COMMENT: Internet regulation – even MPs and the MLC not consulted?

SingaporeScene

Andrew Loh questions MP Baey Yam Keng whether MCI was consulted on the MDA regulations before they were announced. (Yahoo! screengrab)

As I wrote in an earlier article, after the Media Development Authority (MDA) announced the new set of Internet regulations, the government continues to lose touch with the common man and woman.

The reaction following the announcements of the new laws last Tuesday has been sharp, deeply critical and continues even after six days.

There are two main points to the whole sorry saga of a out-of-touch government flailing to impose control through regulatory fiat, instead of open and transparent consultation and dialogue with stakeholders.

Mostly silence from MPs

One is the entirely abhorrent manner not only in how the regulations were sprung on the public, but also the government’s – and its MPs’ – behaviour following the MDA statement last week.

Ministers and PAP MPs suddenly became totally silent online – except for Baey Yam Keng who gave brief comments to the media. The collective silence is deafening indeed and does not speak well of elected MPs who are supposed to not only be accountable to the public but to also speak up and engage the public on important matters.

There seems to be a coordinated campaign to not engage netizens on the regulations but only to speak to the mainstream media. Bloggers too seem to have been barred from being interviewed or quoted in the local media.

Singaporeans should condemn such cowardly behaviour of elected MPs.

Little consultation

The second point is how easily the government, through its agency of unelected members, can make changes to the law without regard at all for public interest.

The MDA, especially, should be ashamed of how it went about removing what is a citizens’ right to free expression as laid down in our Constitution – “every citizen of Singapore has the right to freedom of speech and expression.”

The only consultation which the MDA did apparently only involved its speaking to “industry players”, whatever that means.

MP Baey Yam Keng, who is the deputy chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee (GPC) on Communications and Information, revealed on his Facebook chat with netizens on Sunday night that his committee “was briefed before the announcement was made.”

The MP, whom netizens expressed appreciation for in engaging them on the matter, did not directly answer the question of whether he was involved in the process of crafting, proposing or even scrutinising the regulations in its formatting stages.

If the deputy chairman of the GPC for MCI was not involved, what more of other MPs? No wonder all of them have chosen to remain silent the entire week.

But they could also perhaps be unhappy with the regulations and how they were sprung on everyone. This is not implausible as even Baey said that he preferred education and trusting the public to make the right judgements on things online.

'Not the solution'

Another person who would be against such regulation would be the chairman of the Media Literacy Council (MLC), which also seems to be rather quiet and has not made any statements to the media on the regulations.

Its chairman, Tan Cheng Han, told the Straits Times last year that regulating the Internet was “not the solution”.

"His remarks sought to assuage fears among some in blogosphere that the council, convened by the Government, will impose rules to govern online behaviour,” the Straits Times reported. "Prof Tan also believes the government has no intention of using a code of conduct as a regulatory tool."

He said: "I don't think it was ever on the cards that netizens must comply or else face criminal sanctions."

It would be good if Tan and his council could state their positions now on the new MDA regulations.

Call for withdrawal

A group of bloggers and online practitioners, known as #FreeMyInternet, has come together to call for the withdrawal of the regulations.

It is the right thing to call for.

A right that is guaranteed in the Constitution should not and must not be so easily and conveniently circumscribed, pared down or removed by unelected, faceless bureaucrats with a stroke of the pen.

The government has explained that the matter did not have to go through Parliament because the changes are subsidiary ones, and not an Act itself. That is being technical. There have been instances when the government tabled issues in the House for debate – such as the population White Paper and ministerial salaries – which aren’t Acts by themselves too.

So, why not table the proposed regulations before the House?

Surely, curbing Singaporeans’ constitutionally guaranteed right to free expression is a major issue which must be discussed and debated openly, and not decided in a completely opaque manner by some bureaucrats behind closed doors.

Non-legally binding clarifications

The MDA and the Minister for Communications and Information, Yaacob Ibrahim, belatedly sought to explain and assuage fears emerging from last week’s announcement. But these are not binding legally.

The MDA, for example, issued a statement which it posted on its Facebook page, saying that “an individual publishing views on current affairs and trends on his/her personal website or blog does not amount to news reporting.”

How is that legally binding? Or even legally credible? And how was this definition of what amounts to “news reporting” was made? Arbitrarily? Is that how our regulations are created? Should Singaporeans be expected to observe such arbitrary laws?

And Yaacob giving assurances through the media is just as irrelevant.

If the minister and the MDA mean what they say, why not include these in the regulations themselves?

Otherwise, the government should explain how is it that a bureaucrat has such powers over elected MPs and Parliament, to sign off on regulations which affect everyone in the country.

It is thus correct and responsible for bloggers and netizens – and in fact, all Singaporeans (because the regulations affect more than just bloggers) – to come together and reject outright what is effectively the usurpation of our rights by the State, done in the most opaque and irrational manner, by nameless and unaccountable civil servants.

The #FreeMyInternet campaign is not just a group of bloggers trying to do this with a protest at Hong Lim Park on 8 June - it is also a demonstration, hopefully a powerful one, to the PAP Government that it will no longer be allowed to do as it pleases.

All Singaporeans should pause and ponder on this: if your rights are so easily removed, the next time you face a problem and need help, who will you turn to? How will you speak – when all the State has to do to shut you up is to issue you a “take-down order”?

Andrew helms publichouse.sg as Editor-in-Chief. His writings have been reproduced in other publications, including the Australian Housing Journal in 2010. He was nominated by Yahoo! Singapore as one of Singapore's most influential media persons in 2011.

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