LIGHT TOUCH WITH A HARD KNOCK
Like this one: Just one day after a smiling Prime Minister, Mr Lee Hsien Loong, had tea and a tete-a-tete with 15 guests from the online world, a government press release announced rules to license news websites.
As the rules began to sink in, the light touch the authorities had kept insisting on that it will use in its internet policy began to morph into a sinister hard knock that can be used if these websites step out of line.
Although opacity was written over most of the rules, three areas were clear enough to have a chilling effect on netizens and opposition politicians.
Such websites will have to apply for individual licences if they have more than one news story on Singapore per week and attract more than 50,000 unique visitors from Singapore per month — all this over a period of two months.
There is also a Sing$50,000 performance bond they have to put up with the government.
Questions there were many: What is a news story? Who decides what is one? Aren’t there enough laws to deal with outlets that cross the strictures on areas like race, language and religion?
And finally, what is the real intent of this new licensing regime?
The government’s explanation is that the rules are intended to put the websites on some kind of an equal footing with the mainstream media, which has been governed by licensing rules soon after the ruling People’s Action Party established its grip on politics in Singapore in the 1970s.
But many see other motives. One, the coming general election — which must be held by 2016. The 2011 election and the two by-elections after that were game changers for a political oasis called Singapore.
In 2011, PAP’s popular vote hit a historic low of 60.1 per cent and three ministers in a Group Representation Constituency were booted out. In the two by-elections after that, a sitting Opposition MP’s sacking because of an extra-marital affair had no real effect on the standing of the Workers’ Party and its girl next door candidate who handsomely defeated a high-flying surgeon representing the PAP.
The latter result caused such a stir that even the Opposition party had to temper voters’ expectations when it said it was not ready to run the country.
Despite a think tank and other establishment figures trying to douse the enthusiasm and jubilance of an internet world’s reporting of the election and by-elections, there was no doubt that it played a major role in the embarrassment for the ruling party.
The mainstream press tried to keep pace with its election coverage, but the political genie was already out of the bottle.
Two, uncertainty. The real sting in the new rules is the sword that hangs over those running the websites. The announcement names 10 websites that qualify to be licensed — the nine websites of the two mainstream media powerhouses and that of yahoo.
The others have not been touched, yet. But the announcement made it clear that it was not ruling out other popular socio-political sites if they meet licensing criteria. That is government speak for those who misbehave.
The net result is likely to be an online world that is likely to second guess the government and maybe even err on the side of caution when it comes to putting out its content.
Three, money power. Putting up a Sing$50,000 deposit is a huge undertaking for many of these websites as they are run on a voluntary basis with concerned citizens coming together for a cause and a passion.
One has already reacted by saying it might have no choice but close down if it is licensed. Others are already talking about going underground or putting up servers in places untraceable and unreachable.
Four, mainstream media’s plight. Readership and advertising decline is beginning to take hold as Singaporeans, especially the young, are dumping print and advertisers are asking serious questions about the high cost of advertising in mainstream papers,
It was a political master stroke by Mr Lee Kuan Yew to give both print and TV a monopoly, with The Straits Times riding a profit wave for the last 40 years. That was one way to buy the print giant’s loyalty.
The gravy train is now under threat with the Singapore Press Holdings’ latest quarterly results showing a double whammy: readership revenue of its papers, including The Straits Times, declining by Sing$2.4 million and advertising dollars going down by Sing$13.9 million.
For the government, this is a big worry because it does not have another strong platform to get across its messages.
But what should really worry many Singaporeans is how the rules were introduced with no debate in Parliament, no discussion outside of it and no regard for public sentiment.
This especially after the Prime Minister kickstarted a Singapore Conversation soon after the GE 2011 seeking views from all sections of society on the nation they want to build. Yes, Singapore is a strange country.