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Photo of Anita on an inflatable unicorn sponsored by Google from Pink Dot SG

Curtailment of Foreign Sponsorship at Speakers’ Corner – an impotent and purposeless exercise

By George Hwang

On 7 Jun 2016, the Ministry of Home Affairs (“MHA”) issued a press release against foreign sponsorships of Pink Dot. Subsequently, it was reported that MHA would be reviewing the rules governing usage of Speakers’ Corner. This unprecedented move lacks sound policy reasoning.

The claim that foreign entities should not interfere with our domestic issues is superficial. Singapore’s policy against foreign interference of our media has always been premised on:

  1. the ideas disseminated by these foreigners are undesirable;
  2. the rational that foreigners have no vested interests in Singapore; and
  3. the decision makers of these foreign enterprises reside overseas. They are, hence, outside of our control.

By regulating the sponsorship of Pink Dot, MHA has failed to understand the difference between “foreign interference” and “corporate sponsorship” of events, be it local or foreign. The former is active, the latter is passive.

Singapore’s media censorship philosophy is based on the “powerful effects model” of the media. This means that the media has a powerful influence on a “weak” and “passive” audience. Where there are matters of national interests, it is necessary to ensure that the right information be disseminated. The basis for censoring foreign media is because they are crowding our “common space” with undesirable information.

MHA is not censoring Pink Dot. Why then should the passive sponsors be censored? Its only plausible outcome is to add to our growing list of “laughable” regulations, such as mandatory toilet flushing.

To fully understand the lack of premise for MHA’s sudden declaration we need to examine what is Pink Dot, its message, what “foreign intervention” and “corporate sponsorship” mean, our business law and who these foreign entities are.

What is Pink Dot and Its Message?

Pink Dot started in 2009. Its message was social. Unlike the Repeal377A Petition to Parliament in 2007, it was not political. So far, it has stayed on this course.

The event is a “Celebration of Love”. Its message is love and tolerance. Its purpose is to educate the public that LGBTIs are people like heterosexuals. It focusses on the person and not the sex. It emphasizes the importance of support from family and friends for the LGBTI.

There are eight years of the same message. The authorities have never prevented Pink Dot from taking place during these eight years. Therefore, the message is not the problem here. We do not need to regulate Pink Dot’s “editorial policy”.

Instances of Foreign Interference

Since independence, there have been two major incidences of foreign interference. They are:

  1. the restrictions on foreign publications in the mid-1980s; and
  2. closure of “Eastern Sun” an English daily in 1971.

The former is because the information floated have been judged to be undesirable, the latter because the “sponsorship” has been covetous. They led to amendments of our newspaper laws.

Most would remember the run-ins with foreign media in the 1980s regarding the “right to reply” and restrictions on their circulation. The entities responsible were known but foreign. They were international newspapers with their regional headquarters based in Hong Kong. They include the Far Eastern Economic Review, the Asian Wall Street Journal, the International Herald Tribune and the Economist. The government considered some of the articles published by these newspapers as “foreign interference”.

As a result, the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act was amended in 1986 to introduce the concept of “declared foreign newspapers” to handle what was then a new “phenomenon” i.e. foreign newspapers selling en masse in Singapore.

The intention was not to suppress different views. On the contrary, it endeavoured to ensure the plurality of voices. Since newspapers have control over the channels of delivery, they have the power to restrict the government’s views from being heard. The argument for such measures is that the government should be able to reach the recipient of the newspapers’ views.

In the Eastern Sun incident, the proprietor was exposed by the government to have taken loans from Communist China for the failing newspapers. The sum alleged was $4 million with the ridiculous interest of 0.1% per annum. This was a covetous operation.

There was no law against foreign investment at that time. The editor and six senior staff of the Eastern Sun resigned because it was tinged or associated with the “black operation”. The general manager and editors of the Nanyang Siang Pau, a major Chinese daily, were detained under the Internal Security Act.

This was one of the events which led to the replacement of the Printing Presses Act 1920 with the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act in 1974. Company law was introduced and used to govern the press. Besides control on share ownership, directors of newspaper companies and chief editors have to be Singaporean. Singapore’s fragile social fabric has to be handled very carefully and can only be understood by Singaporeans.

What is Corporate Sponsorship?

Corporate sponsorships are not covetous sponsorships, the sort we see in the Eastern Sun incident. They are not interferences with our domestic affairs. Where sponsorship is:

  1. open, public and transparent, and
  2. has no influence on the information disseminated

there was never any need to regulate. It serves no purpose. The idea will still be debated.

Corporate sponsorships of Pink Dot need to be understood from public relations and corporate social responsibility points of view. These corporations have developed a certain corporate identity which they want to reinforce. Where diversity is concerned, it is basically a reflection of their human resource policy. It is driven by the need to attract and maintain talents. They found Pink Dot’s message to resonate with their corporate image. This is why they sponsor Pink Dot. They do not need to change Pink Dot.

MHA’s unfounded fears

MHA’s statement against “foreign sponsorship” does not make sense if we consider the argument on accountability.

Firstly, it must be remembered that all enterprises doing business in Singapore need to register with our Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority. Not only this, there is always a requirement that someone responsible for their operations reside in Singapore e.g. a director.

A search was done on the business profile of all 19 sponsors of Pink Dot 2016. It can be concluded that they are either Singaporeans or if aliens, they have enough vested interests and personnel who we can hold to account. Many of these MNCs have been doing business in Singapore for a long time and invested very substantial amounts of money.

Out of the 19 sponsors, 13 are MNCs; the other six are Singaporean owned entities. 12 of these MNCs have Singapore incorporated subsidiaries. Barclays is the one which does not have a local subsidiary. However, it is a bank. Due to financial regulations, it is usual for banks to operate as branches. It has been registered in 1973, 8 years after our independence.

The oldest MNC sponsor, BP Singapore Pte Ltd, has been registered since 1966. The youngest MNC sponsor is Goldman Sachs. It has been registered in 2014. It also has one of the highest paid up capital amongst the 12 – close to SGD1 billion. Eight of these MNCs have Singaporeans as directors. Barclays has a Singaporean as one of its representatives. The rest of the MNCs have directors residing in Singapore, as this a requirement of our laws. Should anything fall out of line, these directors can immediately be questioned.

Meaningless Measure

Though Singapore’s censorship law is guided by the “powerful effects model” (see paragraph 4 of this article) this is not the case for LGBTI issues. So far, the government has taken a “hands off” approach. Its neutrality is evident in MHA’s 7 Jun 2016’s press release itself. As such, it can be surmised that it has taken a “free speech” approach, commonly seen in the West – where an issue is of national importance, people should be able to debate on it. This is a mark of a mature democracy.

By censoring the MNCs sponsorship of Pink Dot, MHA will step into a legal quagmire of defining “foreign”. You cannot consider MNCs locally incorporated subsidiaries as “Singaporean” for tax purposes and as alien for Speakers’ Corner. It is clear that MHA has exhibited a lack of understanding of our censorship law, corporate compliance regulations and the corporate environment. There is absolutely no business case for changing the conditions for usage of Speakers’ Corner. The amendments are not limited to media companies or Singaporeans’ common space of discourse. They are, to some extent, regulating corporate image. This could be perceived as invasive on the way MNCs can shape their corporate identities in Singapore. Therefore, before making further blunders, MHA should consult other government ministries and statutory boards, e.g. Economic Development Board (EDB).

Pink Dot’s message has been consistent since 2009. Its message of tolerance and living in harmony reflects Singapore’s founding mantra. We are a secular and meritocratic society. This is our software, the foundation for our buildings in Shenton Way. If there is no reason to censor the message of love and tolerance, there is no reason to restrict these corporations’ sponsorships.

To censor Pink Dot’s sponsors is to conflate “foreign interference” with corporate sponsorship.

MHA is reminded that corporations are not political regimes. They are profit driven. They observe social changes and adapt to them. They sponsor Pink Dot because it is obvious that Singapore’s social fabric is changing. They need the millennials in this age of social media. They may want to be on the right side of history but they do not want to change Singapore.

The regulatory changes declared by MHA are limited to sponsorship of events at Speakers’ Corner. Pink Dot’s sponsors can always sponsor some other events with the same message. Unless the government is able to restrict these corporations from putting their diversity policies on their websites, censoring corporate sponsorships of Pink Dot is impotent and purposeless.

This article is written in the writer's personal capacity as an individual