Rysense Ltd, previously unmasked as the sole proprietor of online survey community HappyDot.sg, has recently updated its website stating that it was set up by the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) as a not-for-profit company.

The company came under the spotlight last year after it was found to be the parent company behind HappyDot.sg, which, at the time, was dubiously carrying a survey seeking to gather people’s views on the high-profile case of Parti Liyani, an Indonesian national acquitted by the High Court last year from theft charges made against her.

Among the questions included in the survey were asking whether the respondent thinks Parti’s ex-employer — former Changi Airport Group chairman Liew Mun Leong — should have stepped down from his corporate appointments, and whether the respondent thinks Singapore’s criminal justice system is fair for all.

Background checks on HappyDot.sg then led to the discovery of Rysense, which appeared to be headed by five directors — all of whom are senior civil servants — and one Malaysian secretary.

The following names were listed as directors of Rysense in documents obtained from the Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority (ACRA):

  • Kwek Poh Heok, a Deputy Principal Private Secretary to the Deputy Prime Minister, Minister for Finance and Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies;
  • Yeo Ken Jin, an Adjunct Associate Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore;
  • Wong Wee Kim, Chief Statistician at the Ministry of Trade and Industry;
  • Tan Chor Kiat, a Senior Director of Industry Division at the Ministry of Trade and Industry; and
  • Leong Der Yao, a Senior Director at Government Technology Agency (GovTech), a body under the Prime Minister’s Office.

It was also discovered that Rysense had also employed former employees of government-linked entities to work in different departments in the company.

That report was followed by revelations of Rysense conducting surveys commissioned by the MCI in past years.

Claims emerged that these MCI-commissioned surveys contain questions with possible political nuances.

In one instance in 2018, Ervin Tan, who formerly represented Amos Yee as the latter’s defence lawyer, said that he was approached by Rysense’s surveyor to complete MCI’s “News Consumption Survey”.

“Rather intriguingly,” he said — at the end of the survey — that he was “asked (among other questions), on a scale of one to ten (being strongly disagree or strongly agree)” about whether “Singapore headed in the right direction” and “is the Prime Minister doing a good job”.

What’s more, Rysense had earlier published a job advertisement on Jobstreet, in which it was implicitly stated that the company does generate profits from these projects.

Based on its job posting for the Head of Specialised Research and Business Development position last year, it stated that the “primary responsibility” of this role is to grow the company’s business “to achieve financial revenue targets”.

The new Head of Specialised Research and Business Development at Rysense will be reporting to the director, and is expected to “partner the director to seek new business and engage strategic clients”.

As the company is declared as a Company Limited by Guarantee (CLG), it has no share capital and is prohibited from paying dividends or surplus to its respective members.

Alternatively, it could retain the profits in the company or use them to achieve the company’s objectives.

That being said, Rysense’s ownership of HappyDot.sg gives it a tool that could be used to push out government messages under the guise of a private company.

HappyDot.sg does not disclose that it is “owned” by the Government.

Instead, it obscures its funding sources by saying that it conducts surveys “on behalf of organisations with an interest in specific social issues”.

This is in contrast to its parent company, Rysense, which at least informs survey participants that its surveys are commissioned by the Government.

Apart from just conducting surveys, HappyDot.sg also regularly publishes articles on its website, Facebook, and Instagram.

While some of these articles are lifestyle-oriented — such as Winning a woman’s heart — many relate to public policy issues such as healthcare and transport.

Given that HappyDot.sg uses the tagline “Inspiring positive change in Singapore”, one must ask whether HappyDot.sg is going beyond just surveying public opinion, and if it is attempting to shape public opinion by publishing articles on public policy issues without disclosing that it is under the Government’s purvey.

Rysense eventually declared itself as a not-for-profit company by MCI

TOC notes that Rysense has updated its website to state that it is a not-for-profit company set up by MCI in 2014 as a CLG, adding that it “does not have shareholders”.

“The revenue we obtain is used to strengthen the company’s research capacity,” said the company.

“We are a team of market research professionals. Our board of directors provide strategic direction and are drawn from both the private and public sectors in view of their expertise in research, technology and corporate governance.”

Rysense also unveiled its chairman, Sim Gim Guan, who is also an executive director at the Singapore National Employers Federation (SNEF).

Mr Sim was also a deputy secretary at MCI from 2007 to 2013.

It appears that Rysense now has four directors, as compared to the five directors listed in the ACRA documents previously:

  • Wong Wee Kim – Chief Statistician at the Ministry of Trade and Industry;
  • Leong Der Yao – Senior Director at Government Technology Agency (GovTech), under the Prime Minister’s Office;
  • Chay Pui San – Director of public affairs and policy at Grab Singapore; and
  • Ivan Yeo – Senior Director of research and data division at MCI.

Ultimately, even though Rysense has finally come clean on its ownership, the million-dollar question still remains: How independent are the surveys conducted by Rysense and HappyDot.sg?

Since it is most likely that the Government will be using public funds to poll public response, will the results from the surveys commissioned by MCI be made public? Or will it seal the survey results that are negative towards the establishment’s narrative?

For example, HappyDot.sg conducted a survey of whether Liew should have stepped down from his corporate appointments and whether the respondent thinks Singapore’s criminal justice system is fair for all.

The purpose of the survey, however, was not specified, which prompted TOC to dig deeper on the company behind HappyDot.sg.

What’s more, as Rysense is a not-for-profit company set up by MCI, does this mean that the Ministry decides the key appointment holders of the company?

Rysense being exposed has led us to wonder how many such rogue companies are there in Singapore that are funded using public money and are helmed by civil servants without being declared as a statutory board or being publicly known.

HappyDot.sg continues to hide its “ultimate owner”

There is, however, little to no information on who commissions the surveys conducted by HappyDot.sg.

The online survey community continued to obscure its parent company even until recently on 5 September, when Ngiam Shih Tung, President of local human rights NGO MARUAH, commented on its post saying: “Who is your ultimate owner? Are you controlled by the Government?”

HappyDot.sg simply replied: “Kindly note that HappyDot.sg is not the Government; We’re a local Singapore organisation that focuses on conducting social research.”

“Some of our surveys are conducted on behalf of organisations with an interest in specific social issues. Others will be for us to provide a good sense of how Singapore residents feel about a range of everyday topics,” it added.

Lawyer Too Xing Ji asked why the company is reluctant to disclose that it is owned by Rysense.

“Of course we know you’re not the Government, just like we know Temasek and GIC are not the Government, but are Government-owned. Why the reluctance to disclose that you are owned by a company set up by the Ministry of [Communication] and Information?” he wrote.

Mr Ngiam in his own Facebook post said that while he has “no objection to the government trying to shape public opinion”, as doing so is “part of the job of leadership after all”, what is worrying is “trying to do it via shell companies (or sole proprietorships in the case of Happydot) that deny their links to the Government”.

“The Health Promotion Board runs public education campaigns all the time, but their logo will always be prominently plastered on their advertisements,” he asserted.

Mr Ngiam continued, “Even the former National Education office (now rebranded as Nexus) runs propaganda campaigns via Connexion.sg, but is upfront about the fact that it is part of Mindef.

“People can read connexion.sg’s posts and come to their own conclusions. Happydot is so far not acknowledging that they are controlled by the Government.”

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