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Our young people make me proud

In News Reports on April 26, 2019 at 3:04 am

I am proud of our young people.

I am proud that they cared enough to attend a town hall meeting to give their point of view. I am proud of Monica Baey, who took it upon herself to fly back from Taiwan to be at the meeting even though it would be an uncomfortable exercise for her. I am even proud of Nicholas Lim, for speaking up about what he did and putting himself under the spotlight.

I can’t say the same for my employer, National University of Singapore, for, first, its inept handling of Monica’s complaint, and second, its inept handling of the aftermath.

I have often told undergraduates that they are an apathetic lot, who prefer to merely put their names on online petitions than taking the time and energy to speak up for a cause. But over the past week,  they have turned their eyes away from the computer screen, even though examinations are due next week, and decided to tackle the university authorities on fundamental issues  regarding safety of the premises, support for victims and the disciplinary framework it has used over the years.

I wasn’t at the town hall yesterday and am basing my opinions on what has been reported and what undergraduates have told me.

The town hall was universally panned as too short (time), too small (space) and extremely uninformative (content). I gather there was much laughing and groaning among the audience who were reacting to comments made by the panel, with many shouted utterances. The panel didn’t seem ready to give information, just merely to hear out grievances and listen to suggestions and issue the appropriate apology at the appropriate time.

What wasn’t appreciated by the audience was how the panel appeared to be pushing the issue to the newly set-up review committee. Yet no one on the committee was present. Students were, however, assured that their comments would be referred to the committee and to write an email if they had more to say. Of course, that didn’t go down well either (cue groans). A call to extend the town hall for a half hour was rejected.

The meeting was rather more colourful than what I have described above (and got rude at times – which I don’t condone), but I should leave this to eye-witnesses to detail.

What’s more important is whether the university and the students cleared the bad air between them and came to some kind of understanding on how to move forward. At times, it seemed that both sides were talking at cross-purposes – the panel asking for suggestions on how to improve disciplinary methods and the students replying that the onus was on the authority to lay them out – not for students to do so.

Perhaps, the panel thought it would be inappropriate to jump the gun before the review committee got down to work. Even so, I think there was scope for the panel to talk about past disciplinary cases, rationale for the action taken and whether its “two strikes and you’re out” policy was ever carried out.

News reports said there were 26 cases of sexual offences in the past three years, 17 of which were cases of voyeurism, mainly filming or taking photographs.

TODAY, for example, reported that even though some were committed by repeat offenders, none of the cases resulted in the culprits being expelled from NUS. In most cases, the offenders were suspended for one to two semesters, issued an official reprimand, made to attend mandatory counselling, required to submit a statement of reflection or apology, and fined up to S$1,000. Are these the “manifestly inadequate’’ penalties that Education Minister Ong Ye Kung talked about? What model did NUS refer to when it set up the framework? Has it stayed the same for too long a time?

Acknowledging inadequacies in the framework is the first step towards healing.

And there are some things that don’t need a review committee to answer for, such as the state of campus security. The panel said it would be beefed up but didn’t say what aspects. Even if it was not ready with details, current manpower numbers, number of CCTVs and number of patrols are surely not confidential information that can’t be disseminated for students to mull over?

There was one student who made a point about university resources that I think deserves attention. The university is full of smart people, experts in all sorts of areas, she noted. Its resources are formidable, yet it doesn’t seem able to tap on this pool to deal with issues. I agree. I am sure we have experts on sexual offences, penalty regimes, behavioral change, crisis communications and even on environmental safety!

It seems to me that the university administration is carrying a load that can be shared by its expert faculty, who are probably more in touch with the sentiments of students. It might be a good idea if the review committee headed by Madam Kay Kuok, a member of the NUS Board of Trustees, to add faculty members to help in the overhaul.

One lesson from the town hall that I can discern: don’t call one unless you have something more to say than sorry and some scripted remarks. You’re just generating more heat than light. And those quiet students who attend lectures can get riled up too. They can get emotional, passionate and, yes, maybe even unreasonable.

But I am glad. It means they care about something.

 

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An editor’s confession (added)

In News Reports on April 25, 2019 at 2:42 am

A lawyer passed me some information after I wrote this post, which I thought I should share so that readers will have a more complete picture of what happened. Essentially, it is about the contents of a Court of Appeal judgement that revealed  the people who authorised the release of the police report to the media, and how re-publication in the media affects the quantum of damages. 

I am adding this so that more facts are surfaced and fewer “spins” about the event can be effected. See the bolded parts. I have also appended the relevant parts of that judgment. 

I love reading books by journalists about their career in journalism. I look to them for inspiration and insights. I have just finished reading Alan Rusbridger’s Breaking News – The Remaking of Journalism and Why it matters now. He’s the ex-editor of The Guardian, which published the Snowden Files in 2013.

I am now reading Jill Abramson’s Merchants of Truth, an ambitious overview of the developments in The New York Times and Washington Post as internet upstarts Buzzfeed and Vice started biting into reader’s time. She’s the ex-editor of NYT.

When Mr Cheong Yip Seng, the former editor-in-chief of the Singapore Press Holdings English and Malay language news division,  wrote his OB Markers – My Straits Times story in 2012, I read it from start to end in more or less one sitting. He told stories that I thought journalists would take to their graves. Of phone calls and Istana meetings and dossiers compiled on so-called editorial transgressions. There was so much on the behind-the-scenes relationship between the G and the media. You can read my review here.

Mr Cheong was careful to characterize the relationship as a negotiation, rather than a master-slave relationship, although he was also clear about who had the upper hand. He ended on a positive note, perhaps too optimistically, that the media would be allowed to operate with less control under a political leadership which understood the demands and desires of an educated population plugged into the global information network. Note that he wrote the book in 2012.

Now I am looking forward to reading Mr P N Balji’s The Reluctant Editor, which will be out in June. The veteran journalist who has edited newspapers in both the SPH and Mediacorp stable has promised nuggets of information that had been kept from the public eye. He’s been giving interviews about his book including this one to Yahoo!

He told Yahoo that Mr Cheong’s OB Markers was his inspiration.  “It was the first book written by an established editor from SPH which actually said that there was government intervention, and he gave some examples,” he said. It annoyed the G to a great extent, he said, “because now it cannot tell people that we don’t intervene in the media”.

He added that if he could “bring some some more stories, expand on what Cheong Yip Seng has said, I think it would lead to a greater understanding of Singapore media and its interactions with the Singapore government”.

I think it’s very courageous of him to do so. I am less courageous.

A few months ago, he told my class of National University of Singapore undergraduates doing a module on Media Ethics about what transpired behind the scenes during the 1997 General Election, when The New Paper ran a front page story about Workers’ Party politicians Tang Liang Hong and JB Jeyaratnam filing police reports against People’s Action Party ministers. This incident was going to be in his book, he said. He was the editor then and I was his deputy.

I had suggested Chatham House rules, but Balji waved them away. Anybody was free to write anything.

It was another one of those stories that I thought journalists, at least the handful of us privy to it, would take to their graves. And no, it is not about the Toh Chin Chye saga in 1996, which was how I ended up being transferred from The Straits Times to TNP. Balji has said much about this boo-boo, which had led to front page apologies in every single SPH newspaper for a week. You can read about some of it here although I am sure there are more juicy details in his book.

First, some background: The 1997 GE was notable for the Tang Liang Hong affair. Mr Tang, now a fugitive in exile, had thrown his lot in with the Workers Party and stood for election, alongside the late J B Jeyaretnam, in Cheng San GRC. The PAP attacked Mr Tang  as anti-Christian Chinese chauvinist and clearly did not want to see the WP slate anywhere near Parliament. Several PAP leaders fired broadsides at him.

The day before Polling Day (there was no Cooling Off day at that time), the WP held a rally which ended dramatically with Mr Jeyaretnam holding up a few pieces of paper in his hand. He said that police reports had been filed against 11 members of the PAP. He left it at that.

So everyone was all agog about the contents of the police report. Unless Mr Jeyaretnam handed them over to the media himself, there was no way journalists could have obtained them from other sources. The police do not release police reports on request.

Yet in the early hours of the next morning on Polling Day, Balji said he received a telephone call suggesting that he obtain the police reports from Central Police Station. Ask and you shall be given. This was a strange offer of a scoop offered to TNP, a newspaper which at that time was sold at lunch-time. (Afternote: Balji has since told me the phone call was from Cheong, our editor-in-chief at that time.) 

Balji admits that the idea of a scoop stirred journalistic passions. Which editor would not welcome the chance to get one step ahead of its rivals, especially the broadsheet Straits Times, which had already gone to print by then? I was Balji’s deputy at that time, and actually called the cops for the reports. They said no. So, Balji made a telephone call and this time, we were told to wait by the facsimile machine. The clock was ticking away and we had already held the presses. So many of us crowded around the machine that morning to watch copies of the report slowly make their way into our presence. We printed them whole-sale on Page 1.

If Cooling Off Day was in place then, we would have breached so many rules and were at risk of libeling 11 people. To cut a long story short, we did not get into trouble, but Mr Tang and JBJ et al did. They didn’t win the election but did well enough to earn a non-constituency MP seat which JBJ took. But more importantly, JBJ was smacked with a massive law suit, 11 in all. That was when it began to dawn on us that we had been made use of to disseminate a supposed libel to an even wider audience, which could mean higher damages if the PAP side won.

The next event in this  saga was the court case which meted out what former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong described as a “derisory’’ $20,000 in damages on JBJ for saying these words at that rally: “Mr Tang Liang Hong has just placed before me two reports he has made to the police against, you know, Mr Goh Chok Tong and his team”.

The PAP side appealed for more damages, and in July 1998, damages were upped to $100,000 plus S$20,000 in court costs.

In a November 1997 judgement that concerned a separate set of PAP law suits against Mr Tang, a Court of Appeal comprising Justices M Karthigesu, L P Thean and G P Selvam noted  that Mr Tang was not responsible for giving the media copies of the police reports, which would have compounded his libel. PAP lawyers had told the judges when it came to assessing damages that they were instead released by then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong and the late PM Lee Kuan Yew.

The judges said: “They (the PAP lawyers) would have offered the court all the relevant facts, but it did not occur to them at the time, as the matter was never raised. We accept their explanation. It is quite clear that the oversight was unintentional.” 

As for the PAP’s act of making public the police reports, the court said:  “It seems to us that it was a matter of political exigency to the PAP leaders that the reports should be made public to neutralise whatever effect Mr Tang sought to make out of them so that the voters could make their choice on an informed basis.” 

Since neither Mr Tang (nor JBJ) had made public the reports, he can’t be responsible for the dissemination of the contents. The judges lowered the damages for the PAP leaders who had cited the police reports as aggravating factors in their suit against Mr Tang. 

But as far as the JBJ court case was concerned, he had still defamed the PAP leaders by his announcement that police reports had been made.  On appeal, the court awarded PM Goh $100,000 in damages in July 1998, citing among other factors how the earlier $20,000 award was “disconsonant” with past defamation cases.  

The other 10 PAP leaders got onto the bandwagon later. But in April 2002, after Mr JBJ apologised to them, they accepted his apology and waived damages and cost.  

There was no way JBJ could have paid them anything anyway. He had been declared a bankrupt the year before (he couldn’t pay damages for another law suit) and consequently had to quit his  NCMP post. 

All this time, Balji said, he wondered if he would be called to the stand by the defence to declare how he had obtained the reports. But JBJ’s lawyers didn’t summon him. Nobody talked about the content of the reports; just its announcement.

Some 20 years have passed since and the event still grated on him. It grated on me too. I was in court for the trial to do a “watching’’ brief, in case the newsroom was implicated in some way. It was an ache that I have carried all these years. Balji said the book gave him a chance to finally get it off his chest. Like some form of atonement.

Playing it back, I wondered if we could have said no. Our journalistic instincts, scoop mentality and deadline pressure overwhelmed our ethics. We wanted to be first with the story. But we found that the fleeting euphoria was nothing compared to the stone that had been lodged in our hearts since.

You can read it in greater detail in Balji’s book. I recall a review Balji wrote about another ex-editor’s book, Mano Sabnani’s Marbles, Mayhem and My Typewriter published in 2017, which he had described as a “let down’’. Mr Sabnani was brief when he could have been more expansive about the run-ins he had with the G, especially during Mr Sabnani’s three-year editorship of TODAY.

“That in itself is a sad indictment of the Singapore journalism story where many editors take their tales to their graves. Some, like Sabnani, have bucked the trend but are still only prepared to tell an incomplete story and leave readers wanting more. Isn’t our journalism also like that, leaving many to wonder if the bottle is half full or half empty?’’

Balji isn’t taking much to his grave.

I actually wrote most of this column right after Balji gave his talk but I balked at publishing it. I was worried about affecting his impending book publication and was too much of a coward to print the truth. I thought it best to wait till his book was out.

Why have I changed my mind? Because at this time when the national discussion is about the publication of truth and falsehoods and with an important Bill up for debate this month, I thought more people might like to have a better understanding about the relationship between the G and the media.

And before you ask, I’m still thinking about it.

———————————————————————————————————————————

From Singapore Law Report

Tang Liang Hong v Lee Kuan Yew and another and other appeals [1997] 3 SLR(R) 576; [1997] SGCA 52

Republications by the media

We turn next to the claim for damages occasioned by the republications of the police report by the media; the report appeared in the various newspapers, including The New Paper, The Straits Times and theLianhe Zaobao. The Lianhe Zaobao article was also made available on the Internet through the Lianhe Zaobao Online Home Page AsiaOne which was accessible to worldwide users.

All the plaintiffs in their respective statements of claim averred, in substance, that in making the police report MrTang intended the republications of the report by the media or that the republications by the media were the natural and probable consequence of his report. Thus, all three of them attributed to Mr Tang the republications of the police report by the media.

In fact, what had transpired was that on the eve of the polling day Mr Tang made two police reports, and at the WP rally in the evening of the same day Mr Jeyaretnam, who was the running mate of Mr Tang in Cheng San GRC, at the instance of Mr Tang announced that Mr Tang had lodged two police reports against the PAP leaders. But, Mr Jeyaretnam did not repeat the content of either of the police reports to the crowd. It is accepted that subsequently Mr Goh obtained a copy each of the police reports and authorised Mr Lee to release them, and they were released to the media by Mr Lee’s press secretary. Hence, on the basis of these facts Mr Gray argues that Mr Tang was not responsible for the republications and no damages should be awarded for such republications.

As we have narrated, two police reports were made by Mr Tang but only one of them gave rise to the claims by the three plaintiffs in the three actions respectively, and it was not claimed that the other report was defamatory. Hence, for the purpose of this appeal, we are concerned only with the offending report that gave rise to the three actions.

Before us, counsel for BG Lee, Dr Tan and Mr Lee Yock Suan respectively submit that the republications of the police reports by the media were the natural and probable consequence of Mr Tang’s original publication to the police. The thrust of their contention is that Mr Goh and Mr Lee had to release the reports to the press, and the release was necessary to avoid any erroneous public impression that there was something to hide. Mr Jeyaretnam had, after all, on the urging by Mr Tang, announced the lodging of the police reports. Hence, the police reports had to be released to the media “to contain the harm”, and to defend themselves (that is, the PAP leaders), it was decided that the public should know what had been alleged by MrTang. Thus, the republications flowed from MrTang’s original publication. Alternatively, it is argued that since Mr Tang had made the reports in those circumstances and having indicated at the rally that he made the police reports, he must also have intended the republications.

As we see it, the police reports were lodged by Mr Tang on the eve of polling day, and the purpose was apparently to boost his electoral chances. It seems to us that it was a matter of political exigency to the PAP leaders that the reports should be made public to neutralise whatever effect Mr Tang sought to make out of them so that the voters could make their choice on an informed basis. Of course, Mr Tang must have known that the press and public would be interested in knowing what allegations had been levelled at Mr Goh, Mr Lee and the other PAP leaders. He also must have known that the media would try to obtain a copy each of the police reports. However, it does not follow that by reason of this, the republications of the contents of the reports were the “natural and probable consequence” of his original publication to the police. Nor can it be said that by acting in the way he did he intended the republications by the media.

We find the decision of Hallett J in McWhirter v Manning The Times (30 October 1954) of some assistance here. In that case the plaintiff sued Mr Manning and others for defamation in respect of a speech made by Mr Manning at an annual meeting of the National Union of Journalists which was subsequently published. It was held that Mr Manning was only liable for the slander, and not for the libel occasioned by the publication. It was reported as follows:

 

His Lordship, giving judgment, said that on the issue of libel it was argued that, because Mr Manning knew that there were reporters at the meeting and that a report of what he said might and probably would appear in the printed report, he must be taken as having caused the publication of the defamatory words in the report.

His Lordship referred to the authorities, and said that, on the facts, it was plain that once the words had flown out of Mr Manning’s mouth he did nothing further whatever to procure publication of those words, or some or any of them, in a printed form. From then onwards it was other people who got them into print. There was no evidence which warranted a finding that the first defendant published the libel as distinct from publishing the slander, and he (his Lordship) so held. It followed that the first defendant was not liable in respect of the libel.

It was further reported that the learned judge held as follows:

But in the present case the printers were not employed by the first defendant. If one asked the question, ‘Was Manning the cause or a cause of the libel being published?’ the answer seemed to be No. He was a causa sine qua non in the sense that if he had never made the speech there would have been no speech to report; but he was certainly not the causa causans and did not cause the publication of the libel. The responsibility for producing the libel was quite clearly on the union and the printers whom they employed, and there was no case against the printers.

The fact remains that Mr Tang never procured the republication of his police reports, apart from asking Mr Jeyaretnam to announce to the crowd at the rally that he had lodged two police reports against the PAP leaders. At the highest, and this is purely speculative, it might be said that Mr Tang intended the content of the police report to be released to the media by the police since he had filed the report with the latter. But, since Mr Goh and Mr Lee had obtained a copy each of the reports and authorised their release to the press on their own volition, it cannot be said that in those circumstances the republications were the natural and probable consequence of the original publication. Nor can it be said that Mr Tang intended the republication of the reports by the media.

In assessing the damages in these three cases, Chao Hick Tin J held at [46] of his judgment ([5] supra):

The police report was released to the media through the Secretary General of the WP at a rally that evening and it was carried in the media on 2 and 3 January 1997. Mr Tang knew and intended that the report would be so published.

 

In all probability, the learned judge reached the above conclusion on the basis of the statements of claim. Counsel for all three respondents in these actions, as well as counsel for Mr Lee and Mr Goh, were quick to inform this court that at the time of the assessment of damages before the learned judge, they did not deliberately suppress the fact concerning who released the police reports to the media. They would have offered the court all the relevant facts, but it did not occur to them at the time, as the matter was never raised. We accept their explanation. It is quite clear that the oversight was unintentional.

In our opinion, as MrTang was not responsible for the republications, it must follow that the damage occasioned by the republications of the police report in question by the media cannot be attributed to Mr Tang. This is a very material fact in the assessment of damages. A useful case which illustrates this point is Gorman v MuddTranscript No 1076 of 1992 (15 October 1992) referred to in the judgment of Sir Thomas Bingham MR in John v MGN Ltd ([120] supra). In that case, the plaintiff was a member of Parliament and she sued one of her constituents for a libel contained in a mock press release. The publication was made only to 91 people, but they were “prominent, influential, local and knowledgeable members of the constituency party”. The defendant pleaded justification and persisted in this defence. The plaintiff alleged express malice. The jury rejected the defence of justification and found express malice on the part of the defendant. They awarded damages in the sum of £150,000. On appeal the Court of Appeal held that the award was grossly excessive and in exercise of its power reduced the amount to £50,000. One of the factors that played a part in the reduction of damages was the limited audience. Russell LJ in his judgment said, at 12 of the transcript:

A very important consideration must always be the extent of publication and in my view this case is not to be compared with a libel appearing in a national newspaper. It is a fact of life that many people believe everything they read in newspapers, so that defamatory material can attract a very wide audience in a particular damaging way for the victim.

There is also an old local case bearing on the same point which is of some assistance: Tan Chee Kong v Lee Ee Liat [1949] MLJ 277. There, the defendant sent a letter by post to the plaintiff, and outside the envelope he inserted the words “Ex-Informer – Kempeitai” just after the name of the plaintiff. The latter sued the defendant for damages for libel and it was held that the words were defamatory of him. A point was raised by the defendant that there was no publication as the postal employees were sworn to secrecy. Taylor J who heard the case rejected this argument, but held that since the publication was limited to the postal employees, it materially reduced the damages. He said, at 278:

Though there was publication it was limited in extent and the matter is much less serious than publication in a newspaper or in any other form which would ordinarily reach a large number of people on whom no obligation of secrecy rested. This materially reduces the damages.

 

Reverting to these cases before us, we think the circulation of the report was very limited. The report was published to a few police officers at most, and there was certainly no evidence of a wide circulation of the reports even among the officers. In view of this, the amounts awarded below obviously cannot stand and must be considerably reduced.

NUS rule book : Make it an open book

In News Reports on April 23, 2019 at 2:48 am

I feel sorry for Nicholas Lim, who has been outted as the peeping Tom who tried to film a female undergraduate who was taking a shower. Now everyone knows who he is: a National University of Singapore Chemical Engineering student who has been suspended for one semester. They now know he has a girlfriend, and how he quit as a financial representative of Great Eastern Life before, I am guessing here, it could take the step to show him the door.

I feel sorry for my alma mater and employer NUS, which has been in the news for the wrong reasons in recent time. It has been in crisis management mode since the weekend started, after realizing that its demonstrable lack of empathy for the undergraduate who was the victim is earning itself the opprobrium of the public.

I don’t feel sorry for Monica Baey. She got what she wanted: the perpetrator has been named and shamed to such a degree that even incarceration might not be too bad an option. More importantly, she got the university to face up to the inadequacies of its penalty system which, in her case, was deemed “manifestly inadequate’’ by Education Minister Ong Ye Kung.

I asked a few female undergraduates why Ms Baey, 23, a communications student, didn’t take the route that I would have taken if this happened to me 30 years ago in university: tell some seniors about the matter and have them deal with it. I did so when I was bothered by a lascivious lad who made me cry with his lewd attentions. I don’t know what the seniors did, but I got what I wanted: the boy never so much as looked me again after that.

Every undergraduate was disconcerted by the question I posed. It sounded like I was suggesting some form of street justice. What they said next floored me: everyone said that their seniors would never want to get involved, because it might get them into trouble too. I suppose the days when gentlemen would guard a maiden’s honour is dead and gone.

Instead everyone goes by the Singapore book: make a police report and complain to the right authorities. Then the agencies go by the book too, investigate and decide on the outcome – without explaining how they reached the journey’s end. If the outcome is satisfactory, at least to the victim, that would be the end of the story. But if not, the victim who lashes back at the big, bad agencies will always receive public sympathy.

The police decision to mete out a one-year conditional warning hasn’t gone down well with Ms Baey. Depending on which lawyer you speak to, you will have differing views on whether this is a rare action on the part of the authorities which have thrown the book at other first-time voyeurs in the past. Beyond the authorities, no one knows how the decision is made and whether there were extenuating circumstances which led them to give Mr Lim a slap on the wrist. The discussion so far has been one-sided, with Ms Baey giving her account on Instagram and to media, and Mr Lim staying out of sight.

The university, sticking with protocol, started its own disciplinary proceedings after the police investigation was concluded. No one knows too how it decides on the sanctions although it has maintained that it has its own framework to refer to. You can only surmise that the “slap on the wrist’’ played a part in the decision to suspend him for a semester (which undergraduates will say is more like taking a leave-of-absence), instead of the ultimate penalty of expulsion. Its bid to have Mr Lim write a letter of apology to Ms Baey has backfired. It looked like it was written by a very bad PR firm.

As someone who has been working with undergraduates over the past six years, I know that the university prefers to take a rehabilitative rather than a punitive approach to miscreants. My private sector instincts to “sack” or give a student a failing grade have always been met with consternation by other academics. I have been told too many times that the subjects are young people, bright people, who always deserve a second chance or even a third. Contrary to what undergraduates think, it’s harder to fail a student than to award the student a distinction.

In the field of behavior, it seems a similar concept is applied. A suspension is deemed a heavy punishment because it delays the process of getting a full degree. Except that these days, unless students belong to households pressed for money, the suspension might well be viewed as a “gap’’ year for them to take a break from studies. I gather that this is one reason undergraduates view Mr Lim’s suspension with such misgivings.

What is more unsettling is what NUS vice-provost (Student Life) Florence Ling told The Straits Times about the university’s policy on sexual misconduct. You have to be a repeat sexual offender to be expelled.

“For first-time offenders, because we are an educational institution, we want to give the students a chance. Student offenders who appear before the Board of Discipline for the first time are given a range of punishments, but not immediate expulsion,” she said.

It makes me wonder if NUS disclosed this “two-strikes and you’re out’’ policy because it believed that this would assure the public that the university is a safe place.

But just hours later, the university said it was reviewing this two strikes policy. NUS President Tan Eng Chye said: “NUS will take a hard stand on offences that impact the safety of our students. We must make our campus safe and supportive for all members of our community.”

Even Minister Ong weighed in: “From here on, for offences that affect the safety of students on campus, we have to take a tough stand, and send a strong signal to everyone. Two strikes and you are out cannot be the standard application. NUS has to make its campus safe for all students, especially female students.”

The Vice-Provost, it seemed, mis-spoke.

In fact, my view is that the punishment must fit the crime. Undergraduates are adults who shouldn’t be treated differently from other working youths if they are guilty of misbehavior. That this might mean extinguishing a bright future, a lost chance at a First Class Honours degree, or dashing a parent’s dream shouldn’t count as mitigating factors unless sufficient remorse is shown. If other less intellectually endowed youths in the working world have overcome setbacks, so can young people cocooned in the education institutions.

NUS did not say how long the review would take but I am  sure the university will be pressured into making public its new and improved “penal code’’ for a range of misconduct. I think it is a good thing to be transparent, even though it limits the scope for discretion on the part of university authorities. There will, for example, be less debate about “favoritism’’ or “parental influence’’.

I sometimes wish for a return to the old days when the community policed itself and set its own standards of behavior, instead of always turning to an outside agency.  It’s not so much about taking the law into your own hands, then about setting markers on acceptable conduct.

But if everyone wants to go by the book, then the book must be an open one.

 

 

 

Fake news law – to protect who exactly?

In News Reports on April 3, 2019 at 9:57 am

On the surface, I don’t think that, as a writer, I would have a problem with the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation legislation. It’s been drummed into me for years that errors must be corrected and apologised for. Of course, the online space makes rectification of errors easier – a few clicks and the offending remarks are gone.

Some people don’t even think they need to alert readers that an amendment has been made. I think this is wrong and readers deserve to be told that there was a mistake. It also holds out the (slim) hope that a reader who had read the “wrong” stuff might return to see the change made.

Errors of fact seem  pretty clear to me. You said $1m when it should $1b. Careless mistake. Correction. Apology. Of course, the greater the number of corrections, the more  the reputation of the writer/organisation suffers. Fewer and fewer people think it worth their time to read you.

There’s no need for the law to push this on organised media because there are ethical codes for those in the  business of reporting the facts. Now, however, everyone can be in the communication business (paid or unpaid). And the role of communication is not just about reporting the facts, but asking questions, pointing out the lack of facts, making arguments based on available facts and giving opinions, which sometimes aren’t based on facts.

In fact, the process of determining if something is wrong and in need of correcting can be time-consuming. It requires investigation, an acknowledgement of the error and an agreement on a form of words on both sides before a correction sees daylight.  It’s a worthwhile process if only to ensure that the mistake does not occur again. Contrast this, however, with the powers given to ministers under the Bill. Any minister can “deem” something that comes under his domain false and order a correction or a take-down. This, we are told, is in the interest of speed, that is, to prevent an untruth from going viral.

It’s a process that brooks no argument. You are guilty as charged.

Sure you can appeal. To the same minister who made the decision, not a separate or higher body. Some people have likened this to appealing to ministers over matters under the purview, like to the National Development Minister about getting a HDB flat. I agree that the minister can always use his discretion over an issue his officers dealt with, but how likely is he to be moved to revise a decision he himself made?

Nor do I find comforting the oft-heard argument that the courts are really the final arbiter – simply because the judicial process is the last of a lengthy process under this massive legislation.

I am not a lawyer, but I don’t think anyone should need a lawyer to  understand a True or False question.

Nevertheless, I won’t even try to understand the definition of what is a statement of fact.

This is what the Bill says: a statement of fact is a statement which a reasonable person seeing, hearing or otherwise perceiving it would consider to be a representation of fact.”

The way I have always understood it is that the “fact” must either be of “the sun rises in the east” genre, or attributed to a trusted or authoritative source. (I suppose I can include REACH surveys here.)

As for what is fake, here’s the definition: a statement is false if it is false or misleading, whether wholly or in part, and whether on its own or in the context in which it appears.

The best way to see how things work is to give examples. Professor Cherian George gave one here, referring to a news agency’s headline on a minister’s reply.

Let me try another.

Say Workers’ Party Sylvia Lim had written on Facebook that the G’s announcement on raising the Goods and Services Tax was an electoral ploy or a trial balloon (which is what she said in Parliament), would Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat issue a takedown order because he deemed such a suspicion false and without basis? You can read about the saga here.

Does the second condition – the minister’s action must be in the public interest – make the law any clearer? Some people have applauded the move to expand on what is in the public interest. Here is how the Bill expands on the term:

a.  in the interest of the security of Singapore or any part of Singapore;

b.  to protect public health or public finances, or to secure public safety or public tranquillity;

c. in the interest of friendly relations of Singapore with other countries;

d. to prevent any influence of the outcome of an election to the office of President, a general election of Members of Parliament, a by-election of a Member of Parliament, or a referendum;

e. to prevent incitement of feelings of enmity, hatred or ill-will between different groups of persons; or

f. to prevent a diminution of public confidence in the performance of any duty or function of, or in the exercise of any power by, the Government, an Organ of State, a statutory board, or a part of the Government, an Organ of State or a statutory board.

 

You can see that in the case of the example, ministers can possibly cite (f) as an action in  the public interest.

No one can argue against first principles, such as acting in the public interest (unless you want to argue about what exactly is the public interest – to which the G will point to its electoral mandate). I agree the G must have some executive discretion, especially when it comes to maintaining peace and stability, but I worry that the fake news legislation will result in sanitised public discussion – or very little discussion – that is always in the G’s favour.

Why do I say that?

Because OB markers work very well in Singapore. In recent years, they have got tighter if you consider acts taken against various individuals. Perhaps, each action has a specific basis but the cumulative effect is, to use a well-worn word, chilling. You can read my post here.

Fake news laws will pull them further in simply because people don’t understand where the line is. How can they? So they will self-censor in the interest of self-preservation. Truth to tell, even journalists find it difficult to traverse this territory.

The reiteration that the law will not punish opinion isn’t illuminating. If you look at the Ms Lim’s example, she argued that she was merely articulating an opinion or what some people feel. But the PAP was strenuous about wanting her to retract a false statement.

Couple the fake news legislation with the debate on hate speech which all happened on the same day and you get people wondering if even the truth/facts will get you into trouble if it is mildly offensive. This is despite the G making clear that no new regulations on hate speech is on the horizon. 

Methinks most people have trust and confidence in the G and its institutions. I do. But with every succeeding generation, there will be calls for more clarity and more checks.

I worry, for example, about inconsistent treatment under the law and lack of clarity.  I have touched on these issues  here and here . Now, because any minister can issue a correction or take down order, I worry that different ministers will have different yardsticks on what they “deem” real or fake. Unless they too have a “code” or guideline, we can expect there will be different levels of tolerance, whether for “degree of falsity” or “the person propagating it”.

I worry that by the time an aggrieved party gets to the stage of a judicial review, his or her reputation would have been irreparably damaged. It doesn’t help that the Bill seems to give the judges limited grounds to overturn a directive either.

That there is not much public traction over the Bill (except among the usual suspects) shows how much trust people place in the G. But while we can place our trust in individualities and personalities in charge of the system, we must still ensure that our system is robust enough to withstand not-so-good men and women. The People’s Action Party government acknowledged this when it introduced the elected Presidency in 1988 to counteract a future rogue government. Before it dismisses detractors of this Bill, it should consider that it had its own misgivings about power being in the “wrong” hands some three decades ago. This reservation should still apply today.

I take heart in the G’s assurance that the modus operandi will be “correction orders” rather than “take-down” directives. This still leaves room for the public to exercise their own brain cells on whether the correction is legitimate or not. Perhaps, it might lead to public debate, unless people are worried that simply talking about something fake is spreading it. (See how complicated it gets?)

I suppose there will be more support for the Bill if the G sells it as protecting the vulnerable from fake news about fake rice, medical remedies and what is poisonous or not. That’s the good part about the Bill. Then again, the Protection from Harassment Act was sold at first as a recourse for individuals affected by cyber-stalking – until you see even the Defence Ministry resorting to it – unsuccessfully. You can read about it here.

I guess now, the Defence Minister can simply order the offending/erroneous statements out of sight. Which reminds me – is the G going to go over everything that has been published to deem what is fact or fiction? Or is there a start date?

But, hey, I am getting ahead of myself. The Bill has only been introduced, not yet passed.

So I have two questions:

For the G:  How does this legislation demonstrate that it has taken in the views of those who gave feedback to the Parliamentary Select Committee last year ?

For parliamentarians:  Given that there seems to be confusion about the details of the Bill, should there be a break after Second Reading to allow another Parliamentary Select Committee to scrutinise the details?

I wrote this last year lamenting that we did the whole feedback process of what constitutes fake news the wrong way round.

I am even more convinced now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I am NOT “nasty, opportunistic and dangerous”

In News Reports on April 2, 2019 at 3:31 am

I am someone who reads stuff carefully, even the footnotes. So you can bet that I went over Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam’s ministerial statement on hate speech yesterday with a fine tooth comb. There were two references to what I wrote in my blog, Bertha Harian, on March 13 which was re-produced in Yahoo News.

You can read the blog post, Watain: Do Unto Others? here.

The first reference was on Page 59, when Mr Shanmugam said that he recognised that some Singaporeans disagreed with the G’s decision to stop the black metal band, Watain, from performing here.

For example, Ms Chew Wei Shan, a former teacher, has set out
her views articulately in a post. There were also others. They say
the Government is “self-righteously” trying to govern other people’s
lives and decisions. They say the audience can listen to metal
music without being influenced by a band’s beliefs. NCCS and
churches can advise their members not to go to the concert, so no
need for a ban.

The footnote to this paragraph is this: Chew Wei Shan’s Facebook Page. 2019. Facebook, 7 Mar 2019; The Online Citizen article
“Watain Ban: Rock Music or Religious Cult against our Public Order?” by Joe Sekular, 9 Mar 2019;
Facebook post by Andrew Loh, 13 Mar 2019; Facebook Comment by Marc Wang in response to
CNA report titled “’I can’t see how we could have agreed to it’: Shanmugam on Watain performing
in Singapore”; Facebook post by Khan Osman Sulaiman, 11 Mar 2019; Facebook post by Martyn
See, 11 Mar 2019; Facebook post by Ravi MRavi, 11 Mar 2019; Facebook Post by Joshua Ip, 12
Mar 2019; “Watain: Do unto others?”, Bertha Henson, Hertha Harian, 13 March 2019; Facebook
Post by Mint Kang on 8 Mar 2019, subsequently shared by All Singapore Stuff, 11 Mar 2019.

Beyond the fact that it got the name of my blog wrong, I couldn’t see where in my blog post I had said that the G was being “self-righteous” about the band.

But it was the reference on Page 68 that really got me riled up. This is what Mr Shanmugam said in his speech:

Now, some commentators online have also made dark suggestions of a Christian conspiracy. “They have a hold on the Government, the Government bows to their power, and there is an over-representation of Christians in institutions of power”. They tried to turn it into a “Christians versus Others” debate. These people are nasty, opportunistic, and dangerous. 

This is the footnote for the above paragraph:

Facebook post by Andrew Loh, 13 Mar 2019; Facebook Comment by Marc Wang in response to CNA report titled “’I can’t see how we could have agreed to it’: Shanmugam on Watain performing in Singapore”;

Facebook post by Khan Osman Sulaiman, 11 Mar 2019;

Facebook post by Martyn See, 11 Mar 2019;

Facebook post by Ravi MRavi, 11 Mar 2019;

Facebook Post by Joshua Ip, 12  Mar 2019;

“Watain: Do unto others?”, Bertha Henson, Bertha Harian, 13 Mar 2019.

Now, I am not someone who likes being called nasty things. I took a good hard look at my column to see if I had made “dark suggestions” of a Christian conspiracy.

This, I thought, was the closest:

Online, the reaction is mainly negative. The prevailing view is that the G had succumbed to hysterical moral panic from conservative Christians. The band, after all, would be playing to a small crowd of 150 people, aged 18 and above, and it had agreed to strictures set by the IMDA. You can be sure the lyrics would have been sanitised to be inoffensive and the performance would be sans carcasses and blood.

Maybe I was wrong to report the prevailing view. People would think that I shared the view too. (I don’t. I think the G should have pulled the plug even earlier)

Still, I don’t think I can be described as “nasty, opportunistic and dangerous”. (I would like to make clear that I am only speaking for myself and not the rest named in the footnote.)

I am not someone who takes such comments lying down, even if they are opinions. Opinions must be based on the facts or an ordinary man’s reading of the article in question.

So  I asked Mr Shanmugam this morning why was there a reference to me.

He looked at it and said it was an error to have referred to me. He had originally, in his speech had referred to something I had said in my blog, and responded to it. But then in the final speech, he decided that it was not necessary to do so. He thus took out his response to me from the text of the speech. But the footnote referring to me was ( erroneously) not taken out. So I was unfortunately lumped with others whom he specifically responded to.

The Minister  apologised to me for the error. He said none of his comments were intended to refer to me.

Well, that was gracious!

I have always prided myself on taking the middle ground in my columns and to be more centrist in my arguments. I thank the minister for his response and would like to ask that this post be shared liberally to clarify the matter.