Talk used to be cheap but not anymore. It will cost you $50,000, no less, to express your point of view on the Internet. Even if you had a great idea, or a better way of doing things or a feedback to the government, the Internet is not the place to raise it.
MDA announced a new Internet regulation to rein-in free speech on the Internet. The new regulation apparently applies to all socio-political “news” sites. However, there seems to be a lot of ambiguity over what that means and how it will affect websites like TRE and TOC. According to the latest MDA press statement, “the content guidelines apply to all content on the news sites, including readers’ comments on the news sites.”
Leading bloggers in Singapore are up in arms over the new Internet regulation. They are concerned as voluntary based organizations and free news site, they will not be able to operate in such an oppressive environment and to raise the $50k performance bond would be too onerous.
There also seems to be a wider concern that this is used as an effective tool to stifle dissent and to clip the wings of opposition political parties on the rise. Both NSP and SDP have made their press statements expressing their concerns and regret.
According to media observers, the PAP hardliners have won over those who have championed for a more open and consultative society.
Nevertheless, the latest move did not come without warning. Kishore Mahbubani, the current Dean of NUS’ LKY School of Public Policy recently said:
“I am extremely worried about the cynicism that the Singaporean blogosphere is developing towards these public institutions. Over time this cynicism could act like an acid that erodes the valuable social trust accumulated.”
On the contrary, a leading blogger in Singapore Alex Au argues in his blog that the best way to counter cynicism and irresponsible speech is for the community to build immunity. He says,
“The best defence a community has against irresponsible speech is to firstly acquire an immunity to it and secondly for many individuals to feel empowered to speak up against it. Government playing nanny again is the surest way to thwart this maturing process. A government that puts on iron gloves disempowers citizens from doing their bit.”
Just as we were discussing this, one political observer said that this may have wider ramifications for Singapore in the global setting. A quick research on the Internet shows otherwise.
Global crackdown on dissent
It seems Singapore is not alone in curtailing free speech. Apparently, some member countries in the United Nations have been lobbying for stricter control of the Internet with the UN’s International Telecommunication Union (ITU). Some 42 countries filter and censor content out of the 72 studied by the Open Net Initiative. This doesn’t even count serial offenders such as North Korea, China and Cuba. Over the past two years, Freedom House says governments around the world have enacted 19 new laws threatening online free expression: “Accustomed to media control, these governments fear losing it to the open internet. They worry about the spread of unwanted ideas. They are angry that people might use the internet to criticize their governments.”
Like Singapore, several authoritarian regimes reportedly propose to ban anonymity from the web, making it easier to find and arrest dissidents. In Singapore, we have several incidents of bloggers and opposition politicians who have either paid damages or have been intimidated with a defamatory suit.
It is also quite likely that the responsibilities of the private sector system that manages domain names and internet addresses may be transferred to the government.
Other measures may include the internet content provider, small or large, to pay new tolls in order to reach people across borders, meaning to say sites like TRE and TRS that have servers hosted in foreign countries may have to pay toll to reach our readers in Singapore.
Oppression is counter-productive
Contrary to the views of our leaders, freedom of speech has a stabilizing effect on our society. According to Thomas I. Emerson, freedom of speech helps to provide a balance between stability and change. It acts as a “safety valve” to let off steam when people might otherwise be bent on revolution. He argues that “The principle of open discussion is a method of achieving a more adaptable and at the same time more stable community, of maintaining the precarious balance between healthy cleavage and necessary consensus.” Emerson furthermore maintains that “Opposition serves a vital social function in offsetting or ameliorating (the) normal process of bureaucratic decay.”
Perhaps it is the bureaucratic decay that we should worry about for it is the same decay that is standing in the way of progress. Our ruling elite think that they can stop regression through oppression; that they can stop bureaucratic decay through regulation.
Putting a price tag so that we can speak cheapens, not us, but the very bureaucrats who have committed this travesty. Our words are worth their weight in gold for our feedback is pensive.
The crackdown has just started and this government, the very guardian of our democracy, is using the power that we have bestowed unto them to regulate and put an end to free speech on the Internet. They are supposedly our spokespersons – they speak, they act and they execute – just to persist for their own political ends.
The new-found freedom as we know it, that we are so fond of; that gave us hopes of a better tomorrow; that rekindled our spirit of nationalism expires on the 1st of June.
The parliament is a public institution and it is not a venue to play political hunger games. Sadly, to the disappointment of all political watchers in Singapore, our state of politics has degenerated into a sport of mudslinging and blood spills. On Monday 13th of May 2013, the Workers’ Party parliamentarians walked out with their noses bloodied, figuratively speaking, by the Minster for National Development Khaw Boon Wan.
Khaw pointed out that WP has been parceling off contracts to supporters of their own political party for a whopping figure of $25.9 million. Upon closer inspection, there appears to be lapses in governance in the way contracts were awarded.
But it was not a case of the pot calling the kettle black. Even if Khaw made any aspersions of poor governance, he was politically savvy enough to show WP a way out of their death trap. They reached a common ground; and it turns out, that it is perfectly okay for parliamentarians to do whatever they want with town councils. Khaw said, “As MPs, we are given a lot of latitude to run TCs.”
We must put our trust, wholeheartedly, in our politicians to wriggle out of a tight spot. And our parliament has become a place to cut deals, settle old political scores and forge new alliances:
“I call on all, including our WP colleagues, to work closely with my Ministry to improve our TCs, for the interests of our residents moving forward,” said Khaw.
There appears to be some kind of political brotherhood and it will be not too long before our dear beloved politicians turn our public institutions i.e TCs into their own political fortresses. At least for now, having a fortress seems like a good idea. Besides, it is a comfortable safe zone for both parties to fall back on.
WP in choppy Political Waters
WP has found itself in choppy political waters in the last two days. It has lost the moral high ground to argue that TCs are a public institution after farming out its own IT contract to a party insider.
However, according to some die hard WP supporters, it is a different kettle of fish when WP parcels out contracts to its supporters. Apparently, it is not favoritism; it is because of their distrust for anything not affiliated with WP.
Pritam Singh, at the parliamentary sitting, called for a ban of TC transactions on party-owned companies.
Khaw responding to Pritam said, “We must impose it across all TCs, and also not just narrowly for party-owned companies but companies owned by people in various forms of party affiliations, like ex-party members and party supporters and even their immediate families. If we do this, we would of course be prohibiting the appointment of FMSS by the AHTC as well.”
The slippery slope of TC contracts
TC deals are vital to the growth and survival of political parties. It provides party members with income, jobs and precious cash to organize their parties more effectively. Without these deals, parties will have to solely rely on donations and MP allowances to survive. For some, as distasteful as it seems, it is the reason why they sign up for politics in the first place.
One needs to lift the corporate veil in the case of FMSS. If the company was setup for the sole purpose of hiding the true ownership and in this case the Workers’ Party, then there is a serious lapse in governance.
While it may seem easy for Pritam to say that he can just ban all TC transactions by party-owned companies. In reality, we need to extend the notion of ownership to party-members, affiliates and supporters. In this case, WP can’t afford to throw this out of the window for practical financial reasons. In fact, they have gotten themselves into a nice little mess.
To be fair to WP, this fight was started by the bloggers. The battle lines were drawn digitally in the cloud by over-zealous supporters who thought they were doing WP a favour. But little did they know that they were doing them (WP) in, by kicking the dust on AIM.
What I fear most is the internal turmoil that WP would go through (or maybe not). So what happens to those who joined them to make a difference and those who argued for TCs to be a public institution? Where do they stand philosophically and ideologically in all these? So, what can WP offer?
It appears that a tactical withdrawal would be a nice respite for our WP warriors, especially after their passionate performances in their first world parliament.
Trust me, even if the warriors retreat, the foot soldiers will fight till the bitter end.