CORRECTION: In the video I say that K Shanmugam was in parliament in 1987. This is wrong. He entered parliament in 1988. So Shanmugam was only part of parliamentary proceedings related to the alleged “Marxist conspiracy” in those subsequent two years. The last prisoner was released in mid 1990. Apologies.
Additional reading and video notes
At a high level, I want to note that there are many critiques of POFMA out there. Some critics have always believed that no new law is needed, since Singapore’s government already has a panoply of instruments to control speech, like libel and sedition laws, and licensing laws for media outlets and online sites.
While I sympathise with their views, my sense has always been that some new law may be needed to tame a new beast. For sure, as a writer, I consider the proliferation of falsehoods online to be one of the biggest threats to my profession, to democracy, and to our common humanity.
This is why I began the video with The Financial Times and Sarah Palin. Online falsehoods are everywhere. Read critically. There is no better answer to our crisis than those two words.
In response to a recent NYT piece, “A Sudden Coronavirus Surge Brought Out Singapore’s Dark Side”. I am glad to see others taking the time to write about us, there is always something to learn. Nevertheless, if you allow me to put on my editor’s hat for a moment, I have two thematic critiques of the piece: A) Feeding the impression that Singapore is an … Continue reading Response to NYT piece on Singapore
Unfortunately the majority of commentators in Singapore would never say anything critical about the People’s Action Party (PAP) or the country. I am referring very broadly to anybody who comments—in universities, media outfits and elsewhere. Sure, they will opine on poor driving habits or spoiled Singaporeans or the haze, but will clam up if they think their comments may have the slightest professional or political cost.
Before I share a specific example, let me first propose that while many of them recognise their limitations, many others exhibit a shocking lack of self awareness. Several years ago I was speaking on a panel overseas about self-censorship. I said that it is something that afflicts everybody—for example with me, perhaps, when writing about Singapore’s judiciary or race and religion in Floating on a Malayan Breeze, my first book. Other panellists recounted their own experiences. But also on the panel was a senior person from a Singapore government institution who blithely said that there is no such thing as self censorship; people are free to write what they want in Singapore. What was worrying is that it looked like this person truly believed it. Many in the audience were incredulous.
So I certainly do not expect all of these wise Singaporean sages to accept this characterisation. Perhaps the true genius of the Singapore panopticon is not just in convincing people to give up their freedoms, but in subsequently convincing them that they have lost nothing.
Now let’s recall what happened in 2017: the PAP changed the constitution so that it could reserve the current presidency for Malays, with the specific intentions, most people believe, of preventing Tan Cheng Bock from running and ushering in Halimah Yaacob, the party’s favoured candidate.
And let’s remember for a moment all the horrible ramifications of this disgraceful manoeuvre. Democracy was hijacked and our basic electoral processes turned into a joke, most obviously by Chan Chun Sing who called Halimah “president” twice in parliament seven months before the supposed “election”. The Attorney General argued that the PAP can define “elected presidency” however it wants to, effectively saying the party can rewrite the dictionary and Singapore’s history however it likes.
Worse were the assaults on identity, multiculturalism and the broader women’s rights movement. The PAP told us that the “race” we all have on our identity cards, that has been hardwired into us, is actually switchable—even though Halimah’s was “Indian”, she could run as a “Malay”. Meanwhile the Presidential Commission decided that only one Malay in the whole of Singapore was fit to run. What a terrible, false message that sends about the Malay community. Overt racism against Malays, with slurs like “that makcik”, was suddenly in vogue.
Finally, what should have been a triumph for women—the election of Singapore’s first female president—was turned into a sham. Many believe that Halimah would have won a fair race against the two other Malay men (who were disqualified), and possibly even against Tan. Instead, history is going to remember our first female president as somebody so politically weak that she needed democracy to be usurped as she ascended to her throne.
To achieve a political objective, the PAP has done lasting damage to both Malays and females.
Societies everywhere have become too sensitive about speech. One person taking offence should not be grounds for the police to investigate speech (as regularly happens in Singapore). The broadening definition of micro-aggressions on US campuses is proof of this heightened sensitivity globally. I was quite shocked and disappointed to hear, for instance, that the University of California, my alma mater, had decided that it is a micro-aggression “to say that ‘America is a land of opportunity’, because it could be taken to imply that those who do not succeed have only themselves to blame.”
That doesn’t mean absolutely anything should be permissible. Freedom has its limitations. And while I instinctively disagree with the concept of “safe spaces”, this objection is secondary to a broader, more urgent notion: that the main imperative in society must be to enable different voices to be heard, to promote the free exchange of ideas. The internet has changed the dynamics of all this incredibly, and there is a great piece on content regulation at Reddit here:
“Does free speech mean literally anyone can say anything at any time?” Tidwell continued. “Or is it actually more conducive to the free exchange of ideas if we create a platform where women and people of color can say what they want without thousands of people screaming, ‘Fuck you, light yourself on fire, I know where you live’? If your entire answer to that very difficult question is ‘Free speech,’ then, I’m sorry, that tells me that you’re not really paying attention.”
If we accept that the free exchange of ideas—and not free speech per se—is the more important ideal for a thinking society, then we must first be aware that in any multicultural, unequal city, different groups will have varying levels of confidence in expressing themselves (for reasons of culture, history, income, access, etc.). Thus while my instincts lean towards free speech—with the usual exceptions of hate speech and incitement—I can also see why it may be prudent in certain, limited circumstances to allow for narrow “safe spaces”.
What does all that theorising mean in practical terms? Well, for a global city like Singapore, if we want to encourage, say, the Muslim community or the LGBT community to share their thoughts, we may need to create—again, in specific, limited circumstances—spaces for them to do so without fear that their core beliefs will be attacked.
That must never be a general rule, of course. In any thinking society, all religious doctrines—not the believers themselves—must be subject to open interrogation. I know there are many in Singapore who believe that religions must be immune from criticism, but I’m sorry—we live in a world where people kill in the name of God and priests fuck little boys captive to God. (Pardon my French but when describing paedophiles my niceties betray me.)
So for instance in Singapore, if pastors want to criticise what they might consider the indecent dress sense of gays, the law should not stop them—even if their own dreadful fashion sense might. Similarly if gays want to criticise perceived homophobic passages of the Bible or the Qu’ran, the law should not stop them—even if their respect for the beliefs of others might. But none of these people should be able to criticise relentlessly anywhere and everywhere, such that they frighten off gays and Christians and Muslims from communicating.
All of the above is nice in theory—including the definition of hate speech—but much harder in practice. But every society must try.
Do I trust Singapore’s partisan ministers to be the arbiters of this? Absolutely not. However noble their intentions, they have repeatedly shown that they do not possess the requisite sensitivity to do so.
Let’s take a recent example: the banning of Watain. I was actually inspired by the many Singaporeans speaking up, sometimes to great comedic effect, against government overbearingness, hypersensitivity, and the intolerance of a moral minority.
The deliberate spread of falsehoods and misinformation
Yes this is a problem everywhere from India and Myanmar to Russia and the US. The consequences can be horrific.
But in Singapore? One can reasonably argue that the People’s Action Party (PAP), the government and the mainstream media channels it controls have historically been some of the main sources of falsehoods and misinformation (in terms of reach and impact).
In the late 1980s, Lee Hsien Loong, then trade and industry minister, was one of the politicians who alleged that a group of people were plotting a Marxist Conspiracy.
In 2001, Tharman Shanmugaratnam, then senior minister, said “from what I knew of them [the alleged conspirators], most were social activists but were not out to subvert the system.”
Sadly, one of our two leaders has got his facts wrong. Since both statements are still in the public domain, I hope our new, superpower “true-or-false” ministers will soon decide and strike down the lie.
During campaigning at the 2015 General Elections, Lianhe Zaobao, a Singapore Chinese paper, published allegations from a poison pen letter suggesting that Daniel Goh, the Workers’ Party candidate, had had an affair with one of his students. The Straits Times and Channel News Asia repeated the allegation, the latter with a salacious “Did he or did he not?” teaser.
One reason falsehoods and misinformation are of global concern today is because of their potential to affect elections. At Singapore’s last election, the worst and possibly only instance of widespread misinformation was produced by three of Singapore’s mainstream media channels.
One curious clause in the government’s new bill is General Exemption #61. “The Minister may, by order in the Gazette, exempt any person or class of persons from any provision of this Act.”
Well, dear reader, you don’t need to guess whom they are going to exempt; they already did so in the last election—none of those mainstream media channels were punished.
Likewise, no action was taken against PAP politician Charles Chong, whose printed flyers made a wild, false accusation against the Workers Party ahead of the election. Quite the contrary. After spreading what seems to be fake news, Chong was appointed chair of the government’s fake news committee (yes, you read that right.)
Of course there are anti-PAP campaigns of falsehoods and misinformation, like The Real Singapore. I have no respect for such publications. But the salient point is that because of their highly limited reach, none of them have had any material impact on the government’s or the PAP’s reputation thus far.
Whereas in the above two examples there was an immediate—and for the first, still ongoing—impact.
Finally, this may not represent “a deliberate” spread of misinformation but is in my opinion—I think I’m still entitled to that—highly regrettable and irresponsible online behaviour from PAP politicians Seah Kian Peng and K Shanmugam.
“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.
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.
Singapore recently set up a Select Committee on fake news and invited public submissions. It is encouraging to see many Singaporeans getting involved. Here is my small contribution:
There are many aspects of fake news that need addressing. I will limit my discussion here to one broad philosophical point: whether or not established media channels globally are partly responsible for creating an environment in which fake news can thrive; and what can be done about it.
Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh, writer
The very idea of Singapore is founded on fake news. The modern zoological consensus is that lions never roamed around Malaya. So in 1299 when Sang Nila Utama, the Srivijaya prince, landed in (what was then called) Temasek and spotted a handsome beast, it was most likely a tiger. Singa-pura, lion city, could well have been named Harimau-pura, tiger city, in modern Malay, or even Vyaghrah-pura, in Sanskrit, in use then, and the roots of “Singa”.
Yes, Vyaghrahpore. Without fake news, our little red dot might have pre-empted erectile dysfunction’s saviour. 
Yet that was more a simple falsehood than “news” as we know it. One of the first instances of fake news in the mass media was in 1835, when the New York Sun published observations of the moon by astronomer John Herschel, detailing “giant man-bats that spent their days collecting fruit and holding animated conversations; goat-like creatures with blue skin; a temple made of polished sapphire”.
The fake news had the desired effect—among a public hungry for galactic fantasies, the Sun’s circulation rose from 8,000 to over 19,000, making it the world’s bestselling daily.
All this is simply to point out that fake news has been around for over a century at least. It is not just some new-age digital poison spewed by greedy Macedonian teenagers, disenchanted trolls in Saint Petersburg, or others of their ilk.
Moreover it is not only dubious, fly-by-night media outfits that are prone to publishing fake news. Some of the industry’s most venerable brands are too.
It would be convenient for me to make this point by pointing out possible fake news by conservative stations, like Fox News, whose political views differ from mine.
So instead I will point out possible fallacies in two newspapers which I hold in the highest regard: The Economist and The Financial Times.
And I will do so by defending two politicians whose views I find ignorant at best: Sarah Palin and Donald Trump.
Who built Singapore? Politicians are oft celebrated, but there have been many others. This fabulous new (free!) book honours 25 scientific pioneers, including the person who greatly improved our IVF success rate as well as the only non-white in the Internet Hall of Fame: a Singaporean who essentially connected China, India, and many other non-English speaking populations to the Internet. These vignettes are brilliantly written … Continue reading Singapore’s scientific pioneers: a new book I worked on
Dear friends, I will be appearing in two events at the Georgetown Literary Festival in Penang, one of my favourite kampung-like cities in the world. It’s my first time at this festival, so quite thrilled. Friends, food and fun aside, I’m looking forward to meeting Rehman Rashid, whose classic book, A Malaysian Journey, partly inspired Sumana and my own bicycle trip around Malaysia in 2004. … Continue reading Georgetown Literary Festival, Penang: Nov 28-30
At a book event at BooksActually two weeks ago, I was making a point about Roy Ngerng—that what he insinuated about Singapore’s prime minister was clearly wrong, but I still sympathised with his predicament—when Jen Wei Ting, moderator, good friend and fellow scribbler, interjected and switched topics.
I later realised why. Roy was actually there, standing in the back. Some of my former colleagues at The Economist had just been interviewing him, and decided to drag him along to the event. (Click here to read the piece they wrote, which gets to the heart of “the Roy Ngerng case”.)
Wei Ting had perhaps wanted to cut me off before I said anything too critical about Roy. She needn’t have worried. Roy and I met after the event and he told me he had enjoyed the talk. I regret not taking a photo with Singapore’s latest enfant teribble; just for the heck of it, not that he needs any further attention.
What a meek, innocuous figure he cuts. With his disarming smile and diffident touch, he looks hardly capable of harming an ant, much less the great and mighty Lee Hsien Loong. Roy’s appearance and demeanour may seem irrelevant here, but in what is quickly turning into a PR disaster for the government, they will fuel the perception of an irascible prime minister bullying a harmless, hapless citizen.
My heart goes out to you, Oh Roy, not for your defiance, but for the deep-seated informational, data and communication asymmetries and imbalances that underpin this country’s drastically unequal social power structure.