By Andrew Loh
The National Solidarity Party (NSP) has appealed to the president over the refusal by the Media Development’s Authority (MDA) to renew its printing permit for its party newspaper, the North Star, which it had applied for in 13 June 2014.
The main point of dispute is the submission of the monthly salary or income of each member of the NSP Central Executive Committee (CEC) to the Registrar of Newspaper (RON).
Also, the authorities is requiring the members to provide their "disposable capital (value of movable and immovable property owned)".
The CEC members are objecting to the requirements on grounds that they intrude into their personal privacy and personal confidentiality.
While previous CECs have complied, the NSP says that the "CEC line-up is not static and is subject to change".
It added that "it is the prerogative of the individual to determine what information he/she is prepared to disclose to the third party at a given point in time."
"Thus, the fact that past CEC members were willing to and did divulge such financial information to RON in the past, cannot bind the present CEC members to do the same now or in the future," the party says.
The RON says that without the information, it is declining to process the NSP’s application for permit renewal.
In its letter to the president, NSP secretary general Jeannette Chong-Aruldoss, said, “The RON is refusing to consider, let alone grant, our application, unless certain individuals, because they hold office as our CEC members, divulge to RON financial information which is personal and private to such individuals, but which is otherwise not essential or relevant to a proper consideration by RON of our application."
On 4 August, the MDA explained why the information was required.
"The information is required for verification purposes and to ensure that newspaper permits are granted to applicants who are persons of substance and are capable of taking responsibility for what they publish in their newspapers,” the MDA’s Senior Customer Service Officer, Cindy Neo, said in her letter to the NSP.
In its response to the NSP on 3 October, Ms Nancy Seah, the Deputy Registrar of Newspapers, cited the authority on which the information was being requested: "We would like to draw your attention to the policy consideration that were stated by the then-Minister for Home Affairs, Mr Ong Pang Boon, in Parliament on 16 Nov 1960."
Mr Ong, as cited by Ms Seah, had said:
“The bona fides, competency, sense of responsibility and financial position of each applicant for a permit are also taken into consideration.”
"Until we have received the requested information," Ms Seah said, "we will not be able to process your permit renewal application."
However, Ms Chong-Aruldoss pointed out several flaws in Ms Seah’s response.
She pointed out that Ms Seah had wrongly referred to the venue of Mr Ong's speech as being "in Parliament".
“Parliament did not exist until Singapore became independent on 9 August 1965,” Ms Chong-Aruldoss said. “In 1960, Singapore was governed by the Legislative Assembly, which was the venue where Mr Ong spoke."
Second, Ms Chong-Aruldoss said Ms Seah had quoted Mr Ong’s remarks out of context.
“As Mr Ong stated, he was referring to the policy followed under the Printing Presses Ordinance,” she explained, “a statute which was passed on 27 October 1919 by the colonial Government and which has since long been repealed."
The NSP's application, instead, is made under the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act which, Ms Chong-Aruldoss pointed out, was enacted on 1 January 1975, and falls under the purview of the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI).
The MCI is headed by Dr Yaacob Ibrahim.
"Mr Ong's statements to the defunct Legislative Assembly on 16 November 1960, is irrelevant as he was referring to the policy for an obsolete statute, and not the NPPA,” the NSP says.
Essentially, the NSP is of the view that while the minister may have the discretion under the NPPA to decide whether to grant such an application, such decisions must be made with cognisance of other constitutional provisions, including that of free speech under Article 14(2)(a) of the Constitution.
“There is nothing in the Constitution or in the NPPA which says that freedom of speech is conditional upon MCI being satisfied of the applicants' financial capability,” the NSP appeal letter to the president says.
"The administration of the NPPA must be subservient to the tenets of the Constitution,” it added.
Would the RON, the NSP asks, refuse to grant the permit if its CEC compromises largely of individuals who earn small or no monthly incomes?
The NSP says, "If RON insists on knowing how much the CEC members earn each month, it also begs the question of how much the CEC member has to earn in order to satisfy the RON that the financial capability criterion has been met."
"The MCI should know that it is unconstitutional for a person's right to speak to be made conditional upon that person satisfying a financial criterion,” the opposition party says.
"To require CEC members to disclose to RON their personal assets is intrusive, objectional and oppressive."
Yet, the RON’s requirements are arbitrary, the NSP says.
It cited how the RON had required the information for disposable income, but that it however “did not object to or make any mention of the fact that some CEC members also left the box blank for ‘disposable capital’.”
Instead, the RON seems more interested that the CEC members provided information on their monthly income.
The RON had also required the CEC members to furnish it with their passports numbers.
But after the NSP pointed out that its members were all Singaporeans who had provided the authorities with their NRIC numbers, and that they were also registered under the political party which itself comes under the Societies Act and the Political Donations Act, the RON’s Ms Seah said:
"On the basis that all the applicants have duly provided their NRIC numbers, we are prepared to waive the requirement for the provision of their passport numbers."
The NSP says, "An individual's monthly income/salary is a private and confidential matter. Any request to an individual to disclose his income is an intrusion of his privacy which should never be arbitrarily insisted. A proper balance has to be struck between a public authority's need for necessary information to enable the proper exercise of ministerial discretion and the need to respect a citizen's right to privacy."
The NSP letter concluded:
"We are unable to understand why the minister needs to know the monthly income/salary of the CEC members and how this information would enable the minister to be better informed as to whether the NSP and its CEC members 'are persons of substance and are capable of taking responsibility for what they publish in their newspapers."
"Can the minister refuse NSP the permit on the basis that monthly income/salary of one or more CEC members are deemed too low or not high enough? - Surely not.
"Does the minister start his decision-making upon the assumption that NSP and its CEC members are not capable of taking responsibility for what they publish in their newspapers unless otherwise shown by the monthly income/salary of its CEC members? We believe not."
"Freedom of speech and expression is a fundamental liberty to be denied to a citizen only when one of the grounds listed in Article 14(2)(a) applies.
"The Act and the Rules made under the Act has to be read and applied within the tenets of the Constitution."
The NSP also noted that the authorities have taken 39 days before it replied to the NSP in its latest correspondence.
*NSP's appeal letter to the president was personally delivered to the Istana by NSP's secreatry general, Jeannette Chong-Aruldoss. See here.
Correction - Date of NSP's application for renewal was 13 June 2014, and not July as earlier mentioned.