on speech: the slow death of honest discourse


“Galileo before the Holy Office”. Galileo, accused of heresy, was kept under house arrest until his death.

Perhaps what bothers me most about Singapore’s new “fake news” law is the sheer brazenness of it. The idea that a group of partisan ministers can determine what is true or false for the whole of society reflects a way of thinking out of touch with reality and lacking in humility (yes, theoretically the courts are the final arbiters, but practically the ministers probably will be).

While I do think some law is necessary to tackle the very real scourges of falsehoods, hate speech and other online hazards, it’s preposterous to give a politician (or any partisan person) the power to decide what’s legit.

Have we learned nothing from Galileo?

Cherian George articulates my concerns (here and here) far better than I ever could, so rather than dwell on the law itself I’d like to set its brazenness against the larger backdrop of what worries me as a writer in Singapore today: the slow death of  honest discourse.

What the People’s Action Party (PAP) has been recently doing to opinions it doesn’t like—and the people who voice them—is damaging and will eventually exact a heavy toll, I believe, on our country.

In some ways there has never been a better time to be a writer in Singapore. There are more media companies and publications based here for numerous reasons, financial, geographic and otherwise; more desire for Asian perspectives on Asia; and more interest in Singapore itself. This contributes to more opportunities for writers and other “content creators”. All this is happening alongside wonderful technological advances that have enabled much of our work to be done remotely—I am staring at Pasir Ris Beach while typing this. (I know; poor me.)

Yet when it comes to commenting about Singaporean society and politics, the mood is about as gloomy as it’s been in the past decade. Academics have been shunned or exiled for things they’ve said; activists have been charged for innocuous acts that would be passé in any other developed country; alternative media channels, many of whom rely on government advertising, have resorted to avoiding controversial topics; and many mainstream media journalists feel censorship reasserting itself.

There are only two groups of thinkers/writers/media peeps operating freely in Singapore now: those who do not cover Singapore; and those who do but would never say anything critical about the PAP or its policies, like the party’s newest fanboy, Nuseir Yassin (aka Nas Daily). Everybody else is working with fear. “Nobody is safe [from prosecution],” a friend recently told me. “Remember Li Shengwu.” Even Lee Kuan Yew’s grandchild, a Harvard professor, has been charged for a private Facebook post and effectively exiled. Nobody is safe.

This does not bode well for our country. At a time when the future is uncertain—identity politics, terrorism, automation, inequalities, the rise of leggings—we should be encouraging a diversity of voices to help us think through issues. Instead, we are creating a climate of fear that is starving public thought.

But first, let’s see what’s happening to journalists and speech globally.

The global chill


Time Magazine’s 2018 Person of the Year issue had four covers featuring different persecuted journalists: the staff of Maryland-based Capital Gazette; Burmese Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo; Filipino Maria Ressa; and Saudi Jamal Khashoggi.

It was recognition of a years-long worldwide rise in journalist attacks and decline in media freedoms. There are too many issues to explore, but I am going to try and summarise a few important ones:

First, even the world’s biggest democracies are suffering. Attacks on the media have risen in tandem with the rise of democratically-elected but authoritarian-leaning leaders, including Duterte, Modi, and Trump. They tend to sidestep traditional media, most of whom they distrust, and connect directly to supporters via social media. They give preferential access to chosen stations—like Modi with ANI; and Trump with Fox—who end up self-censoring and effectively being turned into government mouthpieces. In other words, India’s and the US’s officially-sanctioned, mainstream media environment is in some small way—dare we say it—moving closer to China’s and Singapore’s (for the better, some might say).

Second, as technology platforms have grown in importance, governments everywhere are struggling to control the spread of falsehoods and hate speech. In such an environment, opportunistic, bellicose leaders like Modi and Trump have contorted the concept of “fake news” to refer to anything they deem unfavourable (even if true). This point is particularly relevant to Singapore.

Third, even well-meaning leaders and governments in democracies are caught in a bind, stuck between traditions of free speech and the need to be ever-vigilant against hate speech and other much more subtle incitements to prejudice and violence—what Singapore has recently termed “offensive speech”, referencing those devilish firebrands, Ariana Grande and Lady Gaga.

offensive lyrics Photo from Sudhir

(Note: The above is not an April Fool’s joke.)

Fourth, rigorous, well-intentioned media channels are also caught in a bind as they try and figure out sustainable business models. The most worrying trend perhaps is the ideological pull of the market—centrist channels are proving far less popular than partisan ones. The New York Times, which is thriving financially, is the clearest example of a publication worried about the impact its liberal subscriber base will have on its coverage. If the piece whipping Trump gets the most eyeballs, do we keep whipping Trump? Of the numerous new outfits trying to correct for the decline of rigorous, well-researched, fact-based writing, The Correspondent, with its emphasis on “unbreaking” news, appears like one of the more popular and promising.

Fifth, so much of the hate and crime and misinformation is happening in the blurry zone between private and public spaces. Should the government intervene? This spans everything from the annoying aunt who keeps forwarding WhatsApp platitudes about Trump and lies about vaccines, to the organised paedophile networks on the Dark Web. The Internet’s libertarians were hoping to emancipate the world’s oppressed; they didn’t realise they’d also unleash old foreign men in Kathmandu. It is the clearest reason yet to be suspicious of the messianic message from Big Tech.

For Singaporeans, it is important to set whatever is happening in our city against this larger backdrop. When journalists elsewhere are being killed, the plight of our own writers and dissidents pales. Do not expect sympathy from others.

Yet that should never stop us from correcting problems here. “Oh if you think life here is bad, why don’t you see what it’s like in Cambodia/India/Saudi Arabia?” is the favoured retort of the PAP’s champions and apologists. I’ve heard it from civil servants, politicians, new Indian immigrants and most recently Nas Daily. It is almost always followed by a condescending jab about our supposed tendency to complain. If we follow this group’s logic, Singapore will forever remain benchmarked to some less developed country, irredeemably stuck in the past.

Perhaps the thing that impressed me most about the late Anthony Bourdain was his ability to both articulate what’s great about Singapore (he loved our city) while staying open to any legitimate criticisms.

The Singapore chill

The government’s recent crackdown on perceived critics is so severe and widespread that it is a tedious exercise choosing whom to highlight. But here are a few:

Kishore Mahbubani, former dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP)

Donald Low, economist and former dean at LKYSPP

Cherian George, former associate professor, NTU

Li Xueying, former Straits Times political editor

The people above have been punished for the simple crime of having unacceptable political opinions. Seventeen other academics and writers have recently admitted to Jolovan Wham, a civil rights activist, that they have experienced censorship, denial of appointment and tenure, and that they consciously self-censor for fear of getting in trouble (they choose to remain anonymous, for obvious reasons).

Wham himself was recently fined $3,200 for organising an illegal “assembly”—a Skype conversation with Joshua Wong, a HK student activist (of yellow-umbrella fame).

Terry Xu of The Online Citizen (TOC) was charged with criminal defamation for publishing a reader’s letter that alleges corruption in the government—even though he took down the letter as soon as requested.

Leong Sze Hian, a blogger, was charged with defamation for simply sharing an article on Facebook, one that alleged that Lee Hsien Loong was involved in the 1MDB scandal—even though he removed the post when requested.

These last two cases worry me deeply; even when you comply with a take-down order, you can still be charged.

No constituency is safe. From the leafy, colonial grounds of the Lee Kuan Yew School in Bukit Timah to the tiny offices of the one-man-show TOC, no critic is too big or small.


Three other articles in this series:

on speech: has the PAP itself spread misinformation in Singapore?

on speech: free speech, ethnic harmony and Watain

on speech: the PAP’s cheerleaders are the last ones standing

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