A year ago on 26 November 2012, around 170 bus drivers for SMRT, a public transport company, refused to report for duty. This eventually led to new censorship rules restricting online news platforms hurriedly introduced in June 2013.
It was a friend (I am not sure if he wants to be named) who suggested this cause-effect relationship a little while back. The more I think about it, the more I think he is right.
All the bus drivers who resorted to industrial action had been hired from China. They were unhappy that their terms of employment were worse than enjoyed by Singaporean and Malaysian bus drivers. They were further aggrieved by a major change in driving rosters earlier in May/June 2012 that deprived them of overtime, and other amendments to rules that reduced their chances of earning bonuses and allowances, in addition to complaints about housing conditions. They felt that these changes unilaterally violated the promises made to them before they signed up with SMRT.
The two-day stoppage, affecting a number of routes run by the smaller of the two public bus operators, was big news while it lasted. Although it came nowhere near to bringing our city-state to a standstill, the authorities saw it as humongous. It was a challenge to its monopoly of managing industrial relations. How dare workers organise themselves to take action without blessing from the top? It completely upsets the desired political order in Singapore and may encourage other aggrieved foreign workers — and there are hundreds of thousands of them, so many and so unhappy that if they too started taking action, Singapore would really come to a standstill.
The issue was perhaps made extra-sensitive by the fact that SMRT is a state-owned company. Sovereign fund Temasek Holdings has a 54 percent shareholding (as at Nov 2013). Its directors and managers are selected directly or indirectly by the government. Furthermore, major rail disruptions in recent years have already reflected very badly on them all. It became a matter of face for the cabinet.
Various media carried daily reports (or more often) on the fast-developing situation, much helped by the fact that the government’s heavy-handed response kept it news-worthy. After a bit of dithering, they upped the ante by calling it an illegal strike, arrested and charged five drivers and summarily deported 29 others.
Yahoo’s news coverage through that period wasn’t out of the ordinary. Looking at them, you cannot support the hypothesis that it led to the new licensing rules for news websites in June 2013. These are the Yahoo reports I found from an archival search:
26 Nov 2012 : Chinese bus drivers stage work stoppage in Singapore (credit AFP)
26 Nov 2012: SMRT bus drivers striek illegl: Tan Chuan-jin
27 Nov 2012: Bus driver community split over mass labour strike
28 Nov 2012: 20 SMRT bus drivers ‘assisting’ police
29 Nov 2012: SMRT on dorm conditions: we could have done better
30 Nov 2012: Singapore bus driver strike makes world news
Even with this pretty normal frequency of reporting (for a major story), perhaps Yahoo Singapore already irritated the government by not reflexively adopting the government’s perspective on the incident. But if so, the government did not publicly take issue with Yahoo over the objectivity of its editorial position.
Allegations of police abuse
However, a new twist occurred in early 2013, which would set in train the events in question. Two bus drivers, He Junling and Liu Xiangying, alleged in videos made by Lynn Lee and posted on Workfair Singapore that they were at the receiving end of unprofessional conduct by the police, including “slapping” and “punching”. Yahoo’s report on these allegations:
To cut a long story short, the police’s Internal Affairs Department launched a probe, at the end of which they said the allegations were “baseless”. See this statement by the Ministry of Home Affairs. Among its arguments was that “both He and Liu retracted their allegations of abuse. He’s statements were contradictory: He retracted his allegations but yet maintained that the allegations were true.”
My sources tell me differently. As I understand it, He did not retract his statement (nor Liu). The Henan native merely said he would not make any formal police report about the abuse, it not being worth his while, wanting as he did to go back to China and resume his life. But not wanting to lodge a formal police report is not inconsistent with asserting that their allegations were true. I believe his decision was made and communicated to the investigators around the time of the later (of two) interviews by officers from Internal Affairs, conducted on 20 March 2013. By then, he was serving his seven-week jail sentence, having earlier been convicted of participating in an illegal strike — and was understandably wanting to put this chapter behind him.
Anyway, the four were released from jail at the end of March and deported. Yahoo reported,
31 March 2013: 4 jailed ex-SMRT bus drivers back in China
But Yahoo reached them back home and very soon published a two-part feature giving their point of view.
The government’s response was furious, as reported by Yahoo itself.
20 Apr 2013 : Ex-SMRT bus driver’s claims ‘unfounded’, ‘untrue': MOM
The Manpower ministry’s “strongly worded statement” was also reported by Xin-MSN news on 21 April. A clue lies in this statement: “M-O-M said Yahoo! Singapore failed to verify the facts with the Ministry before running the story.” This harks back to an implicit rule faithfully abided by government-friendly media such as the Straits Times and Channel NewsAsia that requires all reporters to check with the relevant ministry for its perspective before publishing any story that has implications for the government. These mainstream media reporters and editors also know that if they are required to obtain the government’s perspective, it follows that they are expected to lead the story with the government’s point of view.
Yahoo Singapore didn’t do this with the two-part feature. As reported by Xin-MSN, the Ministry of Manpower “said the facts clearly contradict He’s allegations”, which is another way of claiming that Yahoo’s feature story contained falsehoods.
A month later, the thunderclap came. On Tuesday, 28 May 2013, out of the blue, the government announced that news websites meeting certain content-frequency and monthly readership conditions would need to be licensed under an additional framework, with a $50,000 good behaviour bond thrown in. More details of the new licensing regime can be found in the article I wrote in that month, Parity’s a good idea. What was truly astounding was that unlike the trend in the last few years, there was absolutely no period for public consultation; in fact, the new rules would come into effect just four days later on 1 June 2013.
One cannot help but wonder what it is that spooked them.
The list of ten news websites that required registration under this new rule gives us a clue. Nine of them belonged to government-friendly Singapore Press Holdings and Mediacorp. Surely, none of them could have transgressed, being so smothered already by many layers of obedient executives. But Yahoo! Singapore was among them. It was the only non-government-controlled site in the list.
At the time, the suddenness of the new rules and the mysterious basis for the list of ten sites didn’t make much sense. But the more I think about it, the more I am convinced now that it was triggered by Yahoo’s boldness in carrying a two-part feature, giving voice to two victims of our government’s control-freak psychopathy.
Another clue: When Channel NewsAsia held a panel discussion in early June on the new rules, it was Acting Manpower minister Tan Chuan-Jin who appeared for the government, not Information minister Yaacob Ibrahim. And on 8 July 2013, Yaacob, speaking in Parliament, said the rules were meant to place “a stronger onus on the licensees operating these websites to be aware of their legal obligations, and to report incidents and occurrences responsibly.” I think his choice of words reveal quite a lot.
Suppressing dissent by entombing them in legal concrete that weigh on others for a hundred years
Singapore’s control laws often take this form: meant to extinguish a lone political challenge, yet drafted in such a way as to cast the net wide. Law academic Jothie Rajah has brilliantly explained how our Vandalism Act was actually designed to throttle opposition party Barisan Sosialis in the 1960s. The 1989 abolition of appeals to Britain’s Privy Council came after the late opposition leader J B Jeyaretnam won in his appeal to what was then Singapore’s highest court. The Public Order Act may well be called the Chee Soon Juan law, for this legislation’s obvious (even if denied) political target.
We might as well call the news websites licensing rules the “Yahoo Licence Rules”.
The trouble is that these laws persist to warp our society and politics for a long time forward. Petty, non-political vandalism (Basian Sosialis law) now attracts caning — arguably a cruel and unusual punishment that violates the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The absurdity of banning “one-man public assemblies” (Chee Soon Juan law) will live on to stymie future attempts, even non-political ones, at expression. You need only look at how the Sedition Act, the Internal Security Act and the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act have lived on for fifty years, well past the original emergency they were meant to address, and worse, used in ways and against activities never intended to be within the scope of these statutes.
[Correction: One paragraph removed. This paragraph spoke about The Independent Sg, a new news website launched late July, early August 2013. I was told that my earlier point about Independent being added to the list of ten sites is wrong. The Independent was asked to register under the Class Licence, whereas the ten sites were asked to register under Individual Licence, and that they should not be conflated.]
One after another, these laws and rules just add to the government’s arsenal of control, giving them ever more levers to use. The Yahoo Licence Rules are just the latest in a long and wretched line.