Sunday 4 August 2013

An unexpected email 6 years later

I received this email a few days ago from someone I don't know -- let's call her Kit. The letter is self-explanatory. I'm glad that Kit now feels better about herself, and is able to be who she is. The timing is also coincidental, given the new "Come Out Come Home" campaign launched by Sayoni -- I don't know if Kit has really come out, but coming out is about being comfortable with oneself, and certainly Kit seems to be a lot more comfortable now compared to before.

Dear Mr Siew, 

I am writing this letter to express my gratitude for your service and bravery regarding the repeal of 377A in 2007 and for the speech made in the parliamentary debate. 

This letter of thanks might rather late as 6 years has passed.

In 2007 I was a young and naive 14 year old girl. 

As a teenager I desperately wanted to fit in, I just wanted to be normal or at least appear to be normal. 

I tried very hard not to be gay because I was afraid of losing everything and everyone I had. I was convinced that I had to find a way to get rid of that aspect of myself if I were to fit into the society. 

In the next 5 years where I fought against myself, I was never truly happy and neither did I become any less gay. 

This year has been a really good year as I finally found the courage to be who I am.

Life is tough and emotions run high but I try to find simple and small things in life to be grateful for.

I try to look out for small signs from the universe that I am doing the right things and going the right way.

Small things that inspire me to be optimistic and bet on goodness, courage, empathy and chance.

I would usually not touch anything related to 377A with a ten foot pole because politics is generally depressing.

However I listened to the recording yesterday on youtube, tears flowed uncontrollably as I heard the speeches made by those in favour of repealing the law. It healed a small but deep wound that I never knew existed or so conveniently forgotten. 

I guess I just wanted to let you know that what you did out of selflessness 6 years ago will have continued effects for decades to come and the passion you had 6 years ago will continue to inspire. 

Thank you for your continued efforts to improve the Singaporean community. I wish you happiness and good luck in all of your future endeavours. 

A 20 year old Singaporean youth.

Wednesday 5 June 2013

Why the new MDA online licensing framework is censorship

I've been using the Internet for a very long time -- since 1995 or so. I remember the days of pine, lynx and tin; irc, talk and finger. I remember soc.culture.singapore and soc.culture.singapore.moderated. I remember seeing the very first Singapore National Education post from mrbrown, back when podcasts haven't been invited and he was probably wearing pants everyday instead of shorts.

And yes, I also remember when the Singapore Broadcasting Authority (MDA's predecessor) first introduced the Class Licence scheme in 1996, and the firestorm of anger within the (very much smaller) internet community then.

To SBA/MDA's credit, it has indeed, for the most part, administered the Class Licence scheme with a "light touch" in the 17 years since. So when various ministers say that the MDA would continue its "light touch" regime, I actually think that will be true on a day-to-day basis -- for the most part.

But that is not the whole picture. And sadly, so far no government official or representative (except perhaps for MP Baey Yam Keng) has seen it fit to squarely and directly confront the issues raised by bloggers, and as the Talking Point programme has shown, by regular Singaporeans as well.

The one glaring exception to SBA/MDA's "light touch" regime provides a cautionary tale on what happens when a regulator has broad discretion in a regulatory environment with ambiguously-worded legislation.

Sintercom (which stood for Singapore Internet Community) was the very first, and in its time the leading, socio-political website in Singapore. In 2001, just before the General Election that year, the SBA made a ham-fisted attempt at getting Sintercom to register as a political website. It did register, but eventually decided to shut down soon after. I can still remember the consternation in the community when that happened. From what I can recall, the summary at seems pretty accurate.


The new licensing framework for online news sites does not establish regulatory parity between the Internet on the one hand and print and TV on the other; the decentralised and democratising nature of the Internet, as compared to the resource-heavy nature of print and TV, makes that simply impossible.

But the new framework does establish regulatory parity between the 10 websites targeted by MDA, and the print and TV outlets already regulated by MDA. It does so, by subjecting the targeted websites to the same sort of opaque licensing regime as print and TV outlets are subject to, which ultimately tends to encourage self-censorship and threatens media independence.

(Those who would claim that the mainstream media is free and independent in Singapore, would do well to read "OB Markers: My Straits Times Story" by former SPH editor-in-chief Cheong Yip Seng, and then take a look at the Newspapers and Printing Press Act.)

The new framework allows the MDA to take the targeted websites out of the existing Class Licence framework, and issue them with individual licences under Section 8 of the Broadcasting Act. Section 8(2) states:

"Every broadcasting licence, other than a class licence, granted by the Authority shall be in such form and for such period and may contain such terms and conditions as the Authority may determine."

Basically, the MDA can decide what the terms of the individual licences are, and presumably can also decide that the terms are confidential, such that the public will never actually know what the licences say. After all, does anyone know what is in SPH's or Mediacorp's licences?

Today, the MDA has decided that the targeted websites must take down content in 24 hours and put up a $50,000 performance bond -- conditions which do not appear in any published legislation, but only in the Government's press statements.

Tomorrow, the MDA can change the licensing terms to say that the websites must also proactively screen content and obtain MDA approval for editorial appointments -- and we may never know. I'm not saying that the MDA will do this, but Singaporeans need to know that they can.

And for the record, Singaporeans do not know what other terms, if any, exist in the individual licences issued by the MDA to the targeted websites.

Laws exist as much to empower governments to do good, as to protect citizens from their governments.  Unfortunately, most Singapore legislation focuses on the former and completely disregards the latter. This MDA regulation is just the latest example of that, and the way it was introduced is just a very stark reminder of how imbalanced our legislative system is, that something with such potentially broad impact can be made into binding law with no discussion at all.


Let's go back to the various assurances proffered by the Government, in the days since it announced the new regulations. For me, they have all been meaningless chaff, smoke and mirrors that seek to distract from the central truth: that the MDA has established a framework whereby it can now easily take a website out of the Class Licence scheme, and impose whatever terms it wants on that website. All of this can be done, without any shred of transparency or accountability. Even if the same content standards apply for both the Class Licence and individual licences, the levers through which the MDA can exert power and influence are radically different.

I drew two main conclusions from all the empty statements from the Government:

  • The Government has issued many, many clarifications. It has had many, many opportunities to clarify whether non-commercial websites like The Online Citizen fall within this new licensing framework, which it has spurned. I can only conclude that commerciality or otherwise is not relevant to this. Acting Minister Tan Chuan-Jin seems to have confirmed as much on Talking Point, where he seems to say that blogs (non-commercial) can be subject to individual licensing if  it "reports news", which is really a meaningless and arbitrary distinction in today's world. 
  • The Government has thrown up strawman after strawman in trying to justify the new framework. The references to racist comments, need to ensure that sites co-operate in taking down content, etc. all become meaningless, when you consider that:
  1. apparently all of the 20-something take-down requests issued by the MDA in the past 17 years have been successful.
  2. of these requests, only 1 was not for sex-related advertisements, and that was a takedown request issued to YouTube over the "Innocence of Muslims" video -- and YouTube is not on the list of targeted websites. Let me repeat that: the MDA does not see fit to individually license the one website that has actually received a takedown notice over potentially inflammatory content in the past 17 years.

The new framework is ostensibly to ensure fair and accurate news reporting, and yet the Government throws up justifications that have nothing to do with news reporting at all. Indeed, the Government has not cited one single example of unfair or inaccurate news reporting. And, as either Bertha Henson or Arun Mahizhnan pointed out on Talking Point, inaccurate news reporting is best combated by clarifications and rights of reply -- not outright removal of content.

So the objective of this new licensing framework must be something else altogether. The obvious suspect is censorship, or rather the power to censor, over independent media outlets like Yahoo! and The Online Citizen. (See also my interview in the Straits Times last Saturday June 1.)

The Government has had ample opportunity to make its case for why that is not so. It has failed abjectly in every single attempt.

I am overseas and will not be able to join the #freemyinternet protest on Saturday June 8. I will however blackout this blog on Thursday June 6, in solidarity with my fellow bloggers in Singapore. I have also signed the petition calling for the withdrawal of the new licensing framework.

73% of respondents to the Talking Point live poll think that the new licensing framework will limit online news content. If you do not want to see that happen, please sign the petition and join the protest at Hong Lim Park from 4-7pm on Saturday.

Saturday 1 June 2013

Free My Internet: or, I can choose what I read on the Internet, ok?

#FreeMyInternet – Movement against new licensing requirements for online media
The blogging community -- collectively called Free My Internet -- will be organising a protest and online blackout next week against the new licensing requirements imposed by the Media Development Authority, which requires "online news sites" to put up a "performance bond" of $50,000 and "comply within 24 hours to MDA's directions to remove content that is found to be in breach of content standards".

We encourage all Singaporeans who are concerned about our future and our ability to participate in everyday online activities and discussions, and to seek out alternative news and analysis,  to take a strong stand against the licensing regime which can impede on your independence.
We urge Singaporeans to turn up to send a clear message to our elected representatives to trust the Singaporeans who elected them.
Singaporeans can support us in three ways:
1)    Join us at the protest.
Date:            8 June 2013
Time:            4.00pm – 7.00pm
Venue:            Speakers Corner, Hong Lim Park
2)    If you are a blogger, join us in an online blackout by closing your blog for 24 hours, from Thursday 6 June, 0001 hrs to 6 June, 2359 hrs. You can choose to create your own blackout notice, or use we have created for your convenience. When you reopen your blog, write your account of the protest, about the new regulations and censorship, or anything related to media freedom in Singapore. Share your thoughts. Share your hope that the light that free speech provides will not go out on us.
3)    Sign our petition and read our FAQ at this link to call for the Ministry of Communications and Information to completely withdraw the licensing regime.
We invite media to cover the protest at Hong Lim Park. To indicate media attendance and other media queries, please contact Howard Lee at
Signed off as: Free My Internet
Leong Sze Hian –
Andrew Loh –
Ravi Philemon –
Kumaran Pillai –
Terry Xu –
Richard Wan –
Choo Zheng Xi –
Rachel Zeng –
Roy Ngerng –
Kirsten Han –
Gilbert Goh –
Lynn Lee –
Biddy Low –
Martyn See –
Howard Lee –
Elaine Ee –
Joshua Chiang –
Donaldson Tan –
Stephanie Chok –
Jolovan Wham –
Ng E-Jay –
Siew Kum Hong –
Darryl Kang –
Daniel Yap –
Jean Chong –
Benjamin Cheah –
Theodore Lee –
Benjamin Lee –
Illusio –
Lee Xian Jie –
Damien Chng –
Priscilla Chia –

Friday 31 May 2013

Why Singapore’s crackdown on online news reporting is a mistake

This was first published on

Why Singapore’s crackdown on online news reporting is a mistake

Siew Kum Hong
My sense is that for a long time now, the Singapore government has been looking for a way to give itself the power to censor the internet, in the same way that it has the power to censor offline media.
It may choose to exercise that power sparingly; but the mere possibility of censorship creates a strong chilling effect.
This new regulation is a mistake, and reinforces the perception that Singapore is a repressive place — which is precisely the wrong message to be sending to a globalised and networked world, when you are trying to build an innovative and creative economy where freedom of thought is so essential.
This is a significant retreat from the “light touch” approach to internet censorship that the Singapore government has espoused since the late 1990s.
We have gone from being arguably the first country in the world to gazette a socio-political community blog as a “political association” (by this I mean The Online Citizen), to being probably the first democratic country in the world to require websites to post a significant monetary bond before they can continue publishing.
While the Media Development Authority has sought to frame it as establishing regulatory parity between online and offline news outlets, the details available to date show otherwise.
Most notably, the MDA now has the power to order online news sites to remove purportedly illegal content within 24 hours, failing which the site stands to lose its $50,000 bond.
But there is no equivalent to this for newspapers, for example; if the Straits Times publishes an article that is prohibited under MDA guidelines, the Straits Times is not obligated to recall all unsold copies within 24 hours.
More fundamentally, the power to compel content removal is simply the power to censor outright. If the intent was to ensure responsible or accurate reporting, then surely the MDA should have chosen to include the power to order the publication of an update or correction as well. But this does not seem to be the case, at least based on the MDA’s own announcement.
Now that the government has announced this, the damage has been done. But the MDA can still mitigate this by clearly affirming that this regulation will cover only commercially-operated sites, and not true citizen-operated sites like The Online Citizen and The Real Singapore. That will go a long way towards addressing the perception that this measure is solely intended to bring the internet to heel, so to speak.
Now, I can’t speak for what Yahoo! should or might do, as the license conditions have not been published. I am a little surprised that MDA chose to make the announcement without also publishing the license conditions — this creates uncertainty and lacks transparency.
It is however notable that of the 10 sites [which are:,,,,,,,, and], Yahoo! Singapore was the only site that is not operated by a government-controlled or -owned company (so Singapore Press Holdings and MediaCorp).
This will inevitably lead to speculation that this regulatory action is aimed directly at Yahoo!, with the goal of ensuring that the government has direct or indirect control or influence over all major online news outlets in Singapore.
Disclosure: I was the General Counsel of Yahoo! Southeast Asia up to October 2012, but I did not work on this matter at all. I wrote this in my personal capacity. Thanks to Robin Hicks from for some excellent editing.

Friday 15 February 2013

Beggaring my neighbor does not make me rich: why the National Defence Duty will not work

I've wanted to blog about the Population White Paper for a week now. But I have very complicated feelings about it, and couldn't figure out exactly what I would say. Until I read Hri Kumar's suggestion about a National Defence Duty on foreigners and PRs (with the catchy tagline of "we do duty, they pay a duty"). Things clicked immediately (more on the White Paper on a later post).

Hri Kumar's suggestion makes perfect sense -- if you see the world through the lens of rational economic theory and you think of people as homo economicus. Male Singaporeans suffer a disadvantage because of NS, so let's apply a tax to make male PRs/foreigners equally disadvantaged. Perfect economic sense, and true to the PAP's technocratic bent.

Except that the world is about much more than economics, and people are homo sapiens not homo economicus. We've traditionally talked about NS as a noble sacrifice, a ritual that turned boys into men. More recently, we've seen it also as a great social leveller that helps Singaporeans from different socio-economic classes mix and understand each other in a way that schools no longer allow (I totally agree, but have to wonder about female Singaporeans then).

And now an MP wants to put a price on it. It makes cold hard rational sense, but humans are warm-blooded; we become cold and hard only after we die.

This proposal encapsulates why the PAP as a whole is struggling so much today. It has become too transactional in its philosophy, the dollars and cents have become too entrenched and central in its thinking. Again, it all makes rational economic sense -- but we are real human beings, not abstract economic units.

This transactional worldview also explains why, despite the PAP's best efforts to "sharpen the differences" between Singaporeans and non-Singaporeans, Singaporeans remain so unhappy and unappreciated. That is because these efforts would work, only for Singaporeans who truly love schadenfraude.

If I am unhappy because I think I am being badly treated, would I really feel better just because the Government treats someone else equally badly? I mean, relatively speaking the other person may no longer be better off than me, but it does not improve my own position in any way. Imposing the National Defence Duty makes foreigners and PRs worse-off, but do not directly improve the lot of Singaporean males (at least not by much, and certainly not in any meaningful way), and most importantly does nothing to address their main concerns, in particular the complaint that employers discriminate against Singaporean males because of their NS liabilities.

In the same vein, charging PRs and foreigners more for public education and public health services (and even, bafflingly enough, horseriding fees at the Turf Club -- an American told me about this) has not made Singaporeans feel better, and not surprisingly, because it's not like they are paying less. Seeing my fellow inhabitant of Singapore suffer as much as I do does not make me suffer any less.

In economic terms, these policies can make sense. The National Defence Duty seeks to quantify the opportunity cost of having to serve Full-Time National Service, and then impose it on those who do not have to serve. Heck, the formula can probably even be tweaked to include some proxy measure of the opportunity and other costs of NS liability. Similarly, differentiated fees for Singaporeans vs PRs/foreigners means that Singaporeans are better-off than PRs/foreigners, even though Singaporeans are actually not better-off at all.

But in all these cases, the Singaporean's life does not become better in a meaningful way. This is the flaw of the PAP's transactional worldview -- it is a view of the economic world, and not of the real world.

Instead, if we want to make up for the cost and burden of defending the country, we should give those who have served NS even more benefits than they receive today. More, much more than the tax relief and the SAFRA membership. This is not to compensate them for what they have given up for NS, which is frankly something that can never really be done, but to do what we can, as a country, to recognise their contributions and express our appreciation.

For example, we can waive polyclinic consultation fees and public hospital C-class bed charges (or apply an equivalent discount for those who opt for more expensive classes), in full for everybody who has completed Full-Time NS and the 13-year NS cycle, and at 25% or some other percentage for those who completed Full-Time NS but did not have NS liability. And yes, that's for life.

And/or do the same for public school fees and miscellaneous fees. And/or public transport charges when they become senior citizens. And/or discount other medical charges in public hospitals. And/or give them priority queues in public government agencies.

The possibilities are nearly endless. Yes, these measures can be costly and/or inefficient. But the goal here is not to be economically efficient or precise, but to express our true gratitude to those who have given up part of their lives to serve and defend Singapore and Singaporeans. And honestly, we spent over S$12 billion on defence in 2012; anything we do will almost certainly be less than a drop in that ocean of money.

Similarly, sharpening the differences between Singaporeans and PRs/foreigners should be done not be making things more expensive for PRs/foreigners, but by giving some positive benefit to the Singaporeans. Instead of increasing the school fees and polyclinic charges for PRs/foreigners, why not reduce them for Singaporeans. It may cost more to the Government, but it will also be much, much more likely to achieve the desired results of making Singaporeans feel cherished.

Sunday 3 June 2012

In Memory of 1987

On Saturday 2 June 2012, MARUAH and Function 8 organized an event called "That We May Dream Again" to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Operation Spectrum. I spoke at this event as Vice-President of MARUAH.

In Memory of 1987

Ladies and gentlemen, friends and colleagues, thank you for coming here today. My name is Siew Kum Hong. I speak today in my capacity of Vice-President of MARUAH. And I am very honoured to speak here today.

The U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt once said: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Looking at all of you here today, I am heartened to know that so many Singaporeans are no longer afraid of the Internal Security Act, or of the 1987 detentions.

And fear is the currency of the ISA. Its scope is notoriously broad, its wording infamously vague. I personally believe that this is deliberately so, to keep the population in line.

I once heard someone say, with full sincerity and conviction, that the ISA has not been used to detain political opponents in the last 10 to 15 years. I think that is probably true. But that time-frame seems carefully selected. Would that person have been equally sincere and convincing, if he had said 25 years instead?

The events of 1987 still haunt many Singaporeans, especially the older generations. It is different from younger Singaporeans, many of whom had not even been born in 1987.

In 1987, I was 12 years old.  I only have a hazy recollection of what was happening then. So most of what I know is based on what I have seen, read and heard as an adult. And of course, what I studied in law school and what I and my colleagues in MARUAH have researched since.

Like how some 1987 detainees challenged their detentions and won their case before the Court of Appeal, only to be immediately re-detained upon their release. Like how the Government quickly amended the ISA after that case, to limit future reviews of ISA detentions by the courts to purely procedural grounds, as you’ve just heard Jeannette say. Like how, even in the post-9/11 world where preventive detention laws have become more commonplace, the ISA continues to lack the checks and balances found in other countries’ laws.

What are some of these missing checks and balances? Firstly, even though the detainees are not brought before the courts, they are still subject to some sort of hearing that should comply with due process. In Singapore, we have a hearing before an advisory board. But this process is shrouded in secrecy and is completely non-transparent.

According to a lawyer who has appeared before advisory boards, the detainees and their lawyers do not get to see the evidence that is presented against them, and do not have the right to challenge witnesses against them. The decisions of the advisory board are not published and not even disclosed to detainees. So much for the right to a fair hearing.

Another critical area where the ISA falls short of international norms, is the maximum period of detention without trial that is allowed. For instance, Australia allows detention for only up to 48 hours. Even the UK, which has suffered actual terrorist attacks on its own soil, only permits detention for up to 28 days.

But in Singapore, preventive detention is potentially indefinite – for instance, Chia Thye Poh was first detained in 1966, released from ISD detention in 1989 after 23 years, but confined to Sentosa until 1992. The remaining restrictions were gradually lifted over the years, and he became a completely free man only in 1998 – 32 years after he was first detained.

Singapore went through the Universal Periodic Review process last year, which is a process where the United Nations reviews each country’s human rights record in turn. MARUAH submitted a paper focusing specifically on preventive detention and the death penalty. In that paper, we called for numerous reforms to the ISA to bring it in line with international norms and due process. The objective was to ensure that even if there is a legitimate security requirement for preventive detention, the detention is done in accordance with human rights norms and due process.

Since then, we have refined our position. MARUAH now thinks that the best way to achieve that objective, is to simply repeal the ISA and introduce new anti-terrorism laws consistent with human rights.

And that is exactly what Malaysia has done. Around six weeks ago, Malaysia repealed its own ISA, replacing it with an anti-terrorism law that limits preventive detention to 28 days. Yet, the Singapore Government continues to insist that it needs the ISA in its current form, and that a specific anti-terrorism law would not work or would not be enough or would take too long to implement. The Singapore Government continues to make these bald assertions without any real explanation or justification.

Well, I can only say in response: “Malaysia boleh!”

As many of you know, MARUAH is also calling for an independent Commission of Inquiry into the 1987 detentions. We are asking Singaporeans to sign a petition in support of this call.

Look around you today. Today, we see so many of the so-called Marxist conspirators standing together again, in public. This is Singaporeans’ chance to find out the truth for themselves.

Look at the ex-detainees. Go up to them. Talk to them. Look into their eyes. Listen to what they have to say, but more importantly listen to how they say it.

And then ask yourself: could these allegations really be true? Could they really have been subversives? Could they really have plotted to overthrow the Government? Could there really have been a Marxist conspiracy, or any conspiracy at all? And if the answers to those questions are “no”, then what could have been the justification for the detentions?

I have always doubted the supposed reasons for the 1987 detentions. And the first time I met and spoke to Vincent Cheng, I stopped having any doubts. I knew that I could not accept the story put forth by the Government. I became convinced that these were just good men and women who wanted a better Singapore. And for that, I salute them.

The 1987 detentions effectively killed civil society for an entire generation. Activists saw what happened to those who were willing to act on their conscience, and either gave up or went underground. Common people saw what happened to those who were willing to stand up and be counted, and so they shut up and sat down.

The Government talks about an active citizenry, it talks about getting Singaporeans involved. They talk about so many things, but they don’t talk about the great big elephant in the room.

In recent years, ex-detainees, whether from 1987 or earlier, have been publishing their own accounts about what happened to them. And these stories always contradict the official version stated by the Government. So far, the Government has completely failed to respond to the ex-detainees. As a first step towards coming to terms with the ISA, we need to understand, once and for all, what really happened in 1987. What evidence did the Government have of a conspiracy, that led them to order the detentions? Were the confessions by the detainees coerced? Were the detainees mistreated or tortured?

A famous American judge once said: “Sunlight is said to be the best disinfectant.” I ask the Government to shine a light on the events 25 years ago, and once and for all resolve all the doubts and questions that so many Singaporeans continue to have. Hold an independent Commission of Inquiry, and disinfect this gaping wound in our national psyche and soul. That is the only way that we can start to heal, and finally begin to come to terms with this dark stain on Singapore’s history, and have an informed national discourse on whether the ISA in its current form is necessary today.

Ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for listening. Thank you for coming today. Most of all, thank you for taking a stand against this law called the Internal Security Act, that has destroyed so many lives. May we see its abolition soon.