Yawning Bread. 22 June 2008

Key concerns about internet deregulation emerge at forum




We had our forum yesterday, "we" being the group of 13 bloggers who had submitted a proposal to the government in April on the subject of deregulation of the internet. Organised by the Wee Kim Wee School of Information and Communication, it provided us with an opportunity to present the key points of our proposals and take questions from the public.

Cherian George welcoming participants to the seminar

We had 50 60 people in the audience, which was more or less what we expected. Cheong Yip Seng, the chair of the Advisory Committee on the Impact of New Media on Society (AIMS), was among them. The press were also there.

Arun Mahizhnan, Deputy Director of the Institute of Policy Studies gave a short keynote address, underlining the key impressions he had of our process and proposals. He noted how we chose to be radical even if it might not have been realistic at the present time, but at least certain ideas were put on the table for the future.

I was quite eager to see what issues would interest the audience out of the many different ideas that our proposals contained, and question time gave a pretty good glimpse of that. Almost all the discussion centred on 3 topics: regulation of racial and religious speech, our proposal for an Internet Content Consultative Committee (IC3), and political videos.

I shall attempt to recall some of the questions asked and the thrust of the discussion, on each of these.





The Seminar on Internet Regulatory Reform was held at the URA Centre on Saturday, 21 June 2008.

Click on the graphic above to read the proposal submitted by the 13 bloggers to the government.

Related articles in Yawning Bread are:

Why the Films Act should be trashed, Prosecute or nothing. The pigeons are already among us



Regulation of racial and religious speech

On the topic of racial and religious speech, the format was quite unusual. After Mohan made the presentation on the key proposals relating to the regulating of racial and religious speech, the program had Ng E-jay, another member of the group of 13, making a dissenting statement. This format sparked a debate almost immediately question time was called.

Mohan Gopalan

Mohan, presenting the majority's proposals, said laws circumscribing speech should only kick in when an attempt is made to incite people to cause injury. Current laws that criminalise speech that merely offend should be repealed.

E-jay made a number of arguments, among which were these: Firstly, that racial and religious antipathy can escalate very fast -- he cited the example of Indonesia in 1998 -- and social disapproval works much too slowly to prevent hurt. Laws are needed to nip things in the bud. Secondly, the group of 13 set out to focus on unjust laws, but it is not evident that criminalising hate speech is necessarily unjust.

From the floor came a dissent from E-jay's dissent. Roderick Chia (one of the 13 bloggers) said, as far as he knew, the 1998 Indonesian riots were not significantly fanned by the internet. As for more recent examples of hate speech that we have seen in Singapore, he suggested that part of the problem was that Singaporeans seemed to be at a loss how to moderate the offensive speech before the prosecutors moved in.

Tan Tarn How, from the Institute of Policy Studies, suggested that we have a systemic problem in Singapore in that our mainstream media avoids dealing with race and religion. But unless we talk about it, we'll never develop a social immune system inoculating us against hate speech. He believes that citizen journalism can fill this gap.

Between them, an important point emerged. By being so quick to resort to prosecution, the government retards social maturity. People get the idea that race and religion is something they should not be talking about, even when madmen are shouting in the streets, and that it is exclusively a matter for the government to handle. The silence of the mainstream media supports this belief. Online moderators and bloggers have no reference model in mainstream journalism for speaking up against extremist speech. Ordinary citizens disturbed by what they hear think there is no other response except to make a police report. By failing ever to practice using other methods of dousing the flames, we as a society end up forgetting that there are other methods of combating hate speech.

Our proposal for an IC3 is meant precisely as a forum for learning how to deal with such situations without involving the government. For example, it can receive complaints, and it can marshal public opinion to speak out against offensive speech.

Personally, I feel prosecution does not quite solve the problem. Do people learn that bigotry is wrong, or do they merely learn that bigotry is something that you shouldn't advertise too openly?


E;jay was also asked to justify his comment that laws against hate speech were not unjust. He rose admirably to the challenge, saying that an unjust law would be one that did not respect the dignity of a person. Laws against hate speech served to protect the dignity of an individual. How can that be wrong?



The audience. Photo: Bernard Cheah

The proposed Internet Content Consultative Committee (IC3)

There was also a lot of discussion about this idea of having a bottom-up committee. The audience was aware that our proposals clearly stated it should not have any mandatory powers, but merely exercise persuasion through moral authority.

If I remember correctly, it was Aaron Low who asked where that moral authority would come from. Cheong Yip Seng asked a similar question but also asked who would initiate it, how to identify its members and the mechanics of it.

The moral authority question was easy to answer, the 13 bloggers having discussed it at length in our earlier meetings. The key to the IC3 acquiring it - and I stress the word "acquiring", because moral authority has to be earned through doing - lay in transparency, which happens to be precisely the biggest weakness of the present MDA regime.

The group's consensus is that the proposed IC3 should be using digital technology to conduct its deliberations in a highly visible way. Complainants should be able to see that their grievances are heard, those complained against should be seen to have been given a fair hearing, and the general demeanour of the committee quite visibly one of impartiality, reasonableness and a high degree of inclusiveness for various points of view. When there are burning issues, it can issue a guidance statement representing a carefully considered opinion that can serve at least as food for thought, if not a marker of responsible standards. 

Arun Mahizhnan concurred that moral authority can be acquired through practice. Trust and respect can be earned.

Hopefully, this answer disposes of Cheong's question about the mechanics of it.

The panel taking questions from the floor. From left: Ng E-jay. Mohan, Choo Zhengxi, Bernard Leong, Arun Mahizhnan, myself and Cherian George. Photo: Bernard Cheah

How the IC3 should be initiated and who should set it up, is a trickier question, and it was quite evident that the 13 bloggers had no consensus position on this, at least not yet.

One way would be set up a society of internet users and let that society - a purely grassroots initiative - set one up. Another way would be for the government to sponsor one and "seed" it with a few people, and then let these people co-opt others, who then snowball it further. The IC3 also sets up it own rules for conducting its business and for future membership renewal. In other words, after seeding it, the government takes a completely hands-off position.

Gerald Giam (one of the 13) thinks that the latter is less ideal, but probably more realistic, given the political realities of Singapore. Choo Zhengxi (one of the 13 too) thinks that any government involvement, even merely at the start, would be a kiss of death. Bernard Leong (also one of the 13) agreed with him.



Political videos

Tan Tarn How reminded the room that the government has long argued that films and video can be very powerful media and can therefore have a distorting effect on political processes. Did we agree, he asked, and if so, isn't it justifiable to ban political films?

Martyn See (one of the 13) said yes he agreed that films were political, and in fact that is precisely why he makes the films he makes.

Ho Choon Hiong (one of the 13) said the ban has been applied in a highly discriminatory way. Television broadcaster Channel NewsAsia screened a series of documentaries featuring government ministers just prior to the 2006 general election, which by any measure would count as political films.

I took Tan's question and said we should look at it in a different way. There are people who would have strong political views and they would make films in spite of the law. But there may be others who would hold more moderate views and who by nature might be law-abiding. The vagueness of present laws would deter them from making films expressing those views, and so the resulting informational landscape would be one where marginal views are represented, but not mainstream views. This is the perverse effect of trying to ban political videos in a technological context where they cannot be eliminated.

Gerald Giam agreed, adding the point that repealing the law against political films might favour the ruling party, since it had far more resources to make slick films.

Cheong Yip Seng took up this point, telling the audience that he had just attended a conference in Canada where he learnt from other countries' experience how impactful political films could be. He wondered how Singapore would benefit if people voted emotionally as a result.

Tan Tarn How argued that this commonly-heard argument that people should not be swayed emotionally is a false dichotomy. In politics, people's views are shaped by emotion as well as reason and there's nothing wrong in that.

Arun answering a question. I am in the red shirt. Photo: Bernard Cheah

On a final note, Cheong mentioned that Singapore was not the only country to have laws banning political videos. Two other countries had such laws: South Korea and Japan.

If he was trying to argue that these examples somehow showed how unexceptional it was to ban political films, then I think they showed the reverse.

South Korea has been reeling from one scandal after another ever since democracy took root in the late 1980s. A few ex-presidents were charged for corruption or abuse of power after they left office. It's also a country famous for high-profile cases against business tycoons and even against its erstwhile leading stem-cell researcher. In short, its political and business elite seem to have a lot to hide.

If it has a law banning political videos, one can't help but wonder if the law was introduced to shield politicians from criticism, in which case, it's hardly a reason to recommend it.

As for Japan, its politics is far from being the epitome of a healthy democracy. Its ruling party is faction-ridden with much behind-the-scenes power-play, often involving huge political donations and shocking pork-barrel projects. The country's prime ministers go around the revolving door with dizzying speed. Again, if this country has a ban on political films, I'm not sure what there is worth emulating.

I thought it was disturbing to get the sense that AIMS seemed to be going out of its way to find justifications for retaining the present law banning political films. I hope I am wrong, but it would be interesting to see what recommendations they intend to make to the government later this year.

Yawning Bread