The Media Development Authority of Singapore has demanded that The Opinion Collaborative Ltd, a social enterprise that was once managing funds for The Online Citizen, return funds that was given to it about a year ago as advertising revenue.
The funds, amounting to $5,000, were from Monsoons Book Club (MBC), another social enterprise registered in the UK.
“TOC Ltd has undertaken not to receive funding from foreign sources for the provision, management and/or operation of the website, The Online Citizen except for bona fide commercial purposes,” said MDA in its media release. “This is to ensure that foreign entities do not engage in domestic politics and to uphold the principle that domestic politics must remain a matter for Singapore and Singaporeans alone.”
The funds were given from one social enterprise to the other for the purpose of running an essay competition, “My Singapore, My Home”, as part of SG50.
TOC Ltd’s director and key contact person with MDA, Mr Howard Lee, was editor in charge of the competition and also the commentaries editor for TOC.
He was in contact with MBC’s director, former Singaporean Mr Tan Wah Piow, who contributed commentaries to TOC.
“Wah Piow is very supportive of TOC,” said Mr Lee. “He was keen to see what Singaporeans think about the future of Singapore, not to be reflective but more forward looking. We agreed on the title, and it was great to have him on our panel of judges.”
Each essay published on TOC as part of the competition carried a logo of MBC and a link to its website. TOC also ran a series of notifications on its Facebook page to call for participants of the competition, linking back to an announcement page, also with MBC’s logo on it.
But MDA said that “MBC Ltd is a non-commercial foreign entity incorporated in the United Kingdom. TOC Ltd’s receipt of the advertising revenue from MBC Ltd is thus a clear breach of the licence conditions.”
Mr Lee said he could not remember exactly when the funds were transferred between the social enterprises, but “we submitted out declaration to MDA in April 2015.”
“It would have been ok if MDA were to ask us to return the funds within three months of April, as we have this clause in written agreement with them (MDA),” he said. “We really need to question why they are only bringing this up now.”
Mr Lee said that, in fact, MDA had another opportunity to raise issues with this funding when they met in November 2015 to discuss the delinking of TOC and the company.
“I told them in detail about the essay competition, where we placed MBC’s logo as advertising for the company,” he said. “They asked many questions, including whether I knew Wah Piow. If they had any issues then, I saw none of it.”
When asked if he was aware of the risk in taking up a foreign advertiser, Mr Lee said, “To me, it was an excellent opportunity for us to test a funding model not unlike how, say, a foreign bank might sponsor Mediacorp or SPH for an event or series of advertorials.”
“As far as I can see, we have been transparent and above board with MDA. We have no reason to believe that MBC was not a commercial entity. They are a social enterprise just like us, so why would they not be a commercial entity?”
“I guess MDA dropped a bombshell on us,” said Mr Lee. “We have delinked from TOC not so long ago and are only just starting to raise funds for our projects. We have very limited funds, definitely nothing close to $5,000. This was so long ago, why would we still have this sum?”
He said the directors – including Tan Tee Seng, Lee Song Kwang and TOC’s chief editor Terry Xu – will have to set aside time to discuss this, and a decision will be announced in time. Current worries include projects that have overhead costs.
One such project is The Agora, an event space for civil society and book publishers to come together for the exchange of knowledge and ideas.
“If we have to fork out this amount, we just might have to close shop at The Agora,” said Mr Lee.
The small team, consisting of the directors and a few volunteers, will be hosting Dr Chee Soon Juan at its first Agora Book Club series on 10 March to discuss his book, Democratically Speaking.
We recorded the following brief background of events from Mr Lee.
- 10 April 2015 – The Opinion Collaborative submitted a three-month statement of accounts to MDA, declaring funds received on behalf of TOC. Within that declaration, MBC was indicated as a foreign advertiser. The advertisement was received in relation to running an essay competition titled “My Singapore, My Future”, in celebration of SG50.
- September 2015 – The Opinion Collaborative informed MDA that the social enterprise and TOC plans to delink, with the view of ending the company’s obligation to report to MDA. All outstanding declaration of funds were also submitted.
- 6 October 2015 – The Opinion Collaborative wrote officially to MDA to confirm the delink with TOC. Mr Lee also declared that he was no longer an editor for TOC.
- 23 November 2015 – Upon request by MDA, Mr Lee met up with the regulator at their office for about an hour to answer MDA’s questions on the delinking and the amount given by MBC. Mr Lee left MDA with a forwarding email address for future contact, should MDA have further queries.
- 3 March 2016 – Mr Lee received a call from MDA at about 9pm, asking if he could meet the following day to answer more questions about the funding from MBC. As he was busy with work, he asked MDA to send no more than three questions, as he felt he has already gone through this matter sufficiently. MDA did not mention the return of funds.
- 4 March 2016 – Mr Lee received an email from MDA at about 3pm containing, not questions, but a letter demanding that the funds from Monsoons Book Club be returned.