May 27, 2017

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Photo By Shawn Danker
Finished Breakfast at a kopitiam

by Bertha Henson

I have been invited to appear on television tonight. I am totally tickled. It’s one of only three times that MediaCorp has asked me to appear on air. My Singapore Press Holdings association probably held it back in the past. If you want to know when the first time was, it was more than 20 years ago on a documentary on Parliamentary reporting, in Mandarin! The second time was a shock. A producer called to get a preview of an exclusive interview I had with then-Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew on the topic of his son’s cancer, in 1993. I said no. What? Give away a scoop? My boss rang me and ordered me on air. Good publicity, he said. I looked terrible on TV.

Now I have been asked to sit on a Talking Point panel that will be telecast live tonight at 8pm. The topic is, of course, the Media Development Authority’s brainwave to licence news sites. I didn’t say yes immediately and I wanted to know who else was on board. MDA CEO Koh Lin-Net, as blurbed online, I was told. Plus Prof Arun Mahizhnan from the Institute of Policy Studies. I don’t know the MDA chief but I have sat on panels with Prof Arun before. Nice guy. I asked the producer who called me if anyone from the group of people leading the three-part protest against the scheme would be joining in. She hemmed and hawed and like all good journalists, passed the buck back up: It was for her editor to decide.

Why did I want someone from the group on board as well? Because they have far stronger views about the scheme than I do, so much that they were moved to organize a rally, an online blackout and a petition. The petition has gained 2,174 Signatures as at 10.10am. It’s going to be tough for me if anyone expects me to represent the blogosphere with all its competing noises and with all its breadth and depth. I cannot and will not do so. What I can say right now is: I don’t like the scheme and here’s why. (I have been warned against swearing on air…)

The answers from the G have been pretty bleah* and the “post’’ public engagement exercise even more bleah* As I said before, it appears to be worst roll-out of any policy I have seen so far. No prior consultation, no proper answers to questions that any reasonable person would have – such as, can you define “news site’’ properly or not?

So I was looking forward to meeting Ms Koh. Then there came a change of name on the G side. It will be Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin. I know that some people call him Mr Social Media. He is active online and engages netizens one-to-one. But the Manpower Minister? Is the Minister for Communications and Information indisposed? What about the other political office-holders within the ministry? Perhaps, the G is trying to signal that the scheme is a Cabinet decision, a political decision; hence the MDA chief was spared the public spotlight and another minister, who is more of a known quantity to those in the blogosphere, picked for the job.

Well, let’s hope no one thinks that the panel discussion amounted to a “consultation’’ exercise. That would be a sorry excuse for the G’s neglect of netizens. In any case, I am just hoping for some clear answers, including a clarification of the Government intent behind the scheme.

Photo By Shawn Danker. Shared copyright.
Minister Indranee Rajah speaking to students at an event at NUS.

This year’s Pre-U seminar had as its theme the Singapore our young people would like to live in in 2030. Our young BN writers spoke to two participants who stood out with their questions for Ms Indranee Rajah:

 

by Sarah Lim

Micole Yang, 17, spoke with an accent. An Australian accent. That was the first thing anyone in the audience would notice about the student who went up to the microphone to ask a question that took many by surprise. Donning the Anglo Chinese School blazer, she asked Ms Indranee Rajah why there were no anti-discrimination laws to protect the LGBT community.

After all, race and religion were already subjects that are treated carefully by society, but no one seemed to think there was a need to protect those of an alternative sexual orientation. People make nasty remarks about such people, she said.

Speaking to BN, she said her schoolmates were similarly prejudiced. They saw pink or purple colours as homosexual characteristics, even going so far as to make fun of others by throwing out terms such as “tranny’’.

“It was a joke, but for everyone to just laugh along… nobody spoke up or seemed to find anything wrong with using such a word on someone else,” she said. It might not have been said with malice or directed to particular people, but it had the potential to offend.

Just as joking about race and religion in Singapore is taboo.

The Singapore law is stern on the issue of distasteful insults on race and religion, so much so that people would “self-censor’’. Then again, such laws dissuade thoughtless derision, she said.

Why not use the law to end tactless comments about the LGBT community and see it as a way to maintain harmony between straight and LGBT individuals in Singapore?

Ms Indranee Rajah, Minister of State for Law and Education agreed that discrimination based on sexual orientation was unwarranted but did not think a law would help. Instead, she suggested that society be responsible for the way they treat other people. With kindness and respect. She also spoke at length about the reason why Section 377a on criminalisation of homosexual acts was maintained.

Was Micole satisfied with the answer? She told BN she was glad Ms Indranee took the time to consider and answer her question, unlike an earlier occasion when she was given the brush off by another politician.

So it seems Micole is not a woman who would be deterred.

Other participants said they would not have asked such a “sensitive’’ question. I wouldn’t have either. Especially not in a public forum.  I would have been confined by the unspoken limits of free speech and, like the other participants, asked general questions about integration, cohesiveness and the like.

Yet her concerns are valid. People make so much fun of the LGBT community that it makes it tougher for people to “come out’’ about their sexuality. What’s more impressive was that she had posed such a question before, got brushed off, and did it yet again. Talk about tenacity!

 

by Jonathan Tan

MDA’s new licensing scheme is the hot topic of the moment. It first caught the eye of the blogging world, but then international news soon took notice. Now Junior College students are talking about it too.

Joel Yew, from Nanyang Junior College (NYJC), brought the issue up at the dialogue session with Ms Indranee Rajah at today’s Pre-University Seminar.

He said the new MDA regulations were seemingly “clamping down on free speech” which he believes is necessary for “building a national identity”.

So Joel’s question goes like this: “Is the MDA regulation harming Singapore’s national identity, or does it protect cohesion from racial and religious discrimination?”

Clearly Ms Indranee had prepared for this question. She quoted the scheme proposal directly, clarifying its intentions and target: news sites, at least one post a week, reach of 50,000, etc.

She added that MDA was not “clamping” free speech, but “holding online news sites to the same standards as MSM”… All the familiar stuff.

I suppose that was a long way of saying the licencing scheme is necessary for upholding cohesion and racial/ religious harmony, going by Joel’s question. Still doesn’t answer why though.

I would have pressed further, but Joel said he was “okay” with that answer.

The other thing I was curious about was the connection between national identity and free speech. For one I didn’t agree with the premise that free speech is necessary for building an identity. If anything, it reflects the type of national identity that Joel imagines.

So I asked him what does kind of a press does he hope for in future?

“Mainstream media is fine the way it is,” he said, “but it’s important to have alternative sources.” Meaning, non-mainstream, online news sites. This is where he imagines “views and ideas to be openly shared”, where people can express their creativity and “work towards a common identity.

“That cannot happen in a climate of fear, where free speech is clamped down,” he explained.

So what does he propose? A two-sided solution, he called it. G needs to rely on good faith to “let go”, allow free speech, while the public learn to speak up, maintaining a healthy dose of sensibility.

In some sense, what Joel seems to hope for is not that different from what MDA says its new scheme is aimed to achieve… which I suppose can be called fair and objective journalism.

The disagreement is really in how to achieve that? There’s the optimistic version – Joel’s – where an independent online media is able to be discerning. Then there is the MDA, which calls for editorial accountability. Both seem fair in their own rights.

Personally, I opt for Joel’s version. Not so much because I am as hopeful as he is, but because of the sheer impossibility of regulating a space such as the internet with rules from the offline world.

My own experience has taught me that the ‘real life’ rules don’t apply online. Most of them don’t anyway. People can have different identities, heck, they can have multiple identities online. They talk differently, laugh differently. ‘Friending’, ‘liking’, ‘sharing’ all are different things on Facebook than offline.

The reality is that society operates on different norms and expectations on the internet. How do you begin to hold anything from one world, to a “standard” of a completely different one?

That does not mean that it is unfair to consider the need for accountability and reliability of information that we get online though. I guess the intentions behind the MDA are right. But, if there is a solution to this problem, it is for the world of the internet to discover – not offline media.

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by Vinod Ashvin Ravi

This past week, the Media Development Authority (MDA) launched a new licensing and regulation regime aimed at online news websites in Singapore. In particular, the regime has been directed at “popular” websites, defined in the MDA’s conception as having 50,000 unique IP views a month. Websites were also listed as liable for licensing on the basis of their reporting on local events and developments at least once a week.

As has seemingly been the trend with almost all government announcements in the recent past, waves of criticism and scorn filled the Internet shortly after the news first broke. And given the age of hyper-connectivity that we live in, it did not take long for such local sentiments to gain traction with the international media as well.

For the most part, media houses around the world have caught up with – and relayed – the general resentment engendered by the regulations, and the rising denouncement of the licensing regime as a clamping down on a vibrant online media landscape.

So the Associated Press and the Washington Post quote Mr Brown on the licensing being “censorship, plain and simple” and play up Singapore’s dwindling rating of 149 on the now oft-cited Reporters Without Borders report. The Hollywood Reporter (THR) in turn borrows a phrase from blogger Alex Au on the new rules having a “chilling effect on the online media”.

Interestingly, THR further explores the implications of the resentment spawned by the announcement on the MDA itself. It brands the exercise a case of “one step forward, one step back”. Predominantly in reference to the MDA’s celebration of the landmark triumph of home-made film ‘Ilo Ilo’ at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival just days prior.

China’s Global Times notes the angry reactions from Singapore’s “feisty online community” and quotes Andrew Loh – editor of publichouse.sg – that the new rules are “to set and control the tone of discourse online”.

The Saudi Gazette focuses largely on Yahoo’s perspective, citing it as a “magnet for strident anti-government and anti-foreigner comments posted by readers”. The International Business Times touches upon the coverage of the regulations reporting that it remains relevant only to local websites for now, but that the government “aims to bring foreign websites offering Singapore news targeting the domestic market under the ambit of the new law as well”.

“Singapore finally nannies the net” hails the Asia Sentinel, who quotes a co-founder of the Online Citizen as calling the rules “extremely draconian” and “an attempt to cripple independent online reporting”. And al-Jazeera has compiled a list of tweets by both prominent bloggers and ordinary Singaporeans expressing – explicitly or in jest – their displeasure with the new regulations. Broadly speaking, the comments and sentiments picked up by al-Jazeera relate to the issues of monetary means of censorship, viewership figures as well as what the new regulations mean for the “new normal” of Singapore politics.

The Wall Street Journal – highlighting Singapore’s 153rd ranking in a recent Freedom House report – explores the angle of the regulations impairing the continued operations of volunteer-run websites like The Online Citizen. The WSJ also quotes an American journalism watchdog as underscoring the growing disconnect between Singapore’s economic freedom and media freedom.

So the primary lens through which the foreign media has constructed their reporting of the new regulations is by-and-large a political one. The WSJ for instance expounds at length about 85% of Singapore households having broadband connectivity, juxtaposed against the government’s position that “press freedom must sometimes be subordinated to the needs of nation building” and how “media regulation is necessary to ensure responsible journalism and to protect the reputations of public officials and institutions”.

All this is largely fine and dandy, at least at relaying public sentiment thus far. But one should of course be cautious of any occasional attempts by foreign media houses to paint the curtailing of media liberties as a peculiarly Singaporean predicament. Even a cursory glance of Google News or any major online magazine website would reveal that press freedoms have emerged as a topic of hot and contentious debates in several countries around the world.

Malaysia for one seems to be dealing with its own barrage of criticisms regarding press freedoms. Our northern neighbours rank marginally higher than us in the Reporters Without Borders rankings, at 145 compared to our 149. But the Malaysian mainstream media has come under intense scrutiny particularly in an election year as “peddling stuff and fluff which, for all intents and purposes, matters only to the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition”.

Freedom House identifies the usage of the Sedition Act and harsh criminal defamation laws as being “used regularly to impose restrictions on the press and other critics of the government”, and that PM Najib Razak’s promised reforms to the 1984 Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA) have been sluggish to materialize. Reports also abound of Malaysian bloggers being imprisoned for allegedly defaming ministers, courts instituting seizure orders on cartoonists and policemen assaulting journalists at civil society rallies.

The aftermath of the MDA announcement moreover illuminates a recent and telling trend of Singaporean developments being translated into political currency across the Causeway. Bernama reports the President of a non-governmental organisation as claiming that “Malaysia should learn from Singapore” and that similar regulations would “facilitate the government in monitoring of the news”.

Even in the world’s largest democracy, press freedoms have emerged a recent bone of contention between society and the state. India now ranks at 140 on the World Press Freedom Index, a position that places it in league with Bosnia, South Sudan and Afghanistan. In particular, the Indian media’s “difficult situation” has been attributed to an “increasing impunity for violence against journalists and because Internet censorship continues to grow”.

In India, a growing-but-still-limited access to the internet has meant only about 10% of the population subscribe to online media platforms. Nonetheless, the government retains power to censor online content, with the 2008 Information Technology Act enabling leaders to “block material that endangers public order or national security” and prosecute cybercafés, search engines and Internet Service Providers (ISPs). In April 2011, the government introduced rules that required ISPs, website hosts and online editors to remove “objectionable content” within 36 hours of being served an official notice.

The tussle between the Indian media and government has intensified in recent years, with a spike in the number of arrests, detentions and account suspensions of social media users. The government has also attempted to coalesce major web browsers to “pre-screen” user-content to filter disparaging and inflammatory material before it goes online. Politicians have also increasingly called on the media to “introspect” and craft a robust “self-regulation regime” so as to “keep out judicial intervention”.

When on the topic of media freedom, comparisons to America are inevitable. Yet even in the self-proclaimed champion of press liberties and rights, debates are increasingly raging as to the extent of state intervention and monitoring of media activity and movement. The Free Press Clause under the First Amendment – that which protects the freedom of the press – remains intact. Yet the world’s most aggressively marketed democracy ranked 47th in the 2012 edition of the World Press Freedom Index, and 32nd in the most recent edition.

Whilst the American government does not actively curtail or restrict online political or social engagement and activity, the line between online and traditional ‘offline’ journalism remains tenuous, particularly in the eyes of the judicial system. Bloggers and new media practitioners in several states have been denied rights, privileges and protections similar to those accorded to print journalists, and have instead been subject to exacting defamation suits and cases by both authorities and other individuals.

The Obama Administration has also been increasingly criticized of infringing upon the confidentiality of press activities. Most recently, the Department of Justice was revealed to have secretly obtained two months’ worth of editors and reporters’ phone records, in an apparent effort to track down an alleged Yemeni terrorist plot. In a statement, the Attorney-General’s office said it “valued press freedom but had to balance this against the public interest”.

It appears then that that esoteric term – “the public interest” – appears to be at the heart of the media-government tussle not only in Singapore but in countries around the world as well. It may be the world’s largest democracy of more than a billion people and more than two dozen languages. It may be the world’s foremost superpower, often self-appointed as a global bastion of democratic ideals and norms. Or it may be smaller, younger countries walking the long road from soft authoritarianism to democracy.

Regardless of where they stand along the authoritarian-democracy spectrum it seems the primal factor in state-media relations is what the former defines – however broadly or narrowly – to be “in the public interest”.

Photo By Shawn Danker
Burger being bitten into.

by Bertha Henson

On Friday, I was approached to put my name on the media statement calling on the online community to join a series of online/offline protests against the Media Development Authority’s licensing scheme for news websites. I asked for time to think. I also asked to see the “link’’ that people would be directed to that was on the statement. But that “link’’, which turned out to be FAQs exhorting individuals to sign up, wasn’t ready. So I didn’t sign.

I do not like the MDA scheme at all. To think I left the traditional media which was bound by the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act to be subject to yet another similar instrument! But I am not subject to it, not as a blogger in any case, as MDA has clarified. So Bertha Harian is safe. But what about Breakfast Network? That’s still a question mark because the MDA can’t seem to get its act together to give clear answers. Am I to assume that Breakfast Network has the all-clear too because The Online Citizen has pressed its case for licensing and it has been “rejected’’? BTW, Good game TOC!

So it seems whether a website is worth being licensed despite fulfilling content and reach criteria is something for the MDA to decide. What does this mean? That a site has to keep within acceptable boundaries when reporting local developments and write the “right stuff’’ if it wants grow the number of eyeballs beyond 50,000 visitors and not put up the $50,000 bond? Guess what? This could mean the G considers TOC “acceptable’’ – kiss of death or what?

Or maybe the G’s real target is Yahoo, the only non MSM on the list of 10 websites. Dear Yahoo, what did you do wrong? Or were you making too much money off Singapore news?

There was an interesting piece in Singapolitics (yes, MSM) on the difficulties of controlling the Internet. The column did not slam the licensing scheme (it is, after all, MSM) but went into how the G was stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to regulating the Internet. By its very nature, the Internet can’t be regulated. It is too free-wheeling and there will always be ways to get out from under anybody’s control or oversight. Other countries have tried to do so and the attempts have been seen as “censorship’’ of free speech – a very bad word.

The G could try clarifying the term “news website’’ further but it would lead to the following scenarios:

a. Say Facebook and forums which fulfill the content and reach criteria also comes under the ambit of the scheme. There’s better clarity now BUT the outcry would be tremendous! Poor sammyboy and PropertyGuru etc. Plus there will be arguments on who really is the Facebook owner? Maybe Facebook should put up the performance bond.

b. If there’s further clarity, then people would simply jump to platforms that won’t come under the scheme. So we jump to, say, Twitter. If Twitter is covered at a later stage, then we can cry foul and say this is not fair, you didn’t cover Twitter in the first place.

c. If the G starts covering all sorts of aggregators and whatever else with a local IP address in the scheme, then it would really amount to a draconian approach to control the Internet universe. It won’t have a leg to stand on when it talks about being more transparent and open to views.

d. So you jump to a foreign server to escape but then again, the G have already said it would move in on these people who report on local developments from abroad. How would it do so and how would it enforce this is unclear – and will be interesting to watch. Wow, is the BBC and CNN going to have to put up a bond too?

That’s probably why the G phrased its definition of “news site’’ so broadly and then tries to appease the rest of the world by saying it won’t be using the stick too much. In fact, what it is saying is: “Trust us not to be unreasonable. After all, we haven’t been unreasonable have we? Only one “take down’’ notice over the years…’’

That’s really the problem isn’t it? It’s about giving the executive arm so much/too much discretion. Now what happens if one day, the executive decides to “get unreasonable’’ and start issuing take-down notices – because it can? Do we then mount a challenge in the courts? Pretty tough since the issue wasn’t debated in Parliament and the courts can’t depend on the “will’’ or “intent’’ of Parliament to reach a full verdict. It might have to dig back to the days when the NPPA and the Broadcasting Act was first legislated – the dinosaur era.

The G’s next argument would be: Then the people had better make sure that good, reasonable people are elected so that executive powers won’t be abused.

It’s a line that it doesn’t really believe.

Look at how the Elected Presidency was introduced as a safeguard on the nation’s reserves so that if terrible people are in power and start raiding the reserves, we won’t be a bankrupt nation.

One other point: It has noted that the opposition parties have never called for a repeal of newspaper or broadcasting laws, because it would serve their interests to have them controlled should they be in power one day.

Hmm. That’s true.

Why do opposition parties keep railing at the pro-G MSM but not buckle down to actually doing something about it? Like getting the media laws repealed?

Perhaps, everyone has given up on that territory and now want to ring fence the new territory from G intervention. Hence the protests and such like.

Would I have signed the statement if I had time to think? Maybe.

The statement calls for action. A repeal of the scheme. Perhaps, it should have called for a conference with MDA first and have it out with the officials? Or would that be too lame? But just because the MDA doesn’t “consult’’ doesn’t mean the online community has to resort to the same tactics. Will the MDA talk? My guess is that it didn’t reckon with the kind of outcry the move has drawn. This is a far more discerning electorate than the one which accepted the old media laws. This is a community with a vested interest in keeping some territory to itself.

Note that objectionable content is already under the classification regime and other laws can be used to deal with the malicious and the mischievous. If the concern is the standard of professional reporting online, then other methods can be agreed upon, such as insisting on the right of reply and a policy of correcting errors for news sites with the content and reach envisaged. Perhaps, news sites can commit to a policy to have public comments only by readers who are ready to be identified, as it is for the letters pages in mainstream newspapers. That would be parity with MSM that some in the online community could live with.

I mean, I could live with that.

Perhaps I should have signed the statement if only to bring MDA to the table. But in the end, I am glad that I didn’t sign, because what I saw of the initial FAQs that were made public left me wondering if the online community was shooting itself in its own foot.

There was, for example, a quip that STOMP would be the first to be taken down. Was that necessary? Or is this only because STOMP belonged to the mainstream media which the online community likes so much to criticise. Is this fact or speculation? In any case, this phrase was deleted later.

Okay then.

Then there were the “personal’’ FAQs on why individuals should sign. To people who blog, it said: “Sorry to break it to you, but if you have more than 50,000 unique views a day, you better have $50k to pay.”

MDA has already said bloggers are excluded. But the group did not mention this caveat, and appears to be proceeding on the assumption that MDA isn’t saying so in good faith.

This phrase was subsequently amended to add this point:

“Even though MDA said that blogs do not fall under the licensing scheme, this is not reflected in the wording of the legislation. It leaves the door open for blogs or any other site to be forced to license in the future without any change in the law.’’

So much better.

Then there was the call to mainstream journalists. They should join the protest if they “have an iota of professional pride’’.

“If you belong to one of the publications who have been asked to license under the Licensing Regime, consider this: you are soon going to belong to an organization that has to pay money to guarantee its continued good behaviour. Is that what you went to J school for?’’

The group forgot that the MSM journalists already work under the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act and Broadcasting Act. Or they wouldn’t have mentioned anything about “professional pride’’. (So they already lack that even now?) Not quite the way to make friends… In fact, MSM might well retort that the group should have asked for “parity’’, to have the current MSM laws should be repealed as well.

In any case, the answer has been amended to this :

“Journalists in the mainstream media have long worked under the control of the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act (NPPA). If you have ever experienced how editorial control stemming from the NPPA chafes at your journalistic sensibilities, why would you desire that potentially any expression online to be subject to NPPA-like controls?’’

Hmm…good sleight of hand.

Herein lies the difference between online reporting and MSM. Because it is definitely the case that online sites can make corrections quickly, even surreptitiously, compared to MSM which has to live with their mistakes in print for all to see. This is one factor that makes MSM careful about their reporting and ensure that facts are checked before publication.

But in the initial as well as current FAQs is this assumption that was made about “pro-PAP’’ websites and how they would be “happy that anti-PAP websites now have to live under a cloud of fear’’.

The group’s answer on why they should join the protest: “Your joy could be short lived. Elections come around every 5 years, and there’s no guarantee that the PAP is going to be in power forever.

“One day, you might live under an opposition government, who could very well use these press laws against you. Remember, the PAP was once part of the opposition too…’’

Now, that’s a bit unfair on pro-PAP websites. Just because they support the PAP, does this mean they would agree automatically with the diktats of the G? And what does that make the group behind the protests? Anti-PAP? Are we to assume that only anti-PAP people would decry this legislation? Why do we need to fracture the online community like this?

In any case, I will be at Hong Lim Park to do a hopefully professional job of reporting. Now I can only hope that no one takes a “if you are not with us, you must be against us’’ approach to those who declined to add their name to the petition. Because one of the great things about the online media is this: It allows for a plurality of views.

Photo by Shawn Danker. Shared Copyright.
Cook a pot of Curry before audience seating.
primaryschool
Illustration by Marcus Tan

On Thursday, My Paper ran a front page story on parents who are upset at some social studies questions in a test script for Primary 5 students. They think it’s too early to expose children at the young age of 11 to issues such as, the reasons for the 1961 split within the PAP in Singapore, or the cause for UMNO’s worry about the “Chinese majority in Singapore. Here is what our Junior Chefs think of it:

 

by Pavan Mano

History’s many versions

“History is written by the victor,” goes the common refrain. And how it is taught in schools by history’s different parties matters too. That’s probably what lies at the heart of this outcry – parents are worried that the narration of events presented to their young impressionable children is (unfairly) skewed in ways that might not tally with their version of history. In public relations parlance, this is known as “spin’’ – creating an interpretation of events to sway public opinion according to what the spin doctors want. In layman’s terms, it’s just propaganda.

I was chatting with two Malaysian friends recently who could not understand why merger and separation was such a huge deal in Singaporean education. According to them, Malaysian history textbooks deal with the two countries’ separation in a few lines, simply saying that Singapore “left’’. Clearly the same event can be expressed differently, with different outcomes.

When I was 11, in Primary 5, I assumed that whatever I was taught was gospel truth – whatever Sir said must be correct. Of course, it seems silly now, but at that age I was simply absorbing information presented to me; critically analysing and thinking about the issue was something unfamiliar. Asking questions was a daunting task as questioning Sir was unimaginable.

I’m not sure exactly what’s being taught to those in primary schools now but based on the talk making its rounds on the web, some people think there is a “spin’’ or state-sponsored propaganda.

The Education ministry is caught between a rock and a hard place on this one – there is no one “correct” version of history to teach. Interpretations abound. Whatever the critics say, the version that they insist should be taught instead, is simply that – a version. So what then?

Well, there were two other people whose words I treated as gospel at age 11 – my parents. What’s taught in school is only one interpretation. Students will take it at face value. Unquestioningly, even. But educating children is not the sole responsibility of MOE . Parents have a stake in it too.

So why not engage the children? Explain the other side(s) of the story. Bring them to the library. Share webpages with them. Expose them to other interpretations so that they know this is a complex issue. The critical analysis will come as they mature.

It is better that young Singaporeans are taught something about local history rather than nothing at all. Parents are free to disagree and educate their young ones as they see fit, and as they should. At the very least, introducing pre-teens to local politics and history provides a starting point for a meaningful dialogue to be had. And that’s much better than having them remain on the fence, indifferent, disinterested, and apathetic. From childhood right through their adult life.

 

by Donovan Cheah

Start them young – when they are less stressed.

Is it ever too early to let students know more about their country? According to some parents, the answer seems to be “Yes!”.

I disagree.

Is maturity to be defined arbitrarily as a numerical age? Curious students will eventually ask about the country’s past, the formation of government. If no answers are given in school, they can search the Web for information, relying on socio-political blogs, for example, or plough through historical archives on Singapore.

Even as a university student, I feel that I may not have fully grasped many of the intricate issues that our country faces. Many of these issues are multi-dimensional, which also implies that there is no one easy solution to them. No doubt, politics, public policy and the likes of them are difficult to understand, but they affect our lives directly, and hence it is imperative that people should start knowing at least a little about the country from young.

The way to start, naturally, is talk about significant past happenings. Introducing them to how our country was born out of forced circumstances, for example, will give them some grounding in understanding Singapore’s fragility.

What about the argument about when students should be taught such matters? I tend to hew towards: the earlier the better. Let them ask questions when they are still young when they do not have so much to grapple with; don’t cram everything in secondary school or beyond. Because, by then, if they do not perceive social studies as important, they would no longer have the heart to understand or even read about Singapore.

Give our young people a gentler learning curve in understanding more and more complicated issues by giving them glimpses of our nation in the past. When knowledge builds up, analytical skills can be applied. How to critique history will then be up to them.

 

by Uthara Nair

What’s the big deal about teaching politics?

I honestly don’t understand all this hoopla about primary 5 students being too young to be exposed to politics. What nonsense. These students are not being asked to vote, they are simply being exposed to the intricacies of government and history. If parents are so scared about their children being unduly influenced in a certain way, what, may I ask, do they do during election time when ministers and candidates walk about, give speeches, hold rallies? Lock their children in a metal box?

First, those questions that some parents found objectionable are only in the Gifted syllabus, which are supposedly for the more mature and studious. Or is the worry the “brainwashing’’ of clever children?

Second, isn’t it more advantageous to gradually introduce the students to political history of Singapore, rather than dumping it on them suddenly when they are deemed to be ‘mature’ enough?

There’s so much political news and views both local and foreign that it might be better to start them off with a foundational understanding- if the social studies questions can even be called that- of politics. This learning doesn’t end. Even in university, there is the compulsory Singapore studies modules that must be completed for graduation.

Third, why can’t parents get more involved in educating their children on politics? Supplement the teacher or even correct the teacher if you think the child is getting a false or lousy grounding. But before jumping the gun, take a look at the scope and extent of “political’’ lessons in a primary student’s syllabus. Have your say in what should be taught – but don’t get it banned.

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Photo by Shawn Danker
Beef Pastrami Sandwich being eaten.

by Bertha Henson

The only new-ish development on the Media Development Authority’s licensing scheme is the last paragraph of an article in TODAY: Asked to respond to the statement, an MDA spokesperson said: “The regulation only concerns online news sites that meet the criteria of reach and content.’’

Looks like a blah reply but it can be interpreted this way:

The “statement’’ being referred to is a protest note by 20 individuals who blog or run socio-political websites who want the licensing scheme withdrawn. So the MDA answer can be said to mean: “What’s your problem? It’s “only’’ news sites that should be concerned’’.

In other words, why all this huffing and puffing over stuff that doesn’t concern anybody else except, maybe, the 10 sites that have been notified?

This scheme is probably the worst thought out policy the G has ever rolled out. In the past, however crazy a scheme, the G always had a robust answer for every question. People might not be satisfied with the answer, but it would have been an attempt at reasoning, whether citing political, economic or even efficiency considerations. Now, the G is terribly short of answers, repeating that fig leaf about “parity’’ between MSM and online news reports. Does it think that because it says it’s not a clamp-down, that people will believe it’s not a clamp-down? Repeat this often enough and people will get used to it? Or what?

The MSM has done a pretty poor job of getting answers from the MDA. In fact, it would be interesting to see what sort of editorials would be written on this latest brainwave of the G. There has only been one voice raised in support and it was published in ST’s Forum page today. The writer thinks that the scheme could be a “progressive’’ move to ensure standards of reporting: “This reflects the assumption that news reporting is a serious business that requires standards of accuracy and accountability in order to ensure that readership is protected from misinformation and slander.

“It bears noting that the licensing regime does not imply that such sites should report a uniform view. To think so is to over-read the intent of the MDA action.

“Instead, the move should be seen as a reasonable measure to introduce common broad standards on local news reporting. While admittedly paternalistic, there is merit in the case that news reporting is the function of a profession, however permeable its boundaries, and a privilege.

“If this latter perspective informs the move by the MDA, then it and the Government as a whole should proceed to treat the “netizen journalists” of affected news websites as legitimate journalists with the accreditation and access afforded to their counterparts in the mainstream media.

“In return, they and their “editors” should accept the accountability that applies to the profession of journalism.’’

This is all very interesting. Except that the MDA never said as much.

a. If it really wants to protect readers from misinformation and slander, then it should be licensing a lot more sites than the nine MSM ones plus one. So what is it waiting for? Why?

b. The point about “over-reading’’ the intent of the MDA might well be applied to the writer himself. No one will give a “uniform’’ view but it is more than likely that the views will be within certain parameters in order not to risk flouting the licensing rules and provoke a 24-hour take-down.

c. It is not for the G to introduce “common broad standards’’ on reporting. It is not just paternalistic but disrespectful to those practise journalism and see their relationship with readers/viewers as a sacred trust. Viewers/readers will stop reading if they are fed what they think is rubbish, or read with a large pinch of salt – or laugh it away. Unless, of course, the assumption is that viewers/readers are stupid.

d. The G did not mention any reciprocity – get licenced and be accredited. The question has been asked several times online but there’s not been an answer.

Now here’s the second half of the letter, which is just as interesting:

“If the affected community of “netizen journalists” accepts the challenge, then they may yet have the last laugh in time to come.

“First, readership will continue to shift from print to online.

“Second, the reading public today prefers plurality rather than an authority of sources. It is not inconceivable that the MDA action may compel some sites to consolidate towards mass resources and funding.

“Private financing could also be attracted by the potential for advertising revenue from such agglomerated sites. Thus, Singapore could soon see its version of the Huffington Post phenomenon.

“Viewed from this perspective, it may well be the incumbent mainstream media that needs to worry most.’’

Hmm..

a. True that readership will shift from print to online, although it is worth remembering that print MSM also has an online presence.

b. Why would the MDA action compel sites to get together? So that they can be licensed and get “access’’? On balance, is “access’’ worth the threat of 24-hour take downs at any time? Somewhere in the whole argument, people seem to have forgotten that even print media does not want that yearly, renewable licence that has been imposed on them.

c. Bigger news sites could attract more advertising, that is true. But bloggers and such like usually do not put commercial considerations first although it is good to put the site on a firmer financial footing and allow for the payment of professionals instead of hobbyists to run the show. Then again, private financing will also mean a different set of constraints: online journalists might have to spend more time pandering to their demands for publicity and for “advertorials’’, already a staple in MSM. How does this serve the reading public?

d. The incumbent mainstream media needs to worry most? They are more likely to be sniggering at the prospect of “freer’’ sites no longer being so “free’’. In fact, the distinctiveness and personality of online sites will disappear – it might well become like the incumbent mainstream media.

Nevertheless, the writer made a good attempt to see the positive side of licensing. Except that no one is going to be consoled by this perspective.

Photo By Shawn Danker
The Egg Cheese sandwich being eaten.

by Bertha Henson

Has anyone said that the new licensing scheme for news sites is a good move? Oh, yes, the Media Development Authority. Oh, no, it didn’t say it was a “good’’ move, just the “right’’ move to “place online news sites on a more consistent regulatory framework with traditional news platforms which are already individually licensed”.

According to TODAY, the MDA spokesman said the move is “not intended to clamp down on Internet freedom’’, as some crazy netizens have put it.

“It is not MDA’s policy intent to place onerous obligations on the licensees. The performance bond of S$50,000 is pegged to that required of niche broadcasters,” the MDA spokesman said. “Should any licensee experience difficulties in meeting their licensing requirements, we welcome them to discuss their concerns with us.”

It’s just a banker’s guarantee by the way, not cash upfront.
Hey, thanks!

Anyway, TODAY reported netizens screaming blue murder and in ST, MP Baey Yam Keng wants more examples from MDA on what would be offending articles that would invoke the “24 hours take-down or else’’ rule.

The answer, given in TODAY:
Elaborating on what would constitute prohibited content, the MDA spokesman cited the example of an article that posts the ‘Innocence of Muslims’ video – content that would undermine racial and religious harmony here. “In that instance, just as we had issued a notice to Google previously to block the video, we would issue a take-down notice to any site which posts these video links,” he said.

Hmm…Wait a minute. Did the likes of MSM and Yahoo run such a piece? If this was posted in other sites which are not licensed, then how? Won’t the G have to take the usual route – letter of demand and charge under Sedition Act or Maintenance of Religious Harmony laws? Surely, it can’t issue a “take-down’’ notice to a Facebook poster?

Anyway, here is a new bit of information from ST: If licensing rules are breached, the offending website’s owner could be fined up to $200,000 and/or imprisoned up to three years. So it’s not just a forfeit of the $50,000?

What’s more interesting is the challenge The Online Citizen has thrown to MDA. Curiously, it’s saying: “Hey, what about us? We should be licensed too because we meet both criteria on content and reach!’’ The poor MDA spokesman could only say TOC did not meet the criteria.

Seems that the licensing scheme has not been clearly thought through…What a mess!

Photo by Shawn Danker. Shared Copyright.
Aerial display of white roses at the Garden Festival.

by Bertha Henson

When the Financial Times first broke the story of Dr Shane Todd’s death, what were the aspects that caught the reader’s eye? That there was a conspiracy to kill an American expatriate caught in the web of espionage? That Singapore institutions and Chinese players were covering up a murder?

Or that nuts, bolts and pulleys were involved?

The “nuts, bolts and pulley’’ allegation is probably is the most damning. The Todd family claimed that Singapore police told them that they were used as part of the “killing apparatus’’ – although why Dr Todd or even his supposed assassins would devise such a complicated system is beyond belief. Nuts and bolts had to be screwed into the bathroom wall so it can be assumed that Dr Todd or his “assassins’’ had a toolkit handy. Anyway, that was what the Todds say the police had told them when they arrived in Singapore. But when they went to their son’s Chinatown flat, they saw no evidence of nuts, bolts or pulleys being used.

The first thing that comes to a reader’s mind would be: How could the police have screwed up on something like this? It smacks of unprofessionalism at the very least, if not outright dishonesty. But on the last day of the coroner’s trial, the policeman involved said he did not mention nuts, bolts and pulleys – nor were they in the police report. Seems Mrs Todd conjured the scenario out of thin air. It’s a pity that the Todds walked out of the inquiry. They claimed that they will not get justice, after a key witness of theirs recanted his statement that Dr Todd had been garrotted. If they had stuck around, we might have got down to the heart of the pulley business.

Now, here’s the strange thing: there was someone who could have sorted this out. An American embassy staffer was present during the supposed nuts, bolts and pulley discussion between the Todds and the police. But Ms Traci Goins “declined to assist’’ with the proceedings, said the state prosecutor.

What gives?

Over 40 witnesses, some from the US and elsewhere, corroborating reports by the FBI – and an American diplomat based in Singapore “declined to assist’’ in the investigations? So much fuss kicked up by Senators in the US and in the Western media – and an American diplomat based here isn’t going to tell us the truth about the conversation between the Todds and Singapore police?

That’s a real shame! The integrity of the Singapore police has been brought into question and the US embassy owes justice an answer. The next question is whether Ms Goins can be compelled to give evidence. Probably not, since the inquiry is over. Another question, were statements taken from her earlier that could be tendered in court?

What are Singaporeans to make of this? An accusation has been made alleging cover-ups and the key accusers have boycotted the proceedings. One can empathise with the Todds who might be distraught that things weren’t going their way. But what to make of the embassy’s refusal to participate? Could this be because Ms Goins’ testimony might make the Todds – or the Singapore police – look bad? The embassy doesn’t want to be seen as forsaking one of their own – or do not want to antagonise the police here? Which is it?

Come on! Speak up!

Photo by Shawn Danker. Shared Copyright.
The PAP logo emblazoned on a badge worn by a party member.

by Bertha Henson

TODAY had an interesting piece about the People’s Action Party’s practice of “parachuting’’ its MPs and defeated candidates into the labour movement. The article was sparked by the impending departure of Mr Desmond Choo, its failed candidate for Hougang, which followed that of Mr Ong Ye Kung, who was fielded in Aljunied GRC. Both were in the National Trades Union Congress.

The article had two people who were critical of the practice – political scientist Bilveer Singh and NMP Eugene Tan, a law lecturer. They think the labour MPs should come from the ground up, not top down. The positive comments came from sitting labour MPs, who were actually with the movement long before they became politicians.

Now, according to TODAY, there were 14 PAP candidates from the labour movement in the 2011 GE.

Funny how the paper phrased this:

At the last General Election in 2011, 14 PAP candidates — including Mr Ong and Mr Choo — represented the labour movement. This excluded those who previously had worked in NTUC, such as Senior Parliamentary Secretary (Manpower and Education) Hawazi Daipi and Tampines GRC MP Irene Ng. Among the labour MPs currently in the House, at least a third did not have a long association with the labour movement before they entered politics.

So all the 14 did NOT have previous NTUC experience? Who are they? Or are the readers supposed to find out for himself?

The paper didn’t go further back to previous general elections although the practice of “parachuting’’ has been in place for some time. Even MPs Hawazi Daipi and Irene Ng, both former journalists, could be considered “parachutists’’ when they were elected MPs.

And it’s a pity TODAY did not define “long association’’ and get in touch with the PAP MPs who did not have this “long association’’.

Their views are more worth hearing than that of union stalwarts Mr Seah Kian Peng (Marine Parade GRC MP who was in NTUC for 14 years before he stood for election) and Mr Ang Hin Kee (Ang Mo Kio GRC MP who was head of the Employment and Employability Institute, an NTUC baby, for five years before he was fielded).

Predictably, the two men spoke glowingly of the need to recruit good people into the union ranks, which was a good place to hone political skills as well.

TODAY reported Mr Seah saying that talent would “always be sought after”. “Some stay in the labour movement longer, some move on. But even those who have moved on, they would have spent a valuable part of their time with the labour movement. And for many of them, if you talk about Ong Ye Kung or Desmond, I know their heart is still with the labour movement and they’re still helping out in different capacities.”

In fact, the labour movement appears to be where the PAP puts in those who didn’t make office-holders, but had quit the civil service. So it’s a job placement scheme as well? Note that both Mr Ong and Mr Choo had to quit the civil service before they ran for elections.

But TODAY did use an old quote from former NTUC President John De Payva (long-time unionist) and NTUC secretary-general Lim Swee Say (himself a former parachutist?) as making no bones that both NTUC and PAP hunt in each other’s territory.

In March 2011, they said: “As NTUC nurtures promising candidates for selection by PAP, we also recruit potential PAP candidates who can contribute to the labour movement. Such a two-way approach has served our workers and union members well.”

Except that in the case of Mr Ong and Mr Choo, the PAP would be hard put to re-field them in the next general election because, ironically, people won’t forget their brief stint in the NTUC.

by Bertha Henson

The People’s Action Party is responding at lightning speed and the Workers’ Party is hammering right back. All in the space of hours yesterday.

Who says politics in Singapore is dull?

Looks like the AIM saga is not about to die, despite a clean report card given by the National Development Ministry to the PAP over hiring the PAP-owned company to manage the IT stuff of its town councils. The newest twist is that the WP might be the pot calling the kettle black. Except which is blacker? Go read “Name the pot; name the kettle” for a quick summary of what has been taking place between the two parties.

The man leading the PAP strike is MP Teo Ho Pin, a pretty good move since really, MND Minister Khaw Boon Wan and his ministry should stay out of the fray. You have got to wonder which hat Mr Khaw is wearing if he starts thundering over what is really party political business when he is also the PAP chairman.

That hasn’t been lost on WP’s Sylvia Lim, who is going hammer and tongs as well. She is, in fact maintaining that AIM and the WP’s supposed “proxy’’ managing agent FM Solutions and Services aren’t pot and kettle but more chalk and cheese.

AIM is PAP-owned, a $2 company, which held a contract to an “critical town council asset’’. FMSS is not owned by the party, has $500,000 paid up capital and does not own any town council asset. The PAP is simply trying to distract attention from AIM.

Ms Lim’s latest response is to dare the PAP to file a report with the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau if it thinks that something shady is going on. She has a point. The questions being asked repeatedly by the PAP especially with regard to supposedly missing $1m, do tend to imply that something is amiss.

What’s that $1m about again?

Round 1: The PAP calculates that the total value of a three-year contract awarded to a husband-and-wife team who are WP partisans would be $15.8 million. But Ms Lim declared that it was $16.8 million to the HDB last year. So, $1m shortfall.

Round 2: Ms Lim denied any contradiction. The total contract provided for “staggered pricing, with increases in costs factored in each year”.

Round 3: Be that as it may, it means that WP’s town councils will be raising its managing fees for residents and shopowners, making it 70 per cent more expensive than a similar sized PAP town council in 2014, said Mr Teo.

Who says politics isn’t exciting?

So what’s next? The public probably has to weather a few more lightning bolts and hammer strikes because it seems neither side is willing to give way. Let’s hope that with the parties making so much noise, they remember that residents want their corridors and void decks cleaned and their rubbish cleared.