MDA Licensing Requirement: Why They Did It and What Will Happen (Part 3)

In part 1 and part 2 of this article, I had explained to you why the Media Development Authority (MDA) had introduced the licensing requirement for “online news sites”. The rationale is simple – the existing laws that they had created were crafted for use only against institutionalised elements such as politicians from the opposition parties and union members in the past. But these laws were outmoded and cannot be suitably used against ordinary Singaporeans, where if the government dares unleash the law onto the “common” Singaporean that this will backfire on them and be their undoing.

Part 1 and Part 2 of the article can be read here (Part 1) and here (Part 2)

Thus the government had needed a non-law which they could use to push Singaporeans into submission and so that if Singaporeans were to step out of their imaginary line, the government could use $50,000 to push us right back in.

Now, deceptively, the government had released an initial list of 10 “online news sites” which are covered under the new rules. All of these sites are owned by state-owned media, except for Yahoo! Singapore. This has thus made some suspect that the new ruling is aimed at keeping Yahoo! in check.

Well, it is. But you see, there are also other reasons – first, the government cannot possibly put all the sites that it wanted into this list right from the start, at this point in time. If the government has its way, The Online Citizen, TR Emeritus, publichouse.sg, NewsAsiaRepublic and transitioning.org, would have been some of the many sites that would need to register for the licence. Within a year, the government would have required all of them to pay up $50,000 each because of some erroneous reason and the sites would all be forced to close down, because their licence would not be renewed for the second year, if not, in the third year – before the next general elections.

Obviously, the government couldn’t do that because if they did, Singaporeans would tear the government into pieces. We would hold mass protests like we have never done before – Hong Lim Park would be flooded onto the roads and the roads all the way until Central mall would have to be closed.

Thus this calls for the government to release the initial list with a minimal number of number of sites and expand on it as and when the ground is non-threatening (for them) or when Singaporeans are caught unaware.

Oh, Is It Only Yahoo! Singapore? 

In the initial list, the consideration for which sites should come under the list is pretty straightforward. You need sites which would come in quietly and won’t cause a ruckus. The state-owned site would be led like sheep, so that’s no problem. Yahoo! Singapore was a no brainer because Yahoo! Singapore is a corporate company. The idea is that it wouldn’t have as passionate a stake in the livelihood and long term future of Singapore and wouldn’t fight against this ruling, especially since it’s interest is in profit-making – this being the government’s logic. Yahoo! was thus unlikely to make “noise”. This would effectively allow the government to introduce this ruling, pretend that everything is all well, that no other sites needs to be placed under this ruling, and quietly walk into the sunset.

Except that the sun will rise much faster than you could see the moon.

The MDA has sidestepped all the questions poised at them about the lack of clarity of the licensing requirement at this point. So, they might say that the new ruling is “not intended to clamp down on Internet freedom” and claim that at this point, that “no other online news sites beyond the 10 listed are found to have met the qualifying criteria of reach and content”. This is of course, spurious, since The Online Citizen had stated that, “Based on publicly available data of visitorship statistics for TOC and the regularity of our posts on Singapore news and current affairs, it would appear that the licensing regime could apply to TOC.”

The MDA had been non-committal in its claims that no other sites currently need to be placed in this list. A media statement by more than 20 Singaporeans with an online presence in Singapore, including this blog, The Heart Truths, was released on Thursday. In response, the MDA would only say that, “The regulation only concerns online news sites that meet the criteria of reach and content.” Furthermore, in The Sun Daily, it was reported that, “The MDA said the licence guidelines will “apply to all content on the news sites, including readers’ comments on the news sites”. The MDA had intentionally left their replies open-ended, not because they didn’t want to “clamp down on Internet freedom”. It’s a no-brainer. Claim innocence and when the time comes, act like the biggest bitch in town.

Let me tell you what this is.

  • Stage 1 was to release the ruling with as little fanfare as possible – release only the list of news sites which would fall under this ruling which would comply – so the state-owned media and Yahoo!, for the reasons stated above. It wouldn’t make sense to release only news sites of state-owned media because the question on Singaporeans’ minds would be – huh? Why even bother when they are already in your pockets? Include Yahoo! because first, they are a big fish, second, they won’t bite and most importantly, Singaporeans can be led to believe that the government is only interested in reining in Yahoo! and all else wouldn’t matter.
  • Well, wrong. It was reported that, “Communications and Information Minister Yaacob Ibrahim signalled that the rules may in future apply to overseas news sites reporting on Singapore.” So, there’s a next, but not as long as you would imagine. What is stage 2? When all the commotion from this has died down, and when no one else is talking about this ruling, the government will strike hard and fast and pull in the other sites – The Online Citizen and TR Emeritus – among others into this list. Most likely, what would happen is that the government would wait for the sites to report on something deemed as salacious, so that they could have a reason to rein the sites in. And when that happens, at the point when it seems that the moral integrity of the sites would take a hit, it would be much easier to rein them in. When would stage 2 come? It wouldn’t take long – it would happen anywhere between the next few months but definitely before the year is out. The government doesn’t have enough time to wait. They want to finish off with arresting and suing more people this year and perhaps for the early part of next year, before they start on their “nice” PR from the second half of 2014, as Singapore goes into our 50th anniversary in 2015. Then, they would want to build on the “happy” momentum from 2015 into 2016, and hopefully, they think, to win another general election. So stage 2 would definitely happen this year.
  • Moving on to Stage 3 – Stage 3 would take effect by the end of this year or early next year. Stage 3 would be easy. Once you take out the key players – The Online Citizen, TR Emeritus etc, then you move on and you take the smaller players. When there is no more large bases where Singaporeans can rely on, the smaller fishes and blogs like The Heart Truths can be very easily attacked and forced on our knees. The government can issue a licence to any one of us, wait for us to step out of their line, demand for a $50,000 performance bond and wala – clean as neat by mid to end-2014 and ready to clean up the peoples’ minds for the next general elections.

Cooling-Off Day in 2009: Failed Attempt at Regulating the Internet

In 2009, the government had introduced the ‘cooling-off day’, on the day before the polling day of the general elections, which is “a 24-hour period during which campaigning will not be allowed so that voters can reflect calmly on their decision”, so they say. Singaporeans had been worried that this would curb their ability to receive alternative news sources, if the government was to restrict access of news and information. They were worried that all that they could rely on would be the mainstream media and receive distorted news information. Thankfully, by the time of the general elections in 2011, Singaporeans had understood this “cooling-off day” enough to know what they cannot, and actually can do, such that it didn’t have that much of the intended effect to curb people’s enthusiasms.

You see, when the cooling-off day was first designed, the Internet wasn’t as boisterously-used by Singaporeans as it had over the past 2 years. Then, people were still mostly sharing photographs of their food on Facebook and updating their Facebook statuses about how they had just come out of the shower and are getting ready to head out. But sometime from during the general elections in 2011, Singaporeans managed to organise ourselves a lot better and we were able to more systematically receive and produce more news analysis, and of greater depth, for one another.

Cooling-off day was conceived at a time when the government simply couldn’t imagine that the Internet would take over by storm. They thought that a one-day measure could effectively curb dissent. Of course, they were very wrong. They went on to win the lowest ever proportion of votes since Singapore’s independence.

Defamation, Sedition and Contempt of Court: Nothing that Singaporeans Fear Anymore

So, over the past 2 years, they had hunkered in their bunkers trying to think of every way that they could to hold down the hands of Singaporeans. Finally, this year, they embarked on a series of threats – defamation, sedition and contempt of court. What?? None of them worked? None of them worked because Singaporeans just walked all over them?? Wait, weren’t we supposed to do that, the government thought to themselves.

MDA’ Licensing Requirement: One Rule to Rule Them All? 

So, they went back to the drawing board and within a few months, they drew this up – tada, the MDA’s “licensing framework”. Great – a framework with hardly any details or clear conditions or guidelines, and replies by the MDA to queries that are misleading and non-committal. This was a rushed job. The government simply doesn’t know what the hell to do with this. All they knew was that they needed to gun the online sites down and they had believed that the licensing “requirement” – that’s a better word to use – is the best way to do it. But they simply hadn’t spent time thinking through what exactly this requirement should be about or what conditions should be tied to it – the licence conditions didn’t matter as much as what they had wanted it to be used for.

You see – the government knew what the end goal was that they had in mind – gun down the online sites. And they knew the tool to use. But they weren’t interested in using this tool for anything else. So, they didn’t bother to think about what else there needs to be thought about for the “requirement” – just come out with it and use it when we get to, them maybe just chuck it aside until some online bugger comes and irritate us again. And this is why they have no answers because this “requirement” wasn’t ever supposed to be logical. And they cannot even logically define it for themselves.

For Power and For Money: Greed and Deceit 

Look, this government is very easy to understand once you understand what their main motivations are – power and money. This licensing requirement was conceptualised to protect their power. If you can understand this, you will understand the logic, or lack thereof behind it. The $50,000 is meant to break the piggy banks of Singaporeans, and the hope is for their drive to write to run out as well. Which other “crime” requires you to pay $50,000?

The $50,000 performance bond was created to keep the broadcast agencies in check, so that they would listen to the government. Now that they do anyway, there is no need to threaten them with that. Even if there is a need to, they are millions of dollars rich and they are backed by the government anyway.

You see, the PAP has cornered the estates of governance – the government, the presidency, the courts and the media, and the Singapore companies. Effectively, they have their hands in everything. They have managed to systematically marginalise the opposition parties from participating in governance. And the mainstream media bows down to them all too readily.

Which brings us to this point – the government’s aim had always been to “fix” the opposition. With netizens becoming too “emboldened”, from their point of view, there are now two entities that they have to “fix”. To them, the opposition politicians should rightfully be what they should put their attention on since the opposition politicians are considered part of the formal institutionalised estate. To them, the people and netizens are only a waste of time – which is why they wanted to hurry and put out this licensing requirement to wipe out the netizens, so that they could refocus on “fixing” the opposition – and prevent “messes” like AIM and the fracas with the town councils from being dug out. But they didn’t rely on themselves messing it up big time and digging themselves into deeper shit. Now, they have an even bigger shit to deal with the netizens.

So, now, other than the opposition, the only thing that stands in the government’s way are the people themselves. For a long time, the people couldn’t speak. But now they could. And they knew how to – the Internet ruptured and obstructed the government’s plans.

Let Them Come. And We Will Take Them By the Horns

There is no way anyone can realistically police the Internet. So, let them try, let the government fall into its own bait. We will wait and see. Will the people’s might overcome that of the thumb that presses us down? I wouldn’t wait to see that happen. If I were you, I would stand up for our rights. I would fight, and I would push back.

Singapore is our home, our country. It doesn’t belong to one or two persons who have enough to lavishly make it theirs.

I will be attending the upcoming protest to happen in the next one week to protest against such scrooge that threatens to steal away the last bits of my dignity away.

Let’s come together to join hands. It is not only the future of the Internet that it is at stake. What is at stake is whether you will still be able to receive news and information which the government wouldn’t tell you. And by the time you know it, where would your money have gone?

That’s right, Singaporeans. So, come, join us.

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3 comments

  1. Philoforchange (@sanjay_perera)

    Hi Roy, the three posts on this topic raise interesting points. What is most interesting is the claim that underlies motivations for societal control — “power and money”. In many instances, most of us would agree with this. There is also, in your narrative, the theme of a conspiracy of sorts that allows for many things in Singapore that lead up to the new licensing framework. However, would it be news that such a ‘conspiracy’ for control underlies virtually all governments?

    Am not challenging what you state in your three posts, am asking that one be open to possibilities that much more happens throughout the world when it comes to governments asserting control over certain things. No state and its apparatus exists in a vacuum, it exists in the context of being part of the fraternity of all the states/governments on Earth (because wars happen do not mean that members of governments and other interested players actually hate one another or are enemies — it is the people who suffer and die).

    All governments/banks/megacorporations lack transparency one way or another and you only know what exactly goes on depending on what level of access you have within and what faction you are aligned to.

    It may seem that some states are more ‘democratic’ and are better in the way they ‘treat’ their people and in ‘freedoms’ they allow. Perhaps a case can be made if there is a kind of point-for-point comparison but it would be a weak one: Do not be taken in by thinking so-called ‘democracies’ in the West are ‘liberal’ and ‘free’ and ‘serve the interests’ of their people unconditionally.

    Any serious protests anywhere will have the state apparatus come in against them: Look carefully at what happened in the US during Occupy and what is happening/happened in Europe.

    There is more happening around the world where various state apparatuses are concerned than meets the eye. Am not asking for any agreement on this — only keep open possibilities.

    Thank you and best wishes — sanjay.

    • My Right to Love

      Hi Sanjay,

      Actually I do agree with you. As I research and look at the statistics, I see a lot of consistencies with how some governments are treating the people – and I would generalize that the consistencies can be seen by governments who align themselves with America, or perhaps, who subscribe to America’s form of capitalism.

      You can see the income inequality, wage problems, and even, like you mentioned, how rules are passed and how people are suppressed, do move along similar trends.

      I was discussing with someone and I shared – these issues are all ongoing in many parts of this world, but where can I pick my fight? I can do what I can within the boundaries of this country and someone else might be able to do so within their boundaries.

      We will each take on our governments, and hopefully, we would be able to force them to change. But like you say, their power is strong among the governments – but this is unsurprising because of their consolidation of resources.

      Can we look beyond the larger picture and take them on altogether? We can – but what’s the strategy or how? I think this is something we need to imagine and push through.

      At this point, I can imagine how I can change this government. It might be on a small scale, but it’s a start. I understand how even if we might be able to force change to occur, as Iceland did but where they eventually voted the old government back in, where change was stunted.

      But I believe and I hope that globally, if we keep up at it, it would become a global campaign at one point.

      Roy

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