TOC National Day Rally commentary

Choo Zheng Xi / Editor-in-Chief

“We will progressively open up our system even more. If you compare today with 5 years ago, 10 years ago, it’s much more open today.”

–Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong

We’ve heard these selective comparisons before. They don’t offer me much joy, considering that the comparison is done relative to an extremely low base. This should give Singaporeans as much cheer as telling us that we have more political freedoms than Zimbabwe (although our countries are comparable in terms of media freedom).

In aggregate, much of the political changes offered are cosmetic to the point of banality. More worrying than the lack of substantive improvement is the danger that this illusion of change will act as a sop for those voices advocating a widening of the space for political expression.

Instead of being lulled into complacency by the siren song of multimedia slideshows and Mr Lee’s jovial smile, it is all the more imperative that we seize the advantage to broaden the platform for civil and political rights, continue to bring into focus strong and principled arguments for freer information, and highlight the relevance of these issues to improving the lives of ordinary Singaporeans.

Pronouncements on “openness” on the Internet a dog’s dinner

PM Lee cited preserving the integrity and quality of political discourse as one of the guiding principles behind a gradual relaxation of the law on political films. This led him to draw the distinction between factual documentary and slanted political films.

In practice, any such line will necessarily be an arbitrary one, and in principle, his guidelines fall far short of recognising the critical value political films and advertising have in a vibrant democracy with a politically-informed electorate.

He repeated the same broken record on political films by dismissing them as “partisan stuff” and “footage distorted to give a slanted impression”, and by reaffirming the seriousness of politics. With due respect, it seems Mr Lee takes himself too seriously.

Politics, while indeed serious business, should not be placed on a protected pedestal. The health of our body politic depends on political parties sharing their political views. It is precisely because politics is of such central importance that the political maturity of our citizenry needs room to develop. This means allowing citizens to choose from a range of political views, some polemical, others objective, and hone our instincts of political discernment.

The distinction between “factual documentary” and “slanted” video material will have the bureaucrats at the Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts (MICA) beside themselves with joy. This is a carte blanche for them to exercise the type of arbitrary and opaque administrative discretion they have wielded all along under existing regulations. Only now, they will be armed with new slogan-shields like “Lighter Touch” and “Political Openness”.

Consider the following hypothetical situation. What if I, an ordinary citizen with no political affiliations, but fed up with the arrogance of the PAP, make a video that strings together very factual elitist comments by Ministers, spliced with copious factual footage of MPs sleeping in Parliament? The point I am trying to make through this video is that these Ministers and MPs are being paid millions of dollars to misunderstand us and take leave from their day jobs to nap in Parliament.

Perhaps, in the above example, this might very clearly be considered “slanted”.

But what about a website that runs footage of exclusively opposition election rallies? Or the even murkier case of a website that runs videos with flattering footage of throngs at opposition rallies, juxtaposed with handfuls of grassroots leaders at PAP rallies?

It doesn’t take a prophet to predict the response of the Minister in Parliament when these laws are up for debate: MICA will decide on a case-by-case basis. One can only hope MICA applies the lax standards used in allowing PAP MPs’ blatant advertising on the pretext of National Day banners to political films.

As PM said, cyberyears are like dog years. This new illusion of “openness” belongs in the doghouse unless substantive action is taken.

Going green on Hong Lim Green

Less rejoicing for the bureaucrats at the National Parks Board. In addition to their existing duties of maintaining our shrubbery and keeping our parks free from gay picnics, they will now have to invest in riot gear in case demonstrations get out of hand at the Speaker’s Corner.

In another instance of faux liberalisation, PM Lee announced that demonstrations will be allowed at Hong Lim Park. Singaporeans might be less cynical if this free speech corner had more fiery speeches and less Capoeira and Taiji, but the success of the PAP’s initial policy of Containment towards free speech does not bode well for a broader liberalisation of civil liberties.

Hong Lim Park has been periodically trotted out to prove that Singaporeans do indeed have a right to free speech. This has drawn some fire away from calls to repeal the laws such as the Public Entertainments and Meetings Act, which requires a politician who wants to make a public speech apply for the same license as someone who wants to organise a “peep show”, “circus”, or a game of “skill or chance”.

The loosening of regulations in relation to Hong Lim Park insidiously risks drawing attention away from more fundamental debate on the legislative framework on public assembly. Singaporeans should not easily forget the Ministry of Home Affairs’ arbitrary denial of a permit to the Workers’ Party when they wanted to organise a cycling event at East Coast Park, and place the Hong Lim “liberalisation” in appropriate context.

To give credit where it is due, I would still give Mr Lee an “A” for effort, despite an “F” for substance. The new changes highlight the Government’s in-principle recognition that an increasingly politically-literate electorate will not settle for the status quo. Now that the government has indicated a willingness to listen and respond, we need to keep up the pressure and continue to speak up.

Stay tuned for TOC’s commentary on socio-economic measures.

A shorter version of the above article by Zheng Xi is published on TODAY.


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