Let a hundred censors bloom

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
Today newspaper

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
Straits Times

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.

[truncated]

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.

16 Responses to “Let a hundred censors bloom”


  1. 1 Fine 10 September 2010 at 21:17

    Being an honest citizen also fined, not being a good citizen also charged. Life is real tough in this stressful and overly supressed country. The safer bet is to praise the existing ruling party and who knows, the change might be high of it getting printed in national paper too.

  2. 2 Anonymous 10 September 2010 at 21:56

    So many rules…how to become a Thinking School, Learning Nation?

  3. 3 Anonymous 10 September 2010 at 22:55

    Learn from Apple: “We will reject Apps for any content or behavior that we believe is over the line. What line, you ask? Well, as a Supreme Court Justice once said, “I’ll know it when I see it”. And we think that you will also know it when you cross it.”

    Because some netizens cross the line, that’s what triggers the rules. So let’s all not cross the line so as to disrupt others.

  4. 4 Sos 10 September 2010 at 23:38

    I hope no one arrest me. Or destroys my rice bowl by coming to my work place. I just want to ask a very basic and simple question. Is the light touch still in place or do we now have rule by fear?

  5. 5 Ezra 11 September 2010 at 06:34

    I’ve always maintained that there is nothing wrong with posting things online anonymously. In an ideal world where the Government does not punish people for saying things it doesn’t like, and the citizenry is mature enough to refrain from lynching those with unpopular views, anonymity would not be required.

    But in a place like Singapore where neither condition is present, anonymity is the average netizen’s defence against being penalised for saying what he thinks. If the Government wants to encourage people to speak freely without the cloak of anonymity, it needs to stop being so oppressive and tyrannical.

  6. 6 singaporean 11 September 2010 at 11:16

    No wonder foreigners are more talented than ours. The students in other countries usually do not such a rule.

  7. 7 Deity of Conflict 11 September 2010 at 13:10

    “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.”

    Sir, this practice has been a common act since the 1950s post war period.

    My gramps has related to me that self declared expert of certain matters often will be sent for questionings by the authorities when they voiced out their comments back then.

    For example, the London incident which involves the bombings of subway. A few would say so and so do this to cause maximum carnage. These people are can be questioned by authorities who used the above precedents for nefarious means.

    They can be used to take the blame for the bombings because of their knowledge despite of their non involvement in the event, the culprits are not apprehended.

    Hence it is reasonable to say that while we are educated on most matters of this country. We are being gagged because of such practices that prevents us of expanding & developing own real Singaporean potential.

  8. 8 Robox 12 September 2010 at 22:26

    My comment is a response to the NTU incident.

    I don’t think that there were many netizens, even those who are regular in their net surfing, had actually seen the blog in question that resulted in the NTU’s actions because of the speed at which it was ordered to be taken down. It was a blog that solicited that institution’s computer engineering students to submit the personal particulars of fellow students who were considered errant in their academic conduct. After the first – and last – round of submissions, these were the honorees in this shaming exercise that raised red flags for me:

    1. All were foreigners; Singaporean students are perfect in their connduct.

    2. Of the 20-25 singled out for this dubious honour, one was Pakistani, two were from China. All the rest were from India. (Didn’t I previously write here that ethnic Indians – Singaporeans or otherwise – are particular vulnerable to being singled out for unfair action, which doesn’t surprise me one bit because this occurs in a country where its racists easily put white neo-Nazis to shame?)

    I don’t consider the action by the blogger to be an exercise in some garden variety form of freedom of expression; he was committing an act that in my opinion is correctly deemed to be criminal in nature.

    The incident may have been mitigated if Indians are not as outnumbered as we are in Singapore and shouted down by racists whenever an incident of racism is pointed out as such. It could have been further mitigated if the number of Indians who speak out against racism actually exceeded the number of fingers I have on my right hand. Or if there was such a thing as ethnic Chinese in Singapore who will speak up against the racism of other Chinese every time it occurs.

    Since even the above conditions are absent in Singapore, I fully support NTU’s actions in this matter for censuring a morally reprehensible act.

    • 9 KT 13 September 2010 at 15:01

      Does NTU have any legal or moral right to shut down its students’ blogs?

      • 10 Robox 13 September 2010 at 22:09

        KT, I don’t know about legal rights, but I can sure think of not only a moral right that any educational institution has to shut down a students’ blogs as well as moral grounds for doing so.

        First, to NTU’s moral right. This blog in question had the institution’s name as well as logo splashed all over its pages, which can potentially lead to confusion by mis-association. Even workplaces have similar policies. The administartors of all such institutions do have a moral right to protect the reputaion of their organizations. (And, no. This doesn’t only happen in authoritarian settings.)

        As for moral grounds, consider the social and other repercussions on the students affected by this public shaming and ask your self if it is moral to allow unproven allegations against them to affect their lives negatively. How would you feel about onproven allegations made against you affecting your life?

      • 11 KT 13 September 2010 at 23:52

        ‘This blog in question had the institution’s name as well as logo splashed all over its pages, which can potentially lead to confusion by mis-association.’

        What sort of confusion was there? Did the blogger try to pass off his views as NTU’s or imply/say that NTU endorsed his views? Even if he did (though I doubt so), NTU could just ask the blogger to remove its name and logo. What moral right does the institution have to not just remove the association with itself or delete the post, but shut down the entire blog? Which is equivalent to taking something which does not belong to the institution, by force. Is that even legal? If it is not, how could the institution be doing something that’s morally right?

        NTU ordering its student to shut down his blog and the student obeying without challenging NTU’s order is just Confuscian obeisance in the most stupid, Singaporean form.

        ‘(And, no. This doesn’t only happen in authoritarian settings.)’

        Really? Where else does it happen?

        ‘As for moral grounds, consider the social and other repercussions on the students affected by this public shaming and ask your self if it is moral to allow unproven allegations against them to affect their lives negatively.’

        What repercussions could there have been? If the allegations were untrue, no one would believe them or the students affected could defend themselves. Why can’t they handle the issue on their own? Are they thinking adults or kids?

        If the allegations were as unjustifiable as you make them out to be, the only repercussion I can think of is the blogger losing his credibility. That would happen without anyone having to do anything.

        ‘How would you feel about onproven allegations made against you affecting your life?”

        I do not allow unproven allegations to affect my life. If the allegations are defamatory, I would sue. If not, I would ignore them.

        No one has any right to shut down someone else’s blog. Not even the employer when its name is damaged by its employee’s blog. However, the employer has the right to fire the employee so long as it’s legal to do so. And take legal action against libel, of course.

      • 12 Robox 14 September 2010 at 00:47

        KT, I see you have moved into an ultracombative gear so I’ll make this brief.

        What your arguments amount to is that racists have the moral to perpetrate racism. And with scant regard to the repercussions too.

        When that is your starting point, know that I will cease engaging you.

        To your question, “Where else does it happen?”, I would suggest that you try it anywhere in Europe for example. Or for a more commercial example, say you are an employee of IBM in the US or even an employee or student at the University of Massachusetts, try to blog using your employer’s name and logo and see if there will be no disciplinary action taken against you.

        Unlike you in Singapore, people in the West live up better to the maxim: “Your rights end where mine begin”.

      • 13 KT 14 September 2010 at 01:55

        ‘What your arguments amount to is that racists have the moral to perpetrate racism. And with scant regard to the repercussions too.’

        Utter rubbish! I didn’t say that at all. What I said was that NTU did not have any legal or moral right to shut down its student’s blog. If the blogger did what you said he did – note that your allegation is unsubstantiated as his was, but it’s ok when you do it, eh? – he was wrong. But that doesn’t mean what NTU did was right.

        Assume that there were Singaporeans in the group singled out by the blogger. Then, you can’t conveniently stick a ‘racist’ label on the blogger, can you? What then? Does it mean what the blogger did was right? No, it doesn’t. His allegation stands or falls on its own merit. So what’s so different between this and having no Singaporeans in the group? Why should having no Singaporeans automatically make his allegation racist and wrong? I’m not saying it wasn’t racist; maybe it was. That’s for the group maligned to deal with, not for NTU to interfere in a high-handed, authoritarian fashion.

        What if the blogger singled out only Singaporeans? Would his blog have been shut down?

        ‘Or for a more commercial example, say you are an employee of IBM in the US or even an employee or student at the University of Massachusetts, try to blog using your employer’s name and logo and see if there will be no disciplinary action taken against you.’

        Does the disciplinary action include involuntary shutting down of said blog?

        ‘Unlike you in Singapore, people in the West live up better to the maxim: “Your rights end where mine begin”.’

        Would these be the same Westerners who are building a mosque next to the World Trade Centre?

    • 14 Might as well be Anon 29 September 2010 at 20:04

      Hey Robox, could you contact me through email please. black_tie_white_tie@yahoo.com I am interested in researching on(for my own pleasure) the issue of racism by the majority Chinese on the other races. I have always believed that disguised racism by the Chinese exists but the Malay and Indian peers that I have asked always tell me that they don’t feel discriminated. I want to hear from you.
      P.S. In case you’re just wondering, racially I’m Chinese. But culturally, I’m probably a British-Japanese globalized citizen.

  9. 15 Robox 12 September 2010 at 22:27

    Forgot one important point. The blog in question simply posted all submissions with absolutely no fact checking having taken place. The prejudice that racists have of Indians are sufficient proof as always.

  10. 16 yawningbread 14 September 2010 at 10:43

    One post deleted because of name-calling.


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