By Andrew Loh
The announcement by the website Breakfast Network that it was closing down because of “onerous” government requirements or conditions is the latest in a slew of seemingly arbitrary and confusing enforcement of the law, and implementation of rules and regulations by the authorities.
This is worrying and disconcerting, as such irrational behaviour by the government and its agencies lead to a slide in public trust of our public institutions and the law itself. Ironically, it is this erosion of public trust which had been the government’s concerns not too long ago.
The indiscriminate and arbitrary manner in which the Media Development Authority (MDA) implements its rules and regulations is reminiscent of the way the government itself enforce the anti-gay sex law, Section 377a, in Singapore.
On the one hand, the MDA and the minister for communications and information insist that the government has not “deviated” from its “light touch” approach to the Internet and its online practitioners, such as bloggers.
On the other hand, it apparently has come up with a rather onerous set of forms which websites who are asked to register must fill up. And according to Breakfast Network, the numerous registration forms it was required to submit to the MDA were different from the ones posted on the MDA’s own website. The Independent, another site asked to register by the MDA, is believed to also have received the different forms.
Why such opacity? Why is the MDA acting so surreptitiously? Why does it not be upfront with the public about the kinds of forms it requires website operators to fill?
Terence Lee, writing in TechInAsia, said:
“The uneven and high-handed implementation has created a cloud of uncertainty, creating impediments for the country’s media entrepreneurs that aren’t justified on closer scrutiny.”
But this is not the only irrational part of the whole thing.
The conditions under which the MDA requires sites to register are murky, confusing and yes, once more, irrational and arbitrary.
For example, while Breakfast Network and The Independent are asked to register, other sites which also engage in similar content generation are not.
Asking the two sites to register “was meant to prevent the site[s] from being controlled or influenced by foreign entities or funding” and that “Singapore politics remain a matter for Singaporeans alone”, the MDA said.
It may sound rational and reasonable – until you consider that this website, The Online Citizen, was gazetted as a political association by the Prime Minister’s Office for exactly the same reason – to prevent it from being influenced by foreign entities or foreign funding.
Therein lies the irrationality, and the arbitrariness. It looks very much like a policy of “whatever-I-say-goes” with the government. There is no rational explanation.
In fact, The Online Citizen qualifies under the new MDA Internet rules. However, when this was brought up to the MDA several times – even by the mainstream press – the comeback was always an inexplicable: “The Online Citizen is not affected.”
“When contacted, MDA repeated its earlier statement that the site did not qualify, although it did not elaborate further.
Perhaps MDA did not elaborate because it cannot explain it rationally.
This, unfortunately, has led to distrust in the MDA, and some see it as a tool used for political ends by the ruling party which has been raging against the online community for the longest time.
Also unfortunately, the online community is not the only group at the receiving end of such confusing policy implementation.
The other is the gay community – which has had to suffer the consequences of a weak and laughable government position on the anti-gay law, Section 377a.
Under pressure from a public which is increasingly seeing the law as an anachronistic piece of colonial days legislation, the government thought it had found the perfect solution to appease both sides of the fence – it will retain the law but not enforce it.
This, undoubtedly the brainwave of some genius civil servant or minister, would put an end to the bickering.
Except that it has not.
Instead, it has become somewhat of a joke – making a mockery of the legal system, the judicial system, and the executive (Parliament). But most of all, and most seriously and importantly, it makes a mockery of real gay people.
The confusion is not only in the reason or defence offered by the government in retaining S377a. The Prime Minister has said, in attempting to defend its retention, offered the flimsiest and the most irrational justification:
“Why is that law on the books?” PM Lee said in January this year. “Because it’s always been there and I think we just leave it.”
If that were the justification, one shudders to think that no piece of legislation will then ever be changed or abolished, even if they no longer made sense.
This follows the government’s previous position where it said it will not “proactively enforce” S377a.
Except that it does.
The latest case is that of Tan Eng Hong who, in 2010, was arrested and charged under S377a. When his lawyer M Ravi raised this, the prosecution (the Attorney general’s Chambers) changed the charge to one under another section of the law.
It is quite disturbing, whether you are a gay person or not, to know that while the government says one thing, its underlings do another. The head, apparently, does not work in coordination with its limbs.
And this, to those like Tan Eng Hong, is a reality – they are the victims of a confused piece of legislation both in its rationale and its implementation.
Which leads us to the recent matter of the Ashley Madison episode and the government’s role as “moral policeman”.
On the one hand, it says it is no such policeman.
On the other hand, it acts like one – and even justifies it.
And back to the Internet, the PAP Government rails and rages against online anonymity – but it sends its own troops online – and apparently instructs them to act anonymously.
I think any rational, reasonable and mature person will see that the PAP Government has become rather unreasonable. Its behaviour conjures up typical images of a bully who goes around the town wielding the big stick just because it is the only one who has a hatchet. And bullies are incapable of being reasonable. Why be so when the easy way out is to hit anyone and everyone with the hatchet in hand?
And unfortunately, the PAP Government doesn’t seem to understand, and is in fact has no ability or capacity to understand, that while it can decimate the growth of an alternative media landscape online, it only means that its mainstream mouthpiece will always wallow in the depths of mediocrity – for it must be, without any serious competition to its standards.
And therein lies another confused policy of the PAP Government – it says competition is good for the country, and in fact opens the door to millions for this purpose. Yet, it protects, like a cowardly and selfish hoarder of goods, its own mediocre media – even if it does so irrationally.