MDA’s new regulation – an absolute failure in public service

By Howard Lee

When news first broke about the protest against the move by the Media Development Authority to regulate online media through a $50,000 bond, 24-hour content take-down notice scheme, the anecdotal responses I received from family and friends was, surprisingly, not the usual aversion.

“Yeah, that regulation, it pretty much blankets everything, right?” “I don’t understand what they have been saying…” “Woah, MDA has a lot of explaining to do for this one!”

But explain they did not. In fact, all MDA did, in the many days of mucking around with trying to explain and assure Singaporeans on the policy, was repeatedly putting its foot in its mouth.

What was left in the wake of the announcement since 28 May has been confusion, opacity, and an emerging feeling that MDA really did not know, or did not bother to understand, the incredible complexity of the online world they were trying to regulate, and yet had the blatant audacity to push through with such a half-baked legislation, perhaps believing that we would be fools enough to open our mouths and let them shove it down our throats.

 

The first thing I have been taught about media policy in school was: Clarity above all else. Policy affect people, and policy makers need to be aware of who exactly would be affected, how they will be affected, and what benefits the policy would bring. Policy must never be ambiguous.

Yet, clarity was not in this policy. We got none of that from MDA, be it the initial announcement or the subsequent bombardment of statements that attempted to ‘clarify’ on the policy. Instead, we are still left with certain vagueness, particularly in the “who” component. Exactly what type of websites fall under the broad definition of “news websites”? In the letter of the new legislation, this is essentially every blog, site and forum that says anything, from a car crash to a Minister breaking wind in public.

What differentiates the 10 identified website from the other websites out there? Again, we have only seen evidence in the various statements that suggests MDA prefers to keep this loosely associated, rather than help us understand it clearly in terms that would have no room for ambiguity.

And then, the benefits of the policy. The stated intention was to bring parity to the online media space. But where exactly is the line of parity? That they do not post offensive content (never mind that even that is not clearly defined)? Are there not other laws to prevent this from happening, such as those regulating defamation, the Sedition Act, etc? Would a separate law against hate speech make more sense than this archaic nebula of a policy that casts a net over everyone without a clear idea of what it hopes to catch?

I have always had faith in our public service, to do the right thing, even the more careful thing, for the benefit of citizens. To me, this policy by MDA is a massive disappointment, because there appears to have been no thought given to its parameters and environment, no consultation put into the process, and an absolute disregard for the consequences of its words.

How then can our Ministers expect citizens to trust that the government is doing the right thing?

To this date, Minister for Communication and Information Yaccob Ibrahim has blamed the fallout on how to policy was announced, opining that public communication could have been better.

Minister, please stop passing the buck down to your communications team. This policy was a disaster even before any Singaporean laid eyes on it. No spin doctor could have made it better. It was bad public policy, and if you expect Singaporeans to be blind and naive enough to think it is alright, think again. Minister for Manpower Tan Chuan Jin spent half an hour on national television trying to explain away the mess, and all we saw was a steady climb of those who think the new regulation would limit online news content, from 50% to a landslide 72.7%. Is not the writing already on the wall?

But the truth is, all is not lost. No policy is cast in stone. The right and honourable thing for MDA to do now is to admit that it has taken citizens for granted, scrap the legislation, sit down in a real discussion with bloggers and citizens alike, and think about how to move Singapore’s media regulations forward, not further backwards.

It is time to take public policy out of the gutter of politics, and into the real world of everyday people. Singaporeans depend on that, and we need a clear signal before we can trust this government to do the right thing. Clearly, MDA’s latest blunder of a policy is not that signal.