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Archive for June, 2013|Monthly archive page

A haze-induced ramble

In News Reports on June 24, 2013 at 4:47 am

I haven’t written on this blog for some time because I’ve been busy writing for The Breakfast Network. So if you haven’t yet moved over to http://www.breakfastnetwork.sg – do it now!!!
Okay, okay. I’ll try to keep Bertha Harian going because I use a different tone when I blog. Probably more of myself comes through when I take off the “fetters’’ of journalism. Not that these “fetters’’ are bad, it makes me more conscious of how hard it is to do good journalism. Blogging is easy. Mouthing off on Facebook is even easier. We’ve seen how easy in the past week or so, when practically everyone on FB that I know has something to say about this misbegotten smog that is choking us to death. I’ve been mouthing off too, especially when my frustration levels rise with every spike of the PSI. So easy. Flex fingers. Shoot mouth.
So what have people been saying about the haze? Practically no one is saying…”Oh those poor Indonesians…what do you expect them to do about the fire…?’’ Anyone who does so risks getting flamed and roasted over Riau, I suppose.
It’s a chronic problem and if the Indonesians haven’t found a solution, we can only infer a few things. (Do NOT shoot the messenger. This is a rational, objective piece culled together after an intensive reading of rants and rumblings on social media)
a. The Indonesian G doesn’t care if its forests are burning because it is used to it anyway. (If so, we should pity the Indonesians more than we pity ourselves)
b. The Indonesian G doesn’t care if its forests are burning so long as someone is paying it to look the other way. (This is purely an allegation. Scandalous speculation!)
c. The Indonesian G doesn’t care if its forests are burning even if it gets an international reputation as a world-class polluter and gets cursed by environmentalists because cleared land means stuff can be planted there and it’s good for economic development. (Classic Third World/developing country argument)
d. The Indonesian G cares but has lost control of the provinces where local leaders have run amok, selling off land to unscrupulous capitalists and ignorant smallholders who just want a cheap way to clear land. (Also known as the disadvantages of decentralised government)
e. The Indonesian G cares but lacks the equipment to douse the flames and is too proud to take offers of help. (Which means we should offer under-the-table, non-publicised types of help to save its face)
f. The Indonesian G cares but doesn’t lack being lectured to and wants to do stuff its own way and at its own time. (Like never?)
g. The Indonesian G cares but palm oil companies are too wily for them and besides, it does no good to piss off foreign investors. (A result of the economic strategy of growth-at-all-cost – and at everybody else’s expense)
Of course, the rational, objective and efficient people of Singapore can’t understand any of this which is why it is behaving childishly. And like children, we don’t like being told that we’re like children.

Actually, we’re more like teenagers who keep wondering what Mom and Dad are doing about the broken down air-conditioning in the house. So here’s a sampling of how teenagers behave:
a. Dear Dad/Pappy,
You really shouldn’t be letting us play outside. Do you want us to die? You really think those masks are good enough? We do NOT believe you. Somehow we think you’re in league with the neighbours and getting rich at our expense! You’re stunting our growth! No, we have no proof. And no, we don’t think we are being ridiculous! We just hate you! We going to adopt new parents in 2016.

Heatedly,
Teen rebel

b. Dear Dad/Pappy,
We know you’re doing your best for us but why are you letting yourself get bullied by our neighbours? So what if they are bigger and have a high fence? Don’t just send a letter! Tell them off! And bring some storm troopers with you! Go show them! We’re right behind you!

Faithfully
Your soon-to-be-NS-enlisted son

c. Dear Dad/Pappy,
We know you’re getting old but don’t you think you should move a bit faster? We won’t mind curfews, you know. Just tell us what to do and we’ll do it. We’re not the usual rebellious teenagers, more like we want you to set some house rules. And by the way, we not stupid either. We can understand data. PSI and PM2.5 and all that. We’re really good at maths and science. Serious. No need to protect us like we’re children. We already teenagers, for crying out loud!

Sincerely,
All-grown-up

Here’s to haze-free days!

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Dengue Shock Campaign

In News Reports, Society on June 9, 2013 at 12:27 pm

There’s a second dengue death. And the dengue toll has crossed 9,000. June is a hot month, so those blasted Aedes mosquitoes are going to breed faster. The sudden outpours of rain aren’t helping even though they give us a respite from the heat.

Now, National Environment Agency officers are super busy checking premises for breeding spots. Perhaps, if they stopped arguing with Aljunied GRC-Hougang town council over hawker centre cleaning, even more brains can be expended on how to battle the mozzie. (Amazing how what looked like a misunderstanding over who should pay for cleaning what part of the hawker centre has been blown into a huge political issue!)

Much money has been thrown into the business of making people aware of the dengue danger, and “reality’’ videos are supposed to be hitting computer screens as well. Perhaps, a dengue shock syndrome approach should be applied to the campaign to get under the skin of those who don’t think dengue will happen to them.

Why not the G try this multi-agency effort:

a. All ERP gantries to display dengue toll numbers instead of fees until the mosquito is definitely wiped out of existence. Raises awareness and gains the G some goodwill. To be executed by LTA.

b. All G bills must come with a small packet of wipe-it-over-yourself mosquito repellent that will hopefully tear during delivery and obliterate whatever you owe. Agencies include PUB and HDB.

c. Car bumper stickers to be distributed which read “Don’t get angry with me. I am not a mozzie’’. Calms down drivers prone to road rage as well. A Traffic Police initiative.

d. Hong Lim Park to be declared mosquito-infested zone. Good for the G as no more pesky people can hold rallies there. NParks to handle with Singapore Police Force to police.

e. Impose a $50,000 performance bond on every neighbourhood which has chalked up 50 dengue cases. Size of the neighbourhood is at the discretion of the G. NEA to seek MDA’s advice on implementation.

f. G will pay the COV for every resale flat that changes hands if owners can prove that not a single living thing lives in the apartment. Except humans. Makes resale flats more saleable. National Development Ministry to use money from land sales to fund this.

g. Our Singapore Conversation will devote one dialogue session with the Aedes mosquito. Minister-in-charge Heng Swee Keat to organise.

h. The Great Singapore Sale will offer all manner of insecticides and mosquito repellents at a 70 per cent discount. Free for tourists so they don’t flee Dengue Land. Lead agency: Singapore Tourism Board.

i. Owners of premises who refuse to open their doors for inspection will be forced, on top of fines, to clean drains wearing a sign “Bite Me’’. Public shaming always works. Law ministry to re-work regulations post-haste. To consult MDA.

j. Army exercises in muddy areas to be suspended. Mindef to issue orders.

k. Exhibition on old-style mosquito coils, folk remedies for mosquito bites, and mosquito nets to be held in the National Museum. Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth to spearhead.

l. All Spelling Bees for primary schools to be re-named Spelling Mosquitoes, a longer word. Education ministry to distribute directive to cluster heads of schools.

Have left out Ministry of Health because staff might be too busy dealing with cases for anything else. Also Ministry of Communications and Information is not involved because there is really no need for public consultation and explanation.

Talking points for that Talking Point show

In News Reports on June 5, 2013 at 2:52 pm

This is the bimbo talking. I tell you I was more worried about the way I looked and my suit slipping off my shoulders than what I was going to say at the Talking Point show last night. I told the makeup artist the lip stick she applied was too light-coloured. She said it was just nice. The expert must be right, I thought. Then my mother calls me the next morning to tell me I looked like a ghost on television. “What happened to your lipstick?’’

Sigh.

Still it was an interesting experience. I learnt a few things. I was told I was too quiet when the first commercial break came on. Barge in! Don’t let the minister get away too lightly, I was told. And I thought I was just being polite, waiting for the moderator to prompt me instead of interrupting someone in mid-flow or jumping in un-requested….
Frankly, the journalist in me kicked in way from the start. I was taking copious notes as Minister Tan Chuan Jin and Prof Arun was speaking – and jotting down questions. I was in press conference mode. Except I was supposed to be talking too and giving a point of view.

I had drafted a sort of “position paper’’ in the afternoon but forgot to bring the paper with me. In case you’re interested, here’s a glimpse.

a) The licensing scheme for news sites is a shock. Why? One would assume that in this day and age, the G would discuss the matter or at least float a balloon or fly a kite before proceeding with the action. The Singapore Conversation is going on and it isn’t having a conversation with the most vocal group of Singaporeans on this issue. Boggles the mind.

b) Yes, of course, it can issue regulations because it is allowed to do so under the Broadcasting Act. And it has done so with many other laws. It is well within its rights to do so. But there are regulations and there are regulations. This set of regulations affects a group which is traditionally suspicious of G’s motives. To get them on board, they should be consulted – yet the G is giving them further fodder to reach certain conclusions.

c) On a par with traditional media? Online medium is in the first place unlike mainstream medium. It’s a new animal and the G will be playing catchup if it wants control because the medium is still morphing. Unlike MSM which is serviced by one corporate group, online sites are usually an agglomeration of news and views provided by more than just the main content provider. That’s why it’s viewed as too heavy-handed, it affects too many people.

d) Also, when the words “on a par’’ or “parity’’ is used, some netizens will construe it as the G wanting a “tamed’’ animal. That is how MSM is viewed, however, unfairly.

e) Defamation laws, Sedition Act, contempt of court laws still remain applicable. And there is the Class Licence Act which could have been invoked in any case. The argument that take down must be quick – then, this would apply to just 10 sites. If it is so important to take down, all sites should take down the offending piece because it is likely to have been shared. Unless the G has minute by minute monitoring of the 10 sites.

I told moderator Daniel Martin that I basically had one point to make, what really, really is the G’s rationale for the licensing scheme? Now, I am always willing to give the G the benefit of the doubt. It always has strong arguments when it wants something done. Never mind it gets high-handed at times, somehow there is some reasoning behind its actions that I can more or less live with, even if I hate it.
The hard time Minister Tan had answering questions whether from panellists or callers showed how “wonky’’ the licensing scheme is. He ended up repeating himself, insisting that the scheme was not an attempt to curb discussion and noting that the G had never used its “take down’’ powers to curb political discussion.

I think he tried very hard but seemed to have a limited script to play with. That he was in the hot seat instead of Communications and Information Minister Yaacob Ibrahim showed that someone, somewhere thought he would be more acceptable to the online crowd. He maintained his composure throughout, although he too would have realised that he was speaking in circles. That the callers were repeating questions (obviously, CNA needs to refine its pre-screening process and tell callers that answers had already been given) must have been dis-comfitting. That, plus the climbing vote numbers that went against the scheme as the show progressed.

Moderator Martin asked what Prof Arun why he thought the numbers were climbing, he said he hoped it was because of the “persuasiveness of arguments’’. What a nice man, I thought. I probably would have blurted out that Mr Tan wasn’t very convincing.

Still, it could be because the topic was such a contentious one calculated to bring the “anti’’ group out in droves. The Free Internet Group organised Thursday’s internet blackout, Hong Lim Park gathering and petition was probably on standby at their computers and phones. Plus it is people to mobilise people using social media as several governments have found out to their dismay.

It could well be that people who supported the scheme or had no view on it or plain couldn’t be bothered because it doesn’t affect them, didn’t think it was such a big deal as to be galvanised into action. Some people would probably say this was the silent majority? Or minority?
No one can tell for sure.

But that there has been a discussion offline and online on something like freedom of speech bodes well for the growth of civil society here. It means we are starting to think about more than just how to accumulate material possessions. Maybe we should also start to think too about the responsibility of a vocal civil society.

Here are other points I didn’t have time to get across in yesterday’s show.

a) The licensing scheme shows the G has no confidence in the ability of the online community to police itself. But there have been examples when the community weighed in on objectionable material, such as photos of the children killed in the Tampines accident or more recently, how netizens weighed in against trolls who poured cold water over a film producer’s win in Cannes.

b) The problem is that the G seems to engage the online community mainly by way of letters of demand. Why not exercise the same policy of “a right of reply’’ that it demands of mainstream media? Having specific policies will give us something to discuss. A blanket ruling is viewed as too draconian.
c) Might it not be better for major online sites to decide with its own readers how to ensure responsible content on the Internet? Let us decide, for example, on our own policies that will improve transparency and reduce the potential for conflict. I cannot speak for anyone else but I think who ever writes for public consumption should be named. This is the tradition in the print media which at first encountered a lot of resistance. But there is a great deal of acceptance now.

Anyway, the deed’s done and it would be quite amazing if the G repeals the regulations as protestors have asked for. It is likely however that it will think twice before it decides to do something similar in future. The fact is, we’re living in a digital age, with a society that is more questioning of laws, regulations and guidelines, especially those which have been hastily imposed.

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

An unlicensed conversation Part 2

In News Reports, Society on June 1, 2013 at 7:25 am

Supreme bureaucrats Chin Oo Eng and Nina Kan are back in their bunker, ego bruised and noses bloodied.

Mr Chin (all het up under the collar) : I told you we should just block the sites like China right! These online fellows, we go easy with just a licensing scheme and they whack us. They’re making a monkey of our boss…with bananas. And our boss’ boss now made to look like that short North Korean guy!

Ms Kan (cool as usual): Never mind. Good challenge for us. But you know, it might just go away. Like boss said, over time, “fears will prove unfounded’’. Heh. They will lose steam lah. Plus we have MSM on our side – no editorial, no columnist saying anything. Also, they only report something when we have something to say.

Mr Chin: But we already look weak! Now we have to come out and say that bloggers and individuals don’t come under the licensing scheme, even if they meet content criteria and that 50,000 visitor reach. Very soon, they will force us to say something about sites that are non-profit and small media start-ups which can’t afford the $50,000 bond. We keep talking about bankers’ guarantee of $50,000 – not cash upfront but they are not listening. Very cham!

Ms Kan (just slightly ruffled): Hm. Maybe we got to think about making our arguments more water-tight. A bit tough because we want the scheme to be as broad as possible so that we can use it as and when we want on whoever we want…I am still trying to figure out how to argue that the current classification scheme on objectionable content is not enough, that’s why we need licensing. Also, we only have one example of an order to “take down’’, the Innocence video. Actually, we only asked Google to block it, and they were nice enough to say okay. Can we come up with more examples of objectionable content?

Mr Chin (irritated as hell): Aiyah! We have plenty! But we use Sedition Act, Penal Code and the laws leh to deal with them!

Ms Kan (a bit more ruffled): Maybe we should change tack and say the objective is to ensure civilised discussion on local news developments and raise standards of reporting in online media…That sounds better. I don’t think that argument about parity between MSM and online media rules is getting anywhere. Or maybe we should pressure the MSM to speak in support? You think the boss should make a phone call to them?

Mr Chin: Can try..What about getting boss’ boss to say something? Or boss’ boss daddy? Televised debate between us and those online fellows who think they are so important? We will crush them like cockroaches! (He thumps table!)

Ms Kan (eyebrows furrowed): Shouldn’t dignify them that way. Anyway, opposition has already tabled adjournment motion in Parliament to discuss this – unless we can block? Or maybe we can depend on the PAP MPs to say nothing or just nice things? All those opposition fellows already weighing in.

Mr Chin (now shouting): Damn leeches! Can even get their town council to clean hawker centres properly and want to talk about “light touch’’! By the way, we should burn all copies of that silly report by the Advisory Council on Impact of New Media on Society…..you know the one released in 2008 which said Government regulation should be a last resort? Headed by a former MSM head honcho somemore!

Ms Kan (now breaking out in sweat): Oo Eng ah…you are showing your age…don’t forget…It’s the Internet age now, cannot remove the report entirely! But I also remember we didn’t accept many recommendations…So we can argue we are not bound by it…

Mr Chin: So what do we do now? Stay low? Don’t say anything? Have you seen all those comments on MDA Facebook page or not? Online fellows are resorting to fear-mongering…and they accuse us of adding to climate of fear. They scaring themselves and others silly! I am sure they are up to something more. Why can’t they see what we are up to?

Ms Kan (pulling out hair) : Actually, what are we up to ah? I think we’d better get back to basics. Everything’s getting more complicated and confused than we thought. I think we should pass buck back to the boss and get new directions from him.

Mr Chin: Ya, before he blames us …and moves us to some other department to do archiving…

A panic-stricken Chin Oo Eng and a thoroughly dishevelled Nina Kan get up and dutifully make for the boss’ office, forgetting that it’s a Saturday and he’s at a block party.