It is bad enough that here in Singapore we have institutionalised bureaucratic censorship operating through the Media Development Authority (MDA). An equally sickening phenomenon is the number of people who take it upon themselves to censor their fellow citizens.
The “reminder” that was sent out by Nanyang Technological University’s Dean of Students Lok Tat Seng is just a drop in an ocean of daily reminders. We have parents urging gay sons not to go public with their sexual orientation, friends suggesting that one should not join an opposition party, civil society groups choosing not to invite certain outspoken persons to their forums, and so on.
On the face of it, the university’s reminder is no more than a reiteration of published government rules. But the act of reiterating is an act of reinforcement.
This is all the more saddening when the government itself has both promised to act with a “light touch” and generally has been doing so. Failing to mention this, the university leaves the opposite impression, giving the rules a sense of immediacy they do not actually have in real life.
Before going further however, let me cite the story published in Today newspaper, for the sake of background:
9 Sept 2010
A rule that has raised eyebrows
It is an annual reminder, according to the university. But its recent circular on blogging has raised eyebrows on campus.
Among its several dos and don’ts for Internet postings, the Nanyang Technological University Students’ Affairs Office has set out this rule: Those who create Web pages or blogs containing information regarding politics and religion must acquire proper licences from the Media Development Authority and the university’s written approval.
The email was sent on Tuesday to all students with the subject title “Message on Exercising Freedom of Expression Responsibly”, in capital letters.
When contacted, NTU Dean of Students Lok Tat Seng said: “Every year, we disseminate information on the dos and don’ts of Internet usage as a regular reminder to our students. The new academic year has just started, hence it’s an appropriate time to disseminate the guidelines.”
NTU did not respond, however, to MediaCorp’s queries on why students needed the university’s written approval to create Web pages or blogs touching on politics and religion.
Under the Broadcasting Act, registration is required for websites deemed by the authorities to be propagating political or religious issues relating to Singapore. The last time any website was required to register as a political site was in 2001.
Some NTU students are now questioning the university’s approach. Final-year student Terence Lee, 24, who has been blogging about religion the past two years, said it was the first time he had seen its rules.
“My friends are taking a module which requires students to blog about international affairs. Does this mean all of us have to register?” he said.
On the other hand, third-year student Gillian Goh felt the reminder was necessary, even though some of her friends were “unhappy” about it.
Two other universities here approach social media with a light touch.
The National University of Singapore “does not monitor students’ postings in blogs and other online media”, but a spokesperson said students are expected to abide by the university’s Honour Code, which includes “not acting in a manner” which may be detrimental to the university’s reputation and interest.
Students from the Singapore Management University, too, are bound by the university’s Code of Conduct, whereby students are expected to refrain from hate speech or epithets – be it racial, ethnic, religious, sexual or political in nature – in any media or communication.
“In situations like these, we believe in education and dialogue, instead of authoritarian and punitive measures,” its spokesperson said.
You will have noticed that Nanyang Technological University requires students to get its approval before creating web content touching on politics and religion. So, not only did it reiterate, reinforce and render immediate the imported rules from the MDA, it added its own.
Although the newspaper did not get a response to its request for clarification, I can make an educated guess why that happened. The university must have feared that if any student ran afoul of the MDA’s rules, it too would be dragged into the controversy. As an act of self-preservation, the university probably wanted to make extra sure that would not happen by setting up its own roadblock in addition to the MDA’s.
But even then, you still cannot account for their actions until one adds self-induced fear into the mix. Without the filter of ashen-white fear, it would be hard to understand how a university — supposedly a thinking institution — can fail to notice that:
1. The MDA has for more than a decade, acted with a light touch. The last time it even tried to require a website to register was in 2001 (the Sintercom case) and that failed miserably when Sintercom defied them.
2. Websites that touch on politics and religion abound.
3. Lots of Singaporean bloggers believe it’s their right to be able to write freely about politics and religion and consider the rules ridiculous.
4. One can no more separate politics and religion from any commentary that touches on society than one can separate salt or sugar from any dish cooked; this renders the rules an absurd impossibility, something which even the MDA probably recognises by now.
Then the fact that a university administration can issue such a statement which speaks so loudly of an absence of prior reflection, is another sorry angle, for it suggests that there is a history of silly rules being issued without any of them facing challenges. If there has been a history of challenge, the university administration would surely have learnt to think twice before issuing the notice.
As the news story said, this notice has been issued annually — though it might have been phrased differently in years past — yet this is the first time that it has hit the headlines.
A hundred censors bloom when the soil is fertile for them to do so. We have a culture of allowing people to act as self-appointed vigilantes when they have no authority over us, or when they do, we get shockingly meek and never challenge them even when they apply that authority inappropriately.
* * * * *
Another news story from slightly over a week ago bothered me in a similar way. This was the story of Abdillah Zamzuri being investigated by the police for a possible offence over something he wrote on the web.
28 August 2010
Police NSman questioned over his blog
He may face action for comments on case of handcuffed lensman
A police national serviceman (NSman) who commented on the actions of fellow officers and criticised the force on his blog has been hauled up for questioning.
Mr Abdillah Zamzuri, 26, was called to give a statement after his comments about an incident last month in which a photographer for the Chinese evening newspaper Lianhe Wanbao was handcuffed by a policeman.
In the post on his blog, dated July 19, he wrote that the arrest was uncalled for, and that the situation did not warrant the use of handcuffs.
He added: ‘As someone who still reports for reservist duty as a police officer, I am well aware of the Penal Code and statutes that govern and dictate what a police officer can and cannot do.’
He also said the officer involved ‘acted stupidly’ and that the force should be sued.
A week after his post, Mr Abdillah was called up by the police and later spent an hour recording his statements at the Pasir Ris Neighbourhood Police Centre, he told The Straits Times yesterday.
He said he was told he was being investigated for the offence of ‘prejudice to the conduct of good order and discipline’.
This is a disciplinary offence under the Police Force Act, and is usually dealt with internally by a disciplinary committee.
Officers from uniformed groups are bound by a code of conduct that forbids them from detailing information about operations and procedures, among other things.
Mr Abdillah, a speech and drama trainer, said he was asked why he wrote the post, and was told that he could not ‘speak in the capacity of a police NSman’.
No charges have been filed against him yet. When contacted, police would say only that investigations are ongoing and that it would be inappropriate to comment.
Abdillah was of the view that the police had acted wrongly in the case of photojournalist Shafie Goh. To convince his readership of his credentials, he disclosed that he had been in the police force himself during his national service days, which is a good way of writing. But the very act of saying that he had been in the police force now puts him in jeopardy.
This is a dangerous precedent to set. Now everybody can be gagged once they disclose the source of their expertise. Our expertise often comes from experience within organisations, whether it be the police force, the military, a business company or an academic institution. Where good communication would encourage us to declare why we think we’re an expert on something in order for readers to judge the value of our opinions and distinguish one from another based on the background of writers, now that very declaration can get us into trouble.
If there’s a building collapse and rescue work is bungled, some of the best commentary may come from those who’ve been in Civil Defence — they can tell us whether or not proper procedures were followed, for example.
If mass food poisoning happens within a university and students blog about what they knew first-hand of hygiene standards, stating as background that they were university students too, that could get them into trouble with the university. As the first news story told us, the National University of Singapore has an Honour Code that stops students from acting in a manner “detrimental to the university’s reputation”.
If there’s an accident involving live-fire training in the army, are no ex-servicemen allowed to inform the public what safety procedures should have been observed, lest they be breaching some life-long code of silence?
And what about the value of whistle-blowers?
Punishing people for disclosing who they are and where they have acquired their knowledge or expertise only drives people to write anonymously, the exact opposite of what the government itself thinks is healthy. For years, the government has been saying people should act responsibly when on the web; anonymity is often a mask for irresponsibility.
Reputation is not without value, including that of organisations, but reputation sustained by gagging is not reputation. In all the above cases, any desire to gag must be weighed against the public interest. The public interest is best served by a free flow of information benefitting knowledge and inquiry, and a habit of information providers disclosing their identity, credentials and expertise so that the public can weigh the information they see.
Instead, Singaporeans spend lots of energy trying to shut each other up.