Choo Zheng Xi / TOC Co-Founder

The most charitable spin one could put on Dr Yaacob Ibrahim’s performance in Parliament on Monday was that he did not come to Parliament expecting a full debate on the MDA Licensing Regime.

Indeed, with only a handful of Parliamentary Questions on the Order Paper and Mrs Lina Chiam’s adjournment motion on the table, Dr Yaacob probably wasn’t expecting to do much explaining.

An adjournment motion allows the MP who tabled it an uninterrupted 20 minute speech, unless she concludes before then and yields her time to the Minister for reply.

Unfortunately, Dr Yaacob botched even his limited exposure to public accountability.

At one point, pausing awkwardly mid-sentence, Dr Yaacob had to smile sheepishly as he flipped through his notes and apologize to the Speaker of Parliament for going back and forth.

The other Ministers who spoke before him only showcased his inadequacy.

Dr Balakrishnan gave a well-prepared, graph heavy presentation to Parliament about his Ministry’s efforts to combat the haze. Dr Ng Eng Hen managed to channel affability and a measure of gravitas despite public criticism of the haze prevention efforts.

Dr Yaacob, by contrast, appeared markedly out of his depth.

At points, Dr Yaacob noticeably looked up to the public gallery across the front bench where the Chief of Government Communications, Janadas Devan, sat.

Perhaps this was for re-assurance.

How low can you go?

Or perhaps, Dr Yaacob was glaring at blogger Ravi Philemon, who was watching his performance two rows behind Janadas Devan.

Dr Yaacob chose to set the tone by going on the attack, singling Ravi out for a haze related Facebook (re)-post despite the fact that the National Environment Agency had already gone to great lengths to rebut Ravi’s (re)-post.

Dr Yaacob’s lunge for the jugular was ostensibly in response to a question asked by Mr Vikram Nair about the Government’s plan to ensure the public has access to timely and accurate information in a crisis situation.

Whatever one thinks about the merits of Ravi’s (re)-post, I think it is clear to all Singaporeans that Dr Yaacob chose this opportunity to indulge in an unabashadly political attack against a non-member of the House.

This was the inauspicious and shameful manner in which Dr Yaacob slithered into his “defence” of the MDA regulations. Perhaps his spin doctor(s) had advised that it was good politics to “frame” the issue of media accountability and the Licensing Regulations against the backdrop of Ravi’s Facebook faux pas.

If so, shame on the spin doctor(s) and shame on Dr Yaacob for taking this advice. This is the type of gutter politics that supporters of both the ruling party and the opposition need to eschew. It adds nothing to deepen political discourse around complex issues of regulations and free speech.

Cross-bench concern

Thankfully, MPs were more interested in the issues raised by the Licensing Regime.

To their credit, MPs have clearly heard the concerns of Singaporeans and this reflected in the pointed questions they asked Dr Yaacob.

PAP MP Mr Zaqy Mohammad questioned the urgency with which the MDA licensing regime was introduced. Mr Vikram Nair asked why existing laws weren’t adequate to achieve the Government’s objectives. Mr Baey Yam Keng asked whether or not the performance bond would be too onerous for some websites to bear. And Mr David Tan asked a pointed question that I cannot now recall but I fully intend to give credit to when Hansard reports in full.

WP MPs also rose to ask some pointed questions of the legislation: Mr Chen Show Mao queried the broad definitions in the new legsilation, Mr Pritam Singh asked whether or not the broader public was consulted before the licensing regime was passed and Mr Gerald Giam sought clarification on the number of times take-down notices were issued by the Government in past years.

In Supplementary Questions, MPs (I think it was Mr Baey) queried why the Government had to “rush through” the Licensing Regime and whether or not the manner in which the Government had introduced the Licensing Regime had hurt Singapore’s international image as a data hub. The latterquestion was with respect to the Asia Internet Coalition (“AIC”)’s letter calling the Licensing Regime “unwarranted and excessive”.

Mrs Chiam’s moment

But the finest speech of Monday’s Parliamentary sitting belonged to Mrs Lina Chiam.

Mrs Chiam’s speech was principled, well-researched and didn’t pull any punches. While various MPs had queried individual aspects of the Licensing Regime, it was Mrs Chiam who issued the clarion call of principle: the MDA regulations fail the test of legal rigour because of their vague wording, setting the stage for arbitrary execution.

Quoting George Washington, Mrs Chiam reminded Parliament: “If freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter”.

To the ever-practical Singaporean, unfamiliar with Washington and his principles, Mrs Chiam appealed to his sense of legal order and our pride of place in the developed World:

One does not even need to believe in the constitutional right to free speech to realise how worrying the new MDA rules are, from the point of view of legal order, transparency in governance, and good business sense. With the freedom of expression suppressed, Singapore is not living up to its potential as a First World country.”

And Mrs Chiam’s message to Dr Yaacob was clear: withdraw the Licensing Regime, or else carve out exemptions for community news websites like The Online Citizen and TR Emeritus.

Dr Yaacob’s mixed messages

In response to the arrayed concerns of Parliament, Dr Yaacob repeated a standard mantra which can be distilled into two simple (and contradictory) positions:

  1. The Licensing Regime does not really introduce any additional obligations on content providers, it merely makes them “more aware of their legal obligations”; and
  2. The Licensing Regime is needed to prevent unspeakable mistruths from causing havoc in society in times of crisis.

Dr Yaacob also continued to dismiss the concerns of ordinary Singaporeans, bloggers, small businesses, and media conglomerates as “far-fetched”.

As Dr Yaacob answered query after query by saying concerns were either unfounded or far-fetched, one was increasingly given the impression that Dr Yaacob was trying to convince himself.

It was a bizarre performance: in the face of uniform concern even by MPs of his own party, Dr Yaacob was left obstinately denying that there was any cause for concern.

To questions about why the Government had not consulted more broadly, Dr Yaacob replied brazenly: the regulations only apply to 10 sites, so there was no need to.

However, in a telling and probably off-script moment, Dr Yaacob admitted that there is no knowing how many sites will be on the Licensing Regime list next year.

However, he hinted less than subtly that Australian based news website The Global Mail was being targeted as a possible member of the list.

Dr Yaacob’s Inaccuracy and evasion

All this pretzel logic and self-justification was made even more jarring by a simple factual error in Dr Yaacob’s speech.

In insisting that the new Licensing Regime really wasn’t any different from existing legislation, Dr Yaacob said that the broad definitions in the Regime are already found in the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act (NPPA).

This is incorrect.

In the table below I’ve highlighted the much more broadly framed Licensing Regime definitions, compared to the NPPA.

compare

Dr Yaacob also conspicuously failed to answer a direct question levelled by Mrs Chiam: what does the Government’s non-binding assurances mean when the Government cannot explain why it has arbitrarily chosen not to license TOC, which appears to qualify under the Licensing Regime?

The question about TOC’s status is a question that has been asked from the first day the Licensing Regime was announced.

It is a great pity that, despite all the time and resources Dr Yaacob has at his disposal to answer this question, he has chosen to duck it in Parliament.

Moving ahead

The next phase in the battle against the Licensing Regime now moves to amendments to the Broadcasting Act to be introduced next year.

Dr Yaacob has promised that he will consult widely beofre amending the Broadcasting Act.

He would be wise to do so, given the uniform backlash he has received in ramming home the Licensing Regime.

The Licensing Regime, conceived in hurried shame and birthed in muddled ignominy must not be allowed to live long in the face of the combined opprobrium of Parliament and the people.

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