Why we should question the shutdown of The Real Singapore

A man types on a computer keyboard in Warsaw in this February 28, 2013 illustration file picture. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel/Files

Kirsten Han is a Singaporean blogger, journalist and filmmaker. She is also involved in the We Believe in Second Chances campaign for the abolishment of the death penalty. A social media junkie, she tweets at @kixes. The views expressed are her own.

Let’s be clear: I detest The Real Singapore (TRS). Far from journalism, it has participated in rumour-mongering and the demonisation of groups of people, many already marginalised and stigmatised in society. If everyone in Singapore chose to stage a boycott of the site, or to write a public statement protesting its behaviour, I would be a most willing participant.

Yet this isn’t what happened on Sunday, when the Media Development Authority (MDA) suspended TRS’ licence to operate. What happened - and on World Press Freedom Day, no less - was a government body summarily deciding to shut down a website, even before its ongoing court case has been concluded.

It’s unlikely that this particular website will be much missed by anyone with a sense of ethics, but TRS’ suspension is worth examining.

The MDA said that TRS had breached the Internet Code of Practice by publishing “prohibited material” defined as “objectionable on the grounds of public interest, public order and national harmony.” It’s unclear how the decision was made, and whether there is any oversight of this process within or without the MDA. This lack of transparency has been pointed out by the FreeMyInternet group.

Press freedom does not, of course, extend to deliberately inserting falsehoods into articles. However, our schadenfreude at seeing a vile website go down should not stop us from questioning the state’s power to shut down websites and decide on matters of public interest and morality on society’s behalf.

That TRS is a problematic site whose operators have engaged in irresponsible behaviour is not in question here. What we should discuss, though, is whether the state should have this power to shut down websites, and how broad these powers should be.

Analysts have described the MDA’s action as reflective of the “light touch” the government promised to take with regard to online regulation. Their reasoning is that since the MDA has only chosen to take this action in the “extreme” case of TRS, it shows that the state has not been overzealous in curbing online freedom.

But this is not really freedom. There’s a difference between a website operating because the MDA has not yet decided to shut it down, and truly having freedom of speech and expression to operate in an open environment of debate and conversation. It’s not freedom if the state has the power to order a shutdown even before due process at the courts has been concluded, and we’re meant to feel relieved and grateful that they’ve only done it once (so far).

Singapore is a multicultural, multiracial and multi-religious society, and social fault-lines exist in our country. The state has often dangled the threat of interracial conflict to discourage us from broaching sensitive subjects such as race and religion.

But all these years of OB markers have done little to build our political and social maturity. Over the years, we’ve stifled open discourse – even offensive discourse – to the point where we prefer to leave everything to the authorities: sue, arrest, charge, jail and prohibit everything that we dislike. But in a developed society, there must be other ways to deal with problematic situations.

What we should focus on is building a media literate society that critically evaluates all the content we see, so that we can identify bad content and call it out. We, as readers and audiences, should be able to hold websites – and mainstream media, or any other form of media content – to account ourselves, without the need to rely on the authorities for intervention every time we see something we dislike.

Instead of calling for TRS to be arrested and charged and jailed, we should be striving towards building a society where people can judge TRS’ content for the vile hate-mongering that it is, and dismiss it as such. Shutting down the site does not root out the mindsets and prejudices that gave it its audience; only education and open discussion can tackle these issues.

We, as a society, should find ways to deal with problems ourselves, because it’s risky to hand all power over to the state. We might be happy that TRS is gone today, but should keep in mind that the power that enabled the MDA to do this could be used on other platforms that we do like tomorrow.