Like many Singaporeans, I am deeply concerned by the online news-licensing scheme. I am sure many Singaporeans will agree with me when I say that the Internet has revolutionised the political landscape of Singapore. Indeed, the advent of the Internet and its consequential means as a news outlet has liberated many Singaporeans from the shackles of malaise and helplessness. As our country moves into the future, the concept that every citizen has a voice and a stake in the direction of Singapore is surely one that should be encouraged and not suffocated.
I am not suggesting that all online content is accurate, far from it! But, does stifling online content solve the problem of the propagation of incorrect information? I firmly believe that a lack of information leads to conspiracy theories and rumour mongering. Instead of ensuring that the “correct” information is out there, this regulation will only lead to more speculation and suspicion.
A large part of why Singaporeans have increasingly turned to online sources for news is due to Singaporeans not feeling that the mainstream media is completely transparent in the first place. This coupled with a lack of outlet for Singaporeans to vent their spleen has therefore created the seeming hotbed of dissent on the Internet. This clampdown is therefore a case of targeting the effects but not the underlying problem.
The timing of this new surprise ruling is also coincidentally questionable. In the aftermath of GE 2011, it was widely acknowledged that it was with the use of social media and online engagement that opposition parties gained traction with Singaporeans. Thereafter, online news agencies have managed to release headline-grabbing material spanning from the AIM mismanagement issue to the nefarious affairs of various MPs. It would be fair conjecture to assert that it was the online media that pushed the investigations of a number of high-level corruption allegations into the public spotlight. Once in the limelight, the public demand for accountability took on a life of its own and the incidences were not “permitted to die down”.
The regulations are couched in disturbingly wide terms. What does “objectionable content” mean? Is there an objective list or is it just whatever the MDA deems objectionable? What yardsticks will the MDA use to determine whether something is objectionable? Is there an objective criterion or is it open to the subjective likes or dislikes of the MDA? On the face of it, it would seem to be so deliberately vague that it can be applied to anything at anytime. There are just too many open-ended questions.
While what constitutes “objectionable content” is a moving target, the websites it is designed to catch is specific:
“Under the scheme, online news sites will need to obtain individual licences if they report at least once a week on Singapore’s news and current affairs over a period of two months, and are visited by at least 50,000 unique IP addresses from Singapore each month.”
The penalty of falling foul is also disproportionately high:
“They must put up a performance bond of $50,000”. This is a sum that will be beyond the reach of most online websites which are not profit generating.
While the MDA has clarified that the new regime would apply only to sites focused on reporting Singapore news and that bloggers’ personal sites would not be subject to the new licensing terms, this does not un-muddy the waters for sites such as TRE, The Online Citizen or Yawning Bread. While these started off as personal blogs, they have since evolved into something that sits in between the personal and public domain. At the moment, 10 commercial sites have been identified but there is no guarantee that this list will not expand. Sites such as The Online Citizen or Yawning Bread will, after all, easily meet the criteria set out above.
So what we have is a piece of legislation that sets out no fixed guidelines for behaviour but with potential culprits identified and the consequential punishment clearly set out. The net effect of such uncertainty in expectations balanced cleverly with certainty in the outcome of non-compliance is fear and self-censorship. Such opaqueness is definitely open to abuse and like the ISA, has no place in modern Singapore.
What really are the goals of this legislation? Perhaps, the ultimate aim is to ensure that opinions are measured and circumspect to the ruling class but it is but a myopic solution that can only work in the short term.
Minister for Communication and Information, Yaacob Ibrahim has claimed that this legislation is to protect the public by ensuring that they have access to the “correct” information. How is “correct” to be defined? Is this a means to protect the public or a means of enforcing control over an increasingly errant population?
Control in this manner will never work in the long run. Singapore is a democracy and for any democracy to function, the government can only rule by consensus. The hallmarks of democracy such as elections will still have to be carried out. Will this regulation really endear Singaporeans to the current government? Attempting to regulate the internet in this fashion will only lead to more smokes and mirrors and foster further resentment.
Not only does this not protect the public interest, it will not effectively lead to the desired results of control either.