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Big brother is watching

~by: Teo Soh Lung~

The month of February 2012 must go down as the blackest month for bloggers and every Singaporean who treasures the right to free speech.
 
It started with Alex Au of Yawning Bread, a very well respected and formidable blogger who does extensive research for every article he writes.  He chooses his words with great care, indeed much greater care than the senior counsel who acted for the Law and Foreign Minister, K Shanmugam in the letter threatening him with legal proceedings. Alex’s response to that letter speaks volume of his wit and courage. “I take Shanmugam’s word on this matter. I have withdrawn that comment as requested.”  At the end of the post, he said: “Needless to say, no comments to this post will be necessary.”
 
The buzz and anxiety among the cyber community died down a little after the minister accepted that statement.  But not for long. Within days, a second legal letter was issued, this time by no less a person than the prime minister himself, Lee Hsien Loong. It threatened TR Emeritus over a contributor’s article. Poor Richard Wan, one of the five editors who not too long ago, had emerged in a forum organised by TOC. I am sure he didn’t anticipate receiving a lawyer’s letter from anyone and worse, from the prime minister himself and must have regretted surfacing to the open. Happily, his trouble ended shortly with his removing the article and an apology.  But that was not the end of the matter for him. The prime minister’s brother, Lee Hsien Yang followed suit, this time over a comment by one of its readers.
 
Bloggers know that every article is prone to being “attacked” by supposedly opposition or PAP supporters. Mostly, these commentators are anonymous and harmless. Most bloggers let them air their frustrations because there are too many of them. For most serious readers, they hardly read past the first five comments before they flip the page. So why on earth did Lee Hsien Yang, who does not hold any ministerial post, feel so bothered about a comment which in all probability, would not have been read by the majority of readers? Why did he bother to scrutinise readers’ comments and take them so seriously? Perhaps he could write to  explain.  I am sure TOC and TR Emeritus would give him whatever space he needs and bloggers will be happy to share what he writes with the world and to give him maximum publicity.
 
Opinions were gathered by the media about the three incidents. Some appear to be grateful that at least the three did not ask for monetary compensation as former prime ministers, senior ministers and ministers did in the past. Others complain helplessly.
 
Singaporeans like to read the hidden message of the government, like the Irish who enjoy reading  tea leaves after the tea is drunk. Why did they not ask for money? Some attribute it to the magnanimity of the younger generation leaders. Others were more cynical. They feel that bloggers don’t have money and it is pointless to bankrupt them. And some think that the bloggers are spared because they may be sympathetic to opposition political parties but they are still independent of them. Yet others take the message more ominously – that the three acts coming so close to one another, is a warning to the blogging community, publishers and writers that the days of relative free speech have ended.  Be careful, big brother is watching. His eyes are everywhere. His eyes are sharp and would leave no comment unread. He has plenty of money.  
 
What then should we do or not do if we ever have the misfortune of receiving a lawyer’s letter? Apologise profusely and promise not to repeat even unoffending words or words of others even though we have taken so much care? Or should we stand up and fight for our right to freedom of speech as guaranteed by our constitution? If we take the latter course, can we withstand the onslaught without being hurt? I am sure some will be hurt in the process but do we have a choice if we want to retain our limited freedom which we took decades to regain?  The danger is that if we do not stand up for our rights now and support those who may be in trouble now, then our right to free speech will continue to be eroded and one day, we may wake up deprived of all we have! Like wealth, rights are not lost in a day.  They vanish slowly, without our realising it and when we are least attentive.
 
Pastor Martin Niemoller’s thoughts may be apt here :
 
First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Jew.
 
Then they came for the communists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a communist.
 
Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a trade unionist
 
Then they came for me
and there was no one left
to speak for me.

This article first appeared on Ms Teo's Facebook. TOC thanks her for allowing us to reproduce it here.