Archive for 2018|Yearly archive page

The 4G team needs a softer tone

In News Reports on April 20, 2018 at 11:18 am

The Singapore Cabinet is about to be re-shuffled any time now. Which accounts for the popularity of tea leaf reading as well as futile attempts to pry new information from the 4G ranks of ministers.

What have we heard so far?

That Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat would be happy to retain his current portfolio: “I’ll be very happy to continue my job as finance minister. There are many things that we need to do as I announced in the Budget.”

That the labour movement’s Chan Chun Sing operates at the Prime Minister’s behest:  “Where I go, what do I do, that’s the Prime Minister’s prerogative so if there is any change, wait for the Prime Minister and his announcement.” (The talk is that Education ministry’s Ng Chee Meng will move over)

That Second Manpower Minister Josephine Teo, tipped to take over from Mr Lim Swee Say, advocates patience: “I don’t think we have to wait very much longer till the Cabinet reshuffle is announced. We should just be a little bit more patient and we will come to that.”

ST speculated that three veteran ministers will leave the frontbencher in this reshuffle: Mssrs Lim, Yaacob Ibrahim (Communications and Information) and Lim Hng Kiang (Trade and Industry). All three are in their 60s. All declined to talk but ST’s tea leaves showed that farewell plans are  “afoot’’ in their respective ministry.

ST went further to suggest who could take over their jobs. Besides Ms Teo for Manpower, it suggested that Mr Chan could cross over to MTI while Mr Janil Puthucheary takes over MCI.

The person who is really doing the brewing, PM Lee Hsien Loong, gave away just one important piece of information: Don’t expect a new Deputy Prime Minister. He’s probably aware that people thought they would see a new name in the DPM ranks, which would be a clear signal of succession at the highest levels. But it is not to be.

With this delay or postponement, the common chorus from the G now is that the people should look at the collective, the big picture, the problems ahead and the policies – and not be obsessed with the individual. The point is whether the 4G team can work together.

I would add another point: Would the 4G leadership be any different from the current one? What sort of tone of government will the team set?

Given the opacity of government operations, we can only gauge this from their public utterances and behavior.

We were told, for example, that the last Budget was mainly a 4G enterprise. If so, it was a pity that the main thing people remembered about the Budget was the exchange between the PAP ministers and the Workers’ Party. It was a distraction from the big issue of how to fund social spending in the future, which was an opportunity for various younger ministers to put forth a new vision. The impression was one of bullying, however hard the ministers try to make the point about truth and lies over the imposition of a higher GST rate. In fact, the older generation would have done a better job of demolition methinks.

You can read my piece here.

Given that the 4G team was said to have taken more control of the Government and the legislative agenda in recent time, then the parliamentary highlights over the past year have been sobering. It’s been a slew of laws that involve security issues, such as the Public Order and Safety (Special Powers) Act that was pushed through by Mrs Teo in her capacity as Second Home Minister.

We might applaud the 4G’s commitment to protect Singapore, and even agree with each individual measure. But the pace of legislation is suffocating, leaving the overall impression that to protect the country, we need draconian laws over our words and actions.

Perhaps, what has been happening is some kind of foundation-laying exercise to ensure that the new PM is in a strong position to take over the reins. That might account for the rush to  push through tough legislation before the baton finally changes hands. It now looks as though we should brace ourselves for some kind of law on fake news when Parliament re-opens for business next month.

You know, I applauded the setting up of the Parliamentary Select Committee to collect views from the public on tackling deliberate online falsehoods. Now I regret it. Going by what has happened so far, the right time for such a committee is after the legislation – or non-legal measures – have been proposed.

That’s because we’re still no closer to a consensus on what would constitute a deliberate online falsehood that deserves our condemnation or criminal sanctions. With a draft legislation, we would be able to pore over the words of the law and have a more fruitful exchange of views and even give input for the final legislation. I doubt that Parliament would ask for such a committee, given that the G seems anxious to get this out of the way.

Then comes the committee’s ripostes to all challenges over the way it has conducted the hearings. I believe that everyone should have a right of reply, including the G.  It is for the people to weigh the arguments and come to a conclusion which they can express, hopefully, without fear or favour.

But the politicians’ replies should be tempered by the knowledge that they always, always have the upper hand and the stronger arm. For even a well-meaning commentary by former ST editor Han Fook Kwang on the importance of perception to be trashed by 4G ministers who accused him of saying that politicians should not question academics is a bit of an over-reach.

In case I am accused of over-generalising, you can read both the commentary and the response  so that you can assess them for yourselves.

I agree with the thrust of Mr Han’s column that “Singapore’s fourth-generation leaders have to find their own way to deal with the messy, noisy world that is full of other ideas and narratives”. The new generation of voters require different handling. I would add that handling even the old generation requires some finesse these days because of the quick pace of change in technology.

Younger people won’t be content with repeated assertions, nor would they be happy if they thought they were being brow-beaten by rational, intellectual and high-minded arguments. Nobody wants to look stupid – even if they are. Older people, on the other hand, want to live in a society that doesn’t leave them behind as it rushes pell-mell into the smart future.

So what is the tone we have managed to glean so far? I think it is a hard, uncompromising one. Even arrogant. Described as “robust replies’’. It is as if the 4G leaders want to convince people that there is steel in their collective spine; that they are no softies. It might work if there was a master persuader in the ranks, but we hear more  motherhood statements instead.

The news from the G has mostly been “hard’’: about big data, smart nation moves and the upgrading and overhaul of places and infrastructure. There is little sense that we are being engaged at a more, for want of a better word, spiritual or personal level. There’s no appeal to the heart; only hard, rational demands made of the mind.

For all we know, the 4G team could be great policy wonks and well-loved by the people who know them. But politics – and this is where the G doesn’t seem to get it – is about public perception. You might be right, but you have to persuade people that you are.

And, sometimes, you can be nice too.





SMRT: Why one general after another?

In News Reports on April 18, 2018 at 11:19 am

Over the past five years, I’ve ribbed SMRT chief Desmond Kuek quite mercilessly in my ad hoc series, In the SMRT war room. I suppose I saw comedic potential in the idea of an ex-general who had commanded thousands being unable to get the trains to run on time because of bo chap staffers who couldn’t care less about standard operating procedures or engineering excellence.

So I created Des Quake hunkered down in an SMRT underground bunker trying to strategise his next move after yet another humiliating defeat.

Long and short delays aside,  a flooded train tunnel is very Third World and not even 3G. A train hitting the backside of another, causing injuries to passengers being described as a coming “into contact’’ was simply too rich for words. The death of the two SMRT workers, however, was too grim for laughs. That wasn’t even a defeat, it was a debacle.

Now, Mr Kuek will no longer have a role In the SMRT war room.  But I can still continue with the series because another ex-general has stepped into his shoes! I thank the SMRT board for allowing me to continue with the column.

I was somewhat surprised at the jubilance which greeted news of Mr Kuek’s departure.  It made me feel sorry for him. I ribbed him, yes, but I don’t think anyone can take away the effort that he’s put in into a system that seemed to have ossified under his predecessor. I will cite just three things that happened under his watch:

  1. The privatization of the SMRT (so that there’s less of that usual excuse about giving shareholders good dividends)
  2. The rail financing system which is an admission that it is better for the State to look after infrastructure and let operaters handle the service and operations side
  3. The replacement, retrofitting and general upgrading of the trains and assorted mechanisms related to the rail network.

Despite such major moves accomplished in a span of five years, he wasn’t able to appease commuters who were more concerned with the travails of their day-to-day commute.

There were a few things that didn’t help his case.

First, he was an ex-general, in fact, ex-Commander of the Defence Force. A title like that encourages great expectations. A man who can move thousands in the defence of a country should be able to move a train for several kilometres. And when he can’t, the wags will start wondering if a military man is the best fit for a private sector role. Such rumblings are reaching a crescendo methinks especially after another ex-military man took over publishing giant Singapore Press Holdings. It  will continue on an even higher pitch now that Mr Neo Kian Hong is taking over the SMRT job.

This has less to do with SMRT per se, than what to do with young ex-generals with short military lifespans. What would not be good is if the public looks askance at our best military minds, whenever one of them is deemed to have fallen short in the private sector sphere. It’s a perception problem that I think the 4G leaders should tackle. Quickly.

Second, there were Mr Kuek’s comments about “deep-seated cultural issues’’. It will dog him forever. That’s because of the expectation that a forceful personality, assumed to be a strength of an ex-general, would not have needed so much time to uproot or unseat such cultural forces in his way.

He might have been referring to the difficulty of getting his staff to do things his way but he didn’t elaborate. One can only assume he should have fired more people, moved them to a corner where they could do no harm or read the riot act more often to recalcitrants. We will never know now, especially since it is a “private’’ company which can use “internal company policy’’ as a shield against calls for transparency

Third, Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan had a part to play in pushing Mr Kuek down the popularity stakes as well. His revelation that Mr Kuek had “volunteered’’ for the job evoked more derision than appreciation, especially when coupled with a CEO’s salary. I was in Parliament when he talked about Mr Kuek came into the job and I understood the context: That this was a loyal public servant who had put himself forward for the hottest job in the land. He should be applauded for having guts, not shot down at every instance of a train breakdown.

Alas, the firing continued.

Which leads me to this question: Have we been shooting at the wrong guy?

We haven’t been talking much about the role of the past SMRT boards in allowing the messy state of affairs in SMRT to fester for so long. We’re supposed to assume that there were sleeping on the job because of the way new chairman Mr Seah Moon Ming has been profiled as giving his heart, soul and body to the company.

Then there is the role of the Land Transport Authority, which has escaped public attention even as the focus was on the decay of the SMRT. This, despite some rumblings about the adequacy of its auditing and its watchdog role. We know that the regulator and operator had a confrontational relationship, which Mr Khaw wants transformed into a partnership. How that confrontational relationship affected the role of the regulator in the past was never made clear.

I think we set our gun-sights on Mr Kuek because he is the most visible face of the train system; he’s even blamed when things go wrong on the line run by SBS Transit. On the other hand, we never saw the SMRT Board and we know of the LTA as a body of officals who speak in one vioce, not in the form of an individual.

Fine, I can hear voices saying that we shouldn’t be playing a blame game now. I agree. Both the commuting public and the transport authority and operator should start afresh. Here’s where I have a problem. Why Mr Neo?

When ST first broke the news of his impending appointment, the reaction was typical. And cynical. Yet another ex-general with no transport engineering or management expertise. I was willing to hear out the SMRT Board on its choice of candidate because the board members cannot be so obtuse as not to foresee the public reaction. But we’re only told that it was a global search which looked at about 20 candidates, according to ST, before settling on Mr Neo. Is there no other person in the whole wide world, with some train management expertise, who would be better than him? Is he the best man for the job?

Mr Seah’s recommendation of the man was a mish-mash of big words: “The board was impressed with Kian Hong’s appreciation of interdisciplinary collaboration, as well as his vision and experience in leveraging new technologies for public service.

“I have had the opportunity to work alongside Kian Hong during the Sars crisis and witnessed his sense of mission, hands-on approach to problem-solving and decisive leadership. Kian Hong had also proven his operational leadership when he led the SAF contingent in East Timor. We are confident that he will lead SMRT towards operation excellence.’’

I suppose that’s a bit better than how ex-SMRT chairman Koh Yong Guan introduced Mr Kuek into the role in 2012: “After an extensive search and selection process, we are pleased that we have someone of Desmond’s background and calibre joining SMRT as the new CEO. SMRT is undergoing considerable change, not just in the way we operate transport services and serve our customers, but also how we will continue to grow as a company. Desmond has the attributes and proven qualities to lead SMRT through these challenges.”

We now know that Mr Kuek volunteered for the job, despite the extensive search and selection process. So how did that old search process really go? And may we know more about this recent global search for the SMRT chief so as to be assured that the Mr Neo is the top choice? Private company though it may be, SMRT is providing a public service. It should give as much information as possible if only to ensure that Mr Neo does not start his new job with a “trust deficit’’ among the public, simply because he was a general.

For your reading pleasure:

Put the street lamp under the spotlight

In News Reports on April 17, 2018 at 4:03 am

Last week, there was a somewhat plaintive letter in The Straits Times Forum Pages by a Raphael Teo lamenting the lack of public response to the impending introduction of “smart’’ street lamps. “Have we become so docile that our privacy and personal freedom can be infringed without anyone protesting?’’ he asked.

There was a response to his letter. A Florence Veronica Minjoot wrote in to say that the lamps are “an extension of a well-rounded security’’ which Singapore needs to counter terrorism.  “As for invasion of personal privacy, that is something I am prepared to trade for security.’’

In case you’re still in the dark, let me shed some light: On April 7, ST reported that “plans have kicked in to fit lamp posts with sensors and cameras that can collect a wide range of data, which can be used to direct driverless cars, catch speeding e-scooters and even analyse faces, down to race, gender and age’’.

“According to tender documents, street lamps in one-north business park in Buona Vista and Geylang will be the first to be “smartened up” with state-of-the-art fittings.

“They include temperature and rainfall sensors, surveillance cameras and artificial intelligence-based video analytic systems, which allow for facial matching against a database.’’

GovTech expects this to start early next year and to ultimately have 100,000 lamp posts smartened up.

Privacy has never been very high on our list of “must-haves’’. We only start thinking about it when our own data are thrown into our faces for some misdeed. Then comes the usual “I didn’t know’’ and “I wasn’t aware’’ excuses for not keeping up with the news. Or we think about privacy as a supplement to our bigger priority – to not be inconvenienced.

Face it, we welcome the Do Not Call Registry because it stops us from getting bothered by calls to subscribe or buy something. We don’t really think, even after the Personal Data Protection Act was passed in 2012, about what those callers have done with the data they already have on us. Have they been erased or do we simply trust that the companies had done so, like Facebook assumed with Cambridge Analytica?

And of course we cheered when we were told last November that security guards and receptionists cannot simply hold on to our ICs because we want to enter a building. Perhaps, we were concerned about our IC number being bandied around but my guess is that we were glad that we don’t have to go through the hassle, especially if we forget to retrieve our ICs.

What is not so well-known is that the PDPA does not apply to Government agencies. The issue of making sure that the G protects your data (and it has plenty) was raised way back in 2012 when the PDPA was being mooted. The then Information Development Authority said officers violating government rules on data protection would be disciplined according to Public Service Disciplinary Regulations.

“Any unauthorized access, use or disclosure of confidential information would be investigated under the relevant Acts such as the Official Secrets Act and the Statutory Bodies and Government Companies (Protection of Secrecy) Act,” the IDA said.

Five years later, law academic Simon Chesterman said in a commentary last September: “The elephant in the room, of course, is that none of this will apply to the Government and its lamp posts. The PDPA specifically excludes public agencies from coverage and allows that exclusion to be extended to any statutory body.’’

He added: “Government rules governing data protection are said to offer “similar levels of protection” – but as those rules are not themselves public, this claim is difficult to evaluate.’’

Then in January, the Public Sector (Governance) Bill came before Parliament, on how data should be shared among G agencies. Now, this isn’t like the PDPA which protects personal data, but it goes one step up on what agencies can or cannot do with the data that has been collected. There are safeguards in place, including criminal penalties for the unauthorised disclosure and improper use of information, and the unauthorised re-identification of anonymised data.

You can describe it as another layer of checks, or wonder if the whole-of-Government approach to data sharing is more like Big Brother surveillance.

In responding to privacy questions during the debate, Minister Ong Ye Kung said: ‘The purpose of this Bill is not to pave the way for a future where Government knows everything about everyone, and every misdeed everyone committed is all consolidated. If ever there was such an initiative, it would have to be explained. And decision-making, be it for policy, license or grant application, are all reduced to data processing and Artificial Intelligence (AI) algorithms. That is not the future we want.’’

To the Singaporean who doesn’t like the hassle of form-filling, this is such a good idea. Go to a government service counter and the information is all filled out for you. You merely have to put your signature somewhere. You might even fill in a feedback form to praise the efficient service. You trade your privacy (if it crosses your mind) for convenience.

As for street lamps with facial recognition devices, there is neither convenience nor inconvenience for the citizen. In fact, you can say that this is good for law and order purposes or catching wanted terrorists and fugitives.

What’s interesting is that in the rah rah run-up over how smart street lamps will replace the current dumb ones, what was touted were their energy saving and environmental sensors. Nothing was said about the Peeping Tom aspect until ST broke the story, ostensibly by having sight of the tender documents.

I am not sure I want anyone to be able to tell where I am at a particular time on a particular day. To those who say “there’s nothing wrong if you have nothing to hide’’, I find it a simplistic argument to justify any kind of intrusion into an individual’s privacy.

Also, it doesn’t answer the bigger question that goes beyond data protection: Just how is our personal data being used?

Arrggh, there’s a foreigner in my soup!

In News Reports on April 14, 2018 at 2:06 am

When the fear of foreign influence runs too deep:

Member: Hey, there’s this angmoh who wants to join our committee. Says he is all for our cause.

Chairman: Say no, unless he’s a Singaporean or PR.

Member: For goodness sake, we’re the gardening committee! I don’t think he can subvert plants.

Chairman: He might be a plant from some rabid foreign greenie group out to colour both our environment and political culture.


Son: Dad, I am thinking of apply to this foreign university to study philosophy and politics

Father: No, you should stay at home and study at a university here.

Son: But it will be good experience and I will get to meet different kinds of students and obtain a different perspective on the world!

Father: That’s what I’m afraid of.


Member: We just got US$75,000 in an envelope shoved into our letterbox. Anonymous.

Chairman: I think we should report to the police.

Member: I thought we report to the police when we lose money, not when we receive money.

Chairman: The money is “suspicious’’ especially if they are in US$ notes.

Member: Then I go to money changer and change to Singapore dollars?

Chairman: Yes, and get 10 of your relatives to say it’s from them.


Donor: I want to give you this $10,000 cheque because I support your cause.

Staffer: May I have your name and IC number so that we know you are Singaporean?

Donor: Ok. But I don’t see why you need all that.

Staffer: Your occupation please?

Donor: I am a businessman.

Staffer: What business?

Donor: Import/export. I do business all over the world. Why do you want to know?

Staffer: So this cheque is really from your bank account? Not from one of your foreign contacts?

Donor: It’s my money! Why so many questions?

Staffer: We just have to exercise due diligence to ensure that there is no foreign influence.

Donor: But this money is for safeguarding the welfare of cats!

Staffer: It doesn’t matter. This is Singapore. We do not want foreign interference over our cat policy.

Donor: Give me back my cheque.


Colleague: My relatives from China came for a visit and were going on and on about how China is so great and Singapore is so lousy compared to it.

Colleague1: They are trying to influence your thinking about China and make you feel small. What did you say to them?

Colleague: I told them Singapore is better and they should go back to China.

Colleague1: That sounds xenophobic and every inhospital.

Colleague: I didn’t want my relatives to influence my children’s thinking about Singapore and migrate to China.


Do-gooder : I’m thinking of going to Myanmar on a humanitarian programme to help the displace Rohingya people.

Sceptic : Why? Nothings happening to them over there, according to their government

Do-gooder: You believe everything their government says?

Sceptice: You believe everything the media says?

Do-gooder: Well, I am going over to find out because I am a global citizen.

Sceptic: You are also interfering in the politics of another country…

Do-gooder: I guess I should stick around then and see if I can help the poor and disadvantaged in Singapore.

Sceptic: There are such people in Singapore?

PS. I am joking ok! Joking!

Foreign money – for nothing?

In News Reports on April 12, 2018 at 7:35 am

When The Middle Ground tried to crowd source funds using the Patreon channel, I wondered about what we should do if, ahem, a George Soros or Rupert Murdoch or Jeff Bezos decided to plonk down a big cheque.

I imagined drafting various apologetic replies to turn down good money that we so badly needed by saying that we weren’t allowed to take in foreign donations. Actually, we weren’t really sure. After all, it’s a gift with no strings attached and we’re not registered as a political society which must declare donations. Then we also thought that this could be considered as taking money from a foreign donor who does not have a bona fide commercial purpose for giving it. As a website that is registered under iMDA, we’re not allowed to take such money.

But if George or Rupert or Jeff gives the money to a red-IC Singaporean to pass to us, can we take it? Then again, how would we know if they are really proxies? I was reminded of what Mr Chan Chun Sing had said last year about becoming unwitting pawns in the big foreign game.

Well, the deep-pocketed foreigners didn’t give us money, and the Singaporeans who did had to surrender their identity card numbers, the iMDA told us rather belatedly. And no, we didn’t get enough money from locals which meant we couldn’t afford to carry on.

But if, by George(!), the foreign billionaire did offer money, my first instinct would be to turn it down because there was sure to be trouble somewhere down the road. (I had wondered too about the foreigners we hired as part-time interns and reporters. Would they prove to be our Achilles Heel if the G decides to make an issue about foreigners involved in the dissemination of views or local news? We hired them anyway because if the G should suddenly go mad and decide to wield the axe, it would fall on the heads of the key staffers who control content, namely, myself and the publisher.)

In my past life, as well as the present one, I make a point of not being cultivated by foreign diplomats. There was a “rush’’ to do so when I first left MSM in 2012 and I had to tell several embassy staffers straight in the face that I do not want to have breakfast, lunch or tea with them, nor attend their diplomatic soirees. I did not want to “pumped’’ for information nor do I relish appearing in Wikileaks. I didn’t think about whether they would try to “influence’’ me to hold a certain point of view; I am too much of an old hand to be seduced so easily.

Singapore, or rather the G, has an allergy to foreign involvement in local causes even from our early independence days. There’s no chance that foreign actors can control the mainstream media given the way our laws are drafted, but this doesn’t mean that they can’t reach an audience through the Internet. Remember how the G had referred to the involvement of foreign players in the early days of The Independent? It’s something that was never fully clarified.  More recently, it kicked up a fuss over money given to The Online Citizen to run an essay competition about Singapore which was funded by a London-based book club.

So the New Naratif couldn’t get its company registered here because the Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority (ACRA) believes this would be contrary to national interests. “Singapore’s politics should be for Singaporeans alone to determine. We should not allow foreigners to interfere in how we should govern our country. Nor should we allow any group of Singaporeans to lend themselves to being used by foreigners to pursue a political activity in Singapore,” Acra said.

It is using Section 20 of the Companies Act:

Registrar of Companies (i.e. ACRA) has power to refuse registration on several grounds, namely:
(a) the proposed company is likely to be used for an unlawful purpose or for purposes prejudicial to public peace, welfare or good order in Singapore; or
(b) it would be contrary to the national security or interest for the proposed company to be registered.

I don’t remember a time when ACRA has taken such an action based on such grounds. The Registrar of Societies, yes, but the Registrar of Companies? You’d wonder if ACRA does the same kind of due diligence on other wannabe registrants. In any case, according to New Naratiff, they answered every question that was asked, including the US$75,000 from Foundation Open Societies Institute given to its UK-based parent company Observatory Southeast Asia Ltd (OSEA UK),

It had, at least, not chosen to hide the donation.

If Acra’s main problem was the donation, then it can be handed back to Mr Soros if New Naratif so desires. It can forswear further foreign donations. But does Acra have other problems with the site as well?

In its press statement, it said: “New Naratif has been publishing articles critical of politics in regional countries. For example, its articles have claimed that certain regional governments are using violence to maintain political control, had manipulated events or framed them for political gain, and have “rigged” their electoral systems.

“The purposes of the proposed company are clearly political in nature.’’

So is this the key problem then? That the group, which wants to organise events such as “Democracy Classrooms”, is “clearly political in nature’’? Does this mean it should be  registered as a society instead and gazetted as a political entity?

I had wondered about what the net effect of failure to register as a business would be. I gather that it means that the New Naratif will not have a corporate entity to conduct business or hold funds, and the individuals with have to do “business’’in the own names. (So they have to pay income tax instead?) So it could still function in much the same way – unless the adverse publicity scares off potential donors and subcribers.

I think it is a correct approach – foreigners have no business in local issues and locals should try to resist foreign overtures even if they are convinced of the nobility of the gesture. This, I think, should apply even to organisations and societies that espouse causes deemed to be “in the national interest’’. I can hear cries of derision now, but if I want to extend the argument about undue foreign influence further, I can suggest that there might be foreign agents hoping to turn some organisations around in more subtle ways than an outright donation.

When the G decided to pull the plug on foreign funding for Pink Dot, that annual carnival at Hong Lim Park, I had wondered if this would be like a nail in the coffin. Local businesses, however, stepped up to the plate. Organisers took on board every inconvenient measure imposed for security reasons, such as having to hire security guards and doing bag checks.

At the end of the day, we should put up the money ourselves if we believe in a cause. I myself won’t put money in New Naratif because I disagree with some points in its manifesto, especially about taking an “openly subjective” perspective on regional developments. But those who are bemoaning a G “clampdown’’on different/dissident views and want to stand behind the group’s manifesto should put their money where their mouth is instead of simply wringing their hands.

I certainly won’t stand in the way.

But that’s just me.

And I am not the G.






Fighting fake news: The G should leave MSM alone

In News Reports on April 9, 2018 at 12:44 am

In my past life in the mainstream media, my old boss used to tell us journalists that “we are not pro-government, we are pro-Singapore’’. That’s the answer we should give to accusations that we are merely government mouthpieces or propagandists. It sounds reasonable, until you hear the government’s counter which has been trotted out since the days of Lee Kuan Yew: Who decides on what is in Singapore’s interest? The media or the elected government of the day?

It’s hard to argue against this line, especially since our media landscape is very unlike those in other countries, including Asian ones. They have many players; we have only two. Elsewhere, you can turn to well-resourced media outlets that are ranged along an ideological spectrum, or even owned by various political parties. You decide which is closest to your truth – and can switch to another if you lose faith.

Here, we have only two, Singapore Press Holdings and Mediacorp, both with online appendages.

You can argue that since there are so few players, State control should be even stronger to prevent mischief and undue influences. Or you can argue that because there are only two players, the State should leave them well enough alone so that they can raise their level of credibility as independent players in the system.

In the fight against fake news, the second option is the right one.

People must be convinced the MSM are the most trusted source of information. During the Select Committee hearings,  academic Shashi Jayakumar, said that ways should be found to help newspapers The Straits Times and Lianhe Zaobao “again be seen as the pre-eminent news sources, bar none, in the eyes of the Singapore public”.

“While numerous amateur blogs and forums which have sprung up which to some degree provide commentary over Singapore-related issues, their coverage is patchy and none of these platforms can be considered a serious, consistent news source,” he added.

I am saying this even though I am one of those numerous amateur bloggers that he might be referring. I agree that people must go somewhere for news about the small country they live in and if not these two outfits which have the resources to do extensive reporting, then where else?

Trust in the MSM is still high, according to Edelman’s 2018 Trust barometer, but it is going down. As panel member and Nominated MP Chia Yong Yong put it: “On the ground, there would have been some erosion of trust. There is a perception in certain quarters that the mainstream press is pro-ruling party, or pro-Government, and in some quarters they say mainstream media has now swung the other way.”

(There is also another survey, done by Reuters Institute. This says that only 23 per cent of the people here think the media is free from “undue political influence’’. )

The answer from editors, that they are not pro-government, has been met with much amusement. I am likewise amused. Because even if the media do not believe themselves to be pro-G, the odds are so stacked against them that they have to be.

There are the laws that compel them to toe the line as well the unwritten ones that tie the media to the Government. In their written representations, the companies do not touch on restrictions that have been placed on them, like the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act. Nor did they call for a Freedom of Information Act to gain freer access to information, which would be in their interest.

Perhaps, they believe they are non-starters. I have to confess that proposing the repeal of the NPPA is a non-starter too. I cannot see the G relinquishing the power to grant yearly renewable licences or dispense with management shares on the board, which will ultimately decide who gets to be editor with a capital E. It would a drastic slaughter of a sacred cow.

As for a Freedom of Information Act, I cannot see this G agreeing to this when it won’t even countenance releasing more than 50 year old information that would solve the mystery of Operation Coldstore, in which more than 100 people were arrested in the early 60s.

Instead, in their written representations, the two companies prefer to have restrictions put on the fairly un-regulated online space to “level the playing field’’. Their complaint is that while they are tightly regulated and adhere to professional standards, they lose out to the online cowboy outfits which write whatever they please to gain more eyeballs.

There is even a grumble from SPH about “how some major advertisers, such as the government, have adopted a communications strategy that seeks to bypass traditional media in favour of internet news sites’’. That is, the G isn’t helping them financially to sustain their newsrooms.

So if the G is not going to budge on the NPPA nor an FIA, and the MSM itself seems content to let this be, what other measures can be undertaken to help MSM raise its credibility?

My suggestion: The G should just respect that the MSM journalists know how to do their job, instead of hemming them in or hovering over them excessively.

I don’t think that either the G or the MSM will deny that some ministries interfere in editorial decisions excessively, are coy about providing information or prefer framing their statements in a manner that says nothing. The worst type of response: Not even bothering with a reply in the hope that without information, there will be no story. Journalists are viewed as troublesome creatures who throw spanners into the efficient day-to-day workings of agencies – and they are told so.

The MSM should admit that while they practise legitimate editing most of the time, there is some level of self-censorship or a coyness about pushing the envelope or OB markers. This is too small a  place with too dominant a government for journalists to declare that they can report without fear or favour, much less speak truth to power, because it is easier and less painful to trod the familiar and congenial path.

My worry is that over the years, generations of journalists will be socialized into believing that it is right – and prudent – to follow the G’s framing of the news. And the G-men, including low level officers, will think it is their right to tell journalists how to do their jobs.

My hope is that the tussle that takes place behind closed doors between the media and the G on the level of independence of the media, whether in the big picture sense or over specific issues, is still going on. It should. You can go read Cheong Yip Seng’s book, OB Markers, for a fuller picture of the relationship.

The positions of the media and the G everywhere are naturally antagonistic: the media wants to reveal everything that it thinks the readers need to know, the G would prefers that some things are kept under the radar because :

a. readers will be confused by too much data

b. some data are confidential and can be misused if disclosed

c. it will be too much trouble to explain some things.

d. the G might look bad

e. everyone should just trust the elected government.

There is a tension, and there always will be, between journalists and their sources. If journalists want to do a professional job, they should not succumb to the path of least resistance or think that praise from newsmakers is the ultimate reward and a scolding, a mortal sin. Nor should the G deride or disrespect the journalist who is merely trying to do his job, and thereby inconveniencing its schedule.

This is why I worry when I see media filled with rah-rah news, because I know they are so much easier to report and write. No newsmaker will complain if they get favourable coverage or have a good spin put on a not-so-good story. But that is how the credibility of the media goes down among readers and viewers. Too much positive coverage makes people wonder if they getting the truth, even if the facts are all there. The same goes for stories on the G which are vague, riddled with information gaps and written from the point of the view of the person giving the news.

I don’t blame newsmakers for trying to control the news agenda. Every government wants that. But even as Singapore has unique vulnerabilities such as its racial and religious configuration, one other unique feature is that the G is the biggest newsmaker in Singapore, and has sole control over all types of information. These are backed up by laws including the Official Secrets Act which not only prevent publication, but also reporting. And there are only two media outfits here.

If trust in the MSM is eroded or if its journalists are handicapped in doing their job, you can expect that people will turn to other sources simply to read something different, even if they are false. If the G wants to counter fake news, it should take a good hard look at its own relationship with the media. The media should do the same.


I don’t think I can read LKY’s mind, can you?

In News Reports on April 4, 2018 at 2:11 am

I think 38 Oxley Road should be demolished entirely, razed to the ground. I don’t really care what is put up on the site, but a garden dedicated to the memory of the man who had lived there would be nice.

I say this because it is the last thing that a citizen can do for the man who led Singapore since independence. Like him or hate him, Mr Lee Kuan Yew presided over the transformation of Singapore from Third World to First. Yes, I have just used a cliché, but the cliché happens to best describe our broad post-independence history. Call me sentimental if you like.

I think there is a reason the late Mr Lee decided that one part of his will, the demolition clause, be made public. He wants the public involved. The trouble is, that clause has been interpreted in many ways, and even the circumstances in which the clause has been inserted has been questioned.

The clause reads:

“I further declare that it is my wish and the wish of my late wife…that our house at 38 Oxley Road… (“the House”) be demolished immediately after my death or, if my daughter, Wei Ling, would prefer to continue living in the original house, immediately after she moves out of the House. I would ask each of my children to ensure our wishes with respect to the demolition of the House be carried out. If our children are unable to demolish the House as a result of any changes in the law, rules or regulations binding them, it is my wish that the House never be opened to others except my children, their families and descendants. My view on this has been made public before and remains unchanged. My statement of wishes in this paragraph… may be publicly disclosed notwithstanding that the rest of my Will is private.”

The parties involved including the ministerial committee examining the fate of the house, accept that it was Mr Lee’s wish that the house be demolished if Dr Lee Wei Ling was no longer living in it. That was his first and foremost preference. Then comes the controversy over whether he “came to accept’’ the idea that the house might be retained in some form. I use quote marks because that was how the ministerial committee put what Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had told members:

While Mr Lee’ s personal wish was for demolition, from the second half of 2011, after reflecting on the views of several people, including senior journalists and members of the Cabinet, he “came to accept” that there was a strong body of opinion that the Property should be preserved “in the public interest”. He also accepted that when the decision has to be made, the Government in office may seek to preserve the property for these reasons. Mr Lee was “prepared to be flexible and contemplate options short of demolition”.

I have lost track of the twists and turns of the famiLEE saga, which exploded into the public eye in the middle of 2017, although I have written more than a dozen commentaries under The Middle Ground. There were so many emails, correspondence and documents presented by both PM Lee and his siblings that touch on his final wishes. Allegations and counter-allegations had been thrown that clouded, rather than clarified, the issue – which is really the fate of the house.

And I am not sure the ministerial committee got it right either, even when it based its conclusions on what it said was “objective evidence’’ of the demolition clause, a Cabinet letter and a URA planning permit that the committee viewed as his acceptance of the idea that the place would be preserved somewhat after he passed on.

That’s because an ordinary person knowing what Mr Lee had said in the past about the house would have been satisfied  that the first preference was the truest gauge of his wishes. In other words, that was what he wanted but in the event that it can’t be fulfilled because the G says no, then bo pian, but with conditions.

They were rather stringent too because they barred entry to the house to anyone else but his own family and descendents. The ministerial committee’s Option one to preserve some parts and seal off other private areas might be in keeping with the letter, but not the spirit, of his clause. Option 2 of preparing and enclosing the dining area where great decisions on Singapore’s future were made looks like a neither here nor there compromise.

The counter-argument, of course, would be why the wishes of one individual should over-ride the interests of the State. No one doubts that the State has the authority to gazette a building for preservation and put other strictures on its development and conservation. The ministerial committee’s report had wonderful, and extremely educational, chapters on the architectural and historical value of the house. Would this be enough to tip the balance towards preservation?

I don’t know enough about architectural value but I agree that there is a strong case for preservation for heritage purposes. This is where many of Singapore’s pioneers decided the course of Singapore’s history, and the house had played host to people as diverse as foreign journalists, Malaysian politicians, dissidents and those who formed Singapore’s first independence Cabinet.

Except that this is not just any man’s house.

The fact that so many people seemed to have tried to get him to change his position while he was alive showed that they were mindful about getting his consent, even though there was no need to.

Yes, he sought the views of others who argued for preservation, which the committee said showed that he “open’’ to other options.

But I think that getting feedback is what any reasonable man would do. We know that Mr Lee is a stickler for protocol, and if presented with a fait accompli by the State (we really, really want to preserve it Pa, says his son, the Prime Minister), do we really expect that he would make a public spectacle of opposition or resign himself to getting the best terms he can in accordance with the State?

Okay, that’s getting into the realm of mind-reading.

But seriously, if the G wants to gazette the house, it should just say so and put forth its reasons. (The sticking point though is that Dr Lee is stilling living there and the G would have to acquire the property). Instead there is all this mind-reading, suspicion-raising, and agenda-doubting that is taking place, never mind how hard the committee stresses that it was deciding based on “objective evidence’’.

So the upshot in the end was that the committee came up with three options a future government can draw upon – or dismiss. The G has said in the past that it would be remiss in its duty if it didn’t try to help a future G decide on the house. The question at that time was whether its decision would bind a future Cabinet.

The answer is no.

Said Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean, who chaired the committee: “We did not make any recommendation because no decision is required at this point in time. Ultimately, in the fullness of time, a future Government will have the responsibility to consider the public interest aspects of the Property, taking into account Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s wishes. They will have to decide what to do with the Property and be able to carry the decision.’’

Yes, it seems so odd doesn’t it? We’re wrangling over some thing that may not even take place in our life-time.

But I still think the house should be razed. That was what the old man wanted. And I think he should get it.






Fact-checking is necessary, but not easy

In News Reports on April 2, 2018 at 10:39 am

I told my class of undergraduates that I would fail them if I found any inaccuracy in their reporting assignment. They blanched.

It takes effort to be accurate, and that’s something most non-journalists take for granted when they read or view any kind of news report. That’s because readers already assume that the reports must be accurate – and they are taken aback when errors are made public.

The role of quality journalism is more acute in these days of fake news. During the Select Committee hearings on deliberate online falsehoods, journalist after journalist swear by their professional code of ethics that they do their damnedest to ensure that facts are really just that, facts.

Fact-checking is an onerous process, which is why I lament the near-extinction of that species of journalist known as the sub-editor, in the effort of newsrooms to stay lean. This last line of defence is seen as an unnecessary extra because sub-editors do not add to the bottomline of media companies. Bean counters assume that a journalist is a superperson who can multi-task across mediums quickly, while making sure that the facts are all there. Why have another level of manning when anyone can upload anything online so easily (and correct them so easily too)?

It was therefore a trifle disconcerting for me to see editors before the panel swear by the importance of real news when the truth is that there has been a dwindling number of fact-checkers in the newsrooms.

It’s a pity.

I have seen numerous sub-editors who save the day for rookie reporters by catching their errors before publication or adding to the quality of a report by demanding more information.  Quite a few have also spotted “cut-and-paste’’ news reports which carried whole background paragraphs from old reports, and even called out reporters on plagiarism. That is, they weed out sloppy reporting and writing. Very experienced sub-editors can even “smell” when a story is wrong, because the tone or content doesn’t gel with their institutional memory. Therefore, the question: “Are you sure?”

The job of the sub-editor, you see, is not just to make sure the report is readable, but as far as they can, accurate and honest. In Singapore, they do not go to the lengths of calling a newsmaker to ask if he or she had really been spoken to. But they do check on whether names and designations tally, research available information to verify specific points and ask reporters for the source of information if it wasn’t already in the draft.

This is because journalists shouldn’t expect readers to believe them just on their say-so. Whenever I come across a new piece of information in a news report, I look for the attribution. Who is saying this? Where is this from? In other words, how did the journalist know? The use of the word “source’’ is particularly problematic. Is it the cleaning lady or the CEO? And is it one source or several?

This is why good news organisations try to give as much information about a source as possible, right down to name, age and occupation to show readers that a real live person had been spoken to and what is more, you may assess his words by his age and occupation. Experts are also identified fully by their designations and area of expertise and for the really controversial stuff, even their years of specialization, to underscore the credibility of his information or views.

I’ve had to deal with reporters in the past about the need to include such background information on sources and modes of verification because, the journalists argue, they tend to break the flow of the story and add “clutter”. My response has always been : “But why should readers trust YOU?’’

It becomes a bigger problem for news reports on surveys because beyond reporting the results, they should also state information such as the methodology, sample size and even the types of questions asked. When such basic information isn’t made public, readers would have to simply trust that the reporters have made the requisite checks and found the survey credible – before thrusting the results on the public.

I believe mainstream media still places a premium on accuracy, which is why I piggyback on – and credit – their reporting when I write my columns, unless I have obtained the source material myself. There have been times, however, when I hesitate doing so because they do not credit information they have. How can I say that I am relying and crediting this particular report to a news organisation, when the original report itself is short on attribution? What is even worse is when a news report is really a report about what another news report says. The reader will have to judge the credibility of that original report as well.

Complicated enough?

Journalists should be glad that there aren’t many readers like me, who can spot gaps easily because of long experience editing good stuff as well as plenty of junk. Plus, I belong to the old school of journalists who cry every time I make an error in my work. Self-flagellation couldn’t be more intense when you know that you have let your side down, so to speak.

In these days of online news and blogging, it is for the mainstream media newsrooms to prove that they are many cuts above, by harnessing their tremendous resources to ensure that all stories are “nailed down’’. Raising the level of professionalism should be their main concern. The product is the best branding of any news organization, not its carnivals, marathons and concerts.

The G can help too, but that is the subject of another column.


Fake news panel: History is whose story?

In News Reports on March 30, 2018 at 9:40 am

Straight off the bat, it was clear that we were about to witness some demolition work at yesterday’s Select Committee hearing. It was the way Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam questioned Dr Thum Ping Tjin about his academic credentials – that he was not a research fellow in History as he had maintained, but that he was now a research fellow in Anthropology. And that while he was attached to Oxford University, he was not a tenured staff member.

It was also clear that the minister would launch into Dr Thum’s key point in his submission – that the People’s Action Party politicians were responsible for the biggest pieces of fake news in Singapore, by not telling the truth behind Operation Coldstore (1963) and Operation Spectrum (1987) which had resulted in the incarceration of many people.  He said so at the beginning of what would be a six-hour interrogation of the historian who is known for putting a different spin on the Singapore’s early history.

I say “spin’’ because I can’t tell who has the definitive version of history of Singapore’s pre-independence days – whether the early politicians (Lim Chin Siong et al) were communists planning armed struggle for political supremacy, or whether they were socialists whom first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew labelled as communists to destroy them politically, or to force them into jail or exile.

I say “spin’’ because I was thoroughly confused by all the references to books, quotes, telegrams, speeches and even footnotes that were originally in Mandarin and then translated into (bad English). Believe you me, I tried. Because any Singaporean would want to know how Dr Thum came to this conclusion that was in his written submission:

“Beginning with Operation Coldstore in 1963, politicians have told Singaporeans that people were being detained without trial on national security grounds due to involvement with radical communist conspiracies to subvert the state. Declassified documents have proven this to be a lie. Operation Coldstore was conducted for political purposes, and there was no evidence that the detainees of Operation Coldstore were involved in any conspiracy to subvert the government.” 

Not that Dr Thum is unknown in intellectual circles. His Phd thesis and subsequent public lectures, videos and interviews have repeated the point, which has been contested by the Government and at least one academic. In recent years, there have been several alternative narratives to Singapore history that has seen publication, including the ex-detainees’ views of Operation Spectrum and exiled ex-Barisan Sosialis members’ recollections of Operation Coldstore.

In 2014, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had weighed in to defend the State’s narrative. In 2015, his office issued a strong statement decrying what it described as “historical revisionism’’which downplayed the communist role in pre-independence:

“Historical discourse and debate requires academic rigour, intellectual honesty and respect for evidence. These qualities have been sadly lacking among those championing a revisionist account of a key fight on our road to independence.”

It shouldn’t surprise anyone therefore that the G members of the panel to take a scalpel to Dr Thum’s views, just as they did with the Human Rights Watch report that was a key point in freelance journalist Kirsten Han’s written submission.

So, was the demolition exercise successful?

As a layperson sitting in on the first half of the hearing, I found some of Dr Thum’s responses to Mr Shanmugam’s questions disconcerting, especially when he professed ignorance of some published work that seemed to have a bearing on those early days. Mr Shanmugam made quite a lot of hay from Dr Thum’s utterances, to show that the historian was not quite an expert in the field. I thought the same too, but I will also concede that it is also true that no one can read everything, not even an expert, and that even an expert would be hard put to remember certain paragraphs or quotes in the materials that he had come across.

Mr Shanmugam cited chapter and verse to get Dr Thum to agree on what constituted communism and united front tactics before proceeding to ask questions about whether there was a communist conspiracy in Singapore by  Barisan Sosialis members. He cited published sources, including those by Communist Party of Malaya’s secretary-general Chin Peng, which referred to the extent of communist infiltration in Singapore which had caused labour disruptions and student riots. There were references to how communists had to flee to Riau islands and had to ready themselves for a crackdown by government forces.

Dr Thum, on the other hand, said his analysis was based on recently de-classifiedc contemporaneous British Special Branch documents that did not show any evidence of a communist conspiracy. As for other materials, he dismissed them either as inaccurate or irrelevant as they were written decades later for a self-serving purpose. His own research, he claimed, showed Chin Peng was too far away from Singapore to know enough of its circumstances.

So much of the first three hours was about whether Dr Thum had read this or that, or had investigated this or that point, and debates on definitions such as “communist-controlled’’ and “communist-inspired’’, and whether supporters of communism were really supporters of anti-colonialism.

It was extremely testy with side comments made by Dr Thum, which Mr Shanmugam didn’t care to countenance. Dr Thum was kept to a narrow line of yes or no answers which he chafed at, arguing that a historian also looked at the big picture and other sources to come to conclusions.

Mr Shanmugam was having nothing of it, and accused Dr Thum of dealing in sophistry rather than history, and ignoring other sources on the pre-independence period which were inconvenient to his line of argument. He practically called Dr Thum an academic fraud, who broke the rules of academic research (he cited a definition).

Was any light shed on Operation Coldstore?

Dr Thum’s point seems to be that there might be people who supported communism and who were actually communists, but this is not to say that there was a concerted communist conspiracy to de-stabilise Singapore with riots and armed insurrection. And those who were rounded up in Operation Coldstore were not communists, because the declassified documents had no evidence of this. Neither was Barisan leader Lim Chin Siong a communist, he maintained, as Mr Shanmugam cited evidence that seemed to point otherwise. Mr Shanmugam also suggested that Dr Thum had misread at least one telegram from a British colonialist about the nature of Barisan Sosialis future moves.

Dr Thum seemed to be relying on de-classified documents from the British archives. which Mr Shanmugam didn’t take issue with and did not cite as a source. In fact, it seemed a pretty strange debate because no one in the room had a clue what the British documents really said.  Mr Shanmugam asked Dr Thum to send the relevant documents to him, which led Dr Thum to remark that the Internal Security Department probably had them too.

It was a pity that the discussion on Operation Coldstore took so little of that six hours of grilling which was terminated rather abruptly. For me, it appeared to be a continuation of a discussion which was really started a few years ago when historians started querying the State’s version of history, drawing responses from the G, at a time when Mr Lee Kuan Yew was still alive.

Would the release of classified documents by the G shed more light on this period of Singapore history? Asked about this in Parliament in 2014, then Minister of Culture, community and Youth Lawrence Wong rejected this. “Our approach is not transparency for transparency sake. Our approach is transparency that leads to good governance.”

Anyone would ask what the six hours had to do with fake news. It seemed to be about which version of history Singaporeans should rely on. After the hearing, Dr Thum professed himself flummoxed at the line of questioning which had been a two-man show despite the presence of other panel members including Dr Janil Puthucheary, whose father, Dominic Puthucheary, and uncle, James Puthucheary, had been Operation Coldstore detainees.

Perhaps, what the six hours showed was the difficulty of ascertaining what is true and what is false. Who should we believe and how credible are our sources? How can we ascertain the intentions of people who say things or do things?

In other words, who do we trust?

AFTERNOTE: I was wrong about this part. Mr Shanmugam did refer to these documents as well. I apologise for the error


Fake news panel vs civil society: Not a very merry-go-round

In News Reports on March 28, 2018 at 8:58 am

When you go before a Select Committee hearing, remember that it is for the committee to ask questions of you, which members can frame in any way they want. You will have to answer, unless you say you refuse to answer. And you will have to answer the question as framed, and not segue into nuances and clarifications.

It was probably with this in mind that the civil society activists went before the Parliamentary Select Committee on deliberate online falsehoods. They paused before answering most of the questions, probably wary of being led down a line of questioning that would solicit answers they were not prepared to give.

Reading the written submissions, the four people had a common thread which they were determined should surface at the hearing.

At the risk of over-simplifying the positions of Messrs Terry Xu of The Online Citizen, Ngiam Shih Tung of Maruah and Phd student Howard Lee and freelance journalist Kirsten Han, I would say the following were their common grounds.

  1. Legislation, if considered, should be last resort because there are already plenty of laws which can deal with harmful speech.
  2. There are many types of fake news – ranging from those that are shared by concerned citizens without malice, to those that incite violence.
  3. The G should “deal with’’ deliberate online fake news by engaging the perpetrators or putting up its own take on the matter so that readers can make an informed judgment .
  4. Most times, netizens themselves point out the falsity of statements, negating the need for the G to intervene in a sphere which cherishes freedom of expression.
  5. Unless the term “deliberate online falsehoods’’ (DOFs) was clearly defined, legal means would mean crimping freedom of expression in Singapore and could be abused by the government of the day.

They look plain enough, except that the committee has a lot of resources to call on,  such as evidence given by earlier witnesses who said that the current laws lack “speed, scope and adaptability’’, how deliberate disinformation campaigns can undermine national security and how the tech and social media companies themselves were dragging their feet over banning fake material despite demands to do so. Hence, shouldn’t the G have a tool which it can use that would be speedy, broad and adaptable, safeguard national security and compel the platforms to take down such DOFs?

Much of the three hours of questioning, mainly by MP Edwin Tong, who happens to be a Senior Counsel, were aimed at getting them to concede this point. There was plenty of arguing about definitions of fake news and the type of fake news that deserved sanction. Prof Thio Li-Ann’s testimony – that it was possible to define false in a legal sense – was frequently cited by the panel. So was Prof Goh Yi Han’s paper on the inadequacy of   current laws to deal with different types of fake speech.

Besides quoting these eminent law academics, the panel also referred to a Reach survey published yesterday, which said that 92 per cent of those surveyed wanted more effective laws on fake news. The civil society activists, parrying every blow that was levelled at them, probably felt that they were under siege.

Both Mr Tong and Dr Janil Puthucheary wanted to know why the acivists’ views were at odds with the experts and the majority of the survey participants. To her credit, Ms Han questioned the methodology of the Reach survey, and its questions, which would lead respondents to answer in a certain way.

I agree. The participants were asked about fake news – a term that so many people find hard to define and understand, except that it sounds bad. What image popped into their heads when they were popped the question and do they even know if there are laws in place that could deal with some of them?

But beyond questioning the survey results, the activists were caught very much in a bind when they were posed examples of fake news and asked if they should be banned. Most were pretty egregious, like assertions that past US President Barack Obama criticized Christians  and that Indonesia’s Jokowi was a Christian. Then there were examples of online posts and sites filled with falsehoods about certain religious groups, which could lead to violence. The genious of the panel: These examples were raised by the British panel investigating the fake news phenomena, which Mr Tong recited to show that even the British MPs could not condone some types of expression and wanted them taken down. He also told of  how the  social media and tech companies responded to the British panel’s accusation of tardiness, by arguing that the offending item did not violate its community standards and how it was technically difficult to remove them.

Again, all this was to point to the question: Shouldn’t a government be given a tool to compel these companies to ban fake news?

It was a not a very merry-go-round. So I will try and shorten the discourse. The following is fake, but I hope it gives a fair representation of what happened.

Bear with me and follow this:

Q: If something is faked, should it be taken down?

A: No, because how do you know it’s fake?

Q: But it has been shown to be faked, so shouldn’t it be taken down?

A: No, it depends on who says it is faked and whether it incites violence.

Q: But it is faked and incites violence, so what do you do?

A: You use existing laws or challenge them and give your side of the story.

Q: But what if it has already gone viral?

A: Going viral doesn’t mean that it has an impact on the people who read them.

Q: So on the chance that fake news would not give rise to violence, we do nothing?

A: No, we engage them, but who defines fake news and what are we talking about anyway?

And so everything revolves on what is true and false, who decides and whether there are variations of the truth. At one point, Mr Tong said that there was only “one truth’’, which led to the civil society activists speaking all at once until Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam intervened to give examples of facts and falsehoods.

The appearance of the civil society activists yesterday had been anticipated as a kind of showdown between the proponents and opponents of legislation. The panel members stressed several times that legislation was being considered as one of a suite of measures, but the other side was equally adamant that there was no need for new laws. For example, racially charged speech could be dealt with under the Sedition Act. Also, public opinion had, on occasion, led to fake news being pushed back. They piggybacked on the earlier testimony of Professor Cherian George, who warned that action against fake news could backfire on the G, and give the perpertrators ammunition to declare that they were denied freedom of speech.

And so on and so forth…

I have some sympathy for the activists who had to go through the insistent and tightly scoped questioning by Mr Tong. They were stymied or cut off whenever they started to raise examples in their favour. Still, they tried to hold up their ideological line: that even falsehoods with spurious allegations should be allowed unless they are clearly illegal under current laws. The counter-measure was engagement, they said, and having social media companies uphold their own code of practice or community standards.

It was in the last hour or so that Mr Tong got into the specifics – and where things started looking  bad for the activists. In the case of Mr Xu, it was not his submission that Mr Tong grilled him on but his past action as editor of The Online Citizen. Mr Xu, who had earlier said that he was “not a journalist’’, was pinned down on TOC’s 2016 campaign on the suicide of student Benjamin Lim.

Mr Tong’s beef was that despite several police and parliamentary statements about an error in its reporting, TOC declined to revise its headlines. This, even though the mother who was the source of claims that police officers had descended on Benjamin’s school in tee-shirts with police emblazoned had said that she was wrong. Mr Xu’s reply was that TOC was “not in the habit of changing articles’’. Also, he himself had not received word from the police demanding a correction. Nor was he given CCTV footage to verify the claims of police.

I must say that it was pretty audacious of Mr Xu to give such a reply, which questioned the veracity of police and parliamentary statements. The only kind thing I can say in his favour is that he must have been frustrated by police’ consistent refusal to answer questions that he had posed to them in the past.

Ms Han, on the other hand, was put in a tight spot over her role in the Human Rights Watch report which the People’s Action Party Policy Forum had denounced before the Select Committee as deliberate falsehoods. The report, which interviewed 34 individuals on the state of civil rights in Singapore, was one of the planks in her written submission. She declined at first to say if she had been one of the 34 interviewed, arguing that it was irrelevant.

After the committee chairman Seah Kian Peng intervened, she decided to acknowledge that she was one of the interviewees. Mr Tong then drew her into specifics of the article which said that the incarceration of Alan Shadrake and Amos Yee were examples of curtailment of freedom of expression. I would be hard put to compress the details of the ding-dong over the two instances, except to say they both disagreed on everything.

There were two instances when Ms Han almost turned the tables on Mr Tong. She said she was surprised that the Human Rights Watch group had been asked to appear before the committee to defend its report, but not those who had described Operation Spectrum and Operation Coldstore as faked. She also said that while she would not welcome legislation on fake speech, she would welcome a Freedom of Information Act to promote more transparency and free flow of information.

But it was Mr Jolovan Wham, a social worker with Community Action Network, who got the short end of the stick, that is, a short five minutes before the committee. He was the last representor after a very long day which started at 10am. The five minutes was to get him to confirm that his view that there was no empirical evidence of online falsehoods in Singapore having a significant impact on the people.

Needless to say, he was quite cheesed off.

So what did we learn at the end of the day? I would venture this conclusion which I believe is shared by many: Legislation is afoot. Expect another bout of controversy when its draft is made public.