Something truly remarkable happened in Singapore this week. The online community – often characterised by the establishment as a scary place filled with scary, irresponsible people – came together like it never did before. The process was calm and reasoned, the tone, always civil.
Despite being thousands of miles away right now, I’ve had the pleasure of participating in several discussions online – conversations filled with suggestions, ideas and debate. It’s been amazing observing and reading as Singaporeans of all stripes step forward, speak up and offer to help. Events of the past few days have galvanised netizens and united what was once a disparate group, in an unprecedented way.
And it’s all thanks to the Media Development Authority.
#FreeMyInternet is a response to the government’s stunningly haphazard attempt at controlling the Internet. New rules introduced by the MDA now require local websites to get a license if they meet certain criteria. The announcement was understandably, met with anger and confusion from numerous quarters. Quite apart from the fact that the licensing rules appear vague and broad and a little wishy-washy, they also come across as a desperate attempt by authorities to muzzle online expression. The fact that the regulations were introduced without any consultation has triggered even more outrage.
Predicatably, the MDA says the move is not intended as a clampdown on Internet freedom or speech. Rather, it is meant to ensure “regulatory consistency between traditional and online news platforms”. Perhaps authorities believe this kind of bureaucratic-speak will sooth netizens and make us all feel better. But trying to mask what looks like a bald-faced attempt at censorship as an administrative exercise is silly. People are really not that stupid. A flurry of articles has appeared online calling out the rules for what they really are.
There’s a reason why Singaporeans love the Internet so. It has opened up new avenues of expression for all of us and given us voice where we had none. Our mainstream media is not regarded as government mouthpieces for no good reason. Reporters Without Borders didn’t rank us below Ethiopia, Zimbabwe and Cambodia for press freedom simply because they felt like it. Where the Straits Times and Channel News Asia have failed, bloggers and online reporters have stepped up to fill the gap – homelessness and poverty, migrant rights, the SMRT strike, the AIM scandal, these are just a few stories that would never have gotten the airing they deserved were it not for alternative media.
MDA wants regulatory consistency. Perhaps the mainstream media should be allowed to level up instead. As far back as 2009, journalists were already expressing deep dissatisfaction over their lack of freedom. In a US Embassy cable leaked by Wikileaks, they said they had to practice self-censorship and lamented that they were stopped from doing more investigative reporting.
This surely, isn’t healthy for the media landscape, for the population at large, or for our country’s reputation as a developed, first world nation. For all the talk about fostering creativity and critical thinking among younger Singaporeans, the government really doesn’t seem to want anyone to be too critical of its own policies. One can only imagine the amount of handwringing among our political elites as more and more people speak up online. The media has always been theirs to control, the message theirs to craft, our psyches theirs to shape. What the hell is going on now?
It’s called progress and it’s a good thing. The government should stop being so insecure. Self-serving rules borne out of a desperate desire to control are ultimately, self-defeating. We might be three long years away from the next General Elections, but Singaporeans have long memories. We will not forget.
When it comes to activism, Singaporeans can be a timid lot. We have been conditioned to be careful about speaking up, to mind our own business, keep our heads down, to not push boundaries lest we accidentally stumble past an OB marker. We’ve been taught to stay out of trouble. We’ve gotten used to being scared.
Many activists remember attending events at Hong Lim Park where a turnout of 10 was considered par for the course, 20, a minor success. But it’s clear the times are a-changing. More than a thousand have already signed up for tomorrow’s protest organised by #FreeMyInternet. The voices that have emerged are diverse – even owners of non-political blogs are joining in. We only have the MDA to thank. They’ve given us reason to stand together. They’ve brought order to the Wild West, but not in the way they wanted.
Tomorrow, the call is clear. When Communications and Information Minister Yaacob Ibrahim said Singaporeans should “read the right thing”, he let slip the real purpose of the new licensing rules. Singapore has evolved, so should the people in charge. Read the right thing? No. The government should do the right thing – unshackle the mainstream media, #FreeMyInternet.