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Saturday, April 29, 2006

Why the rationale for the rules on internet broadcasting are not convincing

As a registered overseas voter, I am following the upcoming elections closely.

I wish to express my disagreement with the rationales given by the government for the general restrictions on internet publishing. In an answer to a question posed by Mr Low Thia Kiang in parliament on the 3rd of April 2006, Senior Minister of State for Information, Communications and the Arts Dr Balaji Sadasivan identified several reasons why there are such restrictions.

He said that "in a free-for-all Internet environment, where there are no rules, political debates could easily degenerate into an unhealthy, unreliable and dangerous discourse flush with rumours and distortions to mislead and confuse the public. The Government has always maintained that political debates should be premised on factual and objective presentation of issues and arguments. The regulations governing Internet campaigning have served well to safeguard the seriousness of the electoral process."

He also said that "[w]e recognise that in our society, people will have their diverse opinion and some will want to share their opinion. But people should not take refuge behind the anonymity of the Internet to manipulate public opinion. It is better and more responsible to engage in political debates in a factual and objective manner".

There are problems with this reasoning.

It is true that generally, there is a lot of nonsense being said with regards to political issues on the internet. Much of this nonsense is also published anonymously. But is the average internet user really going to take such views more seriously than views which are published by writers who are willing to reveal their identities? Probably not.

Moreover, many bloggers publish their personal details on their websites. They can hardly be described as anonymous. When they express their views on political issues, they are likely to do so responsibly. If they do not do so, they face liability from other areas of the civil law ( for instance, defamation) or the criminal law ( for instance, if they incite racial hatred).

The requirement that discussions be made in a "factual and objective" also makes it difficult for any meaningful political discussion to take place. It is not clear what this requirement means. Does it mean that every time an internet user comments on a political issue, he needs to mention an alternative view? Or is it that an internet user must appear not to condone any particular view at all?

Why the rationale for the rules on internet broadcasting are not convincing Part II

The previous post was a draft letter to the Straits Times and Today. I shall further explain my viewpoint.

Generally, if we ever need to advance rules against freedom of speech ( as Germany does with Nazi symbols and salutes- doing the Hitler salute in Germany can land you in a couple of years of jail!), the position we need to start from is that the benefits and necessity of freedom of speech are so overwhelming, that the reasons needed to control it need to be strongly compelling, and that the measures taken be no more than neccessary.

Mad right wing punditry is one thing. Having press laws that would place me in possible criminal liability if I go ahead to strongly criticise either only the PAP's election manifesto or only the Worker's Party election manifesto between now and May 6th is another. For that might be construed as "party campaigning"!

It also makes Singapore and Singaporeans a lot less politically savvy than they should be. What happens when do not have the right to even publish a reasoned case for or against a political party's platform? It affects decision making, simply because part of the process of coming to a reasoned decision is discussing what you have just heard. It seems wholly irrational, according to the mainstream view in Singapore anyway, that a convincing case necessarily is a demagogic case. Why are voters who may not have very much sympathies with any politicians at all being prevented from discussing and questioning what sort of work their members of parliament have been doing in their respective Government Parliamentary Committees?

No wonder this election will inevitably see in Sembawang GRC, an automatic 25% of the vote for the SDP simply because no one during this period ( apart from PAP candidates of course) can criticise the SDP for its unneccessary and unhealthy advocacy of "martyrdom" politics. Conversely, there will probably be many voters in that contested GRC who may be under the illusion that the job of a member of parliament is nothing more than being a glorified city councillor. Not being able to publish critical reasoning on the issues has a detrimental effect.

Take for example this whole quibble about whether Singapore has a "first world" government. Both the PAP and the WP can be said to be simply vague in expressing what they mean by this. I think for instance Lee Kuan Yew is probably correct in a sense in saying we have a first class government in terms of its efficiency ( no really shitty cock-ups like letting 1000 foreign prisoners out into the streets of singapore instead of undertaking a promise to deport them) and its current and foreseeable lack of corruption in the near future. Low Thia Kiang on the other hand seems to be saying that we don't have a first world government in the sense of inadequate internal checks in our constitution- in other words a government which really works only because it is governed by gentlemen.

So there are real problems with these slew of restrictions on internet publication. You throw out intellegent commentary together with rubbishy commentary. Is that really what we want? Worse, what is available for legal publication is to my mind, often very insipid. And so we continue to get stupid letters from writers like Raymond Ng being published in our most respectable national newspaper. To show you how silly these letters can get, I am reproducing Raymond's letter in full below. As someone who is currently pursuing a university degree in Britain, you might disagree with my lack of respect, of course.

TV forum with MM Lee shows English-educated S'poreans are westernised, lack Asian values. Fix the school curriculum

I refer to the recent televised forum with Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew. Why should anyone be surprised about what happened? It is not a question of who's right or wrong.

When you remove all OB (out-of-bounds) markers, you expect nothing less than a free-for-all discussion. Blaming the young participants in the forum is counter-productive and unfair. They genuinely believed they were doing their best in such a one-off opportunity with MM Lee in a televised dialogue.

There are several conclusions we can draw from this forum.

Firstly, some of our young, especially the English-educated, are not just modernised but also westernised. They lack knowledge of Asian values which older people acquire as they get older and wiser.

Like our children, most of them do not understand their parents, take everything for granted and rebel when they get nagged. Most of them get over this phase when they grow up and settle down with children of their own.

Secondly, no matter how mature a society is, especially a diverse one like Singapore, you need OB markers. Remove them totally and chaos will prevail. Just look at the other societies around us. Personal or group freedom prevails over national interest. The result is perpetual disruption to economic growth and social instability.

I think the present government's policies are already in place insofar as the OB markers are concerned. What needs to be improved are Asian values studies in the English education curriculum.

Chinese culture with strong Asian values are inherent in the Chinese language itself. In my opinion, most of the Chinese-educated are more likely to have a stronger feel of Asian values.

Raymond Ng Chay Boon

There are many things that are very, very wrong with this letter. I will just deal with two issues. Firstly the whole notion that there exists a set of values called "asian" values. As opposed to what? Decadent western notions of freedom and liberty? African values? Suffice it to say it is a very debatable point.

One might even say that Mr Ng has painted a completely misleading picture of many societies where there there is a bias towards individual freedom. In my stay in England, and in my 30 days of travel around the Netherlands, France, Austria and Germany, I observed that these countries continue to be relatively at peace. I observed a large and noisy street protest during my stay in Paris, and Sorbonne university had to be barracaded off by the police. That hardly disrupted my holiday there at all.

Indeed there are animal rights protesters making a lot of noise in the middle of my university town every week and guess what Mr Ng? Most people's lives are not really affected!

This is not to say that Europe does not have its problems- it was somewhat eerie and depressing to observe a depopulating east German town like Chemnitz.

The point still stands however, that letters published in the Straits Times are not necessarily the font of wisdom. As already has been demonstrated, the opinions expressed in the above letter are the font of stupidity. In Britain, Raymond's letter would probably be worthy of being consigned to a cruddy tabloid like the Daily Mirror or The Sun.

I will end by concluding the following:

1- The current rules as they stand totally deter Singapore based bloggers from saying even sensible things about Singapore politics. It is a source of national shame that everyone, even talkingcock.com and everyone who contributes to tomorrow.sg, is chickening out simply because the rules about what we cannot say are so unclear. For heaven's sakes, what do you have to do to fall below or reach the standard of "fair and objective" comment?

2- What sort of action am I advocating? One thing that is clear is that I don't approve of breaking the law. What I am approving, and it is the only thing that I am affirmitively approving in my two posts, is for members of parliament passing a bill in parliament to CHANGE THE LAW in a constitutionally approved manner i.e. in a session in parliament.

3- As I have already explained, I think the reasons that are given for the law are on the first level, not convincing enough on their own grounds to curtail freedom of speech. Even if one agrees that some level of control is desirable, the general scaring off of all political comment whatsoever DOES show that the effect of such laws has been disproportionate to the aims that it is trying to achieve.

My name is Koh Jie Kai. Don't tell me I'm hiding behind the anonymity of the internet to "mislead the public". The public can jolly well make up its own mind as to whether I am making sense or not.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Does this call anything to mind?

VI.ii.2.17 The man of system, on the contrary, is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the slightest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests, or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it. He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much east as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might chuse to impress upon it. If those two principles coincide and act in the same direction, the game of human society will go on easily and harmoniously, and is very likely to be happy and successful. If they are opposite or different, the game will go on miserable, and the society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorder.

VI.ii.2.18 Some general, and even systematical, idea of the perfection of policy and law, may no doubt be necessary for directing the view of the statesman. But to insist upon establishing, and upon establishing all at once, and in spit of all opposition, every thing which that idea may seem to require, must often be the highest degree of arrogance. It is to erect his own judgment into the supreme standard of right and wrong. It is to fancy himself the only wise and worthy man in the commonwealth, and that his fellow-citizens should accomodate themselves to him and not he to them. It is upon this account, that of all political speculators, sovereign princes are by far the most dangerous. This arrogance is perfectly familiar to them. They entertain no doubt of the immense superiority of their own judgment. When such imperial and royal reformers, therefore, condescend to contemplate the constitution of the country which is committed to their government, they seldom see any thing so wrong in it as the obstructions which is may sometimes oppose to the execution of their own will. They hold in contempt the divine maxim of Plato*, and consider the state as made for themselves, not themselves for the state. The great object of their reformation, therefore, is to remove those obstructions; to reduce the authority of the nobility; to take away the privileges of cities and provinces, and to render both the greatest individuals and the greatest orders of the state, as incapable of opposing their commands, as the weakest and most insignificant.

* - that is, "never to use violence to his country no more than to his parents" (VI.ii.2.16)

Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, VI.ii.2.17, 18