By: John Berthelsen

Singapore’s most prominent independent news site, The Online Citizen, a “community blogging platform,” has been closed and its computers have been confiscated after it printed a letter to the editor from Willy Sum, an otherwise-unidentified writer, accusing the government of corruption.

Terry Xu, the editor (above), was taken in for questioning by police and the website “will be on hiatus for the time being as all electronic equipment used for the purpose of the website have been seized by the Singapore Police Force for an investigation,” the publication said.  How long it may remain closed is unknown. Willy Sum, the author, was also said to have been brought in for questioning.

Sum’s letter was written in response to a controversy generated when four Singaporean activists met with Malaysia’s nonagenarian prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, over issues between the two countries.

“The present [People’s Action Party] leadership severely lacks innovation, vision and the drive to take us to the next lap,” Sum wrote. “We have seen multiple policy and foreign screw-ups, tampering of the constitution, corruption at the highest echelons and apparent lack of respect from foreign powers ever since the demise of founding father Lee Kuan Yew.”

That mention of corruption brought immediate action from a prickly government said to be concerned about criticism of its next generation of leaders, due to run for office without a supporting caste of the Lee family for the first time since it won independence.

Although in the past action against The Online Citizen, as the website is known, has first been warned by so-called “take-down” letters demanding the removal of offensive items, this time authorities immediately raided Xu’s house.

 The complaint was filed by the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA), a unit of Singapore’s Ministry of Communications and Information over what it called “serious allegations that undermine the public’s confidence in the government’s integrity.”

TOC has been in existence since 2006, walking a careful line to seek to escape the Singaporean government’s wrath while offering as wide an opinion spectrum as it can – or perhaps could. When the government has informed the publication that its blogs have been offensive, Xu has immediately pulled them down, as he did with Sum’s posting. That didn’t happen this time. There was no warning – police raided Xu’s home on Tuesday morning and cleaned out all of his electronic gear.

Rights organizations immediately criticized the government. Phil Robertson, Deputy Asia Director for Human Rights Watch, said the seizure of TOC’s computers and other equipment “is over-the-top harassment that will unfairly prevent the TOC form publishing its independent stories that critically scrutinize the government.”

The reasons for the closure appear to be political as well as journalistic, Robertson said. “What we have here is Singapore trying to go after TOC, which has been a thorn. It is a widely-read, in-depth online site, the kind of news outlet the government wants to get rid of.  If they could do it by hook or crook, they were going to. An election is coming next year, the PAP is starting to get paranoid.”

A police spokesman told the Straits Times the article made serious allegations that “the government’s highest officers are corrupt and that the Constitution has been tampered with. The police are investigating this, for the offense of criminal defamation. Electronic equipment such as laptops and handphones were seized in relation to the case.”

Singapore has had a decades-long record of suing for defamation or contempt and has won every case it has brought in its own courts, although there is no record it has ever attempted to sue outside the country. After some early hesitation the country has pushed through a series of measures progressively constricting the space for online journalists to deliver free expression. In 2013, it shut down an innocuous fledgling website called “The Breakfast Network” for not registering with authorities.

In 2015, the government successfully sued a blogger and activist named Roy Ngerng Yi Ling, who was forced to pay Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong $250,000 for defaming him for criticism over accounting of the country’s Central Provident Fund.

Also in 2015, the Singapore’s Media Development Agency shut down its first news site, called The Real Singapore, charging the site’s editors, Singaporean Yang Kaiheng and his Australian girlfriend Ai Takagi, with seven counts of sedition and other offenses for allegedly printing racially inflammatory and inaccurate stories. The government also went after a 16-year-old who insulted the memory of Lee Kuan Yew, the country’s founder, who died in 2015.

As in many Southeast Asian countries, Singapore earlier this year pushed through legislation against so-called “fake news,” which critics regard as a threat to the freedom to inform. A proposed law that would allow the police to search homes and electronic devices without a warrant poses a grave threat to the confidentiality of journalists’ sources, Reporters Without Borders said. 

The country has been legendary since the 1980s for the tendency of its leaders to file defamation cases and use the contempt of court statutes against foreign media groups and local politicians, often for statements that wouldn’t be libelous anywhere else in the world. Among those they have sued or taken other action against are the Economist, the International Herald Tribune, Bloomberg, the Asian Wall Street Journal, Time Magazine, the defunct Far Eastern Economic Review and AsiaWeek and the Financial Times.

“Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s government reacts quickly to criticism from journalists and does not hesitate to sue them, apply pressure to make them unemployable, or even force them to leave the country,” said Reporters Without Borders on its website. “The Media Development Authority has the power to censor all forms of journalistic content. Defamation suits are common in the city-state and may sometimes be accompanied by a charge of sedition, which is punishable by up to 21 years in prison. The red lines imposed by the authorities, known by journalists as “OB markers” (for out-of-bounds markers), apply to an ever-wider range of issues and public figures.”