An Open Letter to the UK Information Commissioner
29 November 2018
Ms Elizabeth Denham
Information Commissioner’s Office
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 allowedit 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.