge their engagement to more than just members of MSM so more people have a clear view of what’s happening… especially since some people don’t read MSM and rely on Facebook feeds for their news diet!

So what’s next?

The blogger who faces the wrath of the Council for Private Education (CPE) is arguing that the CPE is really a public agency (it’s a statutory board), and so has no locus standi to sue for defamation. It’s seems more a case of who can sue than whether the statements were defamatory. Interesting.

The Real Singapore is gearing up for a showdown. It has refused to apologise for the comments on its FB page regarding the court case and has instead raised questions about who should really be responsible for comments on open Facebook pages.

Good question.

Do administrators have to watch and monitor every single comment? If so, better NOT to have Facebook pages and invite NO comments because one oversight and it’s over for you…I suppose the G’s online watchdogs will say that they will exercise discretion – maybe 100 horrid comments and you’re done for. Or if they are satisfied that there have been “some’’ attempt at moderation, they will turn a blind eye.

Big problem when you don’t know where the line is. Then again, we might not want a line drawn to constrict the independence of the blogosphere…

We live in interesting times indeed.

This article first appeared on http://www.breakfastnetwork.sg

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