Singapore: Constricting the Space for Online Expression of Opinion

By Ulisari Eslita 9 September 2013

“If freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.” — George Washington, first president of the United States

SINGAPORE — It is past 10 pm and I am walking along the dimly lit street, looking for the headquarters of Singapore’s main opposition Workers Party (WP). Cars parked on both sides leave almost no space for vehicles to pass through the narrow road. Two-storey shop houses, some of them Chinese restaurants, line my side of the street, while on the other, cigarette-smoking young women in skimpy dresses and high heels, their faces covered in thick makeup, are “negotiating” with potential clients.

Nervously, I walk on, thinking, surely I have lost my way while following directions to the party’s office at 216G Syed Alwi Road #02-03, given to me by Gerald Giam, a non-constituency WP member of Singapore’s Parliament. After walking back and forth past the shop houses for half an hour and asking people for directions, an old woman working in one of the Chinese eateries finally shows me the way to the WP office, located above a Chinese restaurant and across the road from the street walkers.  The party logo on the shop house wall is barely visible in the dark and the office is a single, medium-sized room on the second floor, reached after climbing a narrow stairway and one among other rooms lining the corridor.

Like its political influence, the office of one of Singapore’s oldest political parties is in stark contrast to that of its rival, Singapore’s ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), which works out of a large, corporate-style building set in its own grounds in an upscale area near Singapore’s Changi International Airport.

State of Political Opposition: A Pointer to Freedom of Online Dissent?

Yet, sitting in his office, Giam does not share the general pessimistic view of the state of the political opposition in Singapore. Pointing to the WP’s impressive showing in the 2011 national election after going unrepresented in Parliament between 1968 and 1981 and having only five lawmakers in the legislature between 1981 and 2006, he says Singapore citizens have become more politically aware since 2006, with the Internet playing a big role in this.

“I see that there is an increasing political awareness in Singapore, particularly among young people, even among many older people,” he says.

The first-time lawmaker who joined politics in 2009 after a career in the civil service also does not think that online freedom of expression is under threat in Singapore. A keen political blogger, he says he was inspired by the emergence of bloggers commenting on social and political issues starting with the 2006 election.

Giam, however, does not think bloggers will replace mainstream media for a number of reasons, including their inability to match the news gathering resources of traditional media. “They will definitely complement the mainstream media,” he says. “They add different opinions and perspectives. In a way, many of them are freer to speak their mind than mainstream media journalists.”

He is optimistic about the future for freedom of expression in his country. He doubts Singapore’s rulers will be able to control online media, which is playing an important role in political development in Singapore.

Social media had a significant influence on the outcome of the 2011 elections to Parliament, providing information to let people make the right choice.  In particular, it helped opposition candidates reach out to and connect directly with voters.

The opposition lawmaker is critical of the May 2013 online licensing regulation issued by the state media regulator, the Media Development Authority (MDA), which requires online sites to pay a licensing fee of US$39,200 if they report at least one Singapore news story a week over a period of two months and are visited by at least 50,000 unique IP address from within Singapore.

But he hastens to add that it should not be interpreted as an attempt at stifling online freedom of expression. “In general, I don’t agree with the MDA regulation. But it doesn’t mean the government does not allow online media,” he says, adding that it cannot be compared to the much harsher restriction on online political activities in Vietnam, which has banned sharing of anything other than personal information on popular social media like Facebook . “There’s been no such regulation in Singapore.”

He tries to explain the reason behind the MDA regulation. “I think that from the government perspective, the regulation’s purpose is to ensure that any news, whether online or not, which has a significant following, comes under a certain type of regulation,” he says.

He is, nonetheless, concerned that the regulation was issued even though Singapore has the Singapore Broadcasting Authority (SBA) and Broadcasting (Class License) Notification of 2001, which, he says, covers news websites.

Yet he expresses optimism that the MDA regulation will not be a major obstacle to independent online bloggers. “I don’t see that the MDA licensing framework for online media is a big impediment to political development in Singapore,” he says, adding that the new rule has not yet affected any individual blogger in Singapore. “I don’t see it as a restriction on the freedom of expression.”

“Although we still have the PAP, the ability to restrict the flow of information has been severely curtailed by the emergence of the Internet and online media,” he points out. “Unless they are prepared to shut down the Internet like in North Korea, put opposition politicians in jail or restrict the [flow of] online information. I think those days are hopefully over.”

Giam thinks the government will not be able to secure popular backing for “such tactics,” he says, adding, “I think Singaporeans will not stand for that.”

But Lina Chiam, a non-constituency member of Parliament and chairwoman of the opposition Singapore People’s Party, believes the MDA regulation is detrimental to media freedom because of its ambiguous wording. “The definition of news sites under the regulations, as they stand, are so arbitrary, and can encompass any website posting at least one news-related article in a week,” she says.

Chiam thinks one does not even need to believe in the constitutional right to free speech to realize how worrying the new MDA rules are, from the point of view of legal order, transparency in governance, and good business sense. “With the freedom of expression suppressed, Singapore is not living up to its potential as a First World country,” she adds.

The Singapore People’s Party has called on the government to withdraw the MDA regulation.

A Long History of Media Regulation

The Singapore government’s relationship with traditional news media organizations is hardly encouraging for those trying to use the online space to criticize the ruling party’s philosophy that has guided the city state’s development over the past six decades.

Speaking at the National Day Rally last year, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong took a dig at online media, accusing it of unreliability and lack of balanced reporting. “It [online media] lends itself to many negative views and ridiculous untruths,” Singapore’s leader said on the occasion.

Over the past four decades, government control of mainstream media has been aided by legislation such as the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act (NPPA) and the Broadcasting Act. All print and broadcast media in Singapore are also owned by government-linked companies Singapore Press Holding and Mediacorp.

Kumeran Pillai, managing editor of the online alternative newspaper Independent Singapore, says government ownership is a “fear factor” for the journalist.  The feeling is that “if I write something bad, I am going to lose my job,” he says.

Leon Perera, an adviser of Independent Singapore, adds, “In Singapore, you don’t have private ownership. All [media outlets are] owned by the government.  So if a journalist wants to write from a different view [to that held by the government], the government is in a position to hit them very hard.”

Singapore’s first political website, Sintercom (Singapore Internet Community), which launched in 1994 by Tan Chong Kee as a public platform for free discussion on a variety of national issues, had to license itself in 2001 with the national Internet policy maker and regulator, the Singapore Broadcasting Authority (SBA). (The SBA’s role was taken over by the MDA in 2003.) Kee said he decided to shut down the website after realizing that it was impossible for him to run it with integrity.

Last year, the popular socio-political blog The Online Citizen (TOC) was registered as a political organization under the Broadcasting Act. The government said this was necessary as TOC was in a position to influence public opinion and shape political outcomes in Singapore. Registration has barred TOC from receiving foreign funds or allowing foreign citizens to take part in its events. Moreover, the Political Donations Act requires registered websites to list domestic sources of funding—a  potentially crippling blow in a country where dissent results in political and economic marginalization.

Cautious Optimism That Government May Be Unable to Control Online Opinion

Prominent blogger Ravi Philemon, whose investigative online reports have embarrassed the government and triggered debates in Parliament, thinks it is not easy for the government to control expression of opinion online.

“I think the Internet is a different animal altogether. Because how do you control the Internet unless you are a country like China, which is so big, and where citizens are inclined to speak in one language?” he says. Even though the government is trying to regulate Internet content, it is not easy to control. Singaporeans are turning to online media to get a perspective on news other than that offered by mainstream media, he says. “There is always another side of a story. I am sure that what mainstream media tells is not the whole story.”

Technology has also made it easier to evade state control, he points out. “There are so many tools for you to bypass censorship. So how do you control something like that, especially in a country like Singapore, which is so connected? How do you restrict peoples’ reading? It is a very big challenge.”

He says the government can now no longer “control the political discourse, and for any government, it will be very troubling if you can’t lead the social-political discourse. … If you can’t lead it [political discourse], it means you [go] down [in] your power. In my opinion, it is understandable why the government wants to control the Internet, but it’s impossible.”

By making it possible to reach out to a much wider audience, online communication can be a powerful tool to challenge authority, he says, citing his own example. During the severe haze crisis in Singapore in June this year, he highlighted on his blog the public frustration that was expressed on social media over the government’s failure to keep its promise to make air filter masks available in all pharmacies. He said the government accused him of lying but could do nothing more.

He says that after ignoring online media for a long time, the government became aware of the importance of Internet-based communication after the 2011 election.

Cherian George, a well-known Singaporean media freedom advocate and professor of journalism from Nanyang Technological University, also thinks it is not easy to control online expression of opinion. “Criticizing the government through online media with your own name is more common now, because you are not alone. The Internet has given confidence to the Singaporean, that if you have critical views about the government, you are not alone,” he says.

The government will have to arrest thousands of people if it starts cracking down on those expressing critical views online, he explains. He cites the large number of online comments criticizing the prime minister’s statement at the Aug. 18 National Day Rally.

The Singapore government is getting “very annoyed” with online criticism, but it has to realize that there are limits to regulating online expression of opinion, George says. While “realists” in the government “realize” that they will need to learn to live with online criticism, the danger is that “hardliners” may have the urge to act, he says. This is evident in the new MDA licensing regulation for news bloggers. “There is nobody outside government who can understand why it is necessary or what problem it is supposed to solve. I can only conclude that it is more a symptom of frustration.”

“I am not afraid about the regulation [in itself], but what this regulation signals about government thinking. It shows that the government still doesn’t understand the need to reform the media. It is the clearest sign for many years that the government doesn’t want to recognize the reality,” he adds.

“It seems that the government is trying to make online media more like mainstream media. [The cases of] China, Iran, North Korea show it is possible to restrict [online media freedom]. But, is that the direction you want to go?” he asks rhetorically. “Nobody imagines Singapore will go that way.”

Choo Zheng Xi, co-founder of TOC, thinks likewise. “They can’t control the Internet,” he says. “They have imposed a lot of regulation that makes them very stupid. If they ask online media to pay $50,000 [Singapore dollars] and they don’t want to pay, what would they do?”

Xi thinks the government is “afraid” and scared that independent bloggers can now affect the outcome of elections. He thinks the Internet provides a useful outlet for people to express their feelings on social and political issues.

George thinks the government needs to realize that loosening its grip on mainstream media will actually lead to an improvement in public and political life in Singapore. Instead of trying to suppress the online expression of political opinion, the aim of Internet regulation should be to protect citizens from unethical online behavior such as intrusion of privacy and cyber bullying, he says. “The government is more concerned about themselves instead of the ordinary people. Internet regulation should be about making the Internet safe for [the] ordinary citizen.”

Challenges for Independent Online Media

Even as they try to evade government control, bloggers and independent online news websites have to prepare themselves to become credible alternative media voices.

While bloggers and social media cannot replace mainstream media, they can play a valuable supplementary role, says George. Surveys he conducted show that while people consider mainstream media to be biased in its coverage of the government, they have to depend on mainstream media for information because there is no other choice available.

He sees the establishment of the online news blog Independent Singapore as a positive development but adds that it will not be easy for it to sustain itself as it lacks adequate resources in terms of funding and staff. After the National Day Rally, which was the biggest political event of the year, the website could publish only two commentaries, one of them authored by George.

Singapore still does not have independent online news sites that can guarantee comprehensive and reliable coverage of current issue. Even TOC, the best so far, can barely manage to pay its editors and interns.

Xi of TOC says the website was started to make up for the “very unbalanced” coverage of mainstream news media and its “lack of objectivity.”  In the past two to three years since its establishment, the website readership has grown from “a few hundred” to “thousands.”  During the 2011 election, TOC organized a political forum, to which all political parties were invited, though only the main opposition party took part.

Initially the government was not affected by TOC’s reporting “because we are very small,” but TOC news stories are now forcing the government to act. “Many times, the government is responding to our articles,” says Xi.

The TOC story on homelessness in Singapore led to a debate in Parliament. Although the government claimed the report was exaggerated, it launched an investigation into the issue. Xi says mainstream media coverage tends to ignore issues like poverty, homelessness and foreign workers in Singapore. Unlike most other blogs that only carry opinion, TOC also provides reliable news to the public. “We are considered pioneers. We do reporting, cover news events and [carry] opinion [articles],” he says. TOC readers include retirees, professionals and students.

However, he does not think bloggers and alternative online news groups can lead in shaping public opinion. “Only the mainstream media can do that,” he said. He is, nonetheless, optimistic about the future and expects TOC to become stronger over the next five to 10 years. “Recently we’ve seen, former journalists, who have retired or were kicked out by their media organization, feeling frustrated and joining online media,” Xi says.

The website has a core team of five staff and also between 10 to 15 volunteers, many of them students. “We have to nurture them, lead them, make them feel their work is worth something,” he says.

TOC is not finding it easy it obtain financial support as potential business backers are nervous about supporting a political news and opinion website that they see as being critical of the government, says Xi. The website runs on reader donations that add up to about $785 per month. “It is enough,” he says.

A significant addition to Singapore’s alternative media landscape was the launch of the Independent Singapore on June 15. The site’s managing editor, Pillai, a former TOC editor, thinks alternative online media organizations need to professionalize themselves, moving beyond reliance on volunteers to paid staff.

Independent Singapore director and legal advisor Alfred Dodwell says the website aims to be independent of any political party. “I suppose the mainstream media is a PAP mouthpiece [and] TOC and TRE [Temasek Review Emeritus] are more like the opposition.”

The website writes about issues not covered by mainstream media and tries to be professional, unlike a blog, he says. “We have an editorial team. Like a real newspaper,” he says.

Hopes for the Future

George thinks more and more of his fellow citizens are now beginning to realize that they need the freedom to criticize the government. Until recently, he says, the number of “Singaporeans that want to fight for freedom of expression for its own sake was very small.” Yet in recent years, “more and more Singaporeans” are feeling “the government isn’t noticing our problems seriously enough [and that] they need freedom of expression to voice their unhappiness.”

Dodwell hopes the Singapore Independent will give rise to a better informed younger generation. “The reason why we started Independent Singapore was because we are all parents, we have children,” he says. “We want to do this for the future of Singapore [so that] children do not grow up with the Straits Times as the only one newspaper.”

This article was produced for the 2013 Southeast Asian Press Alliance (Seapa) fellowship program. Ulisari Eslita, a senior writer for the Jakarta-based Forbes Indonesia, is one of the 2013 fellows. This year’s theme is Freedom of Expression Challenges to Internet Government in Southeast Asia.