The following is my speech delivered on 5th of October 2019 during Protest 101, an event organised by Gilbert Goh of transitioning.org
After spending a good part of my life under an authoritarian regime, I must confess that I am more conversant with the ways of an authoritarian regime than what it would take to organise a protest. The title of this event, Protest 101, is a bit of a misnomer. None of us except maybe for Gilbert Goh have any real experience organising a protest of any scale.
Perhaps,Gilbert may be able to shed more light on this. I’m just a student here.
Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen and a big thank you to Gilbert Goh for inviting me to speak at this event. In my talk today, I’ll cover more on online activism than about street protests.
In 2011, Facebook and Twitter were seen as platforms that heralded a new era of democracy around the world. Hosni Mubarak, the former dictator of Egypt was overwhelmed when a bunch of youth protested on the streets of Cairo and he finally succumbed to pressures from all quarters.
What was unique about this protest was the fact that it was spontaneous and did not have a leader at the helm of the movement that people could identify with. I remember attending academic conferences about what this means for democracy and some people even entertained the notion of anarchy where we won’t have any government at the centre.
In less than 10 years, the governments around the world have passed various legislations to control the narrative on the Internet, in the name of democracy.
Not that the Internet is without vulnerabilities and one could argue that the motivations of these politicians is to preserve the existing order, for their own political ends.
Even at The Independent, we have witnessed how issues can quickly transform and become something beyond our control.
Obviously, there is a need for how sites are curated. This includes both adhoc and periodic housekeeping. At The Independent, we review our content and take down articles that no longer serve its original intention.
This is in stark contrast with how some activists feel that content should be left on the site no matter what. Let me just refer to how Google does it. At Google, they have a policy called, “the right to be forgotten,” meaning if you’re already punished for a crime, then the society shouldn’t continue punishing that person a second time by keeping content alive perpetually.
In the same vein, we do review and take down articles after review. This has worked well for us.
In the last 10 years, big tech firms have developed algorithms to ensure that things do no go out of hand. Both Facebook and Google take down content that is inappropriate and they have mechanisms to review both internally and through a system of user recommendations. Viral content is monitored actively and downgraded if found inappropriate.
So, what I am trying to say is that tech firms do know how to manage and filter out content that is inappropriate, as opposed to what the politicians are saying.
It is easy to guess what the motivations are behind POFMA and make no mistake, implementation of POFMA is for political ends, to continue, to perpetuate the hegemony of the ruling party.
The ruling party is consumed by the fear that they no longer have complete control of the narrative, that there are a competing narrative and some as compelling or more persuasive from what officialdom has to say.
No doubt, the government wants to reign in while they still have super-majority control of parliament.
If you must speak up, be constructive, they say
It is a hazard to have an opinion in Singapore and you may even be in danger of being ridiculed and shamed if your opinion is not in line with PAP’s. The fear of speaking-up existed long before the POFMA bill.
As if instilling fear in the citizenry was insufficient, the government armed themselves with another tool to deal with the rising babble on the Internet.
But, the response to that is not in making the domain minister the final arbiter of what should remain.
In my submission to the parliamentary committee on POFMA, I recommended a self-regulatory framework where media practitioners decide on whether particular content should stay or be taken down. However, the lawmakers here felt that the domain minister is best placed to make that call.
There is a conflict of interest here when it comes to the government becoming the final arbiter: for instance, if I write about the excesses of our trade union or a GLC, isn’t the minister-in-charge complicit of the wrongdoing? So, how can the same minister become the judge of his own affairs?
However, the Law Minister argues that the judiciary is the final arbiter of justice. The question is, with the full weight of the main-stream-media and the significant influence on social media, how can an individual or a small blog site stand up to the government.
We have seen this happen right before our eyes. Both TOC and the New Naratif have been named and shamed in the public sphere and they have not been able to defend themselves adequately. Terry Xu, the current editor of TOC is representing himself in a case with PM Lee. There are a litany of charges against him and TOC.
The foreign interference boogie man. So, what is foreign interference?
Yes, there is a possible threat that our current political institutions may be under threat through foreign powers. But to pre-suppose that all journalists that do not belong to the state sanctioned media, namely SPH and Mediacorp, are foreign agents, is simply ridiculous.
The government is guilty of politicising this issue. We have many foreign media operating out of Singapore – there is Reuters, AFP, AP, MSN and Yahoo! to name a few. These are foreign media in Singapore commenting on local politics.
But, when New Naratif received funding from Open Society, the government shamed them and did not let them incorporate a company in Singapore.
That is an infringement of their freedom to conduct business and to participate in the economy.
We need safe spaces for political discourse.
In a media interview, Dr Tan Cheng Bock said that we need to change our mindset about how we deal with politics in Singapore.
PAP operates with a maxim of, “if you’re not with me, you’re against me.” This form of adversarial politics is counterproductive. Yet, both Ong Ye Kung and Heng Swee Keat say that Singapore cannot afford a two-party system or any form of adversarial politics. But, let me point out that it is the PAP leaders who are adversarial, contentious and even combative.
Any feedback, even if it couched in a mild and positive way, is seen as a challenge to their authority. I’d expect more maturity from a government that has had a super-majority in parliament for 60 years. It shows that the government is insecure.
After 60 years in power, we need to mature as a democratic society. We need to look for ways where we can accommodate the diverse views that make the fabric of our society. Our youth see the world in a different light.
There is no longer a singular narrative and there is nothing wrong if PAP can no longer dominate it. We need to celebrate diversity and we need to create safe spaces for people to voice their concerns and participate in both political discourse and the economy. If any group gets ostracised because of our poorly enacted laws, then we are forcing groups to take matters into their own hands, like what is happening in Hong Kong and what happened in Egypt.
The government’s heavy-handed approach with how they deal with local media is troubling and if I can add, it is PAP that is seeding the mother of all protests.
Kumaran Pillai is the publisher of The Independent Singapore and a Jefferson Fellow of East West Centre, USA.