From bus drivers’ strike to the Yahoo Licence Rules

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

He Junling

He Junling

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:

30 Jan 2013: Charged bus drivers allege “slapping, punching” by police

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.”

Liu Xiangying

Liu Xiangying

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.

5 Apr 2013: Former SMRT bus driver: Why we went on strike (Part 1)

11 Apr 2013: Ex-SMRT China bus driver on working in S’pore: It’s like we were lesser people

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.

Taming Yahoo

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.

20 Responses to “From bus drivers’ strike to the Yahoo Licence Rules”

  1. 1 D 26 November 2013 at 07:57

    Well explained. And I think you’re right. All the best with the AG. Btw, I don’t think it’s right for the press to report on them intending to take action when you haven’t even been told. Perhaps the AG thinks the press is their official mouthpiece, never mind the rights of citizens.

  2. 2 Tan Tai Wei 26 November 2013 at 08:43

    At all events, it could turn out to be a self-defeating rule, if it’s indeed meant to curb as you describe. There’s a point of view out there that must already be significant enough for a Yahoo press to want to publish. But you insist it must first be cleared by a government Ministry, meaning, surely, that that view should not be aired as it is, should it be deemed “inaccurate”, etc. But then, that original view, which government surely should welcome the opportunity to answer (if it has an answer) the more “inaccurate” it is, would just be left to simmer, possibly dangerously.

  3. 3 Hawking Eye 26 November 2013 at 09:31

    An insightful and perceptive write-up traversing from a start-up dot to the final expansive picture.

    You are a super talent – of a different kind of course!

    Best wishes.

  4. 4 MaxChew 26 November 2013 at 09:32

    Typo…..2012 and not 2013 on the list of Yahoo’s news exposes last year.

  5. 6 SN 26 November 2013 at 11:02

    All the best with the A-G case. I am rooting for you, and I am sure you will remain two steps ahead of the game.

  6. 7 Chanel 26 November 2013 at 11:30

    it is highly ironic that the government spent so much time and money on the Singapore Conversation, yet continues to clamp down on criticisms and opinions expressed online.

    Government’s tactic continues to be using its newspapers to demonize “netizens” and comments expressed online. Someone commenting anonymously doesn’t necessarily mean that his/her writing “rubbish”; it can only mean that the people are living in fear of the government, of a government that will take action action against any dissent.

    In any case, the word “netizens” is meaningless because the internet is not a country. Anyone who goes online is thus a “netizen”, including our ministers and MPs.

  7. 8 Sonny 26 November 2013 at 12:31

    Look at how Yahoo toe the line now..

    They actually allowed the PAP IB to operate with impunity using multiple fake identities to post disgusting comments against opposition politicians.

    They have also adjusted the sorting algorithm in the comments so that popular comments are quickly drowned out by new unpopular ones.

    They even have a few pro-PAP bloggers like Daniel Wong on board to write ball carrying commentaries and ghost writers to post views as our views.

    And to top it all, the number of news-worthy articles have been drastically reduced. The front page is now filled with k-pop and other stuff, while articles carrying negative views would be buried deep inside.

  8. 9 Singapore Son 26 November 2013 at 12:33

    Brilliant insights! The current batch PAP of leaders is all self-righteous, self-serving, arrogant, petty minded, vindictive, lack of real talents and woefully incompetent. Trying to tame the Internet? Fat hope! Thanks to the Internet, people now can access information freely and form our own opinions without having to depend on the pro-govt MSM. During the GE2011, LHL talked so much about servant leadership. After the GE, nothing heard about servant leadership any more. VTO2016!

  9. 10 kl 26 November 2013 at 13:06

    Alex, about the contempt of court thing, I like you to know many of us are behind you all the way. Let us know how we can help.

    • 11 Tan Tai Wei 26 November 2013 at 23:48

      Seems to me that their worry should be to bring out the truth, if they think Alex was wrong about his purported allegations about the judiciary, rather than hold him for “contempt of court”. The latter charge skirts the issue of of truth, since respect for the courts would call for trust, with the issue of fair adjudication and truthfulness being assumed. But where that respectability is itself being questioned, especially by one as respectable as Alex for offering evidenced and thought-through insights, what’s the use of charging him for lacking precisely that respect? What the public needs is reassurance that what he alleged of the courts is untrue, rather than his being punished for raising the issues at all.

  10. 12 Heng Chee Meng 26 November 2013 at 19:32

    In his book “Free or unfree?”, Edward de Bono gave an illustration on how one should think about “Freedom”.

    There are 3 routes to a destination. You were only told of one. The other two routes were not made known to you. You took the only route you know to the destination. You chose it freely, you were not coerced. Do you have the freedom of choice?

  11. 13 fonziezhihao 26 November 2013 at 22:00

    Hi Alex,
    Here is a comprehensive write-up on the strike by the Wall Street Journal…I hope it helps!

  12. 14 Mooo 26 November 2013 at 23:05

    Very funny. The AGC inform the press first before informing the defendant. That in itself is contempt.

  13. 15 Norm 26 November 2013 at 23:13

    Is it desirable to have a strong government (one that can do what it wants as long as it is fairly elected)?

    Can a strong government exist without some control of the media?

    Does control of the media mean that elections are effectively unfair?


    These are questions that I think about. Whatever the answers, I support Alex in his contempt of court case and would be happy to contribute to any online fund set up to cover his expenses relating to it.

  14. 16 yuen 27 November 2013 at 11:21

    the original motivation of wanting full control was economic: SG is a small place, financially smaller than many of the Fortune 500 corporations, which had a history of manipulating the politics of small countries to get their own way, and only by marshaling all of the country’s resources can it compete internationally; the reigning political ideology, if you want to go theoretical, is a combination of leninism, capitalism and confucianism – tight control, make money, share with supporters

    in such a system, al of the courntry’s institutions become cogs in a monolithic structure; the press, for example, is just the PR dept of Singapore Inc; the universities, its manpower training units

    however, once the system is in place, it develops its own motivation for self preservation and growth; for example, its corporate units expand overseas when local markets reach limits, because growth makes the people in charge international big shots, diverting their mind from local people’s concerns and complaints; issues like looking after the little guys and the voiceless, tend to fall by the wayside

  15. 17 FromthePeople 27 November 2013 at 18:13

    What the Chinese workers are fighting for are fair and reasonable wages. As a Singaporean, I believe they are entitled to human rights and fair compensation, in a free democracy (having the right to have demonstrations). By refusing to work, the government viewed it as a subversive rocking of our cold machinery, an “unblessed” action as you say.

    The connection is believable, as Yahoo is one of the more objective news portals and free (way better than ST). I do believe the Chinese workers just did what they thought was ‘accepted behaviour’ even in China, where workers are known to protest due to highly unfair wages. I do not think we can bully foreigners like that to maintain our competitive edge as world class. In fact, that shows we have a dearth of human rights.

    “First they came for the communists…. then us.” I hope Singaporeans know that these bus drivers were fighting for what we were simply deprived of all along. A free nation.

  16. 18 V 29 November 2013 at 00:21

    Anyone who still believes we have freedom here should just wake up. Years of progress and they’d wipe it all out in a day to protect their self interest. Apparently its ok that they are incompetent and tyrannical as long as no one finds out. Would you want a government run by such despicable people? Would anyone?

  17. 19 Avinash 6 December 2013 at 08:10

    Didn’t the story on strikes first break on Shin Min Daily News?

  18. 20 Shah Salimat 8 December 2013 at 00:29

    Just a clarification: that XinMSN article was a text article from 938Live, which syndicates text articles of its radio news pieces to the website. (Disclaimer: I used to work for Yahoo and XinMSN.)

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