Singapore’s Hounded Independent Media Move Overseas
The Online Citizen and New Naratif bail out but continue to write about Singapore
The Singapore government, which has embrangled its ambitions with regulations, lawsuits, contempt of court charges and general harassment to make sure no independent media infect the island republic, is now faced with two publications it put out of business which have moved their operations to other countries and out of its clutches.
The two are The Online Citizen, published and edited by Terry Xu, which has moved to Taiwan and changed its name and broadened its focus, and New Naratif, published by Thum Ping Tjin and Kirsten Han. Thum has moved to Manila, where his wife is teaching political science at the University of the Philippines Diliman. Both are up and running. Han left New Naratif in 2020 and has stayed in Singapore where she is writing a newsletter. Their departure comes as hundreds of expatriate businessmen move to Singapore from Hong Kong because of onerous Covid-19 restrictions and growing political repression.
“I left because the constant harassment got too much,” Thum said by email. “The police report, the police raid, the attacks by politicians, and an entire law aimed squarely at making it illegal for Singaporeans to support New Naratif. It was badly affecting my mental health. And I didn't get it half as bad as Terry did! He's gotten far worse than I have.”
Roy Ngerng, another Singaporean, also fled to Taiwan in 2016 after he was found guilty of defaming Prime Minister Lee Hsieng Loong over what he alleged were deficiencies in the Central Provident Fund. Ngerng, now 41, was ordered to pay defamation damages of S$150,000. He has continued to blog about issues in Singapore.
In another indication of Singapore’s prickliness – or its lack of a sense of humor – free speech activist Jovolan Wham was released from Changi Prison last Friday after 15 days in prison for performing what he called a 15-second one-man free speech demonstration in November of 2020. On another occasion, he was cited for holding up a home-made smiley face.
“Being criminalized for peacefully standing up for what you believed in was just so outrageous and extreme to me that my gut reaction was that it also deserved an extreme response as an act of protest, and to show the inherent violence and brutality of the State to citizens expressing themselves peacefully,” Wham wrote in a Facebook post on September 28 after his release.
Lee Hsien Loong has continued his father’s determination to keep Singapore unsullied by independent media. International publications including the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, Time Magazine, CBS News and the defunct Far Eastern Economic Review, AsiaWeek, and International Herald Tribune, among others, have all felt the lash of contempt of court citations and defamation suits and been told they are not to report critically on Singapore.
The local media, particularly the Straits Times and its offshoot periodicals and local radio and television have long known better than to print or air anything the government doesn’t want printed or aired. Consequently Singapore, arguably the most modern and technologically switched-on city in Asia, has no independent media acting as a brake on government excess if, as the critics allege, there is any.
Lee and the People‘s Action Party will tell you that’s fine because their team of technocrats can run the place better, with no irritating dissent. Consequently, the world’s press advocacy organizations unanimously rank Singapore among the most repressive governments in the world when it comes to freedom of information.. Reporters Without Borders ranks it 139th in the world, below every country in Southeast Asia, except for Laos and Vietnam – both single-party communist states.
Neither The Online Citizen nor New Naratif started out to defy the government. In fact, both are remarkably tame when it comes to news production and Terry Xu, in a phone interview from Taiwan, said that even with 3,250 km of open water between him and the Singapore government, he is more interested in publishing an even-handed news portal.
“We’re not going to be more aggressive,” Xu said. “The last thing I want is to give the government justification to say we are attempting to influence politics from overseas.”
He wants to start afresh, he says, with a new publication focusing on a wider area to “carry on the work of educating the general public.” That includes taking on more serious issues and analysis.
But both publications found themselves entangled in continuing legal wrangling that to critics of the government looked like nothing more than attempts to shut them down. Xu was never a journalist but rather an engineer who took over TOC when its two previous editors moved on. But almost from the start, in 2011, the government was after him and the news portal, partly because its two previous owners did indulge in political activism.
Despite Xu’s attempts to stay out of trouble, eventually Lee Hsien Loong himself found cause to sue when Xu found himself in the middle of the ugly fratricidal squabble between the Lee siblings over the disposition of their father’s house when he printed a letter from Hsien Loong’s brother Hsien Yang that the prime minister found objectionable. He didn’t take it down soon enough and ended up being sued and found guilty in 2021. Hsien Loong was awarded S$210,000 (US$146,300) in damages.
Not long after that, the Infocomm Media Development Authority suspended TOC's broadcasting class license over a dispute over reports on funding sources. Xu’s appeal was dismissed last December. “There was no way to continue working given we already lost the high court decisions,” he said. Thus the move to Taiwan.
New Naratif has been more aggressive, ultimately being accused of being an organ of foreign interference, since the website is actually based in Malaysia, across the causeway and out of the government’s legal clutches. Both Han and Thum, however, are Singaporeans. In 2020, Thum was questioned by police, who seized his phone and laptop. The Infocomm Media Development Authority ordered Facebook to take down "unauthorized paid Internet election advertising" placed there by the website. South Africa's Civicus, Article 19, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International all requested authorities to drop charges against the site. Earlier this year, New Naratif won Asia’s most distinguished award as a finalist from the Society of Publishers in Asia for an op-ed on Law Minister K Shanmugam.
The question is whether Lee Hsien Loong and the government, their thin skins growing thinner, will seek to find legal methods to put the two publications out of business. The government, going back to the days of Lee Kuan Yew, has always sought legal methods in parliament in its pursuit of what it wants. When it comes across a situation it doesn’t like, it passes a law to do something about it.
Accordingly, legislation targeting foreign influence in Singapore was proposed as early as 2017. In March 2021, it acted. The parliament passed the Foreign influence (Countermeasures) Act, or FICA, which grants the Minister for Home Affairs the authority to investigate individuals suspected of being foreign agents engaged in "hostile information campaigns.” It gives authorities the power to compel social media platforms and website operators to hand over user data, without any justification in select instances.
Lim Tean, a Singaporean lawyer who defended Terry Xu, said in an interview that the law doesn’t appear to allow the long arm of the government to reach out overseas. Governments, critics say, are liable to scoff at Singapore’s efforts. Nonetheless, Reporters Without Borders described the act as "legal monstrosity with totalitarian leanings.” Amnesty International described FICA as "a tool for crushing dissent."
The next step, if Singapore were to choose to take it, would be to pass legislation allowing the government to block the transmission of information by overseas news sites into Singapore, something that has occurred on an irregular basis in Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia.
Law Minister K. Shanmugam “has threatened this in Parliament via FICA, so I expect it's just a matter of time that they will proscribe New Naratif and block our website from being accessed in Singapore,” Thum said, “whether via FICA or POFMA or some other path.”
But that is a slippery slope indeed. Some future media development official could end up blocking almost anything. Thailand, using its draconian communications act, has blocked at least 45,000 websites. All are blocked in secret and the criteria for censorship has never been made public. That is something Singapore, with its vast commercial connections to the financial world, wouldn’t want to contemplate.