'Light Touch' or Rule by Bureaucrat?

Controversial blog The Real Singapore was shut down yesterday following a demand by the Media Development Authority. Its owners have been arrested for sedition, and if they had not shut down TRS they would have to face heavier charges. Media experts say that this is still in line with the government’s ‘light touch’ approach, calling TRS an ‘extreme case‘.

On the one hand, TRS represented the worst the Singaporean blogosphere had to offer. Tales of foreigner-bashing, plagiarisation and outright fiction regularly populated its pages. I’m not sorry to see it go. On the other hand, the fact the government shut down TRS spells out a troubling future ahead.

The heart of the problem is the state’s definition of ‘light touch’. It is a term as nebulous as ‘Out of Bounds markers’. The latter term represents the government’s approach to freedom of speech: you are free to say anything you like, until you cross the OB markers, at which point you will face the full weight of the law. To date there are no proper definitions of OB markers, only that to date I cannot recall anyone affiliated with the government or the People’s Action Party running afoul of these guidelines, only political activists.

‘Light touch’ is not a standard determined by Parliament or the judiciary. The standards have not been debated, the consequences never explicitly spelt out. Without transparent guidelines people can point to for comparison, these two innocent-sounding words can be used to justify anything.

It was used to get sociopolitical websites gazetted as political organisations, requiring them to take on extra burdens to meet red tape. It was used to force websites with monthly views of over 50 thousand readers to obtain special broadcasting licenses — which, coincidentally, cover sociopolitical issues. Now it has been used to shut down an ‘extreme’ website.

The case of TRS also brings to light the terms of Amos Yee’s bail. After being arrested for posting an allegedly seditious video on YouTube that insulted Lee Kwan Yew and Christianity, the teenager was granted bail on the condition that he would not post any online content. He also had to take down the video. Yee broke the terms of the bail and was subsequently re-arrested. Such a bail condition is virtually unprecedented in Singapore, but I suspect that if left unchallenged and uncommented upon it will quickly become the norm for people arrested for sedition in the future.

Looking at TRS and Amos Yee, I think Singaporeans, especially those involved in sociopolitical affairs and are not affiliated with the PAP, can no longer take the words ‘light touch’ at face value. Without explicit standards these words can mean anything the bureaucrats want them to mean: in effect, where online media is concerned, the government prefers to rule by bureaucrat, who are unaccountable to anyone but their paymasters — who coincidentally also work for the government. What the people want to think of as a ‘light touch’ is not how the bureaucrats will interpret it, in the same way the ‘Media Development Authority’ highest-profile means of developing Singapore’s media scene is to censor it.

To survive in this new atmosphere, Singaporean bloggers have to learn the rules of the game. It seems that anything that can be interpreted as sedition will lead to criminal charges, followed by content censorship. If something can be interpreted as racist, prejudiced, or otherwise able to stir up hatred against people of certain races and religious, it will lead to criminal charges and censorship. If something can be interpreted as a threat or as defamation against a member of Parliament, the government or the state — and not necessarily everybody else — it will lead to criminal charges and censorship. If a piece of online content is so controversial that it leads to petitions, police complaints, media attention and general public outcry, it will lead to a police investigation with the possibility of criminal charges and/or censorship.

In short: if something stirs up doubleplusungood feelings, it will be regulated.

The government has promised a ‘light touch’ when regulating online media, and it has delivered on its promise. A government as legalistic and bureaucratic as Singapore’s would likely have internal procedures, standards, benchmarks and other protocols to determine whether a piece of online content needs to be censored. The only trouble is that the government has yet to share with the people what, exactly, constitutes a ‘light touch’ and what standards it uses.

If the government thinks it can shut down TRS on the basis of sedition, then it should shut down every other website that does the same. So here is a litmus test:

The Global Islamic Media Front is a keystone in the international terrorist network. It produces and distributes terrorist propaganda, acting as al-Qarda’s de facto media arm. It also distributes cryptographic tools that enable terrorists and sympathisers to communicate securely. GIMF encourages terrorism by praising terrorists who have completed operations, disseminating the sayings of terrorist leaders, and celebrating dead terrorists as ‘martyrs’.

GIMF is also hosted in Singapore.

If the Media Development Authority will shut down TRS, which merely stirs up ill feelings, will it then shut down GIMF, which actively incites violence towards nonbelievers?

PS: I can think of several reasons not to shut down GIMF, all of which have to do with national and international security. The thrust of this hypothetical question is to point out the lack of open standards, how it erodes trust in the government, and why the MDA needs to define ‘light touch’ beyond pretty press statements.

'Light Touch' or Rule by Bureaucrat?
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