Singapore's Opposition Needs to Step Up Now

Election talk is once again in the air. The government is keeping quiet about the exact date, but the Electoral Boundaries Review Commission was formed two months ago. The General Elections would likely follow soon; internet speculation suggests that it would be in the third or fourth quarter of the year. Regardless of what happens, the next General Elections will see the most number of opposition candidates and parties taking to the hustings in my (very short) lifetime.

I’m not going to hold my breath, though. I think the opposition has a long way to go before they can be a viable contender.

Who are we voting for?

In the elections I have seen and covered, I have always wondered why political parties keep their candidates hush-hush until the last moment. I understand it would not be prudent to reveal who is going to contest where until after the electoral boundaries are drawn up and approved, and when every party has confirmed which constituencies they will be contesting in. But after that?

In the last General Elections, new election candidates seemed to materialize out of thin air weeks or days before the elections proper, well after the boundaries are drawn up. The problem is that people will have very little time to know who these candidates are — especially if they have not had a chance to meet these candidates in a walkabout, either as formal candidates or as ‘volunteers’ and ‘activists’. This problem is exacerbated by Singapore’s strange brand of opposition politics: where in most countries opposition parties run on platforms and are represented by their candidates, in Singapore opposition parties run on candidates and then reveal their political positions during the hustings. In a country where opposition politics is defined principally by personality it makes no sense to reveal candidates at the last possible minute. Constituents need to know who they are voting for.

What are we voting for?

Singaporeans know what the ruling People’s Action Party broadly stands for. Positions and policies may shift from election to election, but they understand the core policy perspectives that compose the PAP: economic growth, political stability, multiracial society, monetary policy based on exchange rate, migrant labour, and so on. They can’t say the same for the opposition beyond being opposed to the government.

Once more, in the weeks and days leading up to the General Elections, opposition party manifestos seemed to appear out of nowhere, containing ideas never seen before the GE except as reference to existing issues and controversies in the body politic. Singapore’s opposition parties seem content with talking about issues in Parliament and then counting on social media and the regular media to push their views across, with the occasional blog post and press release for variety. But by waiting on current events to publicise their policies, the opposition will be behind the curve. Firstly, everybody else — government and opposition — will be talking about the same thing at that time, so the individual impact of any single party’s announcement would be muted in the general consciousness. Secondly, if a party does not already have a prepared policy position, it will be well behind the curve as it scrambles to catch up with everybody else — and if it does not even try, the party will risk being swept to the sidelines.

Previously, voters might have been satisfied with people who would serve as a check against the existing government. However, as society becomes increasingly educated, tech-savvy and concerned about rights and responsibilities, it is no longer enough for opposition parties to brand themselves primarily as a check against the government. With at least nine active opposition parties (not counting those that are registered but have kept a low profile), multicornered contests are inevitable. Voters need to know what, exactly, they will be voting for — even those inclined towards voting for the opposition will want to know whether they should vote for Opposition Candidate A or Opposition Candidate B and why.

What the opposition needs to do

By now it is too late in the game for the opposition to try something radical. Elections are not won during the elections proper: they are won in the intervening years, as the party lays down the foundation and the groundwork for success. At this point, the opposition should do the following to improve their chances of victory:

1. Strategising. The party needs to decide its election goals, be it to win a constituency, to gain experience and exposure, or to pass up this chance and continue to build resources. From this goal they can decide strategy: where they will contest in, who they should support, how they will communicate their positions. This stage of course depends on the actual electoral boundaries, but the party should at least have an idea of the neighbourhoods it wants to look at and prepare a communication and advertising plan. Most importantly, the party must draw up its manifesto and start communicating the essence of its ideas and positions — ideally as early as possible, before the media is saturated with other news or news of other party positions.

2. Candidate selection. Once again, this depends on the boundaries the EBRC draws up. However, voters still have to know who they are voting for and what to expect from a candidate. Parties cannot expect to unveil a candidate a week before the GE begins and count on their brand to win the day — especially if they do not even have a brand. I’m certain that the opposition parties by now have at least an inkling of who they want to send to the hustings. For unconfirmed candidates, party leaders need to get confirmation as soon as practical. Likewise, these potential candidates need to make their decision soon — especially if they are being head-hunted by multiple parties — so that they can work the ground as early as possible and get to know the people they represent.

3. Coalition-building. With one city divided between a minimum of ten political parties, there are bound to be many multi-cornered fights. Traditionally, soon after the election boundaries are determined, the opposition parties would sit down to hash out where they will contest to minimise the possibility of vote-splitting. .Also, in the last GE, members of different opposition parties sometimes help out at each other’s activities. This is of course a positive action from the opposition’s perspective. Beyond that, though, the opposition needs to think about matters like joint policy positions, media and communication strategies, and branding. If there are no back-channel or informal discussions between the parties by now I would be severely disappointed. I don’t think a united coalition of opposition parties would emerge this year — or at least a viable one — and it’s too late for the opposition to start formalising a multi-party alliance. But if they can coordinate and cooperate to minimise vote-sharing they might at least stand a fighting chance to get more members into Parliament.

Everything obviously hinges on the ERBC’s electoral boundary announcement. At this time, opposition parties that want to contest in the elections must step up their communication strategy. They need to brand themselves by reminding Singapore who they are and what they stand for, and perhaps drop hints about who will be contesting where through walkabouts and social media. They should also have a shortlist of election candidates ready to go.

When the boundaries are announced, the parties would then sit down and discuss their chosen constituencies. With so many parties around, I fully expect multi-cornered elections regardless of how the discussions turn out. That said, I suspect the smallest and newest political parties would try to contest in places no one else wants to take, so that they won’t have to compete with more big dogs than they have to, and there is little to no opportunity cost for them to target those places since they are relative unknowns.

As soon as everybody has confirmed where they will be contesting, the parties have to roll out their platforms and candidates. This is the time to reveal manifestos and personalities, to achieve buy-in before the hustings. By now the manifestos must be finalised and the candidates lined up — especially newcomers to the political scene. The parties can’t wait until the elections to discuss the merits of their policy positions; they would have their hands full with campaigning. They need to have the people discussing their ideas and candidates well before the elections to cement their party brands.

With the people are of their policies and candidates in the months and weeks leading up to the election, Singapore’s opposition might have a chance at sending more candidates to Parliament and to truly make a difference. This is not the best-case scenario, but with signs pointing to an election in the near future, this is the realistic approach any opposition party can take.

'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.

Media and the Maturation of Fourth Generation War

Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold;
mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere,
The ceremony of innocence is drowned…

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

W. B. Yeats, the Second Coming

2014 closed on a bloody note, and a few days into 2015 the spectre of terror rose its head again. In the space of days and weeks the world saw a hostage crisis in Australia, another in Belgium, executions of police officers in America, mass abductions in Nigeria, and yesterday the assassinations of cartoonists in France.

It’s not the end of the world, but we can see it from here.

A state is commonly (albeit not quite completely) defined as a political organisation with a centralised government that maintains a monopoly on violence in a given territory. With the advent of new information communication technologies and the growing paradigm of open source warfare, that monopoly on violence is being challenged. The logical extension is that the power of the state will fade away, and the traditional world order defined by state actors will be replaced with a multipolar world defined by the expansion and growing importance of non-state actors and empowered individuals. The method of this transition is what is known today as fourth generation warfare.

First seen in Iraq and Afghanistan, Israel and Chechnya, 4GW is defined by a blurring of lines between combatants and civilians, war and politics. Today it is mutating even further: the line between terrorism and crime is growing hazy, with one feeding into the other as seen in the case of the Mexican cartels and Palestinian smugger/terrorist groups; the deed becomes propaganda and propaganda fuels deeds; and gaining public legitimisation is as important a goal as securing territory.

War never changes. War is violence designed to compel an opponent to fulfil the actor’s will, and violence seems eternal. On the other hand, war has changed. The means and purposes of waging war has changed, as well as the temporal goals and identities of the actors. Anybody can make war with the right tools, motivation and mindset.

Today, there seem to be three prominent kinds of 4GW actors. The first are transnational terrorist groups, loosely connected over the Internet and social networks, that aim to overthrow or replace the state. These groups include Boko Haram and the Islamic State. While their goals are ideological, they borrow criminal activities and methods to keep themselves going, such as front organisations, smuggling and money laundering.

The second are transnational criminal organisations that aim to hollow out the state to secure a space to conduct criminal activities. The most prominent example are the Mexican cartels. While driven by profit, these groups use terrorist methodology to secure its goals. The cartels are loosely organised, use atrocities to terrorise the people in their territories, and challenge the state by targeting or corrupting the military and police.

The last are lone wolves who attack seemingly at random. These people have a huge array of motivations: workplace dissatisfaction, anger at the police or government, the creation of a caliph, or just plain mental illness. They adopt criminal mindsets, either obtaining weapons illegally or turning off-the-shelf products into weapons. They use terrorist methodology to gain maximum publicity, hitting soft targets and boasting on social media, relying on news cycles to gain their spot in history.

Central to all three actors is the use of media to conduct propaganda of the deed. They perform the deed, and they use media of all kinds to transform it into propaganda. They can count on the media to rapidly propagate news of their attacks across the world. This leads to three distinct media strategies.

First, 4GW actors will use the 24/7 news cycle to generate maximum terror. A sufficiently large and resourceful group will strike rapidly and retreat just as quickly, creating maximum impact for global publicity. Then they regroup and do it again, and again, and again. Think the Paris or Mumbai shooters on a larger scale. Alternatively, following a terrorist attack, fellow travellers or non-connected 4GW actors will use the increased focus on insecurity and fear to amplify press coverage of their next attack to create the perception of an unstable world. They may also conduct operations that synergize with each other, deliberately or otherwise. The chain of attacks I described above, for example, imply just that. These attacks need not be exclusive; in fact, one can happen alongside the other.

Second, 4GW actors will rely on operational pauses. When there is too much heat for the actors to operate, when competing groups have generated too much white noise and drawn too much attention away from their ideology, 4GW actors will retreat and halt operations for a time. They will wait until the news cycle clears and the local environment returns to a calmer state, and then strike again for maximum impact. This is the hallmark of the Islamic Caucuses Emirate, and it would likely be adopted by other groups in the future.

Thirdly, larger and more powerful 4GW actors will attempt to influence the news cycle. They want the media to portray them as an unstoppable force to be feared and respected, building up their credibility. They will likely make contact with media organisations that portray them favourably, or at least allow foreign correspondents a glimpse into their life. There was a reason why the Islamic State allowed a German journalist to chronicle them instead of turning him into a hostage. These actors will also target media organisations that portray them in an unfavourable light to intimidate everybody else. Think of the attack on Charlie Hebdo yesterday.

The newspaper is no longer just a newspaper; it is also a newsmaker. The mass media will become increasingly important targets, either of influence or coercion or both, in the coming days. Non-traditional media outlets and personalities will likely also be targeted: celebrities, blogs, social influencers, ordinary people with extraordinary reach. The days of traditional warfare and state protection are gone; a brave new war is coming, and anyone can take up the sword.

If, through your death or through your tweet, you can help a 4GW actor advance the cause, you will be a target. There is really only one answer to this. Stand up and be counted against the barbarians, or make your peace with the chain and the grave.

Notes from a Singaporean independent writer

Channel NewsAsia interviewed me today on the topic of trends in self-publishing. You can find the full clip here.

In this post, I’ll expand on the key talking points in the interview, addressing the big debate between independent and traditional publishing from a Singaporean perspective.

What is an independent writer?

I defined an independent writer as a writer who is not compelled by contract to write for a publisher. With the advent of self-publishing and print on demand technologies, every writer is also potentially a publisher. Writers are no longer beholden to publishing houses to publish and sell their works. This means that writers are free to pursue self-publishing or fairer contracts with publishing houses — or both. Regardless of the path to publication, the writer gets paid higher royalties and the reader gets more books, leading to a win-win situation.

Previously, I called myself a self-published writer because that was the path I took. Now, having adopted a hybrid publishing path, I define myself as an independent writer. I self-published my stories American Sons and At All Costs, and I will be self-publishing my next novel Keepers of the Flame. In addition, I sold a short story, War Crimes, to Castalia House for its upcoming anthology Riding the Red Horse. This hybrid approach suits me best, because through self-publishing I can build up my core brand, and Castalia House lets me tap markets I could not have reached otherwise.

Self-publishing: With great responsibility comes great rewards

Self-publishing offers many benefits over traditional publishing, and very few of the disadvantages. Through self-publishing, the writer retains total control over intellectual property rights, the publication process, distribution, promotion and sales. This is the pitfall and the promise of this approach.

Writers who take the self-publishing route have to think of themselves as writers and publishers. The work does not stop when the writing is done. After writing comes editing, cover art and formatting. These have to done to a professional standard to attract and retain customers. Following publication, the self-published writer needs to think about distribution, marketing, branding, pricing, legal regulations, and accounting. If the writer cannot handle these, the writer has to hire someone to do it, which drives up overheads.

Yet this responsibility comes with opportunities. Publishing houses want to make money, and they will focus their efforts, resources and energies on their bestsellers and the best-selling genres of the day. Newcomers are left to fend for themselves. A self-published author chooses which editor to work with, instead of an editor who might not understand the genre he writes in. A self-published author decides what the cover art looks like, instead of relying on a graphic designer he may not be able to communicate with and may not know what the book is about. A self-published author can choose when, where and how a book would be sold and at what price, responding directly to the state of the market, instead of relying on a marketing team that is likely too focused on promoting established bestsellers. A self-published author gets to define their brand instead of letting a marketing team do it. A self-published author cannot be locked into unfair contracts by unscrupulous publishers, allowing them to retain full rights to their work, to use as they wish.

Most importantly, self-published writers are not beholden to the whims of publishers. Publishers want to make a profit, and this means publishing books they believe to be profitable, written by high-profile or connected writers. Without a network or reputation to rely on, or a manuscript that happens to fit the hot genre du jour, many writers are out of luck — unless they take the self-publishing route. Nate Granzow writes men’s adventure fiction, but traditional publishers do not think the genre is profitable (notice the dearth of books in that genre on bookshelves these days). By publishing on Amazon, he got his opportunity to shine — he was one of the 1000 finalists of Amazon’s Breakthrough Novel Awards 2012, and ranked first in the Mystery/Suspense/Thriller category in the IndieReader Discovery Awards 2012.

By shouldering the responsibilities of self-publishing, self-published writers get to reap much larger rewards than their peers. Smashwords offers 70% royalties, plus distribution to affiliates and marketing tools. Amazon also offers 70% royalties, plus extra promotional tools for Kindle exclusives, access to a global supply chain, and its brand name. (Note for Singaporeans: after the Internal Revenue Service takes its 30% withholding tax, the actual royalties are closer to 45%, and because Singapore does not have a tax treaty with the US at this time, there is no way around this.) By using online ecommerce tools, writers get to sell directly to consumers, earning royalties between 90% to 100%. I use Sellfy and Gumroad, which you can find on my website’s bibliography page.

In addition to creative control and royalties, there are three other ancillary benefits: dexterity, flexibility and economies of scale.

Using self-publishing tools, writers can update their works very quickly. If they want to upload a reworked cover or an corrected manuscript, all they have to do is upload them on their distribution or publication platforms, and the changes will be committed within 24 hours at no additional expense. Publishing houses cannot boast the same turnaround time, and for publishing houses that rely on traditional print-to-warehousing-to-retailer solutions, the cost of changing manuscripts can be prohibitive.

This low-cost dexterity also leads to story flexibility. Thriller writer Steven Hildreth Jr. began his publishing career with The First Bayonet. The story started off as a novella on the Kindle store. He received so much positive attention, he expanded it into a full-length novel. The novel-length version generated even more positive press, giving him an inroad to writing success. This is especially important since, compared to the former Special operations Forces or established writers on the market these days, it is extremely unlikely that he would ever be published. With very few exceptions — virtually all of whom are bestselling writers — publishing houses would not allow their writers to do what Hildreth did.

Self-publishing also grants writers economies of scale. For publishing houses to be profitable, they have to sell novels and novel-length books. It is too expensive for publishing houses to sell novellas, novelettes and short stories, except perhaps as ebooks, and even then they have to charge higher prices than self-published authors to cover overheads. The self-published writer, on the hand, can dash out shorter stories and monetise them from the get-go.  This allows the self-published writer an opportunity to make money off these works, promote their existing fiction and reach wider audiences.

Working with publishers: Lessons from Castalia House

I said in my interview that Castalia House ‘knows what they’re doing’. By that phrase I meant that Castalia House is keeping a very close eye on the publishing revolution, and they are doing the things traditional publishing should be doing to stay relevant.

Castalia House is committed to publishing quality works by talented writers. One of my fellow contributors, William S Lind, is Amazon’s No. 1 bestseller in military strategy. Another is Tom Kratman, bestselling author of the M Day and Legio del Cid series. Other writers in Castalia House’s stable include John C. Wright, considered to be the modern C. S. Lewis, and Vox Day, whose novelette ‘Opera Vita Aeterna’ was nominated for the Hugo Award. By attracting and retaining such an august collection of writers, Castalia House is able to tap into their fanbases, reach larger markets, and reassure writers and readers that the works they produce are worth every cent. I feel this is how traditional publishers can survive in the new world of publishing: by being synonymous with high-quality work.

Castalia House also offers fairer royalty rates. For Riding the Red Horse, Castalia buys first-time publication rights. With the exception of editors Tom Kratman and Vox Day, Castalia offers fiction contributors 25% of revenues, divided according to the proportion of words contributed to their section of the anthology. Non-fiction contributors also receive the same terms for the anthology’s non-fiction section, as the non-fiction pieces tend to run shorter than the fiction ones and Castalia wanted the non-fiction contributors to be compensated fairly too. Castalia House prices its stories comparable to market rates, which tends to attract plenty of customers. By comparison, professional rates for science fiction short stories are defined as at least USD 3 cents a word, but this is a one-off payment. Riding the Red Horse could potentially generate royalties that exceed professional rates, paid twice a year for as long the book is sold. While this in no way compares to the monthly payouts of 45/70% offered by self-publishing platforms or the immediate 90+% if you sell directly to customers, it is a far sight better than a one-off payment of USD 3 cents a word or royalties of 1% to 10% from traditional publishers. Personally, I could accept these terms, since this anthology allowed me to reach a far wider audience and monetise what began life as a literary experiment.

Castalia’s last major advantage is that they handle all the backend work: marketing, distribution, pricing, branding, etc. This meant that after I submitted my piece, I was free to pursue other projects. Castalia House uses promotional tools like blogs, newsletters, and free ebooks to market their products, which means I would not have to. Furthermore, by working with the editors I learned a few tricks of the trade, which I am applying to my other works. They also have an in-house ebook store on their website to sell directly to customers, which in turn can be paired with marketing campaigns and special promotions to generate sales and publicity. Their cover art is of a consistently high standard and so is their editing and formatting. I’m confident that Castalia would handle Red Horse Rising, and by extension War Crimes, the same way.

Do note that this is the best case scenario. Many publishers do not necessarily think the way Castalia House does, especially in the realm of marketing and royalties. Writers who want to go the mainstream publishing route must do their research and pay very careful attention to contracts and rights.

Picking the right path

With so many options at their disposal, writers need to decide which path suits them best. I see myself as a craftsman and a professional. Self-publishing allows me to express the totality of my vision and be paid fairly for my work, and by working with Castalia House I can reach out to a wider audience. This hybrid approach suits me best — but it’s not necessarily for everyone.

The choice between self-publishing, engaging a publishing house or a hybrid approach depends on entirely on the writer. Writers need to decide early on how much work they are willing to put into learning the industry. They need to ask themselves if they are willing to shoulder the burdens of running a business, or just want to focus on writing. They need to decide how much money they want to make from their stories, and how much time they can dedicate to writing and the post-writing process. Most of all, they must find out which path would actually get them published.

Whichever choices they choose, one thing is clear: a writer cannot be an author without publishing a story, and self-publishing virtually guarantees publication. But, only publication — actual success is dependent on the writer’s definition and efforts.

I hope you have enjoyed this article as much as I have writing it. If you find value in this post, please leave a donation on the way out using the options below. Thanks!

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The Online Citizen needs to recalibrate funding model

The Online Citizen is shifting towards a subscription-based model. Citing a lack of funds, and the failure of advertising and donations to meet its operational needs, TOC hopes to use subscription fees to meet its needs.

As one of the original members of TOC, I’m sympathetic to TOC’s needs. TOC is at the awkward stage of being too small to go mainstream but too big to be completely volunteer-run. If advertising and donations won’t bring in enough cash, subscription seems to be the only way to go. But as a media professional, I think TOC needs to recalibrate its funding strategy.

Getting your money’s worth

TOC’s subscription model uses three tiers: monthly subscription, annual subscription, and premium subscription. The first, priced at SGD$18 a month, grants access to “special subscriber content, including full-length versions of videos and recordings”. Annual subscription fees are priced at SGD$180 a year for the same privileges. Premium subscribers, for the same fees as an annual subscription, also earn two free months’ of content for every year purchased, a limited edition science and nature documentary, and exclusive invitations to TOC-only events.

The prices are roughly on par with subscription fees offered by specialist technical journals and magazines. Those journals have access to expert knowledge in niche fields, databases, networks of contacts in media and industry, in-house staffs specialising in content and editing, and established reputations. 

What does TOC offer?  Arguably, the only value TOC can bring to the table is its focus on Singaporean matters. In the fields of quality control and content, editing, providing knowledge and networks of contacts, it is doubtful that TOC can measure up. 

But TOC tells the stories of ordinary Singaporeans not covered by the mainstream media. This is a combination of original reporting and commentary, and lately organising events and dialogues. This makes TOC closer to media organisations than specialist trade magazines. 

On first glance, TOC’s prices are cheaper than Singapore’s mainstream media. The Straits Times’ 2-year digital subscription plan charges SGD$26.65 a month, The New Paper $22.10 and The Business Times $26.65. The same applies to foreign media, which have the added burden of currency conversion fees.

However, TOC is exclusively digital, and is heavily reliant on subscription fees to make up for lack of donations and advertising revenue. The mainstream media has multiple viable income streams: print subscriptions, advertising, street vendor purchases. The mainstream media can afford to lose digital customers if the other streams can take up the slack — TOC cannot. 

When compared to digital-only news, TOC’s prices seem unfair. The Guardian prices mobile subscriptions at GBP 6.99 a month, which is SGD$14.72 — and a large number of its content are free-to-read online., staffed by Special Operations veterans, charges USD$3.99 a month, or SGD$4.98 a month, in exchange for daily, well-researched articles pertaining to Special Operations and terrorism.

Also, from the subscriber’s perspective, what does the $18 a month or $180 a year pay for? ‘Special subscriber content’, a rather vague term that seems to imply full-length interviews and videos — content that time-strapped people are not likely to consume. TOC promises “full-length versions of special feature articles, interviews and commentaries” in the future, but that is not happening now and so remains vague in the customer’s mind. In my (very cynical) reading, it feels like a politically correct way of saying that TOC will put up much of its regular content behind a paywall. The other long-term benefit is ‘weekly updates of articles sent directly to your email’, which is nice but hardly worth much in an age where social media can provide instant updates of articles when they are published.

Appealing to altruism and providing cost breakdowns may feel good, but most subscribers care about getting their money’s worth. It’s a question of comparative value. Large media corporations charge a slightly higher fee than TOC in exchange for professional staff, contacts, regular news service, a high quantity of articles, and quality control. TOC, on the other hand, is still largely volunteer-run, relies on tips and on-the-ground networking, cannot match the mainstream media’s quantity, and does not have trained professional editors.

Cutting costs the online way

According to its cost breakdown, the majority of TOC’s expenses lie in two areas: manpower ($75000), facilities ($50000) and events ($12000).

There is little that can be done about manpower costs. If the interns were unpaid, the full-timers would earn an average of $2083 a month. That is about 4/5 of what a fresh professional journalist would make — and journalists just need to write; TOC’s full-timers have to edit, post on social media, make strategic decisions and more. Further, as far as I can tell, there is no requirement to hold professional certification in relevant fields, so it seems the full-timers are not as qualified as their mainstream equivalents. If the interns do draw a salary, everybody else’s would be depressed even further. I think it is unconscionable to ask TOC to lower everybody’s salaries even further, especially given the rising costs of living.

Yet ‘facilities’ and ‘events’ together take up a huge chunk of expenses. These are fairly vague, but I am assuming they mean costs to run offline events. In recent times TOC has taken on a more active role in civic societies, organising dialogues and forums about various events. These undoubtedly cost money. But can TOC do without?

The easy way is to scale down or stop such events altogether. Obviously, this will lead to immense cost savings. But TOC has to provide a competitive advantage over the other blogs and the mainstream media, and a signficant fraction of this advantage lies in bringing people together for dialogues.

TOC should start thinking about leveraging the power of digital technologies. For example, the traditional way of holding a dialogue is to book a conference room, bring in guests and people, and talk about things. Now try this: bring the speakers into a small, intimate setting. Just the speakers and the moderator in a room, with some technical staff. if space permits, maybe invite some premium subscribers to sit in. Live-stream the event on the TOC website and other social media. Questions and comments can be crowd-sourced from social media, determined by the number of likes, shares, re-tweets and the equivalents. The video can then be saved and archived for other people to watch, especially if they are unable to physically attend the forum.

Such an approach should shave off event organisation costs. While arguably a virtual experience is different from a physical one, if organising live events presents such a huge drain on TOC’s resources, virtual events may be the more sustainable solution. It also allows TOC to reserve funds for offline events whose significance requires a physical presence, such as events at Speakers’ Corner.

The major problem as I see is that TOC charges $4 to $8 less than its mainstream equivalents, but the difference in value delivered is far greater than the monetary value. The mainstream media delivers tens to dozens of articles a day; TOC manages perhaps two a day in a good week. The mainstream media can deliver news on a huge range of subjects; TOC only talks about a very small range, with a focus on the controversial issues of the day. The mainstream media has large pools of professionally-trained journalists and editors; TOC has seven, four of whom are interns, and the recruitment requirements for interns do not necessarily involve professional qualifications. The mainstream media has
media passes, so they can go where TOC cannot. The mainstream media can gather foreign news and send correspondents overseas; TOC has to rely on the media.

These quantitative and qualitative differences far outstrips the $8 difference. Should TOC put up a paywall tomorrow, a person with limited funds will objectively obtain more value by subscribing to a mainstream paper and getting alternative views from individual bloggers (who write for free!) than by subscribing to TOC.


I am of the belief that $18 a month, or $180 a year, is far too high a price to pay for a digital-only blog that provides just one article a day on average concerning a narrow range of topics. I would be uncomfortable with a double-digit figure, and even the $5 to $9 range would give me pause. And, I suspect, so would a large number of people.

To attract subscribers, TOC needs to significantly reduce its subscription fees. It should also consider living up to the Online portion of its name to cut events and facilities costs where practical. While TOC undoubtedly needs the money to continue, if too few people subscribe to TOC, and if too many people are turned off by the subscription fees, the fundraising model could potentially backfire. That will be the true tragedy.

The State is Not Fragile

I’ve made this point several times before, but in the wake of Prime Minister Lee Hsieng Loong suing blogger Roy Ngerng for defamation and demanding damages, the time has come again to argue that defamation suits are not the response.

This post is not about the merits of Ngerng’s argument. He alleged that Lee stole monies from the Central Provident Fund, by comparing how CPF funds are handled with the current City Harvest scandal. Having missed the original article before Ngerng took it down, I won’t comment on it. But I will say that from a policy perspective, defamation suits benefit no one.

The Question Remains

Whether Ngerng actually defamed Lee is ancillary to the issue. Many Singaporean bloggers, such as Leong Sze Hian and gdy2shoez of Everything Also Complain, are raising questions about CPF mechanisms and investments. Ngerng’s post is simple one of a long line of similar posts — the only difference being that Lee’s lawyer saw cause to lay down a defamation suit.

Lee may feel his reputation had been hurt. A defamation suit, with a demand for damages, is the government’s traditional means of addressing this. However, even if the offending speech could be erased and the speaker made to pay damages, the issues remain. No number of defamation suits and no dollar amount can satisfy these questions. If anything, the use of defamation suits makes the state look as if it has something to hide, and that it is actually trying to silence dissent.

The Face of the State

The government, through the Prime Minister, may feel it needs to protect its reputation — its ‘face’, so to speak. But people today are less likely to be view defamation suits from authority figures in a positive light. If aimed at a popular blogger like Ngerng, the state is courting political backlash by creating the impression that it is perpetuating a kind of soft tyranny, rolling over dissidents with the combined power of law and money.

There are signs of backlash already. Other Internet personalities are taking to social media to express their support for Ngerng. Some miscreant(s) vandalised several bus stops in support of Ngerng. I feel people are becoming increasingly frustrated and angry at a government that seems to have reneged on its promise of a ‘light touch’ on the Internet, and is throwing defamation suits and letters of demand at every possibility. Ngerng is simply the last of a long line of bloggers, from Alex Au to Temasek Review Emeritus, Tan Kin Lian to Vincent Wijeysingha.

The eyes of the people are on the state. How an action is perceived is just as important as its intended effect. The government may pride itself on doing ‘the right thing’ instead of pandering to populist demands, but what is ‘the right thing’ here? Is it choosing to break out the legal hatchetmen? Or rising above concerns of reputation and addressing the root questions?

Earning the People’s Respect

The state is not so fragile that a single comment would bring it down. The Prime Minister’s rule is not so tenuous that his authority is threatened by a single blog post. If Singapore were to ever reach that stage, then that Singapore would not be the Singapore founded on the ideals of democracy and meritocracy. But the first step to getting to that hypothetical Singapore is to suppress political opposition and define the boundaries of speech with every instrument of the law.

Openness is power. Transparency follows legitimacy. Dialogue empowers citizens. The proper response to defamation is not to try to shut it down straight away; such a defensive move can and will be interpreted as the state trying to silence opposition and to cover up reality. The more appropriate response is candour. Tan Chuan Jin discussed how CPF is used in Singapore on the Internet. This should have been the first response. As is, it is overshadowed by the drama over Ngerng’s case, and its impact muted.

The answer to offensive speech is more speech. Instead of trying to shut down offensive people, the government should instead identify and address the real issues. This means being frank with government mechanisms, making statistics publicly available, and discussing policies. It also means actually talking to opinion leaders, either online or offline, instead of shunning them or bringing down the hammer. Starting discussions and addressing issues earns respect. It builds face. It also opens up the marketplace of ideas, letting people understand and decide the truth and hopefully persuade detractors. This is a win-win situation for everybody.

If the state were indeed defamed, such an approach would show the people that there are no grounds for spurious allegations, preserving or even enhancing its moral standing. Ordinary people around the world have been doing this on the Internet for over a decade, and the majority of opinion leaders had had no need to resort to letters of demand to handle offensive speech. The use of lawsuits would, in the new age of new media, have to be a very deliberate approach, if indeed attempted at all.

The government, in the person of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, holds every advantage over a single lowly blogger. The only real harm the government faces is self-inflicted, harming its own reputation through legal demands. It’s time for Lee and the state to place their law firms on the burner, and to step out of their offices and start talking to the people who put them there.

Hashtags Won't Stop Barbarians

In the wake of Boko Haram’s mass abduction of girls in mid-April, activists have responded with a social media campaign. With the hashtags #saveourgirls and #bringbackourgirls, photos and short videos are circulating across the Internet to…

…Well, do what, exactly?

Raise awareness of the issue? It’s already a crisis of international proportions. The world is outraged. Nigeria is already locked in a bitter conflict with Boko Haram, and while this campaign might spur them on to redouble their efforts, they — being the primary victims — are painfully aware of what Boko Haram has done. The objective has long ago been achieved.

Call to action? I would almost believe that, but what action? The Nigerians are mobilising the military against the terrorists, but they’ve been at war with Boko Haram since 2009. The United States has pledged to assist Nigeria and has dispatched advisers — since 2011. #saveourgirls is not calling for greater international intervention, nor indeed is there any kind of call to action inherent in the campaign. What else is #bringbackourgirls doing?

Asking, nay demanding, Boko Haram to return the girls they have kidnapped?

Scientists would sooner find proof of a Christian Hell.

The echo chamber of slacktivism

Slacktivism is simple. Identify an issue, do up a signboard with a marker and a convenient piece of cardboard, take a photo of yourself with your sign, post it on social media with a witty hashtag, and watch the likes come rolling in.

Slactivism is also rewarding. Do it right, get your friends to get their friends to jump in on the movement, and soon enough you’ll be rolling in likes, shares and retweets. Bloggers and fellow travelers will jump on the bandwagon and create more content supporting you. With enough public attention, the playbook of democracy virtually ensures that local political leaders, and later international media and politicians, will give air time to your campaign. These are signifiers of social acceptance. Or societal approval. In people who desire such approval, this sort of attention would trigger cascades of hormones that stimulate the reward centre of the brain. It makes them feel good. And to keep on feeling good, all they have to do is propagate the campaign.

Feeling good is not the same as doing good. But man is not a rational animal; man is a rationalising one. If a set of activities makes an airhead feel good, she is more likely to believe she is actually doing good — regardless of the outcome of her actions. This creates a self-reinforcing loop of behaviour, publicly meant to drum up attention for a cause, privately — even subconsciously — designed for emotional self-gratification.

I wouldn’t necessarily have any objections if, in the process of this campaign, actual, tangible objectives are achieved. Or, at the very least, the aforementioned campaign also works towards accomplishing objectives alongside the social marketing effort. Yet slacktivism makes social marketing, a means to an end, and turns it into an end into itself.

Funny thing about marketing: different audiences need different marketing techniques.

The real target audience

Who is #bringbackourgirls aimed at? The primary demographic will be English-educated people fluent with social media, most likely Western liberals, largely because they tend to be the primary inhabitants of social media activism spaces and will jump on a bandwagon like this. The secondary demographic is the international media, which wishes to grab and propagate the news of the day. #bringbackourgirls is crafted to appeal to these audiences, with emotive pictures, social media language, images portrayals of female disapproval and suffering, and a simple message.

But what will bring the girls back?

In military terms, Boko Haram has seized over 200 hostages, threatening to sell them into slavery. If the objective is to bring the girls back home, then legitimate authorities would need to identify the location of the hostages, and rescue them. In the medium term, to avenge previous atrocities and to neutralise a growing regional threat, Boko Haram needs to be eliminated. This means infiltrating their networks and sanctuaries, isolating them from their bases of support, discrediting their ideology and capturing or killing key personnel to disrupt the organisation’s operational capabilities. In the long term, to prevent groups like Boko Haram from emerging, the local inhabitants would have to identify the systemic causes that enable and empower the emergence of similar threats, and address them through holistic means.

Nothing I have seen of #saveourgirls will achieve this.

There is the forlorn hope that maybe #bringbackourgirls pressure Boko Haram into returning their hostages. But see above, scientists proving existence of Christian Hell.

Modern Western civilisation relies heavily on what is essentially structured peer pressure. Democracy is an exercise in mass approval or disapproval. Social media functions the same way, and so does slacktivism. If you approve or disapprove of something, create content to generate mass approval. And your right and ability to do this without being killed is guaranteed by the armed forces and the police.

But groups like Boko Haram come from a different perspective. Their name means ‘Western education is sinful’, and the cornerstone of their ideology is that interaction with the Western world is forbidden. Western cultural norms and expectations would not work on people who have closed their hearts and minds to them. This might yet have worked when Boko Haram was still working through peaceful means in the early days of its existence (2001-2008), but since the uprising in 2009, Boko Haram has transitioned into an armed terrorist group. They want to establish a country ruled by Sharia law, and do this by attacking Christians, bombing schools and police stations, assassinating government and prominent figures, and kidnapping Western tourists.

They have placed themselves outside the reach of Western cultural norms and memes. Slacktivism won’t speak to them. Neither will social media marketing aimed at generating Western disapproval against them. Quite simply, they don’t care about #saveougirls, and are not affected by it — except maybe in the twisted minds of their recruiters and propagandists, who will do what they can to portray it as a moral victory for the cause. (“See, our operation has agitated the West! We can reach across the seas and touch the minds of our enemies! Join us and you, too, will be strong enough to strike at the government and the far enemy!”)

Hashtags won’t stop barbarians. Analysis will. Planning will. Action will. If people are truly interested in stopping Boko Haram, then they have to step up and do actual work. It is hard, it will be difficult, and is nowhere near as immediately rewarding to the monkey brain as a constant stream of likes and retweets. Yet there is just one way to truly save the girls and bring them home — and slacktivism like this is not it.

Stomping STOMP is not the way to go

I don’t like the Straits Times Online Media Print.  STOMP calls itself “Asia’s leading citizen-journalism website with user-generated material fuelling its success”. But it is Singapore’s mainstream digital gutter tabloid — without editors, without common sense, without moderators, without quality control. STOMP is infamous for posts condemning foreigners, criticising national servicemen and police who relax in public, publicising street fights, and for failing to check fake news stories and making up fake stories. Citizen journalism may be a decentralised mode of journalism that gives voice to the average citizen — but it is still journalism and journalism demands standards, standards which STOMP consistently fails to meet. STOMP is emblematic of many media failings more so since STOMP’s parent company, the Singapore Press Holdings, is Singapore’s largest print news company — and has very strong ties to the government. Public opinion is turning against STOMP, with a petition calling for STOMP to be shut down. As of time of writing, the petition has over 21500 supporters.

For all its failings, I think STOMP should not be shut down.

Let me get the obvious out of the way: It is extremely unlikely that SPH would actually shut down STOMP. SPH has invested too much time, money, energy and reputation into developing and maintaining STOMP to do that. Singaporean institutions do not have a track record of giving in to public demands and it is very improbable SPH will set a precedent. STOMP has done nothing illegal (to be discussed below), STOMP draws huge numbers of hits every day with its sensationalism, and with those hits come paid advertisements and premium rates. In a world shifting away from print papers, SPH has to find a way to survive, and that means increasing revenues from online sources. I think SPH will continue to hold on to STOMP for as long as STOMP continues to rake in the dough, regardless of negative publicity and petitions.

But let’s assume that SPH might do more than chuck the petition into the bin or issue a perfunctory response. Let’s assume SPH will actually be moved by the petition. I still say closing down STOMP is not the way to go. The answer to offensive speech is more speech. It is true that STOMP has published many offensive articles and comments that can be construed as trolling, and perhaps encourages cyber-bullying and cyber-harassment. However, the Media Development Authority has stated that it would only take action if STOMP has violated the Internet Code of Practice, and as far as I can tell it has not. Nor has STOMP actually broken the law. There is therefore no room for prosecution, or even government action. If there is no proof that STOMP has done anything more than given voice to people who wish nothing more than to vent their spleens and spew nonsense, if there is no proof that STOMP has in fact harmed people, I believe there is no just cause for shutting it down.

What STOMP, its articles, its contributors and its commentators have done is offend many, many people. But hurt feelings are not a cause to shut people down. Feelings are subjective, and therefore cannot be measured. What offends someone may not offend another. This subjectivity means that there can be no benchmark for third-party enforcement. A more appropriate response to offensive speech would instead be more speech. If a reader doesn’t like an article that wantonly condemns all foreigners, she is free to criticise it. If another reader realises that STOMP has once again doctored photos to stir up controversy, he is equally free to point it out. Since I believe STOMP adds no value to my life, I choose to ignore it — and the rest of Singapore is equally free to do so.

While many people — myself included — think STOMP serves no purpose, the fact remains that STOMP is not merely about publishing gossip or trash. STOMP is more than just nonsense. People who follow the club scene might find useful information in articles about local nightclubs. STOMP aggregates some foreign news that might not make it to local newspaper — this morning, STOMP published an article about a man leaving a $1000 tip to a waitress so she could visit Italy.  Some youths may find STOMP’s Youthforia section interesting. Shutting down STOMP deprives people who find benefit from these sections. I study videos of street fights for research, and now and then videos of Singaporean fights pop up on STOMP. STOMP is not entirely useless.

STOMP has offended a great number of people, but it can also be redeemed. What does Singapore need more? A shrinking media environment, or a broader and more dynamic one? Reporters Without Borders placed Singapore 149th in the world for press freedom. While this is a reflection of government practices, how does shutting down STOMP make Singapore’s media more free? Chicago Times editor and publishing Wilbur F. Storey said, “It is a newspaper’s duty to print the news and raise hell.” Pleasing the government or the people is not in there. This means publishing the news, the facts of the day, and established truths — regardless of the feelings of the people or special interest groups. If a mob can shut down STOMP with a petition, who is to say another mob may not one day decide to shut down other, more reputable, media outlets? Or that one day public opinion will turn against Singapore’s group blogs and another mob will try to shut them down too? A successful petition to shut down STOMP could set a precedent for the tyranny of the mob over the media, mainstream and alternate.

Further, STOMP benefits a specific demographic, one that is not served by other, more famous, sociopolitical news blogs. The clubbers, the youths, the pop culturists, the ones who follow local court cases. By shutting down STOMP, the mob is saying that the interests of these people do not matter. Their interests might be trivial, but they are still a market, so even if STOMP goes down someone else will set up a spiritual successor to STOMP to serve this market. And there is no guarantee that STOMP 2.0 will not simply resort to reaching out to the lowest common denominator the way STOMP does now. Which means it is likely Singapore will see the same problem again.

Singapore needs a more vibrant media environment, not a smaller one. I think the better approach is to get STOMP to reform itself. STOMP’s core problem is quality control. STOMP cares only about sensationalism. Its editors do not check facts. Contributors are free to publish anything, including venomous xenophobic rants, unfounded conjecture and outright lies. The solution, therefore, is greater quality. That means changing STOMP’s scope, moving away from sensationalism and towards a greater respect for facts. Overhauling the editorial team, so that they actually edit articles and take a more active role in moderating comments. Refusing to publish unfounded, unverifiable stories or comments, or content that does not serve the public good — and making up for times when QC fails and unsatisfactory content is produced. If there is to be a petition that I believe it ought to be a petition to transform STOMP.  Not shut it down. But a petition is not enough, of course. It means convincing SPH that STOMP will either be more profitable if overhauled, or less profitable if it carries on — or both. Boycotting STOMP and telling SPH that you will continue to do so until STOMP is no longer Singapore’s mainstream digital gutter tabloid. Writing in to STOMP to demand changes. Supporting or creating alternative sites and explaining why STOMP no longer cuts it. Directly competing with STOMP with a more ethical and fact-based operational model.

It is easy and satisfying to tear something down, even more tempting when the target seems to be justified. But the better — though harder — approach is to build it up and make it the best it can be. It is not enough to demand change; this change must benefit people, with the goal of building a better world. Stomping STOMP does not serve the long-term interest. Improving it does.

I refuse

Blogs and websites around Singapore are staging a 24-hour blackout in protest of the Media Development Authority’s new media regulation scheme. It’s a noble sentiment. But I refuse to black out too.

Yes, I know the blackout is symbolic, a gesture of solidarity across the Internet designed to promote the cause and the protest. There is power in that. #FreeMyInternet, the blogger and activist collective campaigning against these regulations, understands that, and have initiated the blackout, a petition, publicity campaigns and the protest at Hong Lim park.

All well and good for them, but this blog is about individual thought, first and foremost. #FreeMyInternet speaks to the converted and tries to sway the undecided, in an attempt to pressure the government. I want to inform everybody. This post isn’t just for the masses. This is for the civil servants, the policymakers, the academics, the bureaucrats, and the people who want to know why

Where #FreeMyInternet addresses this new scheme as a single immediate event, I think in terms of systems and in the long-term. And this is where I must refuse to black out, and write instead about the law.

What purpose, law?

What is the purpose of the law? A law is a rule that describes behaviour acceptable or unacceptable to a state. It tells the people what to do and how to do it, and what to not do. It tells the judiciary what to do should someone be found acting in an unacceptable way, in order to punish that behaviour and hopefully prevent it. For laws to have meaning to citizens, the state must be able to enforce them consistently.

The Singapore government prefers a security maximisation approach to lawmaking and regulations. It tries to account for every single possible act of unacceptable behaviour through laws and regulations. The People’s Action Party’s dominance of Parliament means laws can be passed at will. The MDA has demonstrated that state organs can pass wide-ranging regulation without needing to consult Parliament or the people. The government will not have a problem passing laws to maximise its perception of security.

By definition, such laws must be far-reaching, and to be far-reaching they have to be ambiguous, so that a sufficiently creative prosecutor, policeman or official can find something which which to level charges against someone who may have violated these perceptions of security.  And because a law is far-reaching ambiguous, it is ultimately unenforceable.

Licensed websites under the new scheme will have 24 hours to take down objectionable content after being notified. Such content means ‘prohibited material’ in the MDA-imposed Internet Code of Conduct.

Prohibited material is material that is objectionable on the grounds of public interest, public morality, public order, public security, national harmony, or is otherwise prohibited by applicable Singapore laws…

This means: sexual activity of any and every kind, detailed acts of violence and cruelty, and anything that incites or endorses ethnic, racial or religious conflict. Taken to the fullest extent, Fridae, among Singapore’s most influential LGBT websites, will run afoul of this new regulation if the MDA decides it meets the requirement. Aspiring Singaporean erotica or thriller writers will have to find other ways to publish and sell their work, or otherwise go underground.  So will online filmmakers.

Now let’s look at the definition of ‘news’. The MDA says a Singapore news programme is:

 any programme (whether or not the programme is presenter-based and whether or not the programme is provided by a third party) containing any news, intelligence, report of occurrence, or any matter of public interest, about any social, economic, political, cultural, artistic, sporting, scientific or any other aspect of Singapore in any language (whether paid or free and whether at regular interval or otherwise) but does not include any programme produced by or on behalf of the Government.

This could mean anything. Such as a Singapore-based website that reports on regional or international sports events, which, if marketed properly, would over time generate the 50000 unique visitors a month over two months the MDA set as its threshold. Or an online lifestyle magazine whose content includes Singaporean beauty salons and theater productions. Or a large volunteer-run blog on a shoestring budget that runs articles which criticise the government.

The beauty of the Internet is that you do not need to pay a lot of money to run a website, so you can focus on content. Conversely, by focusing on good quality content, you are not focusing your energies on making a profit. Which means coughing up the money for the $50K performance bond could well be out of the website’s reach, forcing the site to close down.

This leads to two things. First, the MDA’s bureaucracy will necessarily have to grow large and bloated to keep track of every single noteworthy website and determine if they are in compliance with every regulation, and monitor up-and-coming ones. Large and bloated bureaucracies are, by definition, not efficient, and therefore either lead to increased government waste and/or loss of quality (i.e. content or blogs will slip through the cracks).

Secondly, even if the MDA successfully tracks and regulates everything online, all it can do is control supply. It cannot control demand, and there is much more demand for quality alternative journalism (perceived as more objective than the mainstream media) than there is supply. Demand will generate its own supply.

Humans are infinitely creative. This means taking blogs or websites down before they cross the 50K mark, and coming back up with a slightly different address. A single group owning multiple blogs or websites which report on many different specialist subjects,  effectively spreading out its readership. Singaporean content creators moving their websites and blogs (and themselves?) overseas, posting content from overseas but accepting content from locals. At the most extreme, secret websites and forums embedded in false-front websites or the Dark Internet.

This leads to three possible outcomes. Firstly, the government maintains that the regulations are only for big media companies, leading to activists and bloggers criticising the regulations indefinitely. Secondly, the MDA extends its regulations across the Internet, growing so big and bloated its actual effectiveness becomes suspect — or otherwise remaining so small it can’t keep up with an explosion in content. Thirdly, the laws themselves expand to keep up with creative subversion, until Singapore becomes as stagnant and repressive as the USSR, China or North Korea, and the intellectual elite and the dissidents flee as soon as they can.

I refuse all outcomes.

A different way

Laws based on the principle of maximising security are laughable at best and regressive at worse. The government and the bureaucrats have to abandon their  security-maximisation approach. The state need only concern itself with actual harm, and let the people decide on other matters. Singapore has not seen a race or religious riot in recent history, nor is such an event likely today. Controversial content have led to outcries — but not a corresponding spike in criminal and harmful behaviour. This means today, Singaporean citizens can handle controversial content without automatically devolving into blood-baying mobs. The government needs to recognise this, and loosen up its systems of control.

Which requires clearly defined and limited laws. Instead of definitions that could stretch to literally anything, and which tend to reduce the cultural growth of a population, there should only be enough law to handle harm against people and property. It is pretty much as much law as the government can hope to realistically enforce.

The government says it wants parity of offline and online media content regulation. That’s all well and good, but instead of increasing the law, why not reduce it? Why not have a single set of consistent laws and regulations across the board? These laws would seek to restrict and punish only verifiable harm, such as hate speech, child pornography, and actual depictions of sexual violence designed to promote it. Content that hurts feelings but not causes harm (flame wars, portrayals of non-heteronomative sexuality, analysis of religious texts) will be left well alone.

Controversial content that falls in between can be discussed by a competent citizens’ group, such as independent ombudsmen. As far as possible, existing laws would be used, modified as necessary, instead of new ones to regulate only harmful behaviour. Drop the performance bond altogether; such a requirement harms only those who speak truth to power in Singapore.

All these laws and regulations will have to go through the Parliamentary process with citizen feedback. No exceptions. For such a wide-ranging scheme, you cannot trust one party, one government organ, even one group of concerned citizens, to get everything right.

The full scope of this proposal is outside the scope of this article. It’ll be covered in a future one.

But for now, I refuse to be silent, I refuse to stop access, and I refuse to think only of the immediate. If you refuse to accept the legislation like I do, and if you still believe in #FreeMyInternet, head down to Hong Lim Park on Saturday, 8 June, from 4-7pm.