Of activists, journalists and a strawberry leadership

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Something should be said about two recent incidents affecting the free speech space in Singapore. The first is guilty verdict of activist Jolovan Wham and opposition member John Tan, both who posted messages on their own Facebook pages that were deemed to be scandalising the judiciary. The second is the departure of Bharati Jagdish from Channel NewsAsia for supposedly messing up an interview with Banyan Tree CEO Ho Kwon Ping that led to a clarification by Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean in Parliament on ministerial pay.

On the surface, they do not seem to be related at all. The conviction of Wham and Tan were brought about by a public lawsuit using a law that has been amended in 2016 to, in effect, lower the benchmark for what constitutes scandalising the judiciary. The resignation of Jagdish is essentially a private matter with her employer, Mediacorp. Jagdish loses her job but does not have to face a hefty fine or jail term, or both, as Wham and Tan do.

Where both incidents run a common thread is their reflection of the narrowing of free expression in Singapore, whatever precious little of it we have now.

The contempt of court cases were particularly pointed in that alarm bells were raised in 2016 when the amended Administration of Justice (Protection) Bill was passed in Parliament. Back then, Workers’ Party and other MPs debated long and hard about the broadened scope of power given to the government to prosecute any speech that pose a risk – any risk, rather than previous qualifier of a real risk – to the reputation of our judiciary.

It would be fair to say that the misgivings about executive over-reach displayed during the parliamentary debate on the law were finally realised. We now have a law that effectively polices what we can and cannot post on our Facebook pages, regardless of the level of influence we command. Without commenting on the specifics of and differences between Wham’s and Tan’s cases or the validity of the judgement, it would be clear that we now stand on very sensitive territory when we choose to voice out about our courts.

The case of Jagdish points to an equally sensitive topic: ministerial pay. Her folly seems to be in erroneously estimating Ho’s pay, which means that if Ho claims he earns less than our ministers, each of our ministers can basically afford something close to a private resort island.

It was not sure who raised the finger against Jagdish – anything between her own editor, DPM Teo and Ho would be an equally good guess – and Mediacorp, in responding to the leak, was adamant that Jagdish left on her own accord. Without commenting on her professionalism and accuracy, what the case suggests is that someone was agitated about her unwittingly highlighting the astronomical sums that our ministers receive from tax-payers’. And to be honest, any sum in excess of $500,000 a year will still be regarded as obscenely high to us mediocre sloggers.

Hyper-sensitivity seems to be the rule of the day, and we as a nation are all poorer from it.

Wham’s and Tan’s lawsuits point to an age-old question: is our judiciary so preciously fragile that any minor suggestion of its impartiality would lead to its reputation crumbling to dust? Would Singaporeans and the world immediately view our courts in disdain if someone says to a few friends, “our judiciary lacks independence”? Yet the sensitivity displayed by the prosecution in this case make our judges look like easily bruised strawberries – just a few pokes and tumbles, and they are completely ruined.

Similarly for Jagdish’s case. Ministerial salaries have always been a hot button issue. You would think that our ministers would be well-fired and seasoned, like clay pots, to take a few knocks. But the protracted back-and-forth dragged out in Parliament and repeated ad nauseum in media reports would suggest otherwise. All this, mind, without us even knowing the answer to the question raised by Leon Perera: how much exactly does each minister earn? Are our ministers’ public service record also like strawberries – that any probe into it would lead to dents and black marks in their perceived reputation?

The fact remains that most Singaporeans hold their leaders in high regard, but it has nothing to do with how much they protect their privacy, pay packet and, least of all, their reputation. We value our government based on its ability to do right by us through sound policies, and the judicious and sensible use of laws.

The current sensitivity towards criticism that has infected our public spaces does nothing to affirm this esteem. Hard work, empathy and a sense of righteousness – wrapped in a fairly thick skin – do.

Hyper-sensitivity to criticism only makes journalists and activists – even everyday citizens like you and me – a lot more apprehensive about whether what we say in private or public might run afoul of OB markers and laws.

We are walking on egg shells. Or more accurately, strawberries. The only difference is that what risks being squished are not the strawberries, but ourselves. This sense of trepidation cannot be healthy for Singapore, and our leaders are setting a very bad example.