COMMENT: Who gets to speak on Cooling-Off Day?

kirsten han

(Yahoo file photo)

Someone has gone running to the police (again) in Singapore, and this time it’s the Elections Department.

On Friday (27 May), it announced that the Assistant Returning Officer had filed police reports against The Independent Singapore, activist and former lawyer Teo Soh Lung and blogger Roy Ngerng for allegedly breaching Cooling-Off Day rules.

Cooling-Off Day first came into force during the 2011 General Election. We were told that voters need a day of quiet introspection, away from the noise of election campaigning. Hence, all political parties and candidates would be disallowed from posting any election advertising or campaign material on that day. The only exceptions would be the following: 

  1. Party political broadcasts on television;
  2. Reports in the newspapers, on radio and television relating to election matters;
  3. Approved posters and banners that were already up, and lawful Internet advertising that was already published before the eve of Polling Day;
  4. Books previously scheduled for publication;
  5. The transmission of personal political views by individuals to other individuals, on a non-commercial basis, using the Internet, telephone or electronic means; and
  6. Such activities or circumstances as may be prescribed by the Minister.

I was then a volunteer contributor to The Online Citizen, gearing up to cover my first election. I remember the rules causing confusion: Did this mean that we wouldn’t be allowed to publish articles on our website the day before the election? Why would we be banned from doing so, if the newspapers, radio and television news could continue as usual? In the end, we rushed to complete and publish write-ups of election rallies on 5 May by 11:59pm.

Confusion remains

Five years later, the confusion appears to still be present. Despite the Elections Department’s own website saying that “the transmission of personal political views by individuals to other individuals, on a non-commercial basis, using the Internet, telephone or electronic means” is exempt from the Cooling-Off Day rules, the department under the Prime Minister’s Office has seen fit to file police reports against both Teo and Ngerng.

Its reasoning can be found in its press release: “In filing the police reports, the Assistant Returning Officer has taken into consideration the nature of the postings and the potential impact that they might have had. … The two individuals – Teo Soh Lung and Roy Ngerng – also regularly engage in the propagation, promotion and discussion of political issues.”

Yet, this explanation is hardly tenable. The exemption, as mentioned above, only refers to individuals transmitting personal political views to other individuals – which is what both Teo and Ngerng did. Saying that they “regularly engage in the propagation, promotion and discussion of political issues” is hardly incriminating; it is the right of every citizen to be able to discuss political issues, and make their views heard.

Interestingly, the wording of the exemption relating to individuals is different in the Elections Department’s press release, which entails “the telephonic or electronic transmission by an individual to another individual of the first-mentioned individual’s own political views, on a noncommercial basis”.

A close reading of both versions can yield different interpretations. While the version on the Elections Department’s website appears to indicate that a public Facebook post on one’s personal page could fall under the exemption – since it is the transmission of one’s views to other individuals using the Internet – the wording in the press release (which is also the wording in the actual statute) could potentially suggest that the exemption only applies to one-on-one transmission through telephonic or electronic means, in which case Teo and Ngerng’s posts would not fall under the exemptions.

Why are there two different versions? If the Elections Department has taken it upon itself to re-word the law on its website, it can hardly blame citizens for being confused or misinformed, and breaching the rules in consequence.

The report lodged against The Independent Singapore is similarly unfair. There should not be a line drawn between the traditional and online media, particularly when the government had previously justified policies regulating online news websites as simply bringing things in line with the regulations placed upon the mainstream media. The government cannot have its cake and eat it too, deciding, as if arbitrarily, when the online and mainstream media are “in line” and when they are not.

The offending articles on The Independent Singapore as identified by the Elections Department were listicles and articles reporting on election-related material, aggregating responses from social media as many media outlets now do. One might argue over the quality or editorial slant of the articles, but to do so without acknowledging that the mainstream media, too, has its own editorial slant is disingenuous and unfair. To disallow websites like The Independent Singapore from publishing on Cooling-Off Day while the mainstream media is free to continue as usual simply invites suspicion and allegations of political bias within the law itself.

Poor grasp of social media

This sorry episode of lodged police reports simply demonstrates how poorly thought-out and unevenly enforced the Cooling-Off Day rules are.

The law fails to factor in the complexity of social media, where an individual’s post can easily reach hundreds, if not thousands, while still remaining his or her personal opinion. It fails to acknowledge the growth of independent news websites as part of Singapore’s media landscape.

And most importantly, in a climate where the mainstream media is widely seen as under the influence – if not control – of the incumbent, it fails to acknowledge the massive asymmetry in power and reach of one party over others.

Kirsten Han is a Singaporean blogger and journalist. 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.