Parity’s a good idea


Channel NewsAsia quoted Communications and Information Minister Yaacob Ibrahim saying:  “It’s about making sure that our regulatory framework is consistent — that’s the most important thing. At the moment, whether we like it or not, Singaporeans are receiving news both from mainstream media and online sites.

“Our mainstream media are subjected to rules, you know… Why shouldn’t the online media be part of that regulatory framework?

“I don’t see this as a clamping down, if anything, it is regularising what is already happening on the Internet and (making sure) that they are on par with our mainstream media.”

It sounds seductively rational, especially when online media are steadily becoming important. Why should offline be regulated and online not?

But hold on a minute: There is more than one way to achieve parity. What about not licensing both? Instead of imposing new regulatory conditions on online media, why not dismantle the straitjackets on offline media?

You’d notice that the government is silent on this.

The issue is therefore far broader than it first appears. This isn’t just a debate about whether or how to license and regulate news websites. It should be about why we even assume that news dissemination on any platform must be regulated at all.

No doubt, the government will press the usual fear buttons, like they have in this announcement. The Media Development Authority (MDA), for example, has tried to justify the new rules by waving concerns such as “soliciting for prostitution” and undermining “racial and religious harmony”. It will, if it has not already, trot out a few examples in recent years of people saying hurtful things against other ethnic, religious or national groups. But we should see these instances in perspective. How often do they occur? Have not others online called them out? These recent instances do not constitute convincing justification for more regulation; the isolated cases aren’t enough to make anyone think an epidemic of abusive speech is upon us, with no other defence but state control.

The best defence a community has against irresponsible speech is to firstly acquire an immunity to it and secondly for many individuals to feel empowered to speak up against it. Government playing nanny again is the surest way to thwart this maturing process. A government that puts on iron gloves disempowers citizens from doing their bit.

Can we believe those in government don’t know this? That’s hard to believe. Thus one cannot shake off the feeling that the latest move is at least partially motivated by other urges, and one that comes foremost to mind is that of wanting to acquire the tools of control over political speech — controls useful some day in the future.

* * * * *

A relatively new scarecrow being held up is that of “going against good taste”, a frightfully broad and subjective term.

Some may think it fairly obvious where such a line may lie, but that’s only because they have the conceit to assume that their views are universal. Take the image at the top and the one below for example. It’s not hard to imagine some people shouting that they’re too shocking  — remember the outcry from diehard conservatives when Abercrombie and Fitch had its massive hoarding on Orchard Road? — while others would say they’re fine, beautiful even. I would not want our government to be the arbiter of taste. If it’s my site, I’ll be the judge.


I understand that at the press conference, the MDA used an instance of online circulation of grisly pictures of accident victims as an example of the kind of “bad taste” it wants to stop.

Well then, I wonder what it has to say to BBC about this news story ( embedded within which is a 3-minute 55-second video report showing several dead and bloodied Syrians killed in the ongoing civil war.

Or this one from the Second World War:


The line between “legit” news and gratuitous sensationalism is not as clear as we think. And since Singaporeans’ trust in this government sinks lower by the day, there is a widespread feeling that they will use the new rules in a biased manner.

Addendum, 31 May 2013:

Just one day after I post this, I have a real example. Ibragim Todashev was killed by an FBI agent on 22 May 2013 while in an interrogation room. The FBI said he suddenly got up, picked up a table and hurled it against the FBI officer (see New York Times story).

Ibragim’s father asks how that justifies seven bullets in his son’s body, including a bullet to the head. A Russian website publishes the autopsy photos. The father appears to want the publicity to get justice.


Considering how the MDA cited the circulation of photos of Tampines traffic victims as an example of something that justifies a ban on grounds of taste, it would appear that any site that publishes pictures like those of Todashev would similarly be issued orders by the MDA to take down.

But where lies the public interest? In publication or suppression?

Imagine for example, one day, an ordnance storage facility explodes and there are many fatalities. What if there’s a controversy over the true number of victims, with someone alleging a cover up? Suppose a crucial piece of evidence is a video recording showing more bodies on the ground than the number released by the authorities. Do you think the government will hesitate to ban the circulation of the video on “bad taste” grounds?

Or if there’s an incident on the streets after which police brutality is alleged, and key pieces of evidence are videos or photographs of awfully beaten corpses. You can’t even claim the families object to the release of the pictures because they too want a proper appreciation of the brutality and an accounting of it. Does anybody want to bet the government will hold themselves back from banning circulation of these images on ground of “taste”? Which better serves the public interest?  A ban or their circulation?

* * * * *

The new rules require licensed media to comply within 24 hours with MDA’s directions to remove content. A $50,000 performance bond that has to be put up as a condition of the licence is obviously meant to make it very painful to defy MDA’s orders. It is not yet clear what avenues will exist for a news website to contest and reverse the MDA’s demand, but looking at other laws this government has created to curtail various freedoms, it is going to look as if the government will be prosecutor, judge and jury.

Initially, only ten “news sites” have been named as subject to licensing. All except Yahoo News are websites belonging to Singapore Press Holdings and Mediacorp. However, there is every expectation that this is just the thin end of the wedge. The intended rules are written in such a way that they can easily encompass any popular citizen-journalism website.

MDA’s announcement said that the two criteria for inclusion within the ambit of the licensing scheme are:

1. report an average of at least one article per week on Singapore’s news and current affairs over a period of two months, and

2. are visited by at least 50,000 unique IP addresses from Singapore each month over a period of two months.

MDA also made clear that even websites based abroad may well be asked to submit to licensing, though how exactly they will do this is as yet unclear.

Naturally, much discussion out there will focus on the details of the regulatory scheme and what impact it will have on online media. But as I said at the top, the principal question that first needs to be dealt with is: Why regulate any media at all?

There is no case to thicken regulation of online news media. If parity is the aim, then deregulate offline media.

47 Responses to “Parity’s a good idea”

  1. 1 bookworm 30 May 2013 at 02:01

    yes, two wrongs doesn’t make a right, it just makes it more wrong…what a bunch of idiots…

  2. 2 psychadelic songkok 30 May 2013 at 06:05

    They got scared by the AIM scandal and the Todd case coming out in the non-gahmen media. The GE is coming and they don’t want that kind of information being available to people because it will worsen their image further. They will try and shut this site and all the others, if they can.

  3. 3 KS 30 May 2013 at 08:24

    Obviously a political move. They will most likely target TRE and TOC soon and ban these site to force them to shutdown using the performance bond as a barrier. This Yacob guy I wonder if his son holding dual citizenship coming back to serve NS.

  4. 4 Chanel 30 May 2013 at 09:05

    Ironically, PAP’s Yaacob is try to muzzle any online discussion/news reporting on S’pore whilst his colleagues are fiercely staging the Singapore CONversation.

    This is the usual PAP style. They want to control what the people read or talk about. They want to have the final say on everything part of our lives

  5. 5 ricardo 30 May 2013 at 09:58

    The Min. of Truth will correct all wrong thinking and wrong reporting. History must be corrected at all times.

    The Min. of Love, DPM Teo’s ISD will ensure all wrong doing including any stuff which disagrees with Min. of Truth pronouncements will be awarded a free extended holiday.

    I wonder if 1984 is still taught in Singapore schools? It was a standard Literature text in my day. Any secondary school teachers here?

  6. 9 Chow 30 May 2013 at 10:01

    I have a sneaking suspicion that we are heading back to the good old days of tight control. After all, their outstanding trait is that the people don’t know what’s good for them.

    But you are right. It is quite amazing that rather than let various ideas compete, they attempt to endure only the promulgation of ‘truth’. Perhaps they surveyed the scene, decided that they were on the losing end and so decided to level the playing field. I guess Yale-NUS college must be shaking their collective heads now.

    The end product is that I’m just going to be even more cynical of whatever news there is coming out…

    • 10 Alan 30 May 2013 at 16:53

      It’s kind of funny isn’t it ? When we are ranked even behind Sudan in terms of main media integrity in the world, shouldn’t MDA be doing something to correct such a bad record ? Especially like shouldn’t they be recalling the Editors of our main papers and ask them what the fuck have they been doing to result in such a bad record for Singapore ?

      But on the other hand, they seems to be making it worse with this kind of controls being implemented without being debated in Parliament or even brought up for discussion during our the National Conversation, is this not a sign that our PAP Govt leaders must be feeling desperate, panicky or paranoid about their lost of effective control over online media especially when the integrity & truthfulness of the main media are being constantly challeged by the online media.

      Looks like they wanted both the cake and eat it too but also continue to make us look like economical fools or idiots in terms of press freedom ?

      • 11 Wong 1 June 2013 at 11:16

        >Especially like shouldn’t they be recalling the Editors of our main papers and ask them what the fuck have they been doing to result in such a bad record for Singapore ?

        Of course not; this is all about self-preservation. The MDA staff want to hang on to their cushy jobs. The same goes for the ST editors. And their masters, the politicians, will do anything they can to hold onto power.

  7. 12 Sam 30 May 2013 at 10:15

    The government is addicted to the power of control. Alternatively, the government is lazy and want to make it easier for themselves to govern Singapore without too many pesky questions being asked if they slip up here and there, now and then. This government is incapable of changing by itself. It needs to be pushed to change.

  8. 13 Ken 30 May 2013 at 11:28

    It is the beginnings of the Little Red Firewall of the Little Red Dot. The internet will become the intranet much the same as in the PRNK. The first step down a long slippery slope that will complete is slide in 2016, I feel pretty sure. Then after that GE, the whole country will subside to be what it was 50 years ago. A backwater/footnote in history.

  9. 14 Truth 30 May 2013 at 12:16

    Yaacob must be very pissed with online news that revealed his sons’ dual citizenships!!!! And for showing photos of the “one-in-50-year” floods.

    Yaacob might as well pass a law that demands that every S’porean can only read SPH-manufactured and PAP-sanitized “news” and can only watch MediaCock’s shows. On second thoughts, Yaacob should just pull the plug on internet access here!!

  10. 15 Jackson 30 May 2013 at 13:08

    Do you have 50,000 views ?

  11. 16 speechless 30 May 2013 at 13:12

    Great point – attempting to regulate online media only goes to show up the oppressiveness of the offline (mainstream) media regulations are.

  12. 17 TheReligiousMind 30 May 2013 at 14:02

    Nice offensive pictures 🙂

  13. 18 Thor 30 May 2013 at 18:18

    It has become very clear to me that this government must fall. There are two reasons for this exercise. First, is the control over the political discourse. The second is that the MSM has truly become marginalized to the point that they are losing money and are only sustained by adverts and obituaries. I pray and hope this move backfires on PAP so badly that my child will still have a future in Singapore.

  14. 19 Caz 30 May 2013 at 18:22

    Am i the only one seeing the gay pictures?

    • 20 D 1 June 2013 at 13:02

      Can a picture be gay? If the government believes in parity of media, why not parity in the context of 337a?

  15. 21 DJA 30 May 2013 at 18:35

    Query: If the same company or writer cycles between, say 14 websites per 2-month cycle to stay beneath the one-article-per-week limit, will the websites then not have to be licensed?

    • 22 Anon BDsW 30 May 2013 at 23:01

      Doesn’t matter. You can always change the rules. Like how you put them up in the first place – ad libitum.

  16. 23 bureaucrat 30 May 2013 at 22:00

    I’m sure Malaysian news websites already report regularly on Singapore. Now let’s get the unique IP addresses views from Singapore past 50,000. Then let’s wait to see how MDA tries to impose its licensing regime on these websites.

  17. 24 Singapore Son 30 May 2013 at 22:20

    PAP is running scared. The writing on the wall is getting clearer by the day. Come GE2016, PAP will lose its 2/3 majority. Or worst, loses its majority. LHL and his bunch of morons in cabinet need to be sacked!

  18. 25 Anon BDsW 30 May 2013 at 23:30

    I feel that, during GE2011, the electorate has already indicated, not unclearly, its opinion on past attitudes and performance of government.

    And yet, major political missteps continue. So I wonder if this is the approach to be taken to recover lost ground, and if there is leadership from right at the top on this.

    But what if there has been leadership from right at the top on this?

    Is this then the best team to lead us into the future? I think this question needs to be considered by all, including those currently in charge.

    The current management, ver 3.0, has already indicated that it does not expect to extend its service agreement beyond another 10 years, barring the triggering of any termination clause(s).

    So we have 9 years left to analyse, scope, spec, design, prototype, implement, test and rework before ver 4.0 needs goes live. There are currently about 3 million direct stakeholders in this project, and we need consider the needs of other users.

    Who is to write the tender documents?

    • 26 Anon BDsW 30 May 2013 at 23:35

      “Who is to write the tender documents?

      Or maybe there won’t be any.

      • 27 yawningbread 30 May 2013 at 23:46

        Some gentle advice: One loses one’s audience when it gets so abstract.

      • 28 Anon BDsW 31 May 2013 at 06:52

        I was thinking that it is more difficult to aim at an abstraction, and therefore it can be less of a liability. Well, hopefully anyway.

        But I do have high regard for the abilities of your readers, whatever their affliations. The above comments almost anywhere else would be an example of TLDNR.

        In all cases, thank-you, your advice is happily accepted and assimilated.


    • 29 Wong 1 June 2013 at 11:19

      This is what’s so frightening – the notion that the current management intends to wreak havoc and leave only scorched earth behind for the new management, while they themselves enjoy their lives of luxury in their retirement in… anywhere but this land.

  19. 30 SS 30 May 2013 at 23:36

    I want to see how pap regulates CNN, BBC, Bloomberg, AP and many other international news agencies. If they don’t submit to pap regulation what can pap do? Ban these websites in Singapore? Does pap really believe that these international news sites will yield like the printed magazines did in the 90s? What a joke. The Internet has changed the world, and yet MDA is still stuck in the 90s.

    • 31 yawningbread 30 May 2013 at 23:47

      Unlikely that these sites will be posting eight articles on Singapore every two months – and thus unlikely to come within the scope of the proposed rules.

  20. 32 David 31 May 2013 at 00:33

    Will the people in Singapore rise up just like the common citizens in 2011 Egyptian revolution. PAP has gone too far this time.

  21. 33 Foreign Observer 31 May 2013 at 06:12

    I’m just a foreign observer, but I have a strong feeling that as of late Singapore is becoming more authoritarian again. First the removal of critical academics, taming of critical civil society and artists and now renewed attempts to control the internet, as well as press freedom dropping to ever lower levels. LHL must be feeling very secure about his powerbase somehow, or not at all? It is very interesting, because I have the impression that he is neither liked nor very respected by Singaporeans in general, unlike his father. Is this a correct oberservation? It seems that Singaporeans don’t matter as far as power-calculations are concerned. The rather poor showing at Hong Lim, a permitted protest, showed that very few people who voted for change, can actually be mobilised. Maybe this is one of the reasons? Or the volume of discontent is simply exaggerated through internet and most people voted opposition only to scare PAP? Given the magnitude of the hit against critical voices, it is astonishing how little backlash it has produced. Opposition parties seem very quiet, not even a statment of WP (as of yet) about the new internet regulations. These events strongly suggests to an outsider, like me, that most Singaporeans don’t really care about the means as long as the ends are more or less ok. Am I wrong?

    • 34 Rabbit 31 May 2013 at 12:37

      @foreign observer.
      It is either a deep breath before a plunge or a retreat of wave before a big tsumani. I wouldn’t jump to conclusion just by looking at the calmness of the sea (of anger beneath it). Singaporeans were very forgiving lot (Pungol East GE2011) but when push came to shove, PAP got its deserving tight slap (Punggol East BE2013) that “shocked” Low Thia Kiang of WP’s unexpected winning margin. MDA’s new licensing is a strategic moves and sign telling that this govt has lost its confidence to win the heart and mind of the people.or may be, malaysia recent election results look freaky that the govt see such measures a necessity to silence opposing views before it hit the shore come GE2016.

  22. 35 Rabbit 31 May 2013 at 07:09

    Let’s not single out Yaacob as the main culprit behind MDA’s new move. I believe, like any other polices, it was a collective idea within the same camp, comprising self-serving gods, mini land gods and the whole bunch of overpaid obedient deities followed by final approval from their happy master. This is to avoid a repeat of GE2011 in GE2016. Simply, it is a political motivated moves nearing GE2016.

    They felt there was no necessity to discuss such unpopular censorship, in Wayang NatConv or to be debated constructively in parliament. This was evidenced by the swiftness of their actions, within days, in the name of ‘PUBLIC INTEREST” (or most likely PAP’s interest moving forward). They didn’t want intelligent people to have more say on it and thus less pressure to overturn their ambiguous rules. Better still, if msm could report less on such news, the better and if they did shyly, get some clueless “ghosts” to praise it no end on main pages and than shove it, into our axxhole, like the population white paper.

    Singaporeans have this to say to PAP: This is self-righteous, and pardon us for saying so – arrogant. Many Singaporeans have been serving Singapore for decades, long before many new ministers entered the house of Parliament. Please, don’t behave as if PAP is the only patriot in this land and think they know best than everyone serving this country.

    Sounds familiar? If public interest is a major concern to PAP, why did Khaw give half-fuck replies to Silvia Lim with regard to AIMgate saga, specifically on the issue with “one month termination clause”. Todate, the question is still left dangling and unanswered in parliament and our meeker msm prefer to leave it that way and focus on attacking opposition instead. You guys get the drift why unregulated new media is still very relevant in this case to force the govt to be more opened about the truth.

    Nevertheless, MDA’s new licensing is akin to asking the master (Singaporeans) to surrender to the servant’s (PAP) wishes. Where did LHL’s apology gone to? I thought I could still hear his distant voices screaming, with promises, to listen more to the public’s grievances (not just whispering among its own grassroot people thru Wayang NatCon). Did the online hard truth hurts him bitterly, such that MDA is now robbed into swift action to legislate that everyone should patronize PAP and sing sweet tune alongside its propaganda machines? Otherwise, the $50K bond will be forfeited, along with its annual license, at G”s arbitrary decision?

    As a matter of fact, Singaporeans have worked hard and locked the longest hours in work at the expenses of happiness, to build this country together, to overpay the big fat “G and our economy Instead of crediting the people’s loyalty to have more say about this country, citizens are now made prisoner thru all sort of G’s puzzling “overnight” rules and regulations. Singaporeans can bear with MDA’s censoring of porn sites, but to curb our angry voices (minimum freedom of speech) is to choke every breathing holes of our survival to serve this country. How depressing can one gets living under such suppressive regime? I am sure this is not just pushing people to the wall but crashing us through it because the “G” has no qualm doing so with its 2/3 majority votes in parliament?

    Asking online citizens to follow the same rules set for msm is like asking a frog to jump back into the well – hear no evil, see no evil and speak no evil? I am not a fan of PAP propaganda machines, Nobody works alone to build this country and I will continue to post and stick to new media for news, as long as I believe Singaporeans should hear the truth and not silenced by regulations to believe in PAP’s questionable gospel.

  23. 36 Jafri Basron 31 May 2013 at 11:32

    The new regulation imposed is to serve the ruling party more than to bring truth and clarity for the mass …
    A regime that twist and turn reality in to serve their interest well.

  24. 37 Commentor 31 May 2013 at 21:36

    The internet is a powerful tool which can be used to influence many.

    I’m totally for the idea of spreading responsible comments and whistleblowers like those which exposed NKF.

    But we must acknowledge that it’s fair to state that most of the hate-fuelled comments are rubbish.

    “Mainland Chinese are uncouth”, “The rich are bloodsuckers of the poor”, “The government should print money to combat inflation”, “I lost my job and it’s the government’s fault, not mine”.

    These come from people like Alex Tan Zhixiang, who actually called on Singaporeans to cause social unrest on National Day; a day when we should be united regardless of political position.

    That’s right, he didn’t call for dialogue; he called for civil disobedience.

    And we have to ask ourselves these questions: “How many online readers are able to think critically whether these statements are fair, justified or true?”, “How many can interpret the manipulated statistics from the government or its critics?”

    Few. Most people believe what they see and promulgate these sentiments further.

    And we have to ask these question too: “Are those irresponsible comments stemming from ignorance, or is the underlying motive something more insidious?”

    The only way to stop these irresponsible comments is via the law. That being said, the law should not be used irresponsibly either to silence responsible critics.

    • 38 Chanel 1 June 2013 at 11:10

      Your comments smacks of elitism! Are you implying that you are the only handul of people who can “think critically”? Are you implying that only you can differentiate truths from falsehoods?

      Are you suggesting that ONLY online chatter “manipulate” statistics?? The truth is, mainstream medi are equally (if not more) guilty of manipulating statistics or engage in selective reporting to skew readers’ thinking.

      The beauty of the internet is its freedom. Tak that away, the internet is as good as the public relations department of the PAP.

    • 39 D 1 June 2013 at 13:18

      you ask: “How many online readers are able to think critically whether these statements are fair, justified or true?”

      And answer yourself: “Few”

      But who are you to judge? Who is to say it is not you, so lacking in intellect, that fails to see an attack on fair criticism in these changes? Why should I abrogate to anyone the right to decide on my behalf what is irrisponsible, ignorant or insidious? Especially when the entity awarding itself this unaccountable power has a track record of partisan abuses?

  25. 40 V 1 June 2013 at 10:08

    If this move is really unconstitutional, when is someone going to take MDA to court?

    • 41 yawningbread 1 June 2013 at 13:20

      You’re assuming that that courts themselves know constitutional from unconstitutional.

      • 42 V 2 June 2013 at 23:34

        No I am not. I am hoping for someone with courage to step up on the behalf of those of us who do not. I am not expecting to win, just to send a message that we’re not afraid anymore.

      • 43 Anon BDsW 5 June 2013 at 08:02

        The only message that gets through pretty quick has to be sent through the ballot box. This is because it is a legal imperative that has to be obeyed, to upkeep the polite facade of a fiction.

        All other messages at best gets you a grammer and vocabulary lesson.

  26. 44 George 1 June 2013 at 22:31

    It’s amazing that arguably the whole world is heading the way of enlightenment and more freedom of individual rights and speech, the PAP govt, notwithstanding it’s boast of economic prosperity and 1st world standards, is heading in the exact opposite direction!

    To the PAP, economic prosperity seems completely incompatible with more freedom and more rights for people.

    But we all know too well the ulterior motives of the PAP govt. The LHL govt has not strayed far from his father’s Machiavellian shenanigan of giving a dog a bad name as an excuse to shoot it.

  27. 45 yuen 6 July 2013 at 22:47

    I published this in online citizen a few days ago

    …. once the regulatory regime is established, is extension to foreign hosted websites reporting
    Singapore news likely? If one believes so, then it is useful to speculate on how this might be achieved.
    Here the precedent of the foreign printed media circulation restriction becomes interesting: since the
    late 80s, the government had the power to “gazette” individual foreign publications and restrict their
    circulation numbers. Far Eastern Economic Review (no longer a news weekly), New York Times and
    International Herald Tribune were among those gazetted at various points.

    Can similar penalties be invoked against websites that infringe regulations? While there is no
    direct equivalent of circulation limitation through numbers of copies printed/imported, the local
    internet service providers can be required to impose limits on total numbers of page views for a part-
    icular website. This immediately raises the issue of sites having mirror and cache locations, but such
    technical problems can be solved if there is determination to enforce the restrictions. It is also
    possible to bypass the local ISPs via foreign linkups, but given the competition, troublesome to
    access news sites would quickly lose their audience.

    While many bloggers and small websites publish comments and news free, any site attracting high
    traffic would need finance for large bandwidth. (We might recall the repeated calls for donations on a couple of years ago.) Normally, it is able to generate income through advertising
    (which the new version of temasekreview,, seems to be doing as it no longer calls
    for donations). Restricted page views would obviously reduce advertising effectiveness in a particular

    Separate from the press regulation issue is the past use of defamation and contempt of court laws on
    particular sites and bloggers. These have rather different applicability, and discussions should avoid
    lumping these two issues together.

  28. 46 Russel Tan 5 October 2013 at 06:04

    It’s the government acting schizophenic again. On one hand, it encourages self – expression in the Great Singapore Debate. On the other hand, it wants to regulate this expression It cited. bad taste and racial or religious disharmony as grounds for censorships. But does’nt it realise there is already a self- regulatory mechanism in place online. When one makes a religious or racial disremark, he is immediately slammed. by other netizens. The online community supplied a lot of diverse information or opinion. Why is there a need to achieve parity?

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