In defense of TRS

The real singapore website
Current status of the Real Singapore’s website

 

By Masked Crusader

What I found gnawing about those who condemned the Police and Media Development Authority’s high-handed actions against the editors of socio-political website, The Real Singapore, which was forced to shut down this week, is that whilst speaking out against censorship and speaking up for freedom of speech several also chose to sneak in a phrase to express their own disdain for TRS.

It was really unnecessary for those championing free speech to add they do so despite not being enamoured by the content and style of TRS. It goes without saying that, with the plethora of choice on the internet and so little time in a day, anyone—including free speech advocates—will have to exercise discretion.

I get it that they are saying they would speak up for a site even if it grates their senses or sensibilities. Still, it is unhelpful in this context. It only gives more ammunition to those who want TRS gone to now be able to say even the free speech champions have issues with TRS.

Sure, TRS isn’t the New York Times or The Independent. But neither are the heavily resourced Today or The Straits Times, which I am sure many free speech advocates also designate to the bottom of their reading list due to the low journalistic standards and control by the hegemonic People’s Action Party.

TRS had grown to fill a niche in Singapore. Its content is not dissimilar from that of Singapore Press Holdings’ supposedly multiple gold medal winning STOMP, which contains primarily user-generated content it generously calls “citizen journalism”.

However, on any given day, one can find on TRS articles that may have graced some of the top newspapers in the world. One cannot say the same of STOMP unless one considers the UK’s Daily Mail a top newspaper.

I have enjoyed the eclectic fare—and surprises—on TRS and am not ashamed to say I miss it.

While the discourse in the comments section of TRS may not be of the standard elites may prefer, one can always choose to skip them as I often do. On occasion, I do wade through every comment—some rather colourful—to get a general sense of Singaporeans’ feelings toward an issue. I have also learned colloquialisms not used in my youth. I think I understand “Huat Ah” now though I can’t seem to use it in a sentence. I still need to be educated about KPMG. Or, is it KPKB?

REACH, the government’s feedback portal now requires one to use a Facebook account and even lowly STOMP requires registration before commenting.

Many netizens feel less inhibited speaking out on sites such as The Online Citizen, TR Emeritus, and TRE, where they may comment anonymously. The engagement level at these sites is much higher and not necessarily lower in quality than on REACH!

Critics and the government, which more than anything else has created a climate of fear, will no doubt bring up notions such as consequences and responsibility when communicating and how one does not need anonymity if the truth is spoken. The same government, however, recognises that anonymous communication can be helpful. It has hotlines for anonymous tips and even uses these tips as testimony in death penalty cases.

To the critics, I would say, focus on what is being said, not who is saying them, their age, race, socio-economic status, etc. This is the internet age, no longer the age where NRIC numbers need to be provided to get one’s views published in The Straits Times.

In many cases, readers comment on these alternative sites because they know the state-owned media will not publish their views. If not for the socio-political websites, these voices would not be heard. Facebook just isn’t the same thing for them.

On TRS, I have seen dialogues where multiple languages are used in a single thread. And, it has provided a valuable platform for Singaporeans whose English is not the best but who still find ways to be articulate.

One of the complaints levelled at TRS is that its articles have a xenophobic slant. Some free speech advocates, too, mention this.

As a regular visitor of TRS, I would disagree. I notice that those who make this accusation generalise but do not produce evidence of it. The MDA, for example, will not because for every example they bring up, one could probably find an equivalent on STOMP. The scrutiny would lead to hairs being split over which articles are more xenophobic and why to justify why TRS should be sanctioned while STOMP should not.

TRS articles which have been interpreted as being xenophobic fall broadly into two categories—those which highlight bad behaviour by foreigners or ones that draw attention to unfair employment practices in Singapore involving foreigners.

One can find content falling within both categories in STOMP as well. Both of these types of stories reflect painful truths in an overcrowded Singapore blighted by ageism and cheap foreign labour. It is not xenophobic to say that foreigners have contributed to overcrowding, inflation and job insecurities among Singaporeans.

Rather, it is disingenuous spin by the PAP looking to fix alternative media in an election year. The government would be well advised to focus on acting on the generous feedback it is receiving rather than nipping dissent and engaging in name-calling if the PAP wants to continue ruling next year. Time is short.

Any xenophobia which exists on TRS is within its comments section. With the amount of discussion generated on TRS, it is difficult to expect its under-resourced administration to monitor all of it. The comments are not dissimilar to what one can read at SPH’s own Hardwarezone Lifestyle forum or the infamous Sam’s Alfresco Heaven forum, which labels itself “the most Offensive and Politically Incorrect Forum ever!”.

Sure, I have read mean-spirited comments targeted at people of my race and religion on TRS and TR Emeritus, sometimes also on The Online Citizen. I am comfortable enough in both my ethnicity and faith that it is just like water off a duck’s back. If more people just refused to be offended, there would be a lot less tension in Singapore and, possibly, less incendiary talk in the future.

MDA’s actions only invite greater distrust of it than already existed.

If in fact TRS plagiarized—MDA gave no examples in its statements—then that is the concern of third parties who know what their rights are.

If TRS had made up news, the same thing should be allowed to happen as when STOMP made up news—netizens will call it out, the media ombudsman (if only we had one) and the authorities will rap TRS on its knuckles, and TRS will be given the opportunity to apologise and learn from it. If TRS remained recalcitrant, netizens will migrate to better websites.

MDA says that TRS has been in their radar for some time. It adds, editors, Ai Takagi and Yang Kaiheng, were previously:

“… out of the jurisdiction of the Broadcasting Act as they were running their operations from outside Singapore. However, since December, the two of them have been running their operations from Singapore, bringing them within the jurisdiction of the Broadcasting Act.”

If the MDA was aware of supposedly seditious articles in the past, what actions did the MDA take then to protect Singaporeans? Did it use a “light touch” method such as a polite email to TRS informing it at the time so that TRS would be better aware of the out-of-bounds markers contained within the MDA’s nebulous Internet Code of Practice and could take necessary steps? Did it attempt to enlist the cooperation of the Australian authorities to take actions since it felt egregious offences had been committed against Singapore? MDA knew, of course, it would have been laughed at. Why wait till the supposed offences were compounded? Was the MDA negligent in its statutory duties?

To the casual observer, it could appear as if the MDA was merely interested in finding out the identity of the editors of the TRS and feeding the information to the Attorney-General’s Office and Immigration and Checkpoints Authority so that Takagi and Yang can be arrested when they entered the country.

Even now, why demand a shutdown of TRS rather than the removal of the offending articles while proceedings are pending? The percentage of offending stories on TRS’ website would be minuscule based on the fact there are only eight charges by the AGO.

Apparently, it is a criminal offence for TRS not to disclose their financial details despite the fact it is no longer in operation. In the absence of any explanation, the authority’s demand for TRS’ advertising income data seems rather kaypoh-ish and irrelevant to the sedition charges. Perhaps in time the connection will be clear. Certainly, SPH and STOMP would love to know how much advertising money its biggest rival, TRS, is making.

Commentators have noted that MDA’s actions may constitute sub judice. MDA, in a statement more challenging to the intellect than the infamous Singapore secondary school math question that has gone viral says its sanctions are unrelated to the court charges Takagi and Yang are facing. It will be interesting to see if the AGO takes the same view.

Perhaps oblivious to the irony, MDA claims it:

“promotes the growth of globally competitive film, television, radio, publishing, games, animation and interactive digital media industries. It also regulates the media sector to safeguard the interests of consumers, and promotes a connected society.”

If this episode demonstrates one thing, it is that MDA—rather than TRS—needs to be shut down.