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Let’s not even talk about quality journalism

In News Reports on September 30, 2018 at 3:05 am

One day, I am going to post something controversial on my Facebook wall, and see whether it gets picked up as news. I know it’s common to share posts online, even if they are dubious and incredible. But it should not be common for FB posts to make it into the news media. Unfortunately, FB “reporting’’ is becoming, well, common.

If my post does make it as a news story, along with other posts commenting on the original one, I will issue a denial. I never posted that, I will say. It was my nine-year old nephew who did so. Then the outcry will be about how the post was set to “public’’, and hence, it’s fair game. How would anyone know that the poster wasn’t me? My answer will be: the journalist should have verified it with me before attributing it to me. I keep wondering if anyone checked with Prof Tommy Koh whether he really posted that one-liner on challenging the constitutionality of Section 377A that has opened the debate on the criminalization of homosexual sex. Everybody assumed it was him. What a laugh it would be if he said that it wasn’t him, but his grandson.

The current angst over the proliferation of fake news skirts the issue of what constitutes journalism. And I mean journalism, not even quality journalism – which is what the parliamentary select committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods keeps referring to as a counter-measure to fake news. The key principles of journalism (basic or quality) are verification and attribution. Only with both then we can say that we have the facts or something close to the truth, because the sourcing is unimpeachable.

I have always hated the term “citizen’’ journalism, because it degrades the journalism profession. So a controversial photograph by a “citizen’’ journalist makes the rounds and people immediately leap into comment mode. This isn’t journalism, this is an eye-witness account of something that happened. A journalist would have dug into the whys and wherefores to present the complete picture, and not just talk about what he saw or heard. Then comments would be tempered by more information, and not just based on knee-jerk reactions.

Yet too often we see news stories that are made up of a whole lot of FB posts strung together – and no notification to the reader on whether they have been checked and verified with the source.  We see online petitions making the news without being given a clue about who started it. Readers seem take it on faith – that somebody else has done the checks and it must be true.

Increasingly, it appears that news must be something that has appeared on social media, has got online tongues wagging or has gone viral. Preferably with a video.  You would think that nothing newsworthy happened in the pre-Internet era and the “irate netizen’’ is a new species of human being. Yet, at the same time, there will be those who say that these “irate netizens’’ aren’t representative of the whole or the silent majority. Nobody knows – because the people whose job it is to find out the views of the silent only reported the vocal ones. So easy. They are all online.

So, yes, I am distressed at the way FB reporting seems to have taken over news media, including traditional news media.  The reporting on the fall-out of the meeting between the Singaporeans and Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad was a Facebook affair.  You get the sense that journalists were watching for a post to appear from anyone of the protagonists – so that they can quickly write it. It is fastest finger first.

The G has got wind of this technique too, which is why some announcements and views are on Facebook. Journalists are probably primed to watch out for them so that they can “break’’ the news first. Also, some newsmakers have mastered the art of writing on FB, adopting a conversational tone that is accessible to readers rather than the jargon of press releases that their public relations people dreamt up. For journalists, it is a Godsend to have quotes that can be cut and pasted without causing readers to stumble over polysyllables.

Then the job is done.

The job is NOT done. If journalism is about FB reporting, then any Tom, Dick and Bertha can do it. It takes a facility with the English language and fast fingers. (I have both). Beyond taking the trouble to verify the post (which any intern can do), the journalist’s job is to go beyond the obvious, by asking for clarifications, elaboration and motivation. These should be reflected in the article. Even if they got no answer, there must be an assurance that the requisite checks were made.

It cannot be that the reading public must take journalists at their word.There must be transparency about the reporting process to legitimize the writing.  That is why a named person is usually accompanied by age and occupation, to assure readers that this is a real person, not a cooked up quote, among other things. That is why expanding on survey methodology is as important as reporting the results of the survey. That is why the context of a newsmaker’s words is important, like whether he said something in a speech which meant he was prepared to make the point, or an interview, during which the words could have been pried out of him.

Increasingly, there is the door-stop interview, where newsmakers actually invite journalists to pop up somewhere to talk to him because he is already prepared to say something. I see much fewer instances of “ambush’’ interviews where the journalists corner newsmakers at public events for comments. If there were more, then the journalists didn’t say that they had exercised the initiative to do so.

Basic journalism is hard to do. It is what distinguishes professional work from the work of online commentators and eye-witnesses. I will be first to admit that I rely on the reporting work of traditional media to write commentaries, but I am beginning to wonder if I should. Many of us already have access to FB posts. It also doesn’t take a genius to find the original press statement and the original survey that was published as news. Those who don’t have the time to read might appreciate a filter which summarises and gives key points. But those who do will find that there is very little value added by the journalist to the original piece of information.

You might not agree but I see a fraying of journalistic standards with bad headlines, gaps in stories and how stuff the journalist cannot fathom are put in “quote marks’’ instead of explained. (If you want examples, you can call up #berthablowsup on FB.)

I notice that most people believe that quality journalism is about investigative reporting. It is one part of it, yes, and it is rather more difficult to do and takes a much longer time because people simply don’t like to put themselves in the public eye.  But I have little reason to read an investigative report if I have no faith that the run-of-the-mill type of stories have been properly sourced and attributed.

Get the basics right first.

And I haven’t even touched on incomprehensible content…

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SingHealth COI: How bo chup can you get?

In News Reports on September 29, 2018 at 5:08 am

When ex-SMRT chief Desmond Kuek raised “cultural issues’’ as a reason for the train operator’s mishaps, he didn’t say exactly what he meant. We had to surmise that they had to do with disregard for standard operating processes and even safety protocols, lack of rigorous checks and an overall lackadaisical attitude towards maintenance works. Hence, delayed train service, flooded tunnel and even deaths.

But SingHealth IT chaps take the cake when it came to blunders. What emerged from five days of public hearings into how health data of 1.6million people could have been hacked is a bo chup culture. Some phrases to illustrate this: “don’t know got problem’’, “not my problem’’, “not a big problem’’, “normal problem’’, “other people’s problem’’.

It’s disconcerting that such attitudes prevail at a time when there have been so many exhortations to stay alert to cyber intrusions and so many examples of the harm that can be done. You wonder at first if security and protection protocols are keeping pace with the progress of Smart Nation initiatives. You also wonder if the problem is “technical’’, because technological advances, changes and “solutions’’ occur in leaps and bounds before you can catch your breath. There’s simply too little time to keep pace with yet another genius hacker.

Or is the fundamental problem a “cultural’’ one, that is, it is an attitude problem rather than an ability problem? It seems like this is more the case despite repeated statements that the hacking was a sophisticated exercise.

You don’t need a cyber brain to discern the import of the near-comical series of “confessions’’ .

From what I can gather, here’s what happened:

First, the hacker used a publicly available hacking tool to get into an end-user workstation. This was easy because the station was using an old version of Microsoft Outlook that had not been patched to deal with this tool. This happened in August 2017.

Once in, the hacker started sniffing around from December 2017 and May this year. He found that there were inactive administrative accounts that connected to the medical records database. These accounts should have been de-activated or firewalls introduced because the data had already been moved to a private cloud. Somewhere else. One administrator account also had a silly password : P@ssw0rd.

Once through to the next level server, he started making bulk enquiries for data. Because this system didn’t have rules to detect such queries, he was able to exfiltrate data from June 27 to July 4.

His snooping was stopped by a staffer, Ms Katherine Tan, who wasn’t clear about what she was supposed to do with the knowledge. Her boss, Ms Teresa Wu, told her to ask colleagues but no one replied to her email.  Ms Tan assumed that someone would have escalated the matter upstairs by now. (No, she didn’t say that was her boss’ job, going by the COI news reports.)

During the investigations into the breach, one compromised server, which was at the National Cancer Centre, was found. It hadn’t been patched in 14 months.

What’s worse is that the higher-ups already knew that there was a vulnerability in the system way back in 2014, when a disgruntled staffer decided to tell a vendor about the loophole. His bosses were alerted to his action and he was sacked for the ethical breach. They didn’t check the veracity of his claim about a loophole.

Even when it became clear that there was an attack, they didn’t even think it was a serious security incident. Or at least not a reportable one.

It could have been classed as a series of unfortunate events or a comedy of errors if we weren’t also exposed to attempts to re-direct responsibility or shabby excuses.

Some examples:

  • Mr Clarence Kua, deputy director of the Chief Information Officer’s Office at the Integrated Health Information System, said he was more concerned about the ethical breach by the staffer than his allegation of vulnerability. That was because that appeared to be what his CEO boss, Dr Chong Yoke Sin, was interested in. He even admitted that he wasn’t a person to exercise initiative, but to take orders. His reporting officer, Ms Foong Lai Choong also thought that the “case was closed’’ with the dismissal.

(In other words, I just do what my boss says)

  • Then, there was Mr Tan Aik Chin, a senior manager at the NCC, who said he “inherited’’ the server after a colleague quit and another died. He did so out of “goodwill’’ even though he had little technical expertise and was in charge of business. In fact, this server seems to be nobody’s child. Ms Serena Yong of iHIS didn’t even know who was supposed to be managing the server, or whether iHIS had oversight of it.

(Which also means: How did this become MY problem?)

  • Mr Wee Jia Hou, cluster information security officer at iHIS, said he didn’t have a framework for reporting cyber-threats. He depended on Mr Ernest Tan Choon Kiat, who is in charge of security management, to alert him. He merely glanced at emails which referred to the matter.

(Nobody told me about a problem, not loudly anyway)

  • But during that critical period, Mr Tan was on leave and Mr Wee made no arrangements for “cover’’ either. When Mr Tan returned on July 18, he thought the whole fuss was just a malware investigation of a front-end workstation, and therefore not a ‘’reportable security incident’’. Even if so, it wasn’t his job to escalate the matter. That was Mr Wee’s job.

(It’s not a problem, and even if so, it’s not my problem)

What can we make of all this buck pushing, deference to authority and lack of initiative, personal accountability and responsibility? I suppose it would be tough to deal with “human” folly and foibles but it does seem that the whole electronic medical records system need a dusting down or an external audit of systems and processes to ensure clear reporting lines and timeliness of alerts.

What I am a little surprised by is why the COI didn’t go further back in time to ask why internet separation hadn’t been employed earlier, like it was for other government agencies. The response from the G that they had been assessing its suitability for the healthcare sector  for the past two years doesn’t seem to hold much water given that it took just two days or so to effect the change. Perhaps, this wasn’t the part of the COI’s remit…

I just hope this sort of bo chup culture doesn’t prevail in big organisations. How can we trust them with data if they don’t think it’s worth going the extra mile (or just the right mile) to protect them?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Next GE is likely a vote of confidence in next PM

In News Reports on September 25, 2018 at 1:04 am

In Singapore, a good politician is a reluctant politician, at least according to the People’s Action Party.

You have to be persuaded first to enter politics and become a candidate and that any sacrifice made in terms of salary is worth it because you will finally acknowledge that serving the country beats any cut in pay. Then you’ve got to be persuaded that having yourself and your family come under scrutiny is par for the course in the political arena. Perhaps, you’re told that, luckily, Singapore isn’t like other countries where the paparazzi follows your every private move. Here, they only follow your public moves – and don’t worry, these can be orchestrated and organized down to the last detail because your support network is a strong one.

And don’t even think that you should be Prime Minister. That’s because ambition in the political realm is frowned upon – or you will seen as more interested in acquiring power and status than in service.  So keep your head down, do your own little job well and if your peers like you and what you do, you might find yourself thrown up as first among equals. Oh. And if that happens, make sure you are suitably humble.

This is paradox of politics in Singapore.

I started thinking about the above after Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam put out the lay of the political/PAP land in a speech yesterday. It was the most expansive that I’ve heard so far on how the PAP elects its leaders, something that will happen late this year.

Yes, we know that the PAP cadres elect the members of its policy-making Central Executive Committee, which is almost a mirror of the Cabinet. And we know the members in turn select those among themselves to head the different party positions like chairman, secretary-general and so forth. We even know that those who didn’t make the electoral cut can always be co-opted into the CEC.

What we don’t know is how the candidates for the CEC were nominated in the first place, and whether cadres – the backbone of the PAP – always succeed in putting up its own candidates who may not already be in positions of power. There was just one occasion I can recall when this happened. Ayer Rajah MP Tan Cheng Bock was catapulted into the CEC decades ago, which given the current tension between the person and the party, is probably not something the PAP leadership wants to be reminded of.

We also don’t know exactly how many votes each elected member got, a bit like how we don’t know how different candidates in a Group Representation Constituency did in his or her own precinict – unless someone in the know tells. That means getting someone to leak the information – or the information is selectively put out to make someone look good/bad.

What’s interesting is that Mr Shanmugam has confirmed how much of a top-down leadership the PAP has. He noted that in Singapore, each minister typically anchors a group representation constituency (GRC) with several MPs.

“The cadre members are usually based on branches so… if you don’t like the prime minister, within Cabinet if you can get about seven to eight ministers on your side, it’s a fair bet that they will be able to swing their cadre members from their branches and their GRCs,” he said.

“So then you form a team either quietly, as happened in the early 60s, or openly, and then you stand for elections at the CEC.

“And if you get the majority, and then you tell the prime minster you are no longer secretary-general of the party, please step down. That’s how a coup takes place.”

He calls it a coup. Leadership challenges “don’t do the country any good”, he said, especially in a small country like Singapore, where it will have a wide impact – on not only politics, but also other areas like the business environment.

I suppose others might counter that such challenges are part and parcel of the workings of the democratic process. After all, we do have general elections and by-elections. I pity any aspiring Prime Minister who is bursting to put forth his vision and egotistical enough to say that he is best suited for the job. This is a disqualification. Sorry.

Of course, coups, or democratic processes, can swing to the other extreme, when party leaders are deposed again and again, like in Australia, and this means the top job of prime minister changes too. Supposedly, a large country like Australia can absorb the impact of frequent leadership changes. In Singapore, with a G wielding a very visible and even heavy hand, consequences could be tumultuous as people start to worry about the stability of policies.

It’s the prerogative of the PAP to decide how it wants to pick its leaders. Those who think the Prime Minister should be elected by the people have got the wrong end of the stick. This is not how the parliamentary system works. Even in a presidential system, like in the United States, the leader must first be thrown up by the party grassroots to face the public at large in an election. As for whether Singapore is ready for a non-Chinese prime minister, it’s really up to the PAP cadres to decide – or the ministers who can influence the cadres to decide. Evidently, for example, the Reform Party and the Workers’ Party think that Singapore is ready for a non-Chinese prime minister, going by the secretary-generalship of the parties. Why? Because that is what will happen if either party takes the majority of the votes in a general election.

So what was Mr Shanmugam’s speech in aid of? I suppose it’s to assure Singaporeans that the leadership renewal will take place, that is, the Prime Minister will step down as he said he would by 2022. And that the 4G leaders are now hard at work, assessing who among them (not himself or herself) will be first-among-equals.

Mr Shanmugam said: “If they have chosen, then it’s less likely, not impossible, but less likely that they will go against whoever is in power.”

That’s illuminating because Singapore has never had to deal with public intra-Cabinet struggles, because the past and current prime ministers have been so dominant and the succession issue settled way in advance.

In fact, you sort of wonder how the public will take to the next prime minister who will emerge in the manner that Mr Shanmugam sketched out. Hopefully, the PM-select will be able to shed any self-effacing façade and project himself and herself as a strong leader. Because he will suddenly be thrust before us. Face it. Can members of the public really judge who among the 4G is better than the other given they all look and sound the same? Doubtless, we will be told to trust the judgment of the collective.

Mr Shanmugam noted that the person selected to be the next prime minister will have to face the general election. “And then Singaporeans will have a say, and if you’re not good, you will be out,” he said.

It seems to me that the next general election is going to be framed as a mandate or vote of confidence in the next prime minister. So for those who hanker after a vote on who should be prime minister, this is it then.

Give the facts, the FULL facts

In News Reports on September 21, 2018 at 2:31 pm

In the report by the Parliamentary Select Committee on deliberate online falsehoods are a few interesting paragraphs about maintaining public trust in institutions. The end result is a  recommendation that public institutions “emphasise the timely communication of information to both pre-empt and respond to online falsehoods, and recognize the role of participation, transparency and accountability in ensuring public trust in how public institutions respond to online falsehoods’’.

But the discussion was a lot bigger than that.

Note that the committee’s recommendations relate to how to deal with falsehoods per se rather than than issues of accountability and transparency. But broader recommendations about governance were also made by representors. The committee said that these reiterated the importance of well-established principles such as communication, transparency, participation and accountability. It added that there were several suggestions urging the G to:

  • – Explain the rationale for public policy decisions;
  • – Be candid about failures and problems faced;
  • – Undertake continuous and transparent communication with the public;
  • – Involve the public in policy and decision-making processes;
  • – Demonstrate willingness to be held accountable by the public; and
  • – Foster civil society and an active citizenry.

More specific proposals include enacting a Freedom of Information Act, to enable the public to get information from public institutions. Related recommendations were made to establish an ombudsman, to assess what classified data could be disclosed, to regularly de-classify archival material, and to investigate complaints against public institutions.

The basis of the recommendations: Strong trust in public institutions makes it harder for deliberate online falsehoods to take effect. It also makes it easier for public institutions to effectively intervene in crises.

While the committee thinks the suggestions are valid and well-meaning, it said that representors didn’t go far enough to, for example, assess the extent to which the G now explains policies or consider how national security interests would crimp transparency. In other words, there was no evidence on the extent of gaps to be addressed. Nor was there a direct relation made between these issues and deliberate online falsehoods. In other words, they lacked “specificity’’.

It sent off the recommendations to the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth, which has oversight of citizen engagement efforts. The MCCY’s response is a seven-page statement listing all the efforts to engage the public, from Remaking Singapore and the Our Singapore Conversation to getting input on what to with the rail corridor and having Silver Ambassadors to explain policies to the elderly.

I suppose representators were too polite to make a direct link between lack of transparency and the uptake of falsehoods. I will say this: It is the perception that citizens are not being told everything that leads them to explore other avenues of information. It is the perception that information is being “spinned’’ to put policy makers in a good light. It is the perception that mainstream media, the G’s main channel of communication, isn’t giving all sides of the story, even if they do report accurately.

Panel member and Nominated MP Chia Yong Yong said during one of the public hearings: “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.”

Yes, we’re talking about perceptions here. It is a slow drip that has less to do with the prevalence of fake news and more to do with the frustration over not getting full answers.

I will give one example: The Prime Minister’s answer to a question from a parliamentarian on the amount of bonuses ministers received. The PM spoke only of performance bonuses and referred to the framework established on calculating ministerial salaries. Is it any wonder then that people would start asking about other salary components such as the National Bonus and take a stab at calculating how much each minister makes? This is how falsehoods are created, with The Online Citizen making the error of saying that the PM earned $4.5 million a year.

Nor is the G’s fact-checking site Factually any clearer in debunking the falsehood.

It said: The Prime Minister’s norm salary is set at two times that of an MR4 Minister (that is, $1.1m). His $2.2 million annual salary includes bonuses. The Prime Minister does not receive a Performance Bonus as there is no one to assess his performance annually. He does receive the National Bonus.

So what is the National Bonus anyway? We’d have to do our own calculations based on the KPIs in the matrix developed for the bonus. And isn’t it the case that although he gets no performance bonus, the Prime Minister’s National Bonus can go up to 12 months while it’s capped at six months for the rest of the Cabinet if KPIs are exceeded ?

The mainstream media, meanwhile, faithfully reports the “debunking’’ without adding any value nor asking any questions.  In the meantime, TOC has put up another calculation of the PM’s salary…

Where there are gaps in information, others will step in to fill it. There is little point in indulging in self-righteous indignation over misinformation and rumours that arise because of a natural tendency for people to close the information loop. Also, because as the Select Committee itself pointed out: the falsehood has far greater traction (and retention) among people than the correction. Why create such opportunities for the curious, the mischief-makers and the malicious?

So the G has a big part to play in curbing the spread of disinformation beyond wielding the stick. Likewise, the mainstream media.

A 2017 Reuters institute report said that only 23 per cent of the people here think the media is free from political influence. Academic Shashi Jayakumar who spoke on the need for public trust during the hearing, 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”. Note the word “again’’.

It has always been my thesis that the G should leave MSM alone to do a professional job, so that we can all be exposed to quality journalism.

Another important point to note that the media landscape has changed substantially.

Professor Thio Li-ann, whose views were quoted liberally by the committee, for example, describes MSM as “a public forum, exposing people to a wide range of speakers, unanticipated topics and viewpoints, and exposing viewpoints to a diverse public’’. She said that this would allow citizens to engage with a range of representative views of issues, in order to understand where other citizens are coming from, and for facilitating compromise and overlapping consensus where possible.

This might be the case some years ago when even a monolith like Singapore Press Holdings pursued a competition policy among its stable of newsrooms. But news reports are now served out of a common kitchen and put in different packaging. A reader would do as well having a copy of the free New Paper, because the same stories can be found in the paid Straits Times and Business Times. Diversity of news and views and the variety of discussion has narrowed. There is less to read – and a paywall for premium content as well. According to the Nielsen Media Index Report 2017, only 55.9 per cent of adults read print and online newspapers in Singapore today.

Prof Thio added that people who choose to go online to obtain their news are “denied this exposure to differing viewpoints’’. Online news sites would beg to differ and argue that they offer viewpoints that do not exist in the mainstream media.

It is good that there is widespread support for quality journalism, even though 60 per cent of the people here agree that the average person can’t tell good journalism from rumours and falsehoods.

The answers on how to raise the standard of journalism are predictable: Ramping up training and fact-checking – except there’s the question of who’s going to pay for this at a time when subscriptions go down and digital advertising doesn’t translate into big bucks. It can’t have escaped Select Committee’s notice that “fact-checkers’’ are a near-extinct breed in news organisations, accompanied by high staff turnovers, whether forced or voluntary. Even MSM editors lament the tremendous amount of resources that would have to go into verifying sources and checking facts. What journalism faces is a worldwide industry problem: The old business models aren’t good enough to ensure quality journalism – and good profits.

The panel said that commercial challenges aren’t within its remit, but is something the G and media organisations themselves have to think about. In my view, a suggestion by ex-journalist Nicholas Fang bears greater consideration. He proposed to separate the news functions of news organisations from the rest of the business, and be held under a not-for-profit umbrella where the sole mandate is to deliver excellence in journalism. The funding of local news organisations could be modelled after the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in Britain, which is funded principally by an annual television licence fee charged to all British households, companies and organisations using any type of equipment to receive or record live television broadcasts.

It will probably be met by howls of protests.  Journalists will never make big bucks under such a system and consumers will scream at having to pay for news. Someone, however, has to foot the bill for quality work. Please do not apply to the G, because this means the media will never be free of the charge of being under “political influence’’. The whole Singapore media landscape bears a re-look.

What about online media? The committee says that the same standards of professionalism should apply online and offline. I agree, and I would add that there should be no double standards when it comes to access to official sources of information. MSM might carp about how online sites play fast and loose with the facts; they don’t say that it is far easier for them to obtain the facts compared to online media.

But if MSM finds it difficult to maintain its fact-checking resources, then I don’t know how online sites can do it. Funding must come from somewhere.

Want quality journalism? Pay for it.

Fake news report: It’s what comes next that is more important

In News Reports on September 21, 2018 at 7:24 am

So, at the end of the day, legislation to curb fake news looks like a sure thing. (I am not going to say it will happen because I must give Parliament the dignity of being able to say no). Reason: Current legislation isn’t good enough, especially in terms of curbing the quick spread of disinformation. Also, we now don’t have laws to compel the likes of technology companies like Twitter and Facebook to do anything. These social media platforms have to be accountable too.

Hence, laws.

That’s my one-cent worth of summary of the tome produced by the Parliamentary Select Committee on deliberate online falsehoods. It’s really no surprise to me that some kind of law would be in the pipeline going by the way the committee handled the public hearings. Almost every representator was pinned down on the necessity for some sort of action to curb fake news.

Those who thought that current laws were good enough were wrong and they didn’t have evidence to prove that people here can discern fact from fiction, the panel said in its report.  As for the definition of fake news which had some people worried that it might be used to curb legitimate dissent, the panel said that falsehoods can be independently verified and the courts here have historically done so. So there!

It’s a massive report, albeit repetitive. If anyone needs a primer on fake news and examples to go with it, it’s recommended reading. The pity is that the examples are from the world over and the only significant Singapore example is the defunct TheRealSingapore, which had the Sedition Act thrown at it for spreading disinformation and creating dissent.

A lot of attention was paid to foreign State and non-State actors out to break social cohesion here by employing such “non-kinetic’’ warfare tactics. The pity is that not much light was shed on this for national security reasons so much so that we are left with assertions that cyber warfare is already happening here – and will continue to happen. Again, worldwide examples peppered the report and there was a brief reference to the SingHealth hack (which isn’t about fake news by the way but stealing). A significant portion was dedicated to big, bad Russia’s shenanigans.

Did the committee’s report allay fears that any new laws or regulations would be abused by the powers-that-be? Face it. That’s really the objection to fake news laws isn’t it? That the G would somehow use it to tamp down any opposition – and throw you in jail for it too.

The might of the elephant in the room was mentioned here and there, for example, in the discussion on who should decide on what is fake:

Representors raised concerns about whether Executive action would be credible. There was concern that Executive action could feed fears over the abuse of power. It was also pointed out that Executive directions would not be able to deal with falsehoods spread by the Executive. That said, both Law Dean Associate Professor Goh (Yi Han) and law academic Associate Professor Eugene Tan explained that judicial oversight of Executive action would serve a crucial balancing role in ensuring the propriety of the Executive’s exercise of discretion.

Civil society activists had tried to pull the elephant’s tail, by advocating a Freedom of Information Act and the introduction of an Ombudsman to investigate public complaints of executive excess. The supposition, methinks, is that more information is needed to counter fake information and a check on the G needed if it tried to do any kind of “cover up’’. The committee countered this by saying these were big issues and too multi-faceted a feature for the committee to take into account. The ball was, instead, lobbed to the G.

As there are countries which have such legislation and institutions, the Committee suggests that the Government studies the experience of these countries, and whether having a Freedom of Information Act and an ombudsman will help in dealing with deliberate online falsehoods.

As for allegations that such laws would produce a “chilling effect’’? To answer the question, the committee referred to the testimony of Mothership, the online news site.

Mothership testified that they did not experience a drop in traffic, nor a drop in contributions, comments and engagement on its platform as a result of being covered by the Broadcasting Act licensing regime. This suggested the need for circumspection in assessing the extent of any potential “chilling effect”. The prospect of a “chilling effect” should be dealt with through calibration in the powers deployed; the answer cannot be to do nothing at all.

The committee quoted liberally from Professor Thio Li-Ann’s representation to make the point that free speech isn’t being circumscribed.

She had said: “There is no human right to disseminate information that is not true. No public interest is served by publishing or communicating misinformation. The working of a democratic society depends on the members of that society … being informed not misinformed. Misleading people and … purveying as facts statements which are not true is destructive of the democratic society and should form no part of such a society. There is no duty to publish what is not true: there is no interest in being misinformed.’’ 


Her  argument is that fake laws would protect “the marketplace of ideas’’ by driving out what is false so that people can come to conclusions based on the facts. In other words, it is a promotion of the democratic process.

Okay. So, if legislation is more or less to be expected, what did the committee propose to ensure that the net isn’t cast so wide that it catches every single lie, piece of satire, prank and deliberate falsehoods to bring down the country?

Methinks we should pay attention to two critical phrases that were used in the report: Prescribed threshold for intervention and criminal culpability. In other words, how bad should things get before the law kicks in? And how heavy should the law come down on purveyors of lies?  Should it be different strokes for different folks?

Representors said the threshold for intervention has to be based on a combination of factors such as magnitude and nature of impact, type of content and intent and identity of perpetrator and so forth. Also there are different degrees of disinformation and different sorts of lies.

On this, the panel recommended:

Criminal sanctions should be imposed on perpetrators of deliberate online falsehoods. These deterrent measures should be applied only in circumstances that meet certain criteria. There should be the requisite degree of criminal culpability (i.e. intent or knowledge), in accordance with established criminal justice principles. There should be a threshold of serious harm such as election interference, public disorder, and the erosion of trust in public institutions.

So no, the committee didn’t pin down weightages on each factor or draw up a matrix. In any case, we shouldn’t expect it to hammer in the nuts and bolts. What’s good is that it has taken into account different facets and motivations for spreading falsehoods and advises a calibrated approach. It remains for someone somewhere to draw up the “criteria’’ and translate it into legal language.

So, dear reader, I am leading you down to this point: The committee produced a pretty general report, replete with examples and backed up by experts both local and foreign. The G can now say that it has embarked on an extensive public consultation exercise. But the real bite of fake news laws will be what will be drafted by the executive. And that should mean a second round of scrutiny on “threshold’’, “criminal culpability’’ as well as penalties imposed.

I am hoping that a Select Committee to scrutinize the Bill will be formed. But I am not betting on it.

 

 

 

 

Singapore – adrift

In News Reports on September 15, 2018 at 1:38 am

We’ve changed a great deal, thanks or no thanks to the Internet. Coffeeshop talk has gone online, shared and amplified. Now, we don’t even believe very much in indices and surveys, because they do not capture our own real life experience. Frankly, it probably has been the case anyway but the disbelief is more widespread now – and louder. Now, it’s fashionable to talk about a disconnect between people who are paid high salaries to come up with policies and the people who have to abide by them.

It’s an argument that is heard all the time, but, again, amplified: You don’t stay in HDB, so you don’t know. You don’t ride a bus, so you don’t know. You’re paid so much, so you don’t know.

I have never thought very much about this sort of argument which is intended to shut down an opposing view. Then I recall that the new SMRT head ditched his car to use public transport. He also moved house to be near his workplace. Some people applauded him for doing so (ditching car). It might be an expression of his commitment but methinks he’s over-compensating to appease unreasonable people who want leaders to “come down’’ to their level. There’s no need to ditch the car – or buy a new house to be closer to the workplace, you know…

So what is this sense of drift I’m referring to? Let me try to unpack it:

First, it’s a sense that things are not getting better for us, but worse. That sticking to tried and tested policies might not work for us in the future. We need some drastic re-tooling in some aspect of our society or economy, something path-breaking. We don’t want to be told about how far we’ve come, but where we want to go. Harking back to history is no longer good enough, unfortunately, especially since we know so little about our history!

There are redeeming features such as the Industry Transformation Programmes, SkillsFuture and attempts to change mindsets from academic prowess to craftsmanship. But they are being drowned out by a sense of a dread, even among our tech-savvy young people who believe that technology changes might mean smaller rice bowls for them. Is this sense of dread real? Or of our own imagining?

Second, it’s about whether the tenets of meritocracy are actually working. There’s some loss of faith in the system which used to enable a hawker’s son to rise to the top. Although there are still such examples to hold up, we don’t think it would continue in the future because some households will always have more advantages than others.

There are changes to pre-primary education, direct school admission and so forth,  to help ensure the same starting line for all but there’s still a sense that everything can still be “gamed’’, if you have the money and the connections.

Third, it’s about the multiracialism/multi-religious ethic that knits us together. Casual racism, taking offence easily, issues of Chinese privilege are coming to the fore. There is less of a live-and-let-live attitude here. Perhaps, the G is right to say that we need active ethnic intervention policies, but too many disagree, say, with the need to reserve the presidential office for communities who have not been elected for some time. And I think this cuts across all communities.

Fourth, It’s about whether Singapore, without its old leaders, can stay strong against a rising China and a less-than-friendly Malaysia. The G seems to think it is best to get things settled behind closed doors but the sounds from the outside are beginning to erode any zen feelings we might have. More importantly, did the G miscalculate this most important bilateral relationship that we have when it kept plumping for former PM Najib Razak? And does its faith in contractual agreements on matters such as the High Speed Railway demonstrate a certain amateurishness?

Fifth, It’s about little things getting more and more expensive and little things going wrong, like stuck trains, floods, falling slabs and killer lifts. To give the G credit, it moves fast to correct deficiencies as they occur.

All the above erode our confidence in ourselves and in our future. The media isn’t helping to pull people together. The mainstream media is at one end of the spectrum and seems intent on putting a good spin on things. Alternative media thinks it should balance this out by taking the opposite viewpoint. There is no centre of gravity in public discourse.

The G seems to think that the way to raise spirits, among other objectives, is to build a better living environment and most rah-rah announcements are about new towns, re-made towns and hubs of all kinds.

This isn’t enough. The centre cannot hold even if it is supported by concrete and steel.

Yesterday, Education Minister Ong Ye Kung made a stab at shoring up confidence for the future. We shouldn’t just make things, but create things. We shouldn’t just focus on getting foreign investments in but getting ourselves out there. We shouldn’t obsess over academic grades but pay attention to soft skills. But, like he said, the changes will take time to manifest themselves.

But this isn’t enough either. Beyond making sure we remain economically viable as a country, something needs to be said about the worth of the people, strengthening the  ties that bind us and becoming a society which is less intent on accumulating material goods and more concerned about becoming a kinder, civilized place. Can we, as a society, build soft skills around our hard core?

I am probably not making much sense – or making too much out of things. But that’s what “disquiet’’ is all about isn’t it? A loss of bearings. Of feeling unmoored. We need to get our confidence back and that can only come with strong leadership and bold moves. The vulnerability narrative might still be true, but the story isn’t resonating anymore. We need a new story and new leadership.

Who will stand up and offer us a different vision or a compelling narrative that will drown out all other voices? Or is this current disquiet the new normal? The internet has muddied everything. The media is divided into the pro-Establishment mainstream and the anti-Establishment online. There is no common rallying point much less a meaningful common message for everyone.

Or maybe there is a common message: We’re drifting.

Section 377A: Repeal this piece of decoration

In News Reports on September 8, 2018 at 2:41 am

Move aside HDB. Let’s talk about LGBT?

We seem to be buffeted by so many divisive issues these days. This time, you can blame Professor Tommy Koh for suggesting that the LGBT community take up a class action suit to strike down Section 377A which criminalises homosexual sex. If he was merely a blogger, his comments would be ignored. But this is one very respected Singaporean who’s probably eaten more salt than the whole 4G leadership has eaten rice.

He didn’t explain why he thought 377A should be struck down, except to refer to what the Indian courts did. On Thursday, its Supreme Court ruled that its own section 377 is discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, which is a fundamental violation of rights. When someone noted that our own courts had thrown out similar constitutional challenges here, Prof Koh suggested “try again’’.

Perhaps, people might not have noticed that the Indian courts had a 2013 judgement which upheld the criminalization of homosexual sex as an “unnatural offence’’. Now, five years later, it has decided otherwise.

Do your sums. The two constitutional challenges in Singapore was in 2014. Is the time ripe?

The Indian passage was a long, tortous one, starting in 2001. BBC reported that a bid to repeal section 377 was initiated in 2001 and was batted between court and government until 2009, when the Delhi High Court ruled in favour of decriminalisation.

Several political, social and religious groups then mobilised to restore the law and in 2013 the Supreme Court struck down the High Court ruling.

Anti-section 377 activists then submitted a “curative petition” – a formal request to review an earlier court order perceived as a “miscarriage of justice” – and in 2016 the Supreme Court decided to revisit its ruling. Then came its judgment on Thursday.

Should LGBT activists do the same?

In 2014, the courts here ruled that the guarantee of equal protection under the law as enshrined in Article 12 of the Singapore Constitution touched only on issues relating to religion, race, place of birth and descent, not gender, sex and sexual orientation.

Neither does the statute violate the right to life and liberty — as stipulated in Article 9 — as this referred only to the personal liberty of a person from unlawful incarceration and not the right of privacy and personal autonomy, said the court.

Already, pro- and anti- groups are gearing up to set out their own viewpoints. The main fight is about values, which is something that is difficult to change because they also stem from religious beliefs. Expect the fights veer into science and genetics. Then there is the slippery slope argument about gay marriages, adoption and opening the door to allowing pedophilia and beastiality!

Some would view it such arguments as part of the normal course of a maturing society but there’s also the fear that the discussions would lead to too much dissent and divisiveness that a small, multi-religious nation cannot afford.

The wonder, however, is that other notable voices have been added to Prof Koh.  The G’s chief information officer Janadas Devan, writing in his personal capacity, described 377A as a “bad law’’.

Mr Ho Kwon Ping, who launched book on his thoughts yesterday, told a forum that he backed Prof Koh.

“Either you have 377A and you justify to people, which (will cause) a furore, or you repeal. You cannot have your cake and eat it too, and say you want to please everybody, it’s on the statutes, it is illegal in Singapore, but you are not prosecuting,” he said.

In a 2014 forum, National University of Singapore law don Walter Woon, a former Attorney-General, said he was in favour of repealing the law because of what he sees as a “constitutional problem”.

He noted that Section 35(8) of the Constitution makes the point that the powers to prosecute lie with the Attorney-General. “So we have a very dangerous precedent here where the political authorities are saying to the Public Prosecutor – who is supposed to be independent – there are some laws that you don’t enforce.

“”I find that very uncomfortable.’’

Prof Koh, who was at the same forum, said he agreed that the in-principle, the law should be done away wither  but seemed to back the official position that this was hard to do given the “potential political pushback’’.

“The compromise is a law in the book, but Singapore will not enforce that law,” he said, adding that the Government’s difficulty in balancing opposing opinions “should not be underestimated”.

Personally, I have always subscribed to the view held by Mr Ho. It’s either you enforce the law or you repeal it. I have always been uncomfortable with “compromises’’ because it leaves everyone in nowhere land. What is to prevent another government or Parliament to call for the law’s enforcement? After all, it is in the books.

I think we should look at Section 377A as an issue about the rule of law. Citizens, whether homosexual or otherwise, must be able to live their lives with clear rules and boundaries – and not have look over their shoulders because of the fear of “political pushback’’.

Already, the G has plenty of discretion to prosecute in so many areas. Do we need to extend this discretion to promises NOT to prosecute?

Frankly, I wonder why pro-Section 337A groups are upset at the prospect of a repeal. They do realize that for the moment (and maybe forever) it is NOT being enforced, correct? It seems that, ahem, they should be calling for enforcement of the law rather than having it decorate the Penal Code. Who are we trying to deceive? Ourselves?

Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said that the fate of Section 377A is for  society to decide. How do we come to this decision then? The G to hold a referendum? The activists going to the courts again? Letting Parliament lead the way with an amendment?

Of course, it will be divisive – and we must be an extremely fragile nation if we can’t even withstand a discourse on the issue. ( I guess people will ask if we even want to test this…)

I, for one, would like to live in a land with clear rules.

 

That KL meeting: And the winner is… Dr M

In News Reports on September 2, 2018 at 8:34 am

If someone invited me to meet Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, my first instinct would be to say “yes’’. It doesn’t matter what hat I’m wearing (whether journalist or not), I am a curious enough human being to want to see what Dr M is like. Like him or hate him, he’s a personality.

But he’s no friend of Singapore, some people would say, and I would then go: So? Does being in the same room as him make me anti-Singaporean? Is this guilt by association? In fact, I would relish the opportunity to ask him some questions such as “Prime Minister Mahathir, may I ask why you seem to insist on bullying Singapore? It’s so last millennium!’’

Then, of course, questions will also be asked about the agenda of the meeting and who else will be there. It’s not a big step to conspiracy theories from here.

So there’s a lot of fuss about a meeting between five Singaporeans and Dr M in Kuala Lumpur on Thursday. The Malaysian Prime Minister’s Office confirmed the meeting between Dr M, Singapore exile Tan Wah Piow, historian PJ Thum and three others who “did not wish to be named”, according to news reports.  But the media reported anyway that the three were Mr Sonny Liew, Ms Kirsten Han and Mr Jolovan Wham. This wasn’t hard given that Mr Wham had posted a picture of them eating together and alerted his fans of the upcoming meeting with Dr M.

From news reports, it seems that the key objective was to get Dr M to speak at a conference next year organized by Forces for the Renewal of Southeast Asia. Malaysian filmmaker Hishammudin Rais, who initiated the meeting, and Mr Tan belong to this organization. Dr M agreed in-principle, which is quite a coup for any forum organizer.

So what were the other four Singaporeans doing there? Very uncharitable comments have been made, including a missive by a People’s Action Party MP Seah Kian Peng practically denouncing them as traitors.

Even before this latest diatribe, illustrator Sonny Liew tried to make clear that he was present because he was curious.

He talked about the “optics’’. “It was clear from the outset that the group was made up of non-establishment folks, and there was always the possibility of the optics playing out in uncontrollable ways, heightened when we found out late on that a press alert had been released,’’ he said in a Facebook post lamenting the way ST had lumped all of them as “activists’’. Which seems like the latest bad word in Singapore.

Ms Han and Mr Wham wrote reports of the meeting, which seemed to have ranged over several issues including Malay traits and LGBT rights. They didn’t seem too enamoured of the man. I wish though that they had talked to Dr M about his attitude towards Singapore, his relationship with the current leaders, about water pricing and the cancellation or postponement of bilateral projects. That would be of greater concern to Singaporeans and also burnish their pro-Singapore credentials.

It was what Dr Thum said which got people scratching their heads. “I urged him to take leadership in Southeast Asia for the promotion of democracy, human rights, freedom of expression, and freedom of information.’’

It made me wonder whether history, according to Dr Thum, excluded recent history such as the period when Dr M was prime minister in the 80s and 90s. Perhaps, he believed Dr M to be a changed man. Even so, he can’t have failed to notice Dr M’s same ole’ railings and ranting about Singapore in this second round of his prime ministership. Or is this irrelevant?

But why did Dr M agree to meet them?

They are not journalists nor even members of a political party hoping for some of his shine to rub off on them.

Through my years of journalism, I can’t recall interviews and meetings with top politicians being “open-ended’’. A busy politician must have, at least in his head, some talking points to put forth. Then again, maybe Dr M thought he was merely shooting the breeze with civil society “activists’’, flattered that he would be sought out by anti-establishment types. Or he thought it would be good to see them and therefore, “shake things up’’ a bit in pesky little Singapore.

In fact, that seemed to be the impact Mr Tan Wah Piow was looking for when he answered a question on how he thought the Singapore government would view the meeting:

“I think they will be very concerned, not because I met with Dr Mahathir, but the fact that the prime minister is prepared to share his views about democracy and to enhance the development of democracy in the region.

“And that Malaysia is now shining this beacon which is probably stealing the limelight from Singapore. I think that’s what worries them. Singapore is becoming (an) outdated, archaic society with its dominant party controls.”

I think the activists (I use the term broadly, sorry Sonny) have got the optics all wrong. Or maybe they were just short-sighted. They should have planned a response in anticipation of news of the meeting filtering out. They should have known that as people who have had run-ins with the G, a darker shadow would be cast over their words and actions.

I don’t know how they would account for being in the company of Mr Tan though. Whether you believe Mr Tan was persecuted or guilty, it doesn’t make any political or pragmatic sense to be seen with someone whom Singaporeans have been told continually is a fugitive from the law. You have to factor in this nasty side to Singaporeans about associating with the “enemy’’ or people who have fallen out of favour. All you need to do to set tongues wagging (negatively) is be seen with such people.

It also doesn’t do much good to come out “gushing’’ from a meeting with the man who is intent on complicating our bilateral relations. Then again, if a senior journalist could be so bowled over by the nice manners of Malaysia’s finance minister, I suppose non-journalists should be forgiven.

But the activists don’t deserve this hauling over the coals by Mr Seah who seems to be reading far more into the meeting than most people. In fact, he goes further to accuse them of wanting to be part of Malaysia by linking the meeting as well as Dr Thum’s national day greetings to Malaysia on Aug 31, in which he said: Selamat Hari Merdeka to the people of the former Federation of Malaya! (and happy unofficial independence day to the people of Singapore!)

Mr Seah roped in Ms Teo Soh Lung , and the Singapore Democratic Party, into the picture as well because of one line she posted.

Mr Seah said: “I’m amazed that Dr Thum and his supporters should proclaim that Singapore is part of Malaysia (or Malaya). Perhaps that is why he thinks it is permissible to ask its current prime minister to interfere in our affairs.’’

I am more amazed that Mr Seah reached this conclusion. I would also like to know how he knew that Dr Thum had asked Dr M “to interfere in our affairs’’. Is this his interpretation of what Dr Thum said about urging Dr M to “take leadership in Southeast Asia for the promotion of democracy, human rights, freedom of expression, and freedom of information’’? Maybe Dr Thum should have used Myanmar’s Aung San Su Kyi instead?

If Mr Seah knows something more, he should give evidence – lest he be accused of peddling rumours.

Later in the day, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam tried to shed some light: “Dr Thum puts up a photo of him holding his book on politics in Singapore, shaking hands with Malaysian Prime Minister, then puts up a forum post saying that he invites Dr Mahathir to take a leading role in promoting democracy, human rights, freedom of speech in South East Asia.

“I think it is quite clear what that means.”

Is it clear to you? It just seems like an assertion to me. Just louder.

Now, there is an interesting exercise going on about whether it is correct to describe August 31 as Singapore’s unofficial independence day. I think we can expect Dr Thum to start citing documents about severing colonial ties and being part of Malaya. Maybe what can come out of this saga is a good history lesson.

But has anyone realised what has happened? If Dr M is intent on stirring up matters in Singapore, he’s succeeded.