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Saturday May 4, 2013

The dilemma in cyberspace

The Singapore government gets tough on social media considered to have crossed sensitive lines.

THE Singapore government has taken a number of tough measures against online critics considered to have crossed sensitive lines.

The actions appeared to have started in mid-March, two months after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong warned that sensitive issues were being raised over the Internet.

“We don’t believe the community in the social space, especially online, moderates itself. It doesn’t happen anywhere in the world,” he said.

Some of these views were going extreme, and people were responding in an extreme way, Lee said, implying that official action was needed to moderate this social space.

“It’s in the nature of the medium, the way the interactions work and that’s the reason why we think it cannot be completely left by itself.”

This is a slight difference of emphasis on the subject between Lee and DPM Tharman Shanmuga-ratnam.

While the PM spoke of a need to “moderate” it, Tharman emphasised that some bloggers were quite thoughtful although more balance is needed.

“Well, it cannot be ignored and I think so far, on balance, the fact that you’ve got an active social media is a plus. It’ll go through phases,” Tharman told The Straits Times.

Since the warning, however, the social community had been expecting some form of government intervention, either in legislation or a crackdown on the extreme “websites”.

It is times like this that Lee’s expressed desire for freer expression is put on the back burner.

In 2006, the Prime Minister said: “I want to involve Singaporeans more in building our country, to create more room for you to express yourself and try out your own ideas. They are all making a better Singapore.”

It is a sentiment that Lee – just as predecessor Goh Chok Tong – has generally pursued but on a three-step forward two-step backward manner.

Nevertheless there is today a greater degree of expression compared to Lee Kuan Yew’s leadership.

The recent government measures seem to be aimed at defending the integrity of the judiciary and the police, even if he is charged with taking two steps backward. Lee blames it on the social media itself.

The tightening appears to run counter to the economic left-turn ideology that DPM Tharman recently referred to.

It is obvious the ideological shift does not apply to politics.

Lee has often said that Singapore will continue to change and it is not possible to predict what the republic will become in 20 years time.

The first indication of Lee’s recent toughening-up was the arrest charge of “the Sticker Lady”, Singaporean artist Samantha Lo.

She was caught pasting stickers in public places saying things like “My Grandfather road” and “Press Once can already”, popular Singlish phrases.

Both she and her male companion, a graffiti artist, were charged with mischief, rather than vandalism, which carries a heavier sentence.

Law Minister K. Shanmugam had met the pair and appealed on their behalf but failed.

Although this case was not sparked off online, it quickly spread and drew 63,000 web petitions.

Next came letters sent by the Attorney-General’s Chambers to an unknown number of websites demanding apologies for alleging a court decision on a China national was too lenient.

Yuan Zhenghua hijacked a taxi at Changi Airport last year and crashed it, killing an airport worker.

He was sentenced to 25 months jail which sparked off protests in several websites, implying the court ruled in his favour.

Some writers said if it had been a Singaporean he would have got a harsher punishment.

The government alleged it “undermines confidence in the administration of justice”.

Meanwhile two bus drivers from China have alleged they were abused by police investigators for taking part in an illegal strike.

Police said they had found them “baseless”.

The most controversial move was, however, taken against civil activist Nizam Ismail, who was alleged to have been pressured to resign from two Muslim charitable organisations.

The board director of the Association of Muslim Professionals (AIM) and chairman of the Centre for Research on Islamic and Malay Affairs (RIMA) quit allegedly to avoid the possible loss of government funding.

Nizam told him that two cabinet ministers had called to express concern about his participation as a rally protest speaker at Hong Lim Park.

At about the same time, police arrested cartoonist Leslie Chew for two drawings that it alleged was seditious.

The first one had to do with a possible contempt of court charge, while the second (a more serious seditious charge) alleged the government supposedly “suppressed” the Malay community here.

This is a very serious charge which caught the public by surprise.

This series of actions led Bertha Henson, a former deputy editor of The Straits Times, to write in her blog that a confrontation appeared to be looming between the establishment and civil society groups.

The tussle is over the “same old chestnuts” – freedom of expression and the ability to criticise the judiciary and institutions without running afoul of the law or being branded as renegades out to erode confidence in the system.

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