The year is ending and it’s getting chilly

FILE PHOTO: Yahoo News Singapore

A few weeks ago, I shared a column published in the Economist about contempt of court laws in Singapore on my Facebook wall. It had a caricature of three very agitated-looking judges looking at a computer screen. I thought the image was funny – for at least three minutes – until a Facebook poster asked if this was a case of scandalising the judiciary. I deleted the image.

I suppose if the G really thought it was a scandalous image of our judges, then it would slam the Economist, especially since it is available in print here and online too. Then what about the rest of us who helped to publicise the image? I believe online distributors have never been tagged along with the original source in any legal confrontation, but it’s better to be safe than sorry – lest you earn yourself a parliamentary mention.

When the G denies that any of its laws have a “chilling effect’’, I wonder who it’s trying to kid. It can cite figures and surveys to show that everything is business as usual, but this is not true. It is correct that we think very hard before we open our mouths or thump the keyboard, but the truth is, we simply do not know when we’ve crossed the line on what is appropriate and what is not.

I wouldn’t have been so wary about sharing the caricature on social media if there was not the example made of civil society activist Jolovan Wham who said something negative about the judiciary here in comparison with the one in the north. (I am being careful here). A lot of people have said worse things but Mr Wham looks like he’s being singled out for preferential treatment, which could be the result of his past run-ins with the law on matters that in Singapore could amount to civil disobedience. That special treatment took place under tightened Administration of Justice laws which relied on the “risk’’ of bringing the judiciary into disrepute, rather than a “real risk’’.

So why would anyone risk it? Then there is the example of Mr Li Shengwu, whose private FB post was deemed as contempt of court because of a word he used. So is this case also about who he is, that is, son of an estranged sibling of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, besides about what he said?

That is the unique nature about Singapore’s OB markers, which I teach as a university module. Every semester, I worry that I would come across as “brainwasher’’ if I defend the G, or a “rabble-rouser’’ if I don’t. Worse, it is tough to discuss the issue when the students are un-informed. They do not know who is Mr Lim Chin Siong or Mr Tang Liang Hong, nor even Mr J B Jeyaretnam. (Hint: Opposition politicians)

When I look at their project work, I feel dismayed when they seem to think that any criticism of the G, or comment on race and religion, could be construed as crossing the OB markers, and thereby deserving of approbation. I tell them that the G is not so thin-skinned and that society is not so fragile as to fall apart at the mere mention of race. Why aren’t they pushing the boundaries, I ask. At which point I caution myself: Why am I asking them to do so?

The flip side is this: I also feel dismayed when I see them jumping on the popular bandwagon, like attacking the mainstream media without justification or calling for a poverty line or minimum wage because others are doing so. It’s very vogue to be anti-G. At several points, I have suggested that they give the current policies a chance and actually take them through the mechanics of Workfare Income Supplement or the Progressive Wage Model. Then I worry that they may think I am a government mouthpiece.

Recently there have been new OB marker cases, like that of the five Singapore Civil Defence Force NSFs who took and distributed pictures of a Bionix crushed against a Land Rover, killing the driver. The SCDF filed a police report against them, presumably because those pictures were taken in a protected area where army training is being conducted. There is, therefore, a possibility that the Official Secrets Act could be invoked.

Since it is a police case, it’s hard to say much about the matter. I doubt that the NSFs thought very much about the consequences of their actions beyond how it was too good a picture not to share. It wasn’t a gory picture, and it wasn’t fake news. It was taken at the wrong place – and disseminated.

They might have broken the law but they did the public a favour by showing the incident to be a lot more serious than what the original Defence ministry statement had made it out to be: that a soldier was “involved in a vehicular incident’’. Such mealy-mouthed statements do nothing for the credibility of Mindef, especially when backed with pictures.  And now, two weeks later, we learn that there was a trainer in the jeep along with the driver who died. It took a parliamentary question to get the answer.

Then there is the case of the States Times Review.

When I received a WhatsApp message which shared the “news’’ of Singapore’s supposed illicit involvement in Malaysia’s 1MDB sage published in The Coverage, I was flummoxed. That was because I had no idea The Coverage was a sensationalist outlet prone to provoking Singapore. I read it and dismissed it as scurrilous nonsense immediately. It was too fantastical, libellous and it looked intent on capitalising on the current not-so-hot relationship between the two countries by dragging even the sacred water agreements into the fray.

Then I saw that I had missed another WhatsApp message from the same person: “I think it’s fake news.’’

I guess he thought I would be interested to know that such “fake news’’ was floating around. We know what happened next. The G used the force of its authority and tools in its arsenal to attack the originator, The States Times Review. Still, there were some surprises. Like how the Monetary Authority of Singapore decided to make a police report alleging criminal defamation. Woah. So it’s taking it upon itself to make this a criminal case on behalf of itself and the G?  A criminal defamation suit, by the way, can land people in jail. It isn’t about asking for damages.

I have said before that the whole saga seemed to be aimed at laying the groundwork for proposed fake news laws in Singapore. On Monday in Parliament, Mr Edwin Tong hinted as much when he talked about Facebook’s refusal to take down STR’s post because there seemed to be no threat of imminent violence or physical harm.

I can understand FB’s position because it would be setting a precedent if it blocked something on simply a government’s say-so. Because its standards apply world-wide, it must have a high threshold. In any case, there has been no objective test of the falseness of the allegations – even if the rest of Singapore believes the remarks to be patently nonsense.

Then on Tuesday, another OB marker case emerged when the premises of The Online Citizen were raided and equipment removed.  Regulator Infocomm Media Development Authority had filed a police report against it, for criminal defamation. You would think that a regulator would have many tools at its disposal to circumscribe the activities of websites or at least have a channel of communication with the source. The usual responses like calling for a right of reply, issuing a letter of demand or throwing the Internet Code of Practice against the site seemed to have been dispensed with. The sledgehammer came out.

It’s not even clear what the offending article/articles were but we hear from MSM that it was about a September article which criticised MP Seah Kian Peng for hitting out at historian P J Thum’s meeting with Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad. The scurrilous phrases had to do with corruption and tampering with the Constitution written by a contributor. Two months have passed since the IMDA took this action, which seemed like  a belated “gotcha” moment.

It is no small thing to have police officers, however polite, barge into your home to seize your computers. My mother would have a heart attack if this happened to me at our house. Already, she is suggesting that I kill this piece if I do not want some kind of midnight knock on the door.

As you can see, I am being terribly unfilial here. Of course, I feel the chilling effect – and the heat from my mother – but if we all do, then what does this mean for a citizen’s ability and right to join the national discourse, however ill-informed and irrational he or she may be? But there is an obligation, though, on the part of news sites to curate and fact-check citizen’s comments – or they would be no better than a post-box or a loud-hailer. They, too, must give citizens a level of protection against themselves even as they revel at the idea of being a platform for controversial views.

The latest news now is about The Independent Singapore being threatened with a lawsuit from NTUC Foodfare for two articles claiming that the social enterprise was bullying hawkers. No amount of journalistic euphemisms such as “allegedly’’ or “supposedly’’ can take the sting out of the focus of the article – that a hawker had died because of the long work hours stipulated by NTUC Foodfare.

The website publisher has responded saying that there’s material evidence for its claims. And it appears that the site is after bigger fish – questioning the role of NTUC in the business landscape.  All I wonder is whether NTUC Foodfare had a chance to give its views before the two articles were published. It is well and good to give the small man a voice, but it doesn’t mean shutting out the big boys from the conversation.

I think both the G and the people have to come to some sort of accommodation about what constitutes free and fair speech, and the terms of engagement.

The G and other big boys should be cautious about using the sledgehammer against citizens. Big boys always have the upper hand and recourse to a lot of actions before resorting to the most drastic.

I am getting tired of responses such as “if you’ve done nothing wrong, you have nothing to worry about’’. That’s because I never know when I would be singled out for preferential treatment over a lapse that I wasn’t even aware of. Likewise, I am getting tired of phrases such as “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to worry about’’. Sure, but I don’t appreciate other people poking around my computer even if there are only pictures of my Lego construction work to see.

On the other hand, websites which claim to speak for citizens will find that adhering to journalistic practices is the best way to keep the conversation between both sides going on a fair and equal basis.

We should speak up – and be fair when we do. We should base our opinions on facts – and point out the absence of other facts. And the G must remember it doesn’t do itself and the country any good if we have to keep watching what we say, so much so that we’d rather shut up.

That is surely not what it wants.

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