Mark My Words. The PAP Are Coming After Your Last Free Space (Social Media) Next
Following on from the ‘fake’ hearings in Singapore chaired by Minister for Law Shanmugam, in the last week three of our MPs have sallied forth to London (no doubt flying Business or First Class on SQ and staying in 5* hotels owned by Temasek or GIC) to take part in a UK Parliamentary hearing on ‘fake’ news and disinformation. They were Edwin Tong, Minister of State for Law, Sun Xueling and “useful idiot” Pritam Singh from the Workers’ Party, who have deluded themselves to thinking that they are in some sort of coalition with the PAP.
The PAP Government clearly intends to use the worldwide backlash against American tech companies to clamp down on one of the last avenues for freedom of expression and criticism of the Government available to Singaporeans. They sent three MPs and were the largest of the foreign delegations together with Canada (which has nearly ten times the population).
I do not understand why Singapore was invited since there is no freedom of expression or information and the last year has seen an intensifying crackdown on what little self-censoring alternative media there is left. Certainly the other Parliamentarians came from countries (France, Belgium, Canada and Argentina) that are real democracies and not fake ones and that have independent media and rights to freedom of expression.
The exchange between Edwin Tong and Elizabeth Denham, the UK Information Commissioner, chilled my blood as it became quite clear that, whether through ignorance or intention, she was playing into his hands. He used what she said, without contradiction from her, to talk about the need for legislation to deal with non-criminal harms and the “quick spread” of information online. Tong uses the words “strong, quick levers” so Singaporeans should be familiar with what this means from previous actions against TOC, The Real Singaporean and State Times Review. He also talks about the need for society to be “protected” which is PAP-speak for we need to prevent you morons out there finding out the truth about your Government.
This is my open letter to Elizabeth Denham:
Dear Ms Denham
I am writing to you as a Singaporean and also as the leader of a small Singaporean political party.
I am extremely concerned by a question raised by the Singapore delegation at the hearingof the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport International Grand Committee onDisinformation and ‘Fake News’ and your response.
The following exchange occurred on 27 November 2018:
Edwin Tong MP: Would you seek regulation to protect, say, children and the general public from content that could be seditious or incite hatred?
Elizabeth Denham: That is correct. Although it is complicated and complex to come up with the rules that will balance all these interests, our research shows that the public expect Parliament and legislators to do that.
I am not surprised that our authoritarian government’s Minister of State for Law, Edwin Tong, would bring up the matter of “sedition”. However I am beyond disappointed that, although you acknowledge the complexity of the issues, you did not challenge him on the matter of sedition and allowed it be conflated with incitement to hatred. I am not making a puerile distinction here. My concern is borne out of experience and a very real fear by our people that our Government will use any tool they can to crack down on legitimate opposition and to remove once and for all our ability to criticise or even question them.
As you may know our Government already controls all domestic media through the ownership of management shares facilitated by the Newspapers and Printing Presses and Broadcasting Acts. It controls foreign media through punitive distribution sanctions and defamation suits. Local bloggers are managed in much the same way. Public assembly is also illegal so global social media platforms are the only spaces that have remained resistant to total government control.
Possibly you are unaware that sedition ceased to be an offence in the UK in 2009 and had not been used for over a century before that (apart from a private attempt to prosecute Salman Rushdie for seditious libel in 1991)?
I know that Canada is your home country and Canada maintains sedition as an offence (albeit with an exemption for criticising Government) because like Singapore it was once part of the British Empire and has retained many of the archaic colonial laws.
However In Canada sedition laws are independent of the laws that pertain to hate crimes and its citizens enjoy wide ranging liberal freedoms. Singapore citizens enjoy no liberal freedoms whatsoever and the Government repeatedly uses criminal sedition and libel laws to crack down on dissent.
Claire Ward, UK Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Ministry of Justice, protected our freedoms best when she said:
Sedition and seditious and defamatory libel are arcane offences – from a bygone era when freedom of expression wasn’t seen as the right it is today… The existence of these obsolete offences in this country had been used by other countries as justification for the retention of similar laws which have been actively used to suppress political dissent and restrict press freedom… Abolishing these offences will allow the UK to take a lead in challenging similar laws in other countries, where they are used to suppress free speech.”
It is unfortunate that you appeared to be supporting Edwin Tong in the exchange. But it is worse that the UK Parliamentary Committee would invite representatives from an authoritarian dictatorship and allow them to take away from this a justification for a crackdown on freedom of expression. We know that where Singapore leads other authoritarian regimes such as Turkey, Hungary and Iran will follow.
It is a balancing act but Edwin Tong’s rejoinder stating a need for “quick and strong levers” should strike fear into the heart of any Parliament that believes in supporting the Human Rights Act or freedom of expression:
Edwin Tong: Those objectives have to be balanced by the speed at which you can address the harms that are being spread. I imagine that strong, quick levers are needed to stop and stem the spread.
It is the definition of irony that Singapore, which is a ‘fake’ democracy should send such a large delegation to a hearing on fake news and should be encouraged by the Mother of Parliaments to trample on its citizens’ democratic rights.
At the end of the hearing the Parliamentarians signed a declaration on the “Principles of the Law Governing the Internet“. The preamble states that :
“The declaration affirms the Parliamentarians’ commitment to the principles of transparency, accountability and the protection of representative democracy in regard to the internet.”
Since the one governing principle of the PAP Government and the Lees has been to undermine representative democracy and uphold instead opacity and unfettered power without accountability for one family, it is indefensible that Edwin Tong was allowed to sign the declaration.
Point iv from the declaration is music to the ears of authoritarian governments like Singapore’s:
Social Media companies should be held liable if they fail to comply with a judicial, statutory or regulatory order to remove harmful and misleading content from their platforms, and should be regulated to ensure they comply with this requirement;
Because of course the PAP will decide what is “harmful and misleading” and that will include all criticism that has not been completely watered down and made toothless.
Singaporeans better not complain when their last free space to criticise the Government is taken away from them. I told them this would happen.