A year of numbing down public dissent

As the year draws swiftly and steadily to a close, I thought it would be useful to provide a summary of the events of the year in relation to how public speech appears to have been clamped down.

This was the year that saw the by now infamous Select Committee on “Fake News”. At the hearing, various notable public commentators ranging from Oxford scholar Dr. Thum Ping Tjin (Dr. Thum), free lance journalist Kirsten Han (Han) and Editor of The Online Citizen (TOC) Terry Xu (Xu), just to name a few, publicly and rigorously interrogated. While the interrogators have the prerogative of free speech (or free questioning leeway , shall we say), it is probably accurate to conclude that critics of the government would not be given free rein to question their government in the same manner.

While all of the forms and procedures in convening the Select Committee were all proper, the intentions behind its organisation may have been to have a chilling effect on the ability for critics to express themselves freely. It would appear that it was the individuals most critical of the government that were grilled the longest and the hardest. Perhaps it was a coincidence but nevertheless, it did send out a warning.

Then we had Dr. Thum and Han (amongst others) publicly taken to task for having met Dr. Mahathir. Dr. Thum had his credentials questioned and there were attempts to make him out to be liar. Whether intentioned or not, this did send the message loud and clear – if you are too vocal, the government has the power to utterly humiliate you. This would cause anyone to second guess themselves and self censor no matter how legitimate his or her views.

What about NTUC Foodfare’s law suit against The Independent Singapore (TISG)? Unimaginatively, the grounds for the suit was – you guessed it – Defamation! A few online news platform carried stories which detailed the rising costs and pressures faced by hawkers and the failures of the social enterprise hawker system. NTUC was fingered as a probable culprit of increasing costs by a few publications which then led to NTUC suing TISG. Does this send out the signal of a multi pronged approach by the government (unwittingly or otherwise) to silence critics? While NTUC is not part of the government, it is government affiliated. Rightly or wrongly, this suit will solidify the belief that the government is all powerful and has control over all agents which it can use to shut down the critics.

Then we have the crowning glory of the year – the lawsuit between key members of the Workers’ Party (WP) and its own town councils! Apparently for misuse of funds in not calling for a tender over certain projects, among other things. The Housing Development Board (HDB) which is a statutory board and therefore controlled by the government instituted the action by forming an “independent committee” to represent the town councils which then decided to sue its own chairman.

As the court case transpired, many had commented that the lawsuit seemed “much ado about nothing” and potentially a huge waste of state (or town council) resources. It cannot be ignored that the WP members involved in the law suit were the three strongest members of the WP who would most likely have contested in the rumoured 2019 general election. Is that an attempt to “fix” the opposition? I would like to think not but actions may lead some to conclude that it was. Does this dissuade potential opposition candidates from stepping up? Will this clear the way for the PAP if its strongest competitors were out of the game? Your guess is as good as mine.

Let’s also not forget the arrest of TOC’s Terry Xu and his subsequent eight hour ordeal over “criminal defamation” (whatever that means). Apparently, this is different from civil defamation. The goal of civil defamation is money while the goal of criminal defamation appears to be a custodial sentence. And over what? An article by a “Willy Sum” which no one even remembers because it was taken down by Xu at the request of the Media Development Authority. Xu had already complied with the take down but yet was arrested. I never read the article. I didn’t get the chance it was taken down so fast. But apparently it was over accusations that Willy Sum made against the government of corruption. The government could have simply issued its own statement on a large scale in all the major publications. Instead it chose arrest. Could this be taken as a threat?

As we speak, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (PM Lee) is also suing veteran blogger Leong Sze Hian (Leong) over the fact that Leong shared an article which contained allegations propagated by the now defunct States Times Review that the PM was the key investigation target in the 1MDB saga. The article has been debunked. It is however important to note that Leong did not publicise or comment on the article. It was a “blank share” so to speak – something that millions of people world wide do every single minute.

There’s also Edwin Tong, who is likely to be the incoming Law Minister, calling for more regulations to target “Fake News”. In my opinion, “Fake News” is a label that is ripe for misuse as a means to discredit legitimate criticism.

All of these incidents taken in isolation may simply be coincidence. Taken as a whole however (and all in the space of one year), it does have the potential of being seen as a consolidated effort on the part of the authorities to clamp down on any dissent.