In a state where protests are rare, John Aglionby sees a columnist inspire a small band of Singaporeans to take to the streets.
Tuesday July 11, 2006
The 30 people dressed in brown who gathered outside Singapore's City Hall underground station on Sunday were probably not noticed by most passersby.
But that is not too surprising considering they did not stand in one group, they did not shout slogans and only one person, who had the words "I am fed, up with progress" printed on the back of his t-shirt, gave any hint as to why they were there.
But the illegal demonstration - it is against the law in the tightly controlled city state for more than four people to hold an outdoor gathering without a permit - marked one of the first times Singaporeans have so publicly marked their dissatisfaction with the nation's lack of freedom of expression.
They were stirred into action by the reaction to a column written in the Today daily tabloid on June 30 by one of country's most popular bloggers, Mr Brown.
Mr Brown, 34, whose real name is Lee Kin Mun, wrote a harsh, humourous and satirical attack on the government over the growing disparity in people's incomes, rising living costs and the fact that about a third of households had seen their incomes shrink since 2000.
He also had a dig at the government for not releasing the data on which his article was based before the May general election, in which the ruling People's Action party won 82 of the 84 seats and 66% of the votes cast.
"We are very thankful for the timing of all this good news, of course," Mr Brown wrote in his article titled "S'poreans are fed, up with progress!"
"Just after the elections, for instance. By that I mean that getting the important event out of the way means we can now concentrate on trying to pay our bills.
"It would have been too taxing on the brain if those price increases were announced during the election period, thereby affecting our ability to choose wisely."
The government did not take the criticism kindly.
Three days later Today published a letter from Krishnasamy Bhavani, the press secretary of the minister for information, communication and the arts.
She branded the "diatribe" as "polemics dressed up as analysis" and said the "piece is calculated to encourage cynicism and despondency".
Her most stinging rebuke was left for last. "It is not the role of journalists or newspapers in Singapore to champion issues, or campaign for or against the government," she wrote.
"If a columnist presents himself as a non-political observer, while exploiting his access to the mass media to undermine the government's standing with the electorate, then he is no longer a constructive critic, but a partisan player in politics."
Three days later Today "suspended indefinitely" Mr Brown's column.
"No reason was given and he didn't ask for one," Edmund Tan, a friend handling media enquiries for Mr Brown told Guardian Unlimited. "But we think it was related to the letter."
When Mr Brown posted Ms Bhavani's letter on his blog it attracted 686 comments. His announcement that Today had fired him has so far garnered 889.
The vast majority are supportive and many complained about the fact that the newspaper was refusing to publish any correspondence relating to the matter.
Mr Tan said Mr Brown's blog was one of the world's most popular, with his podcasts regularly surpassing 20,000 downloads, and during the election the figure topped 200,000.
When approached by Guardian Unlimited, Mano Sabnani, the managing director of Today, would only say the decision to suspend the column was taken by the editors and would not comment on anything else.
Ms Bhavani, when contacted by Guardian Unlimited, reiterated the contents of her letter, saying that Mr Brown's comments were unfair and unsubstantiated. She declined to comment on whether the government had participated in the decision to dismiss Mr Brown.
Chee Soon Juan, the secretary-general of the opposition Singapore Democratic party said he was not surprised by the government and newspaper's response to the column.
"What is surprising though is that for once Singaporeans are not sitting back and taking it silently," he told Guardian Unlimited. "Only a few years ago nothing would have happened."
Mr Chee said the government reacted so strongly because the article was in a traditional media outlet. "If it had just been on his blogsite, then I think they would have left him alone," he said.
Although Singapore has one of the world's highest internet penetration rates at more than two-thirds of the population, the government allows greater freedom of expression than in traditional media, although the rules were tightened for the election campaign.
Ministers argue that if greater freedom of expression were allowed, Singapore's economy, and consequently its society, would collapse.
Many people think that with its inability to control the internet, the government is fighting a losing battle.
"With the internet generation we hope there will be acceptance of a greater diversity of views," Mr Tan said.
Mr Chee predicts that the growing disparity between what is available online and offline in Singapore will force the government either to open up the mainstream media or clamp down harder on the internet.
"They have to work on one or the other to make the divide less apparent than it is or else the mainstream media will lose all credibility," he said.
Meanwhile some of the brown-clothed protesters say they are "spooked" after the police took names and identity card details from some of them, and the Straits Times newspaper reported yesterday that the police were "looking into" the incident.******
Crackdown on Satirical Blogging
IPS News Agency
BANGKOK, Jul 12 (IPS) - Among the popular T-shirts that a tourist can buy on a visit to Singapore is one that, tongue-in-cheek, describes that affluent island country as a 'Fine City'.
The reasons are creatively displayed at the back of the shirt. One could be fined for breaking the laws against chewing gum, fined against littering the streets, fined for not flushing the toilet and fined for indulging in unnatural sex.
But it appears that attempts at satirising government, known for its authoritarianism, will soon be added to this illustrious list of offences.
Already the state has harshly rebuked one of the country's most popular bloggers, Lee Kin Mun who writes under the online moniker of ‘'mr brown.'' His offence was poking fun at a spike in prices and the rising cost of living for the country's 4.2 million people.
‘'It is not the role of journalists or newspapers in Singapore to champion issues, or campaign for or against the Government,'' wrote Krishnasamy Bhavani, press secretary to the ministry of information, communications and art in an article to the state-owned ‘Today' newspaper last week. ‘'If a columnist presents himself as a non-political observer, while exploiting his access to the mass media to undermine the Government's standing with the electorate, then he is no longer a constructive critic, but a partisan player in politics.''
Over the weekend, another high ranking official of the same ministry echoed a similar piece of Singaporean government-speak. ‘'If you feel there is a problem with cost of living, say so, let's collectively explore solutions. But don't in the name of humour distort or aggravate on an emotional level,'' Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan, second minister for the ministry of information, communications and art, was quoted saying by the website of Channel NewsAsia, a Singapore-based television station. ''That sort of discourse does not generate solutions. It generates more heat than light.''
And as is typical in Singapore, where the mainstream media serve as cheerleaders for the government, the ‘Today' newspapers did the obvious --on Jul. 7, it suspended the column written by ‘'mr brown.'' It was the previous Friday that the paper ran the blog on the economy, which is still available on Lee's website, that roused the ire of officialdom.
In his witty commentary, titled ‘'Singaporeans are fed, up with progress!'' the 36-year-old blogger writes: ‘'As sure as Superman Returns, our cost of living is also on the up. Except we are not able to leap over high costs in a single bound.''
Yet, this confrontation between the government and a symbol of the country's expanding cyberspace community is giving rise to resistance by sections of the Singaporean public that are nor ready to fall in line with the government's iron law of thought control.
On Sunday, some 30 supporters of the banned blogger conducted a silent protest at a busy subway station. They were dressed in brown clothes as a mark of solidarity to this latest victim of state censorship, media reports said. Such open defiance is rare, given the laws that require a police permit if more than five people want to gather in public to stage a demonstration.
The censured writer is also finding support within the country's blogging community. One blogger, who goes by the identity ‘'yawning bread,'' says: ''The equation (that Bhavani) insisted upon was, effectively this: if you criticise, it must mean you are out to undermine the government. If you are out to undermine, then you are no longer neutral, but a partisan player. If you're partisan, the government reserves the right to destroy you.''
Others have responded differently to the Singaporean government's latest absurdity. ''Humour is not encouraged in Singapore. I am predicting that we might be caned if seen laughing at jokes, some day. But it is OK to smile at tourists,'' writes another blogger.
For media rights groups, however, this confrontation was inevitable, given the new challenges posed by Singapore's expanding blogging community. According to the state-owned ‘Straits Times,' there are over 22,000 Singapore blogs. And like other bloggers across the world, these writers communicate directly with their audience rather than having to depend on the editorial whims of the mainstream media.
‘'This is a defining moment for Singapore's blogging community, most of who are sophisticated and highly educated,'' Roby Alampay, executive director of the South-east Asia Press Alliance, a regional media watchdog, said in an interview. ‘'Things may come to a head, because blogging enables citizens to reach out. And ‘mr brown' is one of the pioneers of this trend.''
The harsh restriction Singapore imposes on bloggers has earned it a place among other South-east Asian countries notorious for censoring free expression on the Internet, such as Burma, Laos and Vietnam. Such impositions -- together with the government's reputation of going after its critics with defamation cases and the threat of prison terms have stymied the growth of an independent media..
In 2005, the Paris-based watchdog Reporters Without Borders placed Singapore 140th out of 167 countries surveyed. That was the worst ranking for a developed country.
What is more, the restrictions show up how far short the government of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has fallen from a pledge made in August, 2004, shortly after Lee took on the mantle of premiership. Then, in a speech that stressed he wanted to see a more open and free Singapore, Lee said: ''Our people should feel free to express diverse views, pursue unconventional ideas or simply be different.''
Parliamentary elections in May this year offered more than a hint about the true nature of politics under the Lee administration. Leaders from opposition groups like the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) were banned from using the electronic media to campaign. And bloggers and website managers were warned by a minister that they do not have the right to endorse the political policies of a particular candidate.
''To ban ‘mr brown' does not say much for Lee Hsien Loong's promise of an open political culture,'' Chee Siok Chin, a ranking member of the SDP, told IPS. ‘'More people are tapping into the blogging world because there is a lot of political value.''
This trend, she said, is because of the lack of openness in the media. ‘'Bloggers are coming out and airing their political views more and more. This is largely because of the restrictions on the mainstream media we have here.''