Singapore 2025

What of Singapore towards 2025? Thoughts of a Singaporean.

Parliament: Debate on President’s Address (Pritam Singh) – 20 October 2011

Mr Speaker, Sir, before I begin, please allow me to congratulate you on your election as Speaker of the House. Sir, in his speech to the House, the President noted, “we must find ways to use the new media constructively, to connect with the digital generation and sustain fruitful conversations on issues concerning us all”. MICA’s Addendum noted that the Ministry seeks to find innovative ways to connect with citizens and it plays an important role in driving and coordinating whole-of-government efforts in fostering an informed and engaged citizenry.

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Mr Speaker, Sir, my speech today relates to suggesting ways in which the Government can foster an informed and engaged citizenry. It is divided into two parts. First, I assess Singapore’s mainstream media landscape, which directly affects the online world. Secondly, I seek to provide suggestions to the Government on how it can sow the seeds for a media and information environment where Singaporeans are as far as possible, inoculated from lies and misinformation online, and biased reporting from other media outlets in general.

Sir, the new media environment does not exist in a vacuum. Some Singaporeans routinely wonder why alternative political commentary websites are so popular among Singaporeans – these includeSingapore Recalcitrant, Singapore Daily, Singapore Notes and sites from across the centre-left of the political spectrum like Yawning Bread, The Online Citizen and even some articles from the discontinued Temasek Review. Could it be that because for every ounce of misinformation, perceived or otherwise, these websites and blogs also ask serious questions pertaining to governance in Singapore – questions that are side-stepped, diluted or even ignored by the Government and the mainstream media?

The Government has, over the last few years in particular, referred to the new media in largely pejorative terms. The Prime Minister has referred to it as the “wild west” and more recently, as a “cowboy town”. But the reality is this – the new media is here to stay, and it will continue to eat into the mindshare of the mainstream media, no matter what the Government chooses to call it. Temasek Review may have gone offline, but it is not going to be too difficult or technically challenging to bring in 10 new incarnations of Temasek Review online overnight.

Rather than fear or castigate the new media, Members need to consider how far the explosive popularity of the new media is partly a function of the PAP Government’s politics of indirect control, and the boundaries successive PAP Governments have placed upon the mainstream media.

In 2010, former MICA Minister, Mr Liu Tuck Yew, stated: “we want to make sure that the Press is, and is seen as, independent of the influence of Government”. This House would know, through conversations many must have had with their friends, that many self-respecting Singaporeans have well-founded doubts, perceptions though they may be, that the mainstream media operates with the long shadow of the Government firmly cast upon it.

The perceptions of ordinary Singaporeans were somewhat confirmed when the Chief Editor of The Straits Times last year was quoted as saying, “We’re aware people say we are a government mouthpiece or that we are biased.” For me personally, this perception was somewhat crystalised when I recently read a chapter in former President S R Nathan’s memoirs titled “Entering the newspaper world”.

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On page 459, President Nathan was quoted as saying – and this was shortly after the corporate restructuring of SPH and just prior to the launch of The New Paper – “privately, I was conscious that another outbreak of serious displeasure with The Straits Times could well result in demands for heads to roll and a return to the old idea of putting in a government team”.

Some members may feel that President Nathan’s views are nothing more than reflections from a bygone era. But in 2003, another episode occurred, euphemistically referred as the “Val Chua affair”, this time with TODAY, the MediaCorp publication. The precise details of what happened, and why it happened are hazy, but what did happen is that the newspaper’s editor left his job shortly after the episode.

Little wonder why some Singaporeans, particularly those in the post-65 generation, have more faith and confidence in the new media, and why some may even tolerate misinformation online or get taken in by disinformation to varying degrees.

Mr Speaker, Sir, this Government is not in a position to change perceptions of the mainstream media unless a fundamental rethink about elements of the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act (NPPA) is considered and opening the mainstream media market to genuine competition is also considered.

These are issues that are far beyond the scope of my speech today. But that should not stop this Government from thinking about how it can prepare Singaporeans for a future – if it is not here already – where information will increasingly be at everyone’s fingertips, whether you are 9 or 90 years of age.

How do we make sure that the overwhelming majority of our citizenry are readily able to seek reliable sources of information, be it online or in the mainstream media? How do we convince our citizens that there can be various perspectives to an issue and to respect these various perspectives and narratives, even if we may disagree with them or if they differ from our own? Once more, the answers to these questions do not lie in the online world, but in the real world.

To improve communication with Singaporeans, this PAP Government has to work hard to change the perception of its philosophy of indirect control of the mainstream media, and deliberately move towards a politics of empowerment when dealing with Singaporeans. The Government should commit to share more information and, in doing so, exorcise itself from its insecurity and paranoia, which makes less sense in view of the borderless nature of the Internet and the speed at which information is exchanged and perceptions formed.

Mr Speaker, Sir, I agree with Dr Lam Pin Min’s views that active citizenry in the real and virtual worlds are good for Singapore, and that good digital literacy and judgment are needed in future. I also support Mr Edwin Tong when he said Government engagement with Singaporeans can build a new social compact and that what is required is trust and not blind faith. Ms Sim Ann alluded to the “new normal” and said that voters must be active participants so that rationality has the upper hand. Mr Baey Yam Keng spoke of an emphasis in research and the interpretation of information. Mr Cedric Foo arguably went the furthest when he highlighted the existence of information asymmetries in Singapore, suggesting that voters had no benefit of decisions made in the highest echelons of Government. He also said that the Government’s default mode should be to share more information to secure greater buy-in from the public, so that there is less room for the truth to be distorted. And Assoc Prof Fatimah Lateef noted that government communication had to be enhanced and it was the weakest aspect of this Government.

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Mr Speaker, Sir, with these words from PAP backbenchers which I support, I will now move into the second section of my speech that envisages specific legislation that can protect Singaporeans from lies, misinformation and open up new avenues for the new media and the mainstream media to promote a more informed citizenry.

I make four proposals, all of which call for more than the digital education suggested by Dr Lam. Critically, my proposals seek to signpost the Government to move beyond slogans, such as “new normal”, to substantive change with a view to promote active citizenry.

Firstly – a Freedom of Information legislation – an idea that has been repeated in WP’s 2006 and 2011 manifestos. Mr Speaker, Sir, a prospective Freedom of Information Act will allow any Singaporean citizen to make enquiries with any public body for statistics and information at a reasonable price. While I commend the Government for the recently launched website and the regular public release of information by the Department of Statistics, these examples amplify the fact that it is the Government that decides what it wants to put out.

What a Freedom of Information Act would do is to allow ordinary citizens to pull information from public bodies that have not put the information sought in the public realm. A Freedom of Information legislation is not meant to oblige the Government to release sensitive data such as defence deployments and procurements. Exceptions are routinely scheduled in Freedom of Information legislation elsewhere, which prohibit Government release of sensitive information. It is useful to note that Freedom of Information legislation is very much the norm in countries which host a diverse and plural polity.

And in case some Members feel that such open-Government legislation only originates in Western countries and that we Asians do it differently, the multi-racial Malaysian states of Penang and Selangor have opened a dialogue on the induction of such legislation. India passed the Right to Information Act in 2005, a high-water mark of the previous UPA government.

Let us try to envisage a Freedom of Information Act in practice in Singapore. In the event some misinformation is being peddled on the Internet or the mainstream media, even ordinary citizens and journalists can walk into any Ministry, go to the designated information officer and seek official statistics on the matter. With this information in hand, the peddler of misinformation, either online or in the mainstream media, would be found out, and the webpage or newspaper which hosted the misinformation would lose credibility. No Singaporean will be able to accuse the Government of selectively putting out information it wants to, since ordinary Singaporeans will be empowered to seek the information they require.

A Freedom of Information Act hosts other benefits too. Only a few weeks ago, MCYS launched “Be the Change”, an initiative, which invites “young Singaporeans to step forward, share their ideas, and take the lead in turning their ideas into reality.” Such projects are likely to be far more successful, popular and broad-based if youth can make enquiries of Government on data and statistics to ensure their ideas are workable and practical.

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A second arrow in the politics of empowerment is an obligation by the Government of the day to order the automatic release and disclosure of official information at fixed intervals of 30 years or so. In the United Kingdom, the Public Records Office manages this process. The disclosure of official information and documents, apart from introducing substantive accountability and transparency in Government-decision making processes, will likely provide Singaporeans with valuable insights on why decisions were made the way they were by political leaders in the past. Such a repository of information is extremely helpful to ensure succeeding generations of Singaporeans understand the circumstances behind the success of their predecessors while avoiding the very same mistakes and missteps.

Automating the periodic disclosure of official documents may necessitate a review of certain sections of the National Heritage Board Act. The Government should not see such changes as an attempt to criticise and expose previous governments. But no politician should be beyond reproach and a commitment to open government for historical scrutiny is an important feature of a politically mature society.

Thirdly, President Tony Tan, during his Presidential campaign revived interest in the office of the Ombudsman, a proposal first made to the PAP Government by the 1966 Wee Chong Jin Commission almost 50 years ago. The PAP Government of the day rejected the Wee Commission’s proposal. The current Law Minister reiterated the call for an Ombudsman when he was a backbencher less than 20 years ago in 1994. The office of the Ombudsman protects the interests of citizens aggrieved by official decisions. Currently, while the courts are available for this purpose, it is important to remember that judicial review, as far as Singapore law is concerned, only allows the court to adjudicate upon the process by which a Government decision was made, not the decision itself.

The office of the Ombudsman reflected an important philosophy of Government the 1966 Wee Commission recognised – that all political power has its limits, and people have rights against Government too, and the very individuals they voted into office.

More than just an institution, the office of the Ombudsman symbolises a certain confidence and trust a government has in its people and vice versa. Establishing such an office today is likely to go some way to opening new channels of communication between citizen and State, regardless of which government is in charge in Singapore. And it is a proposal this Government would do well to re-consider.

Finally, Mr Speaker, Sir, in 2005, a Business Times article reported that speaker after speaker at a local conference called for Singapore companies to encourage whistle-blowing, to help ensure good governance. These speakers included Mr Hsieh Fu Hua, special adviser to Temasek Holdings, former Senior Minister of State Mr Ho Peng Kee and former PAP MP Mr Davinder Singh. Unfortunately, on 18 May 2011, a week or so after the 2011 General Elections, a Government spokesman with the Ministry of Finance announced that the Ministry had considered and decided not to pursue a whistle-blowing law to protect corporate whistleblowers. This was in spite of strong calls by Singaporeans for whistle-blower legislation, partly because of the banking disasters that came to light in 2008, but more because of Singapore’s acutely important role as a financial and economic hub.

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Singapore remains a prime target for economic crimes as much commerce passes through our shores. Whistleblower and whistleblower protection legislation makes ordinary Singaporeans part of the good governance process, not just the Government and law enforcement agencies. It also protects ordinary businessmen from rogue directors and employees.

Australia, for example, has included whistleblower provisions in their Corporations Act. In view of the comprehensive review of our Companies Act currently underway, which is coincidentally modelled on the Australian legislation, it may be apposite for this Government to re-consider including whistleblower provisions in our statute books.

In case Members think such legislation would stymie business and cause the wheels of commerce to cease, whistle-blower legislation makes allowance for the prosecution of whistleblowers should their complaints be found to be vexatious or without basis.

Mr Speaker, Sir, there is a lot of scope for this Government to take good governance to the next level and divert the focus from misinformation and disinformation online towards building institutions that promote communication, transparency and accountability between the State and all Singaporeans. Any sincere effort by the Government is likely to have significant consequences online – positive consequences. Each of these proposals, a Freedom of Information Act, the public release of official information, the office of the Ombudsman and whistleblower protection are key nodes in a system of trust that would give Singaporeans the tools necessary to rely less on the Government for solutions and play their part in active citizenship.

In the early 1990s, before the advent of the new normal, then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong sought to usher in participatory democracy in Singapore. This slogan did not last very long, and many Singaporeans do not remember the Goh Chok Tong era as opening the door to participatory democracy. In the course of this debate, close to 10 PAP Members have called for the Government to improve communication with ordinary Singaporeans. Without doubt, the time has come for the Government to move decisively in this direction, not in words but in deeds. Mr Speaker, I support the motion.

Written by singapore 2025

20/10/2011 at 9:36 am

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