Last weekend, Facebook removed the NUSSU – NUS Students United Facebook page. The tech giant said that the page was removed as it violated the platforms “authenticity policies”.
Following a post of theirs going viral, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam’s press secretary, Goh Chour Tong released a statement alleging that the people behind the page are “anti-religious” and are “bent on sowing hatred and discord”.
The people behind the page responded that they strongly disagree with those allegations, adding that “No reasonable or right thinking person would come to the conclusion that Press Secretary Goh came to.”
The page had earlier made headlines when it shared an infographic about People’s Action Party (PAP) member Rachel Ong’s affiliations with a religious-leaning group on 17 November. The image had a photo of Ms Ong and an arrow to the left showing her connection to the PAP as a member of the party serving in the Telok Blangah branch, and that she might be a new political candidate for the party.
And arrow to the right shows her connection as the founder and CEO of a consultancy firm called the ROHEI Corporation which includes the ROHEI Foundation. The image quotes an excerpt from the foundation’s website which is a verse from the bible.
At the bottom of the image, the NUSSU called for Ms Ong to resign her executive positions in the organisation. It said, “If Ms Ong wishes to run for elections, she must resign ALL executive positions with ROHEI, an organisation with religious leanings.”
It added, “Non executive advisory positions are fine though.”
In the caption accompanying the image, the page quoted the late Lee Kuan Yew who said in his 1987 National Day Rally speech, “Churchmen, lay preachers, priests, monks, Muslim theologians, all those who claim divine sanctions of holy insights, take off your clerical robes before you take on anything economic or political. Take it off”
Also included in the image was a quote attributed to Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam which said: “If we do not separate religion from politics, then whose religion comes into politics?”
“No integrity”, says K Shan’s press secretary
As the post started to gain traction online, Mr Shanmugam’s press secretary, Mr Goh, came out to say on Friday (22 November) that the post had “misleadingly quoted” the minister and that it “directly contradicted” what he actually said in Parliament on 7 October.
Mr Goh, also took a shot at the people behind the NUSSU – NUS Student’s United Facebook page, saying that they have “no integrity” and are “bent on sowing discord and hatred”.
He said, “The minister had in fact said that Members of Parliament (MPs), even ministers, can hold positions in religious organisations.”
He clarified that the minister did not say that political candidates seeking office should resign for all executive positions in organisations with religious leaning, but rather that they can continue to hold such positions and that these things should be dealt with wisdom and common sense.
Mr Goh added that the quote on separation of religion and politics as set out in the Facebook post relates to a different point Mr Shanmugam made in which he asserted that religious beliefs should not be the foundation of public policymaking.
“That is quite different from saying that MPs should resign from all positions, in organisations with religious leanings,” said Mr Goh.
“As the minister said in Parliament, all persons, including religious leaders, have civil and political rights.”
As for the quote of LKY’s speech, Mr Goh said that it was taken “out of context to further mislead” and to falsely assert that he had meant religious leaders has no political rights.
“Mr Lee was actually saying that religious leaders who wanted to make political statements should not do so in their capacity as religious leaders. Instead, they should enter the political arena as politicians, and give their views,” said Mr Goh, adding that Singapore is secular, not anti-religious.
“We do not have an established or official religion. Nor do we allow anyone to use his or her religion for political purposes, or any group to promote a religion in the political arena. But this doesn’t mean we are anti-religion or that we disallow people of faith from participating in politics.”
Mr Goh then went on to address the page itself, saying that it is neither the official page of the NUS student union nor an affiliate page.
He said, “The name, which appears to have been disingenuously chosen, may lead readers to assume that the views espoused on the page are being expressed by NUS and/or its students.”
“The public ought to be discerning of those who launch such attacks from behind the anonymity of the Internet,” he added, saying that those who launch such attacks should not peddle falsehoods or mislead people, but rather should be more ethical and transparent.
“Be transparent also about your political leanings, so that readers can judge for themselves what weight to place on your views,” he said.
NUSSU – NUS Students United responds to allegations
In a press release of their own, the administrators of the now-deactivated Facebook page said they “strongly disagree” with the press secretary Mr Goh’s assertion that they are “anti-religion” and are “bent on sowing hatred and discord”.
Addressing the deactivation, the administrators of the page said that the involuntary deactivation of the page is “maybe the most optimal sub-optimal outcome for all”.
They explained that this means “The Minister doesn’t have to explicitly take responsibility for the words in his press secretary’s statement, or make his press secretary the fall guy” and that “Facebook doesn’t have to go into a messy content evaluation case.”
This outcome, they said, also means that “People baying for blood got their bloodlust somewhat satisfied,” adding that “The government made their point known and this has helped hasten Facebook’s decision to cut off our access to a readily accessible pool of social media audience.”
Finally, they also noted that the image they posted showing Ms Ong’s organisational affiliations have spread widely through mainstream media though the Minister did not dispute the validity of their points.
They said, “We find solace that neither the minister nor his press secretary impugned any of our points about Ms Rachel Ong and her organisational affiliations.”
Adding that they do not blame Facebook for its decision, the administrators said, “It [Facebook] has been an indulgent host for our page for more than a year We always knew at the back of our heads that the indulgence will end someday, so for Facebook to pull the trigger based on community guidelines and giving everyone an exit strategy, we are grateful to them.”
The statement later said, “The ironic thing is that our page got canned after we did the 2 most pro government actions: agree with a government principle of politics-religion separation and pinning the blame on the press secretary instead of the Minister.”
They added, “We have repeatedly said that every politician has the right to religion. Just don’t one foot step two boats: political organisation and religious organisation. If supporting the principles of the 1989 White Paper on the Maintenance of Religious Harmony (especially in paragraph 28) is “sowing hatred and discord”, we don’t know what to say.”
Facebook: deactivated due to violation of authenticity policies, not content
On Facebook’s side, a spokesperson responding to queries told TODAY that the page for deactivated for violating the platform’s ‘authenticity policies’ which say that people are not allowed to misrepresent themselves, use fake accounts or artificially boost the popularity of its content.
“This policy is intended to create a space where people can trust the people and communities they interact with,” said Facebook.
Said the spokesperson: “We have removed the fake accounts, causing the page to be unpublished,” the spokesperson said. “This was the reason for the page being unpublished, not (because of the) content that was posted on the page.”
NUSSU – Students United, no stranger to headlines
The now-defunct page has made headlines in the past with their posts on controversial matters, from asserting that two out of three medical students at NUS come from the top three elite schools in the country to putting up a poll asking people to vote on who they think would make a better Secretary General for the Singapore Democratic Party.
In relation to the sexual harassment case which blew up earlier this year involving a couple of NUS students and the subsequent debate on NUS policies and handling of such cases, the unofficial NUS alumni group page had also shared a list of the NUS Board of Discipline cases from 2016 to 2018.