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Saturday, February 03, 2007

NUS Democratic Socialist Club: "Freedom of Speech - How Far Can We Go?"

When I came to NUS, I saw many JC students hanging around Science. At first I was heartened that the flower of the nation's youth had shrugged off the accumulated effects of 4 decades of depoliticisation. Then I saw a sign on the wall: "3 February 2007 - SRP Aptitude Test" (SRP = Science Research Program). Oh well.

I find it amusing that no photography/video/voice recording is allowed at this session. In fact, signs outside stated that no recording of any form was allowed. I wonder if this includes blogging and pen and paper. Unfortunately this session is also restricted to students from tertiary institutions and JC students (some of whom came in uniform despite being told that they didn't need to). Both these measures are probably meant to exclude the ISD agents who would otherwise come down and video-record the thing, but then they're taking photographs of us themselves, and the club *was* started in 1964 on the instigation of the PAP to counter the non-Democratic Socialist clubs we had in NUS at the time.

The 3 topics: Freedom of Speech in the Political Scene; Freedom of Speech in Media Coverage; Freedom of Speech in Blogging & Online Forums

The 5 speakers Mr Perry Tong, President of Youth Wing, Worker's Party; Mr Tan Tarn How, Senior Research Fellow at Institute of Policy Studies; Dr Cherian George, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow at Institute of Policy Studies & Associate Professor, School of Communication & Information, NTU; Dr Thio Li-ann, Professor, Faculty of Law, NUS, nominated Member of Parliament; Speech by Mr Wang, author of www.mrwangsaysso.blogspot.com

Freedom of Speech in the Political Scene (Speaker 1)

We have greater and greater freedoms, but there is a legal aspect. The government is praised (perhaps in a veiled way) for opening up, and that the [OB] markers are being shifted. I find it amusing that rights are taken to be privileges, and we should be grateful to the Powers That Are for granting to us poor peasants.

Opinion generators used to be newspapers, columnists, writers. Coffee shop talk and rumours have it that they are told what to write, but it's unverifiable. Now columnists and ST forum call government departments to task. There is more freedom for ordinary citizens to rail against inaptitude, apathy, bad service from government departments and private enterprise, but not in the political arena and for political commentators.

We need freedom of information to make political statements. When he writes on his blog he ends up with more questions than answers/statements. One institutionalised curb on freedom of expression is that we are unable to, with reasonable means to get facts to support statement to fend off legal implications. When politicians want to question policy, they can't get facts [Ed: Presumably only for certain types of politicians], so they speak in fear of legal retaliation, and there are questions raised about character credibility.

If we are a truly democratic society, our laws will be reflective society's values [Ed: Democracy is not the same as majoritarianism]. As a society, are we ready for more freedom of speech or not? We have to change society, it's culture and laws.

There is no real answer to the topic today, and there are stratas in society - those who push for more, and those who accept less/the status quo.

Freedom of Speech in Media Coverage (Speakers 2 and 3)

Speaker 2:
Freedom of the Press & Sustainability of Authoritarianism - Sometimes we're not aware of the curbs on us. We're like caged birds which can't see the bars of the cages. What happens in a society where freedom of expression is suppressed but where the desire for freedom of expression is not as strong as we imagine it should/can be.

How does the press play some stories to us? The press sometimes tries to 'fool' us, to convince us in a certain way. "They don't lie, they just give a different angle" - the press is sophisticated. They seldom or ever lie. He hadn't seen an outright lie in 16 years working there, because the government knows a press which lies loses trust, and a press which is not trusted loses its effectiveness as an instrument of nation building.

The only time it came close to that was in 1998 when there was the haze. When you looked out of your HDB window you can't see past the other block and when you drive you need to turn on your fog lights, but the ST/CNA said there was no haze. This was because we didn't want to affect the Indonesians. But quickly we realised this was not tenable. But the angle was that the haze wasn't so bad.

Accuracy is not truth: all the 15 blind men feeling the parts of an elephant are accurate but they can't come to the truth.

Of "residents", "foreigners" and "citizens": "123,000 jobs were created last year and economists estimate that some 70 percent of these jobs went to foreigners". CNA: "Middle class wage stagnation could lead to social stability".

A few hours later: "124,000 jobs were created last year and economists estimate that some 45 percent of these jobs went to foreigners" (there was an unannounced correction). "That's very bad journalism, but never mind".

Another few hours later: "Manpower Ministry data shows that 124,000 jobs were created last year and 45 percent of these jobs went to foreigners"

Chua Hak Bin at IPS Conference: MOM says that 40% of the jobs went to non-residents but if you include PRs, 70% went to PRs. "That's double the rate of the early 90s boom". The governent likes to lump PRs and citizens in one group.

"Reisdents" versus "non-residents" - why are no "foreign workers" "residents" but many "foreign talents" "residents". "Residents" versus "foreigners" - why are some "non-citizens" not "foreigners". Citizens vs PRs. Why the reisdent vs non-resident PRs.

"GST is to help the lower-income... so more money for social safety nets", vs Talking Cock response.

Do we know when we are being fooled? Do we know how we are being fooled? Most of us don't go "this is propaganda" when reading the ST. Media literacy is important: what is being said, what does it mean, who is saying this, why are they saying this, et al. Analysis of spin and propaganda.

More importantly: do we care that we are being fooled?

A: "Did you know that welfare is bad?"
B: "How do you know?"
A: "I read it in The Straits Times."
(lack of media literacy)

A: "Did you know that welfare is bad?"
B: "Who cares!"

"Fooling" vs "meta-fooling"
"Fooling" - When you're told something given as spin
"Meta-fooling" - You are fooled to the extent that you don't even care whether you're fooled, or whether the subject matter is important.

Democratisation theory: As societies get economic growth, capitalism itself, a middle-class, they tend to become more democratic (democratic effect of wealth). There should be a positive correlation between economic growth and democracy. eg Japan, Taiwan, South Korea.

"Sustainable Authoritarianism" - Not all will go the way of the Berlin Wall. Sustainable Authoritarianism doesn't refer to Cuba, North Korea, Turkistan (sic). Even the citizens don't want this. But if citizens want it, it becomes sustainable. If you can deliver the economic goods, then you can convince people that these material goods are more important than democracy. Convince = Fool?

Charissa: We need to look at the long run. In the timespan of hundreds of years (long run), this might not hold true.
Me: By the time we can tell, we'll all be dead.

Methods of fooling and meta-fooling: Education, Press, Political Culture. We've been brought up to think that things don't matter. Only if things affect us directly do we care.

Speaker 3:
You have to credit people for designing such an amazing and unique system of excuse. But this is an effective excuse for non-action, playing into the sensibilities of apathetic Singaporeans who want a long list of justifications for continuing in the way they have been. The system is very difficult to crack/replace/overhaul. The more you understand the system, the more justified you feel in deciding "there's absolutely no hope, let's go shopping".

Then again there's been no society on earth where fear/repression/government control has been enough of an excuse to suppress human beings who want to get things done. If we're a City of Fear, what about Iran, Indonesia etc? Unpleasant things happen to dissidents there. If they don't use it as an excuse, what excuse do we have?

How far can we go? It depends on where you want to go. It's where the Powers That Be want to take Singapore, then we can go a long way. There's nothing wrong with that. Political activism /= being anti-government.

Is this propaganda. Maybe I'm being meta-fooled: Internal dynamism is part of the reason for the party's success. The civil service buys into creative destruction etc. The public sector is deliberately using the Internet to cut across bureacracies so a civil servant in one ministry can use the net to help another. There're mailing lists across hierarchy. They are good at identifying smart young things.

Is the direction you want to go in expressly prohibited or is the government agnostic about it. There're some areas of activism here that if you take a firm position against them, you have to be careful. eg The death penalty: the few hundred campaigning against it have to be careful, since there're foreign voices talking about it also. Areas where there aren't strong governmental views: Animal rights. The process is far more interesting. You might run up against vested interests (eg More stringent controls on trade and MTI) but it's not an anti-national thing to believe that Singapore should not be a trans-shipment centre for illegal wildlife.

(Someone: "Singaporean no rights. Give animal rights")

Don't conclude from Chee that any form of activism/self-expression is taboo. That if you call strenuously for animal rights you'll become like Chee. If you make that claim you're making an excuse for your apathy and inaction. Where the line is varies across time. Like any good smart activist around the world you have to bide your time and look for opportunities because they shift. In the 1980s there were well-meaning social workers who felt they had to help domestic maids. They were imprisoned under ISA. 20 years later, there are well-meaning social workers who feel they have to help domestic maids. They're now a registered society. They're organising things not that different from their predecessors - photo exhibitions etc

Don't give up on your dreams/ideals. Just bide your time to make your case. Right now there're causes that may seem extreme. Stick to it and your time may come. In the 1990s I might be lablled things by the government by saying that government has failed Singapore by not promoting inter-racial/religious dialogue enough. Singapore's management model was keeping races in their silos. Stability by promoting distrust among the races. Cheating ourselves about the value of diversity - what we gain from each other is one of the most valuable things about Singapore. I was thought too idealistic and Western. But now they're talking about religious/racial harmony in a much more sophisticated way.

Another example: when I wrote the Air-Conditioned Nation, I included columns which had got me chided/ticked off. People asked if I'd get into trouble. When I came back from the US I got invitations to speak in schools - my book was used in secondary schools as supplementary reading. I was labelled a troublemaker but now my book is prescribed reading in schools.

2 questions to ask yourself:
1. How much trouble are you prepared for?
2. What is the maximum trouble you can expect?
(risk management)

Very few Singaporeans ask themselves these questions because they just want excuses. Usually nothing happens to people who open their mouths. Lightning rod treatment of Chee and JBJ - most citizens are not treated like that. If you aim to be a rising political star, you need to keep your taxes (and everything else) in order. Don't have too many assets that can be seized in a lawsuit. Make sure your family is supportive since you may be in for a rough ride. That's the bad news. The good news is you don't get the treatment that dissidents elsewhere get. You won't even get a black eye like Anwar, since the system here is too disciplined. No one will lose control and whack a high profile political prisoner - they're too disciplined.

Scrawny and pathetic looking police officer going to Chee and saying "Please do this". Chee will grandstand and go: "DON'T YOU KNOW THIS IS A FREE COUNTRY". I feel sorrier for the policeman. It's deliberate - calibrated coercion. Don't overplay their hand. It can send out the riot police or the SOF and seize people from their houses (like Anwar) but this is a rational and efficient government. We know the government has learnt - it's been 20 years since they last used the ISA against political opponents. LKY told Mahathir (about Anwar): Why did you use the ISA? You should've used civil proceedings. Brutal oppression does not go down well. It can backfire. It can make authoritarianism unsustainable.

If you say "I cannot sign this petition because I will be locked up under the ISA", you're a hypocrite. There's no evidence at all that such criticisms will get you in trouble. The instruments are still there - you have to read them for signs of desperation/irrationality.

Other forms of protest: people talk about OB markers, Catherine Lim, Mr Brown. Occasionally when they remember, they talk about me. I often feel bad about giving advice on OB markers - it's like asking Zinedine Zidane about anger management. But it's better to ask a footballer who loses all the time than a couch potato. I've lost the battle about predicting OB markers very often but I understand better than ordinary citizens. But even if you lose the game, nothing bad happens to you. You get scolded very publicly, you get called names. Beyond that it partly depends on if you've bosses who panic. Every time I've crosed the OB markers and been scolded, I've still been promoted. After the last time I got scolded I'm not acting head of Journalism.

Trust me, these nightmare stories generally don't happen. But you need to know if your bosses have testicular fortitude, and if they're in big establishment institutions and they know if a scolding is just a scolding. If your boss is over-eager to please the government, you're in trouble. That's probably what happened to Mr Brown. But he's not been victimised - he just lost his TODAY column, and knowing how much they pay for columns it's not a major house, he didn't have to sell his house.

The ST is treated as a very public forum. If you say something there you're entering a very public debate and they'll take you on. If you write in smaller media, ie Which nobody reads, it won't get a response. In most cases if you engage in public affairs it's not at that level yet, eg Blogging, student activities. There is no evidence of victimization of people like you. You may get a bad reputation - some profs will be suspicious of you, but some will encourage you. I would love to hear stories of how active individuals are victimised - I haven't heard any yet.

If you're just an individual having your say, there's no evidence the government is even interested in taking you on. Their success is because they know when to apply their coercion. If you make the transition from being an individual communicator to an organiser/mobiliser of larger groups. eg Petition, calling for people to meet somewhere, do something, you need to be more careful. You should get legal advice from people like Dr Thio. All activists need to do their homework.

Freedom of Speech in Blogging & Online Forums (Speakers 4 and 5)

Speaker 4:
The Singapore government has not seen it fit to create laws for bloggers. Every blogger in Singapore has the same constitutional rights. We have a constitution which purports to protect our rights. Our article 14 is quite different from America, which has a strong statement about free speech. Our free speech is subject to 8 restrictions so right off the bat it's qualified in Singapore but it's not so exceptional because in every court/country in the world courts will read in limits to speech. So we need to figure out the limits.

The governmental approach is 3-fold, and not strictly legal. There are legal/non legal methods of regulation. OB markers are not constitutional markers. The problem with them is that they shift, so the analysis may not be accurate. I like reading the previous speakers' articles in the State (sic) Times.

Not long ago a minister who ran in Aljunied said when you address a minister, remember (some malay words) 'boh dua boh soi' (Hokkien words) - which literally means 'bu da bu xiao' (in Chinese) (Thanks to Gwen for the correction), ie You need to be deferential and respect him. This is not about free speech, but your attitude. But in 2004 there was a change at a Harvard Law Club speech by the then-DPM: disagreement does not necessarily imply rebellion. Singaporeans should engage in public policy debates with rationality, objectivity and passion.

Free speech has a lot of useless views. Truth and falsehood are supposed to collide and out of many contending views, sense will emerge.

At one stage, the government was saying (but it probably does not apply anymore) that if you want to engage in politics you need to be a politician. This is rubbish since I tried to look for a definition of politics and in the Dow Jones case, there was some defintion of "domestic politics". The court defined it as anything pertaining to political ideas/structure of Singapore. So Singaporeans would not be able to talk about ANYTHING that affected them with a political link. eg Education.

The third bit: what you can or cannot talk about. eg Voltaire's reputed quote. How many of us really believe that? The legal framework of any state - in Singapore the taboos are only race/religion and the politics of envy, since the last could translate to a loss of political support. The former is the fear about tearing of social fabric.

Is a blog public or private? Can it be political commentary? They're not that divorced from traditional media, eg a Blog excerpting a ST article and highlighting fallacies [Ed: Hurr hurr]. Cherian made an important point about entering the Straits Times being playing with the big boys. If I write an academic article in a journal with 50 students reading it in 5 years, no one cares. But you can be marked if you go into the big arena - not someone changing the system from within, but overthrowing it from outside.

We're told political debate has to be serious, not trivial: Invective rather than genuine criticism of policy. One minister said we should promote factual and objective presentation rather than emotion, rhetoric and grandstanding. But this is not surprising cf Political Films act. They want to keep political debate serious and genuine, whatever that means.

Blogs are a hybrid environment, giving anyone the power of a printing press. But anyone can read them unless they're secured. Because there's that reach into the public domain there's a concern it'll translate into real world consequences. I read in page 2 of today's ST that the government is sending people into blogs to rebut people. If you're just private and spewing invective, no one will read you because no one can read vulgarity for more than 3 hours or in my case, 3 minutes.

The minister was asked what would happen if a lewd photo is on your blog, the minister: "We can't police everything". They will investigate only if someone makes a police report. The 3 fold approach: Laws, self regulation, education. The most that'd happen is a take-down notice from the MDA. It happened when a website soliciting for child sex got a take-down notice from them [Ed: Wth?! What/when was this].

You need to be careful about the laws on contempt of court and defamation unless you want to lose your homes. Free speech vs reputation (person or institution). If you criticise a judge or judgment, you might fall foul of contempt of court - lowering public confidence in administration of justice. In other countries you need to show a clear and imminent risk of downgrading public confidence. In Singapore you need to show an inherent tendency - this is broadly formulated.

Defamation suits - will they be used on Internet people? There've been no cases yet, but there's Jeff Ooi/Screenshots in Malaysia. The closest example I can think of is a student at the Uni of Indiana who criticised A*Star. He got a warning, took down the post and that was the end of story.

But there's also criminal law. In the penal code - under offence under sec 298. if you post something insulting/hurting the feelings of racial/religious groups it's a crime. The Sedition Act was an astonishing use. Normally sedition is something that tears down the state: Treason or leaking state secrets.

eg The so-called racist bloggers. This is in law, not an OB marker. The judgment was important: the punishment reflected the gravity of trying to upset social order - a seditious tendency. It was grave so they reacted firmly. If you post on your blog, will you cause a riot?

How do you define public order. Unfortunately here public order is defined broadly and rights narrowly. eg The Chee Siok Chin case. This is the first time in memory they've used it, sending 20 riot police down. I didn't know we had riot police but that's where tax money goes.

The judge himself said we in Singapore place a premium on public order. I'm doing research on what is it, how it is different from national security/law and order, and what threatens it. One facet is racial/religious matters.

Just because you have a right doesn't mean you have the right to use it. There's an unwritten contract - you need responsibility. Even Jeff Ooi - freedom of speech is not excuse an excuse for social irresponsibility. You have to define irresponsibility w/o forsaking free speech. In Singapore the Net is a powerful, important tool for free speech, because the press is not that free. The new media is promiment - there's a frustration with mainline media.

If the internet community can regulate itself it's alright, eg Wee shu min. Nothing happen from the government [Ed: That's because she supported their philosophy]. She was chastised by her peers. The law takes away your freedom when cannot you cannot regulate yourselves. Before uou can govern society you must govern yourself.

Speaker 5:
My name is not important. On the net the message is more important than the speaker/messenger.

Blogging from a technological point of view is constantly evolving. You have to bear that in mind - new features are coming which have consequences. Blogs are public/private. We know from past incidents that sometimes people write things intended to be private/for a small group of people but much more attention has been drawn than expected. Reach, audience potentially enormous.

*usual spiel about blogging, professional blogging, technorati, growing influence*

Legal worries: Defamation (Acidflask). I have a lot of inside knowledge on that knowledge. This is similar to NKF. None of you know what was being said, what the blogger posted. In my opinion as a lawyer the alleged post was not defamatory but excellent. What you expect of the bright author. The offending remark was left by a reader on his blog using comments. That's the only excuse you can use to initiate a defamation suit against him. In a law exam I would say the post isn't defamatory

Some cases are clear cut. Some are hard to tell. Sometimes we think the government is definite and fixed, but the mystery comes from the fact that we don't understand it. But that's not the case. When the DPP gets a funny case like the "racist bloggers" he'll be confused. It comes down often to ther judgment, ie Your luck. If the matter is considered to have serious policy implications, the DPP will check with the senior DPP who will check with the Attorney General. The judgment about whether the case should be escalated rests with the original DPP.

With the Sedition Act case it was probably interesting/novel, meriting a closer look because the charges were under that act which I never even heard of when I was a DPP.

Bloggers should worry about the Films Act also. eg The 2 unknowns who posted videos during the elections period. They'd be covered under the act.

The Penal Code has just been comprehensively reviewed. eg Section 298a making it possible to prosecute people for posting racially/religiously offensive remarks on your blog. It's always been there, it's just expanded now to cover either race/religion.

When you consider that all these acts/statutes exist it may seem that it is a highly dangerous thing to write on the net.

Audience poll: Many of you feel strongly about things but are afraid to express them online (including one of the speakers). Maybe I should reconsider what I write on my blog. But I think these fears are largely unjustified: you don't have to be afraid. There is not that much to be afraid of. I would say that there is plenty of room, more than enough space to express your views, most of the time.

It is important to understand that there's a big difference between law in theory and what happens in practice. But the laws are drafted in a wide sort of way. They potentially catch many situations. What may look illegal may not be - it's hard to get yourself in trouble. You've to write something not only illegal but so offensive and irritating that someone can be bothered to do something about it beyond flaming you. That he will kickstart the process, eg Philip Yeoh. The police are overworked, manpower is scarce. Sometimes they throw the police in a file and there's no followup. Even if there's a followup it may go to the DPP. The DPP may scold them for wasting his time for something nobody reads anyway. Scold the boy and let him off, end of story. So it's hard to get in trouble for writing stuff online.

5 reasons why I feel most of the time (qualifiers because I'm a lawyer) it's safe for most of you to express your full views online:

1. There're really only 2-3 danger zones. Race, religion, politics. If you don't write about those you're almost 100%. You can talk about so many other things.

2. Most blogs aren't read. I've 28-30,000 readers a month. So the probability that you will irritate someone enough is low.

You need to have been blogging regularly/a lot for a long time to get an audience. While you are blogging you are learning a lot and developing a sense of what can/cannot be said. You acquire this sense because blogging is interactive - comments. People will talk about you on their own blogs. cf OB markers. There's no formula or quantification but it helps me keep out of trouble. eg Alex Au, who writes on serious trouble but he doesn't get in trouble. In fact he was writing long before blogs became popular.

3. We are not extreme sorts of people. We're not terrorists, planning to start riots, intend violence towards any particular group. We don't have a need for censorship because our views are acceptable. The average citizen occupies the "average range". You may irritate people like Wee Shu Min, but you won't run into problems with the law.

5. (???) There is safety in numbers. James Gomez and Mr Brown. Mr Brown was perfectly safe in his podcast, because he captured a widespread sentiment both online and offline. If you went online you'd find so many bloggers sharing his feeling about turkwa. It'd be strange for the government to take action against Mr Brown but not the hundreds of bloggers who felt that way. It's not be possible to take action against them all.

eg My writing about Foreign Talent policies. I feel it is a pretty safe thing to do because it is a widespread sentiment. Many people share this view which is fair. The only thing I add to it is that I present it in a more entertaining/funny/interesting way, that's why I've more readers.


Q&A

Unfortunately Prof Thio left, because someone had this suggestion for a question:

"section 377 of the penal code criminalises homosexuality. however, the gvt goes above and beyond this measure by clamping down on free speech for gays, depictions and discussions of homosexuality in the media, etc. ask her if this clamping down is constitutionally defensible. HOHOHO, she's probably spontaneously split into two"

Question: Pseudonymity, Internet's role in America. How does self-censorship in the newsroom work?

Tan Tarn How's article on WP pulling out of Aljunied. Was it a planned cockup? Did you write it out of personal conviction? Was the atmosphere in the newsroom directing energies in negative direction?

Answer: Mr Wang: My real name is like Madonna's - it means nothing. For blogging purposes my name is Mr Wang. But many people do prefer to be anonymous, probably stemming from an original fear of being known. At one point I was known by my real name, but I changed my name because I didn't want to be identified. Now I'm much more comfortable speaking up online. It's more useful to be known as such.

As for Gayle, she just closed her blog. My feel is that she has become tired over the past because of her high profile blog. She'll disappear and when she's taken her break she'll come back because she's interested in social issues.

Tarn How: That was an important and interesting question. There're varying degrees of anonymity. Some people mean pseudonymity. Mr Wang is not anonymous since people know who he is. You can use a pseudonym but not be anonymous. That was the problem with the attack on Mr Brown. Then there's the question: if you think you're anonymous, are you? Do people know you are?

Unless you're breaking the law intentionally you shouldn't be anonymous. You should have the courage to stand by your views. When Mr Wang does public the real person is there. I discount everybody who posts on my blog and doesn't leave a name.

About how censorship works and to what extent we express the views we express when we're journalists, my operating principle is that if it's a comment I only write the views I believe in. There're people who're quite comfortable with the message being watered down. When you write an article you debate/dialog with the editor.

It's a myth that everybody who's a dissident is a dissident in every area. Many who criticse the government agree in other ways. The danger: all your pro-government articles are published, but none of your anti-government articles are published. I'm very supportive of the government, but what's the use of adding/saying it if everyone is already. Some journalists want to write an equal mix to be seen as non-partisan but the fact is that we shouldn't simplify journalism to pro or against. There's a range of views, sometimes they're pro, sometimes they're against.

Cherian: Burnout: not jsut because of the effort. But because of the expectations once you develop a loyal following. You're put in a fix because the reason you wrote in the first place was because you have views to share as an individual. Once you have a certain level of prominence you're appropriated as public property. Your fans feel you should be a champion just for certain causes and shouldn't hold views they don't like.

As a journalist you're paid to be skeptical. It's your public duty to ask tough questions of everyone, including the opposition. Whoever tries to fool the public. The opposition does that too. But your fanbase may feel betrayed. Gayle probably had that problem - "You shouldn't be saying such things because we have annointed you as the spokesman of our cause". It's an unfair burden to place on any writer and for readers who put writers in that position, it's a sign of immaturity.

Perry: My blog touches mainly on politics so according to Mr Wang I'm on the endangered species list. Being in the WP, we're like a catch all situation. We're expected to be representative of every single individual view there can possibly be from our supporters. Being a political party we often can't do that. We can be both left and right wing at the same time - being centrist, being nobody. But the party cannot remain anonymous and has to take a stand. So sometimes that's why we prefer not to make a stand - we cannot afford to. In most cases it's imprudent to do that. So the party has no capability wrt anonymous blogging. I subscribe personally to the view that I write on what I believe on, readers respond anonymously or otherwise.

If anonymity works for you, good.

Question: As a Singaporean concerned about apathy in Singapore I'm concerned to hear that we can't take a stand on most matters. Most of us are aware of the RK House No Pork video

Answer: Tarn How: Can you send me the video? I've been trying to look for it but it's been taken down. I'm editing a book about freedom of speech on the Internet and this is a good test case for race/religion.

Perry: Please send it to me too. It's not clear if it's satire or racism. Is it meant to be comedy, social commentary? [Ed: One could say that it's like Borat. Too bad the makers aren't Jewish or no one would criticise them.]

Mr Wang: I saw it in the office. When I went home the video was gone. *I play video*

*Talks about Char case*

If you go to Google and type "jesus christ funny cartoons" a lot of things pop up. The person Char debated was very irritated and called the police. There's a difference between no further action and stern warning. Stern warning - you have committed an offence but because you're young/stupid we'll get a senior police officer to scold you.

As an ex-DPP - the first thing I'd do is look at the offender. There're religious extremists who want to insult people of another religion, very strong intention. They are adults. They know what they're doing, the intention is very clear. Sometimes the offender is young and stupid. Like the teenager who vandalizes.

Another factor: actual harm caused. Often no harm is caused. Some little corner in cyberspace 3 people read. There's no social harm. In the sedition cases, the senior district judge in handing out his judgment talked about something called the offence principle. Offence vs harm principle. The latter - you can express views if it doesn't cause harm (riot, violence). I'm more with Harm. But not everyone agrees.

Tarn How: Liberal view. Thick skinned principle. You need people to be thick skinned for democracy. You need stuff offensive/extremely offensive to a certain group of people. My limits are broad. Unless you ask people to stand up and go round rioting or hurting other people. It doesn't mean you should be condemned: legal or social sanctions.

Why put them to sedition? The public order argument - I disagree with it.

Cherian: Singaporans have gotten the wrong message from these cases: "See there are crazy people on the Internet and we need to send the police in". What they overlook is that it's successful self-regulation. Other Chinese scolded them, and they were expelled.

The unfortunate thing is that in a typical Singaporean way when people get upset, the first thing they do is call the government. The police and DPPs are not itching for work. But kaypoh Singaporeans will make police report. I would like to see the public being less trigger happy. [Ed: But in other countries trigger happy idiots are told to go and die]

Question: Many of the comments posted about RK House were encouraging, by Singaporean students. It reflects how the attitudes/values of our young Singaporeans are. When we talk about self-regulation, I'd agree on social regulation because of social norming. In RK House even popular bloggers like Xiaxue say it's funny. This encourages them to continue. So this kind of humour is cool, not wrong. I can continue. Next time I can crack this kind of joke.

Self-regulation: a famous blogger like Mr Wang has an important role to play in shaping our mindsets. You have high readership, your own formula. What you say has a strong impact on people out there. In Xiaxue's case, if there was self-regulation it'd be dangerous - she was encouraging it. She was for it. How would her friends have taken it?

Cherian: All of you should write in to Mediacorp and ask them to axe her.

Interjection: I hope she won't kill me for breaking her rice bowl

Cherian: It's okay. Stand up for what you believe if she's an unworthy role model. Ask Mediacorp to axe her, not ask the government to arrest her.

Tarn How: Write to the church, MP to condemn her, but not take the law to her. There will be a backlash against Xiaxue and there's a campaign against her.

Mr Wang: Popular bloggers need unusual/different elements. Xiaxue thrives on controversy so if you do these things you make her more happy/excited. She gets more publicity. She's in the top 100 of 70 million blogs in the world. I'm just pointing out one aspect.

Comment: Freedom of speech comes from the individual. Feel strongly about something, wait for the right time, do cost-benefit analysis, make your move. Mr Tan's point about: Authoritarianism. Individual drive vs societal level movement. How do we know if freedom of speech is cherished in the first place?

Whose way? Where to go? New and Old media seem to be going in different trajectories. How do we concile that? Online platform: Forums, blogs, videos. Self-regulation is interesting because in a forum people will gang up on an offensive guy. Youtube video - people will put in comments. Where does self-regulation come in? Like RK House - encouraging comments. Where's the responsibility of state? What's the responsibility of individuals?

Do you blame Jeff Ooi for not monitoring his comments?

Question: This question was to be directed to Dr Thio. Hopefully Mr Wang can answer this with his legal knowledge. This is with regard to defamation laws and free speech in Singapore and the rest of the world. To what degree does defamation take place? eg Talkingcock.com making fun of Singapore ministers, Mr Brown's Mai Hum podcast. A foreign magazine being circulated in Singapore is being sued for defamation despite it not talking about Singapore's nepotism/despotism, they didn't even refer to Singapore. I know of a Taiwanese show where the actors will playact politicians/celebrities and make fun of them. If they did it in Singapore would they be sued for defamation?

Mr Wang: I don't want to get into nitty gritty details which are soporific. The first thing is that the law of defamation is pretty threatening in the sense that you don't have to actually get to the point where the other party has shown you're commiting he evil you're writing about. Your life can get unpleasant if you're threatened. I think Acidflask would've won if he'd gone all the way. Unfortunately it's so much eaiser and wiser to just say sorry and apologise. "I'm the bad boy, I promise to take it down straightaway". It's more practical.

Defamation can also be used to silence critics where they kinda know something is wrong and they're trying to raise an important issue but they don't have all the evidence. This is what happened with NKF. Years ago when NKF was a good not bad word, some individuals said something about NKF and tried to suggest it didn't handle its finances properly. NKF sued them, and they lost. One of them paid out 50k which is a lot for the individual. Much later on we find that the allegations were probably true. Too bad for those 2 individuals. They knew something was wrong but didn't have the evidence to prove it.

A different story was with SPH. SPH pulled out the best litigation lawyer in Singapore. But the law of defamation is a pretty scary thing. There are some defences. One is the scope of fair comment, when you're talking about some public issue. You've some latitude to make some comments, not much. That's why reviewers of music and books can say "That was a really lousy album or book. Don't buy". It's under fair comment.

Satire: That's a very interesting point. There is a practical aspect to this. Not really a legal aspect. When you use satire or humour or comedy to make your point, in practical terms that's a very good defence because the person looks really ridiculous trying to sue you, so they'll back off.

The lawyer asks: "What did you mean when you say turkwa like this or like that?". Fo a person like Lee Kuan Yew you don't want to be in a position where you go to court and get asked questions about tur kwa. You look stupid.

Reasonable man's test - what will the reasonable man think? I don't think it's a defence here. The fact that it's a joke does't make it non-defamatory. I could make very insulting jokes about Lee Kuan Yew. I'd be in trouble.

The so-called victim, who may really be a victim, he's better off leaving you alone because if he sues you he draws attention to this and more people become aware: "*** is like a tur kwa man or something". It's not a good position to be in, they leave you alone. You may not want to draw attention to that anymore.

For example at some point somebody really hated my blog. I can't remember the name. He started to make some remarks about every single post I posted. I was wondering: what should I do. I just ignored him. That was probably the better thing to do. If I write about him, suddenly he is the one getting 30,000 readers. He just died due to lack of attention.

Perry: The comments/questions seek an absolutist stance. Will I get shot, will I die, will my parents live on after me, will my children have anything to live on after everything is over and done with.

Pragmatism vs realism. Pragamatism in my view is where you approach an issue from the stand of inferiority or not being able to change the situation. Indict me for attempting to invoke thought and provoke you to action. Where law is concerned at the end of the day it's in your hands. Laws are a depiction of the custom of the land, society. At the end of the day it's in your collective hands through the ballot box or otherwise to change it. If we all feel strongly enough about self-regulation we should take action promoting such legislation. Defamation laws - face to face and offline only

I've had to waste tax payers money to invoke police action on someone who attempted to impersonate me. Why do I do this? I'm operating under the fear of defamation or porential defamation in the future. I hope I'm trying to change this, to become a lawmaker/legislator to impact the laws of the land. An absolutist position is easy to take but we should take into consideration: what about the person sitting next to you. Is he/she going to believe in the same thing down to the last letter?

Unfortunately, if you bring the future to the present you tend to get shot first. If you're too fast forward for your time society tends to shoot first and ask questions later.
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