The Online Citizen, Singapore’s longest-running independent online news site, harried by the government and denounced in Parliament, is clearly facing a crisis. The website has run out of funds and is being operated as a one-man show by its 34-year-old editor, Terry Xu, who hasn’t been paid for four or five months, he says.
At least two other independent news websites have disappeared previously under government pressure. The original was Temasek Review, which shut down voluntarily, and the second was The Real Singapore, or TRE, whose editors Singaporean Yang Kaiheng and his Australian girlfriend Ai Takagi, were charged a year ago with seven counts of sedition and other charges for allegedly printing racially inflammatory and inaccurate stories.
“The government is intent on shutting down (TOC, as the Online Citizen is known),” said a Singapore-based lawyer. “So the first step is to harass it.”
Singapore’s Media Development Department has demanded that the entity that formerly hosted the opinion collaborative to return S$5,000 in advertising that it said was paid by Monsoons Book Club, a London-based entity, in contravention of the department’s rules, which forbid advertising paid by foreign entities. One of Monsoons Book Club’s three directors is political fugitive Tan Wah Piow, who fled the country in 1975. TOC doesn’t have to return the money, Xu said.
In addition, in a tactic learned from the so-called “50-cent party” in China, online trolls said to be aligned with the Peoples Action Party called “the Internet Brigade” are being paid to flame independent websites with scathing comments on critical stories. TOC is a particular target, Xu said.
The campaign against TOC is yet another indication that, despite a decisive win by the ruling People’s Action Party in September 2015 elections, and the passing from the scene of Singapore’s stern patriarch Lee Kuan Yew, the government has no intention of lightening up against perceived unfair criticism of its policies.
Despite its convincing win, with the PAP getting 70 percent of the total vote as against 60 percent in the previous general poll, Xu says, the party is afraid of losing control as Singaporeans, better educated and savvy on social media, turn away from its all-embracing attempts to manipulate societal attitudes.
On March 1 on the floor of Parliament, Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam accused TOC of a “planned, orchestrated campaign, using falsehoods, and has published about 20 articles or so” as part of the news site’s coverage of the suicide of a 14-year-old student who jumped to his death after being seized by five police at his school and accused of molesting a 11-year-old girl in a lift. The case has caused enormous controversy in Singapore because of charges that the police were heavy-handed in humiliating the boy.
The attacks on TOC are ominous words, especially spoken from the floor of parliament. The controversy over TOC is remarkably similar to the one that enveloped The Real Singapore in May of 2015
“At this point, survival is a problem,” Xu told Asia Sentinel in a telephone interview. “We are both being monitored, with the government fishing for information on where we are getting funding and trying in parliament to bring up our name and making threats of proceedings against the website.”
Singapore, an international business and financial center that crucially needs the Internet as a means of communication with the wider world, has promised that the Internet would remain unrestricted, that doesn’t mean it won’t pass laws designed to make sure domestic criticism is muted.
In May of 2013, the Media Development Authority pushed through licensing regulations that apply to all content on the news sites including readers’ comments. Any blog that reaches more than 50,000 unique visitors in a month and prints a single article of Singapore news within a week is liable to come under the regulation and to be forced to withdraw the story within 24 hours or be faced with forfeiting the bond although the bigger problem, for most bloggers, is coming up with the money in the first place.
The MDA also makes it clear that online news sites are expected to comply within 24 hours to the MDA’s directions to remove content that is found to be in breach of content standards. In 2014, the MDA shut an innocuous fledgling called the Breakfast Network that was run by Bertha Henson, a former journalist with Singapore Press Holdings who was a journalist in residence at a local college while acting as a media consultant.
“Singapore’s licensing system for online news services was designed from the start for this type of censorship and harassment,” Shawn Crispin, senior Southeast Asia representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said at the time.
Terry Xu, an engineer by training and a five-year veteran of the Singapore Army, is hardly the picture of a radical out to bring down the government. He took over the website in 2013, which came into being in 2006 as a community blogging platform, over what he calls a “leadership issue” and largely has run it by himself, existing on a smattering of advertising and donations.
TOC was already hampered by a decision by the Singapore Registry of Political Donations to designate the website as a political organization. The law says that political entities cannot receive funds from foreign contributors or anonymous donations above S$5,000.
“Supporters are aware that their names have to be submitted to the authorities and they use this as a form of intimidation,” Xu said. “A lot of donors write and ask if they can do untraceable transactions, which of course they can’t. They are afraid of repercussions. What the media regulation entails is the financial strangulation of independent media. That is the purpose, not to say what or when you can publish, but to say to everybody who funds you, ‘We will know.’”