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Shaking off the fear of state censorship, Singapore's youth hold out hope

Irrawaddy - September 4, 2013

Marlon Alexander S. Luistro, Singapore Twenty-two-year-old Wendy (not her real name), on her first day as a hospitality intern in a budget tourist hostel in Chinatown in Singapore, speaks surprisingly frankly on a seemingly taboo subject, much to this writer's relief.

Clad in a colorful traditional gown, the native Singaporean is taking a break from washing dishes and chatting with guests to talk about the extent to which people and media in her country are free to criticize the government a subject that senior Singapore-based journalists were extremely reluctant to discuss.

"Actually, I don't think Singapore has much freedom of speech. I mean, compared to America, they don't really have," she says, surrounded by Western tourists having breakfast.

"In Singapore, they don't allow protests, they don't allow riots... You will get arrested. Singaporeans are generally quite well behaved. We don't do those things because we know the consequences," she says with a smile.

Wendy's candid views were a refreshing response, after a week of frustrated attempts to solicit comments from Singaporeans and media professionals on free speech, in a country known for its heavy-handed treatment of public criticism of government policy.

"Sorry, we're not mature enough to talk about that," said a teen in a coffee shop in the Indian-dominated Bugis district.

Experienced media professionals were equally evasive. "I'm afraid I'm not available this month to assist you. In any case I rarely cover 'sensitive' areas," a senior foreign journalist said in response to an emailed request for an interview.

A Philippine national, working with a well-known Singaporean corporation, advised against trying to interview people on the streets on the subject, which could lead to arrest on suspicion of being a terrorist.

No right to claim 'Fourth Estate' status

In his recently published book, "OB Markers," one of Singapore's senior-most journalists, former Straits Times editor-in-chief Cheong Yip Seng, emphasizes how Singapore's rulers, starting with the nation's founder and first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, have consistently refused to recognize the media's watchdog role.

"The political leadership holds fast to the principle that Singapore journalists have no right to be members of the fourth estate, a status enjoyed by the media in the West," writes Seng.

"The PAP [ruling People's Action Party] case for this policy is simple: The media does not subject itself to popular will by contesting an election, therefore it cannot claim the mandate to speak on the public's behalf," he elaborates.

This is why the media is "deemed to have interfered in politics," which is unlawful, when it criticizes policies approved by Parliament.

In a 1971 speech at the International Press Institute General Assembly in Finland, Singapore's first prime minister was quoted as saying, "Freedom of the press, freedom of the news media must be subordinated to the overriding needs of the integrity of Singapore and to the primary purpose of an elected government."

The 2013 "Freedom of the Press Report" published by Freedom House rates Singapore media as "not free" and places it 153 in a global press freedom ranking, tied with Iraq, Afghanistan and Qatar, the last being a country where criticizing the government, the ruling family or Islam is illegal and punishable with a jail sentence.

Judicial intimidation

Over the decades, the Singapore government has silenced political foes and the media using the country's courts. The elder Mr. Lee and his son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, have won public apologies and monetary damages in several defamation and libel cases.

Similar pressure tactics are now being used to silence criticism of authorities in blogs and social media.

Earlier this year, blogger Alex Au had to apologize and take down an article he wrote alleging corruption in the sale of town council computer systems to a ruling party-owned company. In April this year, cartoonist Chew Pen Ee, popularly known as Leslie Chew, was arrested for alleged sedition over two cartoon strips published last year on the "Demon-cratic Singapore" Facebook page, which describes itself as a "100% fictional comic series about a country that does not exist" and has over 28,000 followers. In its Dec. 17, 2012, notice to the cartoonist, the attorney general chambers (AGC) said the cartoon "scandalizes our Courts through allegations and imputations that are scurrilous and false."

Chew was released on bail on April 21. Three months later he apologized and took down the cartoons. The AGC has since withdrawn the charge.

Leading Singaporean press freedom advocate Cherian George, a professor of journalism at the Nanyang Technological University, recognizes the limits to media freedom in his country.

"The main reason why they decided to just apologize was maybe because their lawyers advised them they had no chance at all to win their case," he says. Battling out the charges in the courts to stand up for their principles would be financially ruinous for the defendants, especially in the absence of a wider ecosystem of supporting groups such as well-resourced free speech non-government organizations, he explains.

Self-exiled political blogger and disbarred Singapore lawyer Gopalan Nair, who lives in the United States after renouncing citizenship and becoming a US national, is no stranger to the government's use of the law to silence critics. Nair was jailed for three months after writing in a May 2008 blog post that a senior judge had "prostituted herself... by being nothing more than an employee of Mr. Lee Kuan Yew and his son" and ruling in their favor in their defamation case against an opposition politician.

"My passport was confiscated and I was held in solitary confinement for about eight days and interrogated every day, several times a day, many times in the early hours of the night," he said in an email. "I was mentally tortured with sleep deprivation. They tried to intimidate me into confessing. I did not."

Another contempt of court charge case was filed against Nair while he was in the final week of his sentence. He eventually apologized. However, he said he had "no intention in my mind of actually apologizing." In his blog, he later retracted the apology.

"They isolate and marginalize critics simply by making sure that once you are identified as a critic and you persist, you will be denied jobs, denied a career and you will be harassed and victimized all your life. This naturally will dissuade anyone from becoming an open Singapore critic," he said.

Climate of fear and self-censorship

Such horror stories, say rights activists, have not only increased media self-censorship but also created a climate of fear among people, effectively preventing public criticism of government policies.

Braehma Mathi, executive director of Singapore-based human rights group Maruah, says the use of defamation suits is "big psychological warfare, which we haven't overcome yet because of all these horror stories of the past."

In 2006, Chee Soon Juan, secretary-general of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), was declared bankrupt and barred from running for public office after failing to pay S$500,000 (US$391,000) in court-awarded damages to former Prime Ministers Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong over remarks he made during the 2001 election campaign.

"It's a difficult time for me and my family," he said. "But you have to remember that the only reason why autocrats are doing these things to you is that you have something important to say."

The series of government-initiated defamation and contempt-of-court charges over critical online posts have bothered alternative website TR Emeritus columnist Gilbert Goh, who said bloggers like him do "self-censor whenever someone's being sued." He does feel "enraged," though, whenever he hears about bloggers being sued and forced to apologize.

Self-exiled blogger Nair knows very well the limitations faced by Singapore-based anti-government bloggers. "Singapore only goes after those whom they can bully within the island. They cannot bully anyone outside Singapore because their courts, unlike Singapore's, are not Kangaroo Courts," he said.

A website known as The Real Singapore tries to get around this by allowing anonymous user postings. "Self-censorship is an issue as people are still afraid to be critical [of the government]. We at The Real Singapore try to overcome this by allowing users to post anonymously," the website editors wrote in an email. "Of course, this also brings in other problems, like some individuals not showing enough restraint or careful thought before posting, but we attempt to strike a good balance."

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a local journalist said there was "very little press freedom in Singapore" and self-censorship was common. "I know what's going on because I work for the mainstream [media]," he said.

This was evident in media coverage of the June 2013 protests against new restrictive licensing restrictions imposed on Internet-based media by the state online regulator, Media Development Authority (MDA). Mainstream media coverage of the protest rally organized in Singapore's Hong Lim Park by the #FreedomInternet bloggers group was attended by thousands of people and "carefully angled" so as not to offend the government, the journalist said.

However, he said he did not worry too much about working in a heavily regulated environment. "You know where your limits are. If you feel stifled, then don't work for the mainstream. I'm here to earn a living. [If I had been troubled enough], I wouldn't have lasted so long," he added. He insisted there was minimal government intervention in mainstream media compared to China.

Not all journalists are reconciled to the heavy-handed government regulation. "We can criticize the government here, but we can only do it gently, and that's the difficult part of it. They only want to present one view but you want to present more views," another local journalist said, shaking his head.

The fear of criticizing authority extends to ordinary citizens. Back in the tourist hostel, a conversation with the hospitality trainee Wendy was interrupted by the hostel manager, who wanted to know the topic of discussion. After learning it was free speech issues in Singapore, the increasingly suspicious manager advised against taking the trainee's views to be those of the hostel, saying "this is just her personal opinion."

Internet enables and empowers citizens to speak up

The Internet has, however, made it possible for ordinary citizens to speak their minds on issues rarely discussed publicly in the past.

In a speech at the Asian Media Conference in 1998 in the United States, Singapore founder Lee recognized that with the emergence of Internet and 24-hour international news channels, governments could no longer stop reports disagreeable to them. Those who "try to fight the new technology will lose," he said.

In his book "Freedom From the Press," published this year, media freedom advocate Prof. George says it is not easy for the Singapore government to shield itself from "watchdogs in the cyberspace."

"Within a decade, it was clear that the Internet was transforming Singapore's political culture. The government could no longer so easily set the national agenda by silencing dissenters, who now had the ability to magnify their voices well beyond their economic or institutional heft," he says.

Since its launch in 2006, The Online Citizen (TOC) has become a highly popular website in Singapore with an average of over 100,000 hits, TOC founder Choo Zheng Xi said. The TOC gained recognition after it organized political discussion forums for poll candidates during the 2011 Parliament election. Its popularity has soared with its coverage of socio-economic issues neglected by mainstream media. These included stories about poverty and homelessness in Singapore and slave-like working conditions of foreign domestic helpers, most of them women from Indonesia, the Philippines and Sri Lanka. The TOC's sustained coverage of the issue forced the Ministry of Manpower to act.

For Xi, this was a manifestation of the growing power and influence of online media in Singapore.

Socio-political blogs like Alex Au's Yawning Bread, Roy Ngerng's The Heart Truths, Martin See Tong Ming's Singapore Rebel, Gopalan Nair's Singapore Dissident and websites such as TR Emeritus, Public House and The Real Singapore are also popular.

Facebook has also opened up the space for political satires such as Leslie Chew's Demon-cratic Singapore featuring cartoon strips that indirectly criticize the government and its policies.

The website We Believe In Second Chances, launched by an anonymous youth group, is trying to raise awareness about the mandatory death penalty in Singapore.

A major event in Singapore's alternative online-based media landscape was the June 2013 launch of the Independent Singapore, which aims to professionalize independent online media, according to the website's legal advisor, Alfred Dodwell.

Opposition parties have also been actively using cyberspace, particularly Facebook and YouTube, to reach out to voters and sidestep government control of mainstream media.

The Internet has been a welcomed development for opposition parties in a country where election rallies are limited to government-designated areas over a nine-day period.

Unlike in the past, when even a little-known candidate put up by the ruling party had an easy walk-in to Parliament, vigilant netizens have raised the bar on the acceptability of lawmaker aspirants. In his book, Prof. George tells how the PAP bid to woo young voters with a little-known 27-year-old woman candidate backfired when a Facebook photo of her holding a new designer handbag in "girlish glee" went "viral" with commentators describing her as an "immature social climber."

Cyberspace has also been used to mock self-censorship by the mainstream press such as by the defunct website Sintercom's "Not The Straits Times" section, which formerly published letters "mysteriously rejected" by Singapore's leading newspaper The Straits Times.

On July 27 this year, the Facebook page "Fabrications by the PAP," with more than 1,000 "likes," posted excerpts from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's 2004 oath-taking speech in which he emphasized an "open and inclusive Singapore" where people should "feel free to express diverse views, pursue unconventional ideas, or simply be different."

The posting drew sharply critical comments with one visitor writing, "I think he has forgotten what he said." Others labeled PAP as "cold and heartless" and wondered why, despite the prime minister's failure to keep to his promise, "a significant number of Singaporeans still refuse to wake up."

"Cyberspace has provided the third dimension to information sharing. We used to only read from one source, but now there are variant sources to read, which enhances one's knowledge and perspective of what is right and wrong," said Gilbert Goh, a TR Emeritus columnist blogger. "When you only read from one controlled source, after a while you get sick and realize that they are all half-truths."

Wendy, the hospitality trainee in the Chinatown tourist hostel, says social media has indeed changed ordinary Singaporeans' lives, as it enables people to "share ideas and their feelings and your response as well."

Youth standing up to state regulation

Wendy's frankness on freedom-of-expression issues in Singapore gives rise to hopes that the country's youth may be beginning to shed fear of state regulation.

A recent survey by a government-led public outreach committee known as Our Singapore Conversation, which queried 4,000 citizens, found that a majority of Singaporeans prefer some media censorship in the public interest and rejected gay lifestyles, although the younger generation tends to be more liberal when it comes to freedom of expression.

In recent years, Singapore youths have been getting active in advocacy of the right to free speech. In 2008, student journalists at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), working on the campus newspaper Nanyang Chronicle, staged a public protest on the campus after the university president ordered the paper to censor a news report on the visit of key opposition leader Chee Soon Juan to the campus.

The Chronicle editor also expressed his protest against censorship by setting up an independent NTU students-run website Enquirer.Sg. "On its first anniversary, he penned a stinging rebuke of the culture of censorship and self-censorship that he claimed had routinely neutered the Chronicle even before the Chee Soon Juan case," Prof. George wrote in his book.

Fast forward to Aug. 9, 2013. Twenty-one-year-old Han Hui Hui who is facing a charge of defamation over emailed remarks to the Council for Private Education (CPE), Singapore's statutory private sector education regulator, appeared at the Singapore National Day celebration in Hong Lim Park with thousands of others to share her views and make a demand for free speech in the country.

Unlike senior journalists, the young woman has courageously answered charges against her in court and has stood up to political pressure to apologize. "I was only 21 years old and I was puzzled. How can the CPE, a government body threaten to sue me, a Singaporean citizen, for defamation? How is asking questions defamatory? Where is our freedom of speech?" Han said boldly during her speech, much to the audience's applause.

The video recording of her speech, uploaded to YouTube has been viewed 5,865 times. Viewers' comments praise her courage: "We need more people like her" and "Seeing the video, you made me feel there is still hope for Singapore. I'm impressed by your courageous stand against the Goliath threat."

Two weeks after the Hong Lim Park speech, Hui Hui lambasted Prime Minister Hsien Loong on her Facebook page for his remarks that he was "flame proof" when it came to nasty online comments against him. Made during an interaction with students after his Aug. 18 National Day Rally speech, the prime minister's remarks were widely reported in mainstream media.

"Then why am I being sued for defamation by the Singaporean government?" asked Hui Hui on her Facebook page.

Xi of The Online Citizen says the fact that Singapore is a "very materialistic society" makes people wonder whether this creates an environment where citizens are apathetic and not willing enough to assert their right to free speech.

For hospitality trainee Wendy, the choice seems easy. Asked if she would have the "freedom to shop" or "freedom of expression," she answers, after a short pause and with a giggle, "Shopping!" But she quickly adds that she has changed her mind and will go with the other option. "If the government will only listen to us, yes, I'll choose the other one to be able to voice out. I just wish that the government would be more responsive," she says.

This article was produced for the 2013 Southeast Asian Press Alliance (Seapa) fellowship program. Marlon Alexander, an editorial director for the Filipino Connection, is one of the 2013 fellows. This year's theme is Freedom of Expression Challenges to Internet Government in Southeast Asia.

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