This article first appeared here on 11 Oct 2010.
Written by: Gilbert Goh
Netizens are abuzz with the latest saga arising from the recent The New Paper (TNP) article on the real mastermind behind the widely-read socio-political blog. The Temasek Review (TR).
The Online Citizen (TOC) and Temasek Review remain the top two most popular socio-political blogs in Singapore and are access by at least 20,000 readers daily. Their Alexa world ranking – meant for tracking the accessibility of websites – are in the 100,000s. Other socio-political blogs such as Singapore Inquirer, Singabloodypore, Yawning Bread, Diary of A Singaporean Mind and geraldgim.sg are also popular but to a lesser degree.
There are now more than twenty socio-political websites in Singapore but none enjoy such popularity than the mentioned top two.
To add salt to wound, these two blogs are also credited with the tag of “unofficial underground Straits Times paper” for their alternative coverage of socio-political happenings in Singapore.
In 2009, Reporters Without Borders ranked Singapore 133 out of 175 in the Press Freedom Index, making it the worst country among other developed economies based on the Human Development Index (source: wikipedia). Its a shameful tag to any first world country.
Anti-PAP Flyer Saga
In a shocking front-page article dated 9 Oct, journalist Ms Ng Wan Ching has alleged that Dr Joseph Ong Chor Teck is also the mastermind behind the TR anti-government blog.
She found this out while investigating a lead alluding that Dr Ong is also the one that spread anti-PAP flyers during a smear campaign against Member of Parliament (MP) Lee Bee Wah few months ago.
Mainstream media (MSM) rarely carries out such cloak-and-dagger investigative reporting and netizens have cried foul that it is all a sinister collaboration between the police and msm to bring down a highly-popular blogsite.
Some have also speculated that the lead Ms Ng worked on originated from the police source. This however could not be verified.
TR has all along maintain much secrecy on the identity of their editorial team unlike TOC which is headed openly by Andrew Loh and a voluntary editorial team.
They have also maintained that their editorial team is based overseas. It is apparent that the team is apprehensive of being legally implicated due to their highly-critical news coverage of the government.
Incidentally, Andrew Loh, Chief Editor of TOC was also invited by the Police for a casual chat few months ago for the same anti-PAP flyer saga:
“We would … like to disclose that the police did summon TOC’s Chief Editor, Andrew Loh, to the police station to ask about the so-called “anti-PAP” flier which was reportedly distributed to several housing estates in April. The police wanted to know if Andrew knew who was behind the flier. Andrew told them the truth – which is that he didn’t. The interview with the police was cordial and lasted less than 15 minutes.”
Both the socio-political blogs have published stories on the anti-PAP flyers. Other socio-political blogs have published similar stories but it is unsure whether they are also being investigated by the police.
Nevertheless, the investigations that went on relentlessly even though the flyer saga happened a good six months ago revealed that the authorities are viewing the matter very seriously.
It is also highly possible that the Sedition Act charge will be thrown at the accused Dr Ong if enough evidence is found against him.
The TNP article further alleged that:
“Dr Ong admitted he was the man behind posters which showed Ms Leeâ€™s photograph on the cover of a toilet bowl, with lines below it imploring Khatib residents to ask the MP to step down as the president of the Singapore Table Tennis Association (STTA).
The New Paper understands that police investigations into the incident led them to Dr Ong, who was then called in to give statements.
The New Paper understands that Dr Ong identified himself to the police as being the founder of Wayang Party and later, Temasek Review.”
The editorial team of TR has since came out with a statement denying that Dr Ong is part of the management group that administered TR few years ago. They maintained that he is merely a regular contributor to the then-called Wayang Party and is currently not active with them.
Authorities Feeling The Heat On Rising Popularity of Socio-political Sites?
Many netizens have accused the authorities of using the excuse of the anti-PAP flyer saga to bring down hardcore socio-political sites or at least send them a direct message to tone down on their anti-government stance.
The general election is approaching soon and some have speculated that the authorities may want to send the right message to internet users to blog responsibly.
This is not surprising as the authorities may be alarmed at the immense popularity of anti-government blog sites and wonder at the actual impact they will have on the forthcoming election.
Moreover, Singapore’s 2010 internet statistics put our total internet users at 3,370,000 with a penetration of 72.4% - one of the highest in the world.
The young voters especially will be a source of concern for the authorities as they are easily impressionable and could be influenced by half-true anti-government articles.
To make the situation worse, the government has failed in its attempt to win young voters over when they have to recently close down the PAP Youth Wing network due to a lack of participation. Most of the comments left behind on the website were also anti-government remarks.
For the first time, the government have come to realize that they are not winning the hearts and minds of the young voters in the modern era of blogs and websites. More seriously, they saw that the mushrooming political parties’ blogs have won over many of such young voters to their side. If this goes unchecked, it may even have a adverse implication at the forthcoming election for the ruling party.
To their credit, ministers such as Mr Khaw Boon Wan and George Yeo have started their own blogs and in http://mohsingapore.blogspot.com/, Mr Khaw regularly took time to explain certain intricate health policies in a personalised friendly capacity. I thought that it was cool for our minister to reach out to the ground in this unique casual manner.
Mr Khaw has managed to debunk the myth that ministers only like to discuss policies that affect the general population in their own closed-up ivory towers.
However, it is unsure what is the general readership profile of the minister’s blog and how effective it has being in explaining some of the controversial health policies put up recently.
Authorities Stepping Up Heat On Irresponsible Blogging
It is envisaged that the internet engine will be widely used by the opposition parties during campaigning period for the next election and this may even help swing votes away from the ruling party. This is the reason why the government has advocated a “cooling off” period one day prior to polling. The use of publicity via the internet is also disallowed by law during the cooling off period.
Singaporeans have also grown frustrated of a pro-state MSM and many have turn to such socio-political internet sites for an alternative view. There is also this website http://singaporenewsalternative.blogspot.com/ that covers all other alternative news on our country. New socio-political sites – all mostly critical of the government have also mushroomed over the past few years and have quickly gained popularity.
However, a few bloggers hauled up by the police for investigation recently, have sent strong signals that the police will step in if bloggers are not writing responsibly especially during a period so close to the forthcoming election. It is envisaged that this will be a watershed year for the ruling party as ground sentiments have grown to be favourable to the opposition parties due to a series of misjudged policies by the government.
In August, Abdul Malik Ghazali, 27, who posted a series of comments on the social networking site Facebook critical of how Singapore is hosting the inaugural Youth Olympic Games (YOG) was arrested by the local police. He also said that it was time to “burn” the sports minister Dr Vivian Balakrishnan and the PAP. He is currently released on bail pending investigation.
Prior to that, in July, another blogger – a Singapore Police Force national serviceman, Abdillah Zamzuri, has been questioned by his reservist unit over comments he made on his blog relating to the arrest of a photojournalist during June’s flash floods.
In that incident, Lianhe Wanbao photojournalist Shafie Goh was handcuffed briefly by police while covering the flash floods along Upper Bukit Timah Road on July 16 (source: http://abdillahzamzuri.wordpress.com).
In a July 19 post entitled, Singapore’s Flood in Cuffs, on his self-entitled blog, Abdillah described himself as “someone who still reports for reservist duty as a Police Officer”.
It is apparent that the police is uncomfortable with bloggers going public with activities conducted within their reservist units citing national security as a valid reason for the arrest.
If bloggers are allowed to talk openly about their army or police reservist on-goings, there is every reason to believe that national security may be compromised here.
July 2010 also saw the arrest of Alan Shadrake, a British author of the book ”Once a Jolly Hangman” which investigated the death penalty of several high-profiled cases in Singapore. His arrest has sent shock waves round the world as this is the first time that a foreign author was charged in court here for criminal defamation.
His improbable arrest will definitely impair relationship with the western media which has place freedom of speech highly on its agenda.
More significantly, these high-profiled arrests seem to have a negative spill-over effect on netizens as bloggers start to be wary of what they say online and grow cautious of who their readers are. It is a known secret by now that the government has implant online troopers that are out to track and monitor negative anti-government dissidents.
During that awful 2-month period, comments on socio-political sites also nosedived as many readers are worried that their IP addresses could be identified if they left behind anti-government remarks online.
Many have also speculated that there will be more arrests in future if bloggers continue to be hardlined and adopt a anti-government stance in their blogging activities.
The recent TR saga, though surprisingly coming from the TNP media involvement, seemed to underscore this fear.
Will the popular socio-political blog faces its eventual demise through an official shutdown directive after operating for so long unharassed? Only time will tell…
Bloggers Generally Left Unchecked Past Few Years
Nevetheless, to the government’s credit, bloggers are generally left untouched and one has to go at least five years back to witness another high-profiled string of arrests involving bloggers. The government has all along adovcate a hands-free moderating policy on the general population of bloggers calling for them to stay away particularly from racist and religious rantings online.
However, in a police crackdown on irresponsible blogging, three bloggers were arrested in 2005 for posting posting racist remarks online.
Seventeen-year-old private school student Gan Huai Shi is accused of promoting ill will and hostility among different races through comments on his blog. He was the third person charged under the Sedition Act during that week alone.
In two unrelated cases, Nicholas Lim Yew, 25, and Benjamin Koh Song Huat, 27, were charged with similar offences. Gan faces seven charges under the Sedition Act for offences he was said to have committed between April 4 and July 16. He allegedly made four inflammatory comments about Malays and Muslims on the Internet within days of starting his blog.
In one offensive entry on April 4, he allegedly made it clear that he was ‘extremely racist’. Gan, represented by lawyer Edmond Pereira, was released on bail of $15,000 and is due back in court on Sept 20. He could end up in jail for up to three years on each of the charges (source: Mr Wang Says So).
However, compared to events happened five years ago, the current arrests looked more ominous as the authorities are now targetting dissidents.
Dr Ong and Mr Abdul Malik Ghazali were both accused of instigating violence – one for spreading anti-PAP flyers and the other for online posting. Both are in violation of the Sedition Act.
If TR is implicated here, it will mostly be for their relentless pursuit of writing anything that is anti-government.
It is not difficult to understand why as their popularity is not limited locally and has also caught the eyes of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) network which has recently asked for a media interview with the editors in Singapore.
More seriously, their articles were increasingly been cited by both foreign and local media – events that would not go down well with the authorities. It is one thing to be popular underground but its a different ballgame if you gain a cult following internationally. It makes the authorities look small and ridiculously inept and they will want to do anything possible to regain that political advantage with the international media community.
Thus, the important question to ask now is: Are the authorities feeling the heat of immense popularity of our social-political blog sites and decide to take drastic remedial action to curb its rise prior to the coming election?
If so, will there be more arrests made in future thus sending a strong deterrence message to the whole blogging community that the authorities will not hesitate to clamp down on dissent?
Bloggers can however take heart that so far only one blogger – Singapore dissident Gopalan Nair was jailed three months in 2008 for insulting High Court Judge Belinda Ang in a blog posting on May 29, 2008.
Moreover, a weakened blogging community will definitely dampen the online political advantage for the resurgent opposition parties. This can only be good news for the ruling party.Number of View: 4153