The Real Singapore’s owners charged with sedition
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The Real Singapore’s owners charged with sedition

The couple behind one of Singapore’s most popular alternative news websites, The Real Singapore (TRS), was charged in court yesterday (April 14) with seven counts of sedition. The prosecution alleges that the duo published content that has the “tendency to promote feelings of ill-will and hostility between different groups of people in Singapore, namely, between ethnic Indians in Singapore and Philippine nationals in Singapore”.

Under the Sedition Act, Singaporean Yang Kaiheng, 26, and Australian Ai Takagi, 22, can be fined up to S$5,000 (US$3,670) and jailed up to three years for each charge. If convicted on all seven charges, they may face up to $35,000 in fines and 21 years imprisonment.

Of the seven allegedly seditious articles, four were letters from the public and were not necessarily the views of the editors. Nonetheless, the Government is attempting to hold the two owners of TRS responsible for publishing the articles. The outcome of this case will also have wider implications for media establishments and journalists.

If a precedent is set where editors may face criminal charges for the views published on their website, even if they subsequently run a correction, this will have a chilling effect on free speech on all media outlets and journalists. Any media outlet which publishes letters from readers will have to make sure they do not fall foul of Singapore’s loosely interpreted Sedition Act and other vague laws. Journalists who quote their sources may subsequently also be held liable for the views of their sources.

One of the allegedly seditious articles is identical to an email published on STOMP, the government-linked Singapore Press Holdings online tabloid. It is unclear whether the Attorney-Generals’ Chambers intends to press charges against the editors of STOMP as well for publishing statements that have a seditious tendency.

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Screengrab of identical, allegedly seditious, statements on STOMP. Pic: TRS.

Netizens have criticised this move as an attempt to stifle free speech and suppress political dissent. Although the infringing articles were not explicitly political, they expressed anti-foreigner views that have become more widespread in Singapore in recent years.

The Real Singapore is also a hotbed for anti-PAP views. In March 2015, it received an estimated 2.6 million visits, roughly 84,000 visits a day. The duo’s arrest in February seems to have had an insignificant effect on TRS’ readership. Till today, TRS continues to publish almost as many articles a day as it did before.

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Similar Web’s estimate of The Real Singapore’s monthly visits from October 2014 to March 2015. Pic: SimilarWeb.

Double standards

Netizens have noted the double standard in the Government’s enforcement of the Sedition Act. Referring to a case in 2011 where a Young People’s Action Party (YP) member Jason Neo implied that a bus full of Malay schoolchildren were terrorist trainees, Chakravarty Nesh asked: “How about Jason Neo’s outright seditious remark against the Muslim community?”

Referring to a recent case where Member of Parliament (MP) Lam Pin Min suggested that alcohol intoxication had caused the Thaipusam procession to turn rowdy, NorHelmi Maryuti asked: “What about Lam Pah (sic) Mp who posted a seditious post about Indians and Alcohol???? still no action?”

The Singapore Government’s selective use of the Sedition Act is nothing new. In a letter to several ministers, Andrew Loh highlighted several articles in the Government-linked media which also promotes “racism and xenophobia in their reports”. He pointed out how The New Paper carried a story on its front page with the headline “White with rage”, a pun on the Caucasian cyclists’ race which suggested that his race had something to do with his dangerous behaviour on the road (see below).

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Headline on the front page of The New Paper: “White with rage”. Pic: Andrew Loh.

Loh also pointed out how the Straits Times published a report in 2012 which singled out the Malay community in its report on drug abuse in Singapore. It ran the article with the headline, “48% of drug offenders held last year were Malay,” and a picture of Muslim men in traditional attire, as if to suggest that race and religion were connected to their drug use (see below).

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Photo of Muslim men dressed in traditional attire accompanying article on drug offenders, in the Straits Times. Pic: Andrew Loh.

Support for the prosecution

Despite this, some are happy to see that the Government is holding the duo behind TRS responsible for what is posted on the site. A local blogger, who calls himself Anyhow Hantam, has accused TRS of publishing articles, even if they are inaccurate, just to boost readership by “getting people to become fervently angry and bordering on xenophobia even. Having worked with some of the editors before, Anyhow Hantam suggests that TRS frequently fails to verify information before publishing and has, as a result, opened itself up to allegations of inaccuracy and offensiveness.

One reader, Angie Lee, has also accused TRS of “taking advantage of gullible readers to generate more traffic to your website”. She claims that TRS’ frequent posting of seditious content reveals that its intentions are not as innocent as it claims.

Others feel betrayed that a website claiming to represent the views of Singaporeans is actually being run by an Australian. Commenting on Facebook, Lukman Rahim asks: “What’s an Aussie meddling with our people’s affairs down here?”

Clamping down on alternative media

Nonetheless, many netizens also see this as an attempt to clamp down on free speech on the Internet. The Real Singapore sprung up in 2013 and quickly gained a strong readership in two years by filling a vacuum that the mainstream media’s selective reporting could not fill.

The demand for news and opinion that was more critical of the Government grew steadily as Internet usage increased and Singaporeans became more and more frustrated with the Government’s failure to provide for basic needs such as housing and transportation.

2013 was also the year when anti-Government sentiment exploded after the Government released the Population White Paper which proposed to increase Singapore’s population to 6.9 million by 2030. Many Singaporeans opposed this proposal, citing rising housing prices and growing problems with the transport infrastructure. The Government’s failure to engage in a dialogue with its citizens was also considered a reneging of its promise to be more consultative after the 2011 general elections.

In 2014, Singapore’s mainstream media was ranked No. 153 out of 180 countries under the World Press Freedom Index. The index measures the population’s belief in the freedom and credibility of the media. The poor ranking suggests that Singaporeans don’t trust the mainstream media to provide them with a balanced perspective on political news.

It is in this context of growing resentment towards the Government and distrust of the mainstream media that TRS has managed to grow so rapidly. It is therefore likely that even if TRS was shut down, it would simply be replaced by another website that might take an even more fervent anti-Government or xenophobic stance. So far, the prosecution against the duo has barely made a dint in TRS’s readership. Support for the controversial socio-political website remains forthcoming and may have even increased as readers view the use of the Sedition Act as a heavy-handed measure.

Will TRS be shut down?

One netizen, Hamzah Osman, expressed the hope that the conviction of TRS’ editors will be accompanied by a complete shutdown of the website.

It is unclear whether the website will be able to survive the conviction of the two people who are thought to be responsible for managing the website’s content and finances.

So far, TRS has continued to publish a significant amount of content from various contributors, relying on several other editors who remain anonymous.

Furthermore, Yang maintains that he is “not involved in any editorial content, finances, or any daily running of TRS,” while one other person, a Malaysian who calls herself Melanie Tan, has yet to be arrested as she is not in Singapore.

Nonetheless, the Government, with its virtually unchecked executive power, could choose to gazette TRS and force its editors to register their real identities. TRS will then also be unable to receive foreign funding and its editors will have to live under the fear of Government reprisal.

Alternatively, it could force TRS to be licensed under a law that was introduced in 2013 by the Media Development Authority of Singapore (MDA) without public consultation. Under the new licensing framework, websites which are subject to it will have to post a $50,000 bond and must comply with any content takedown notice by MDA within 24 hours.

It is unclear why the Government chose to prosecute two individuals who they had a hard time identifying and locating rather than legally require TRS to take down the offending material using the licensing framework. Yang Kaiheng and Ai Takagi are students at the University of Queensland in Australia.  They were arrested in February when they came to visit Yang’s hospitalised grandmother after their identities had been uncovered by officers from the Special Investigation Section at the Criminal Investigation Department.

The media landscape

The model adopted by The Real Singapore represents a real challenge to the Government’s monopoly on information.

TRS does not rely on on-the-ground journalists like The Online Citizen. Instead, it relies on a crowd-sourcing model. Its articles consist mainly of three kinds: rewritten stories from the mainstream media, republished blog and Facebook posts that would otherwise not be noticed, and letters sent in by readers.

Because of this model, TRS can be maintained at a low cost because it does not have to pay for original reporting. At the same time, it offers Singaporeans a large enough platform for reading anti-Government views and discussing them. TRS is essentially Huffington Post for Singapore, except with an extremely loose editorial policy and very low manpower costs.

TRS justifies its loose editorial policy by arguing that one-sided articles are balanced out by other articles which take an opposing view. Its editors believe that there should be almost no restrictions on the freedom of expression. They believe that people can read for themselves and decide what to believe in, and that their website merely serves as a platform for people to express their views and contest those they disagree with. It is hoped that the truth will be found somewhere within that free exchange of ideas. If there are factual inaccuracies, their solution is to publish corrections and updates, not take down the offending article.

Because of this loose editorial policy, it has provided many Singaporeans with a prominent platform to make their voices heard in a way that they never could, either by writing in to the mainstream media or by speaking to their journalists. With its reach, TRS offers Singaporeans a way to publicly challenge Government policy and contest its hegemonic narrative.

In contrast, the mainstream media exercises a strict editorial policy when it comes to news or opinions that are not politically favourable to the ruling party, but it imposes almost no restrictions on its journalists when it comes to news that is damaging for the political opposition. Take the blatantly inaccurate reporting on Worker’s Party’s Low Thia Khiang’s tribute to Lee Kuan Yew, for instance, or one Straits Times journalist’s decision to publish an inflammatory article because it was “newsy”, despite knowing that the article’s biased reporting would offend people who were mourning Lee Kuan Yew’s passing. Most recently, it blatantly misrepresented Amos Yee’s mother’s statement to the police. And this is only the tip of the iceberg. Look further into The New Paper and STOMP, and the picture gets even uglier.

Other alternatives like The Online Citizen (TOC) exercise a relatively more stringent editorial policy than TRS but have not managed to gain the same level of viewership as TRS because of the Government’s attempts to suppress them.

TOC was gazetted in 2011, preventing it from receiving donations from foreign sources and discouraging donations because it now cannot receive anonymous donations above a total amount of $5,000. In February, the Singapore Government applied for a court order to prevent TOC from reporting on the Ministry of Defences’s alleged copyright infringements. This had the effect of burdening TOC with the need to provide a legal defence against the virtually unlimited resources of the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC). Financial constraints have prevented TOC from hiring enough journalists. It currently relies heavily on volunteer work and on the goodwill of members of the public for donations.

Riding the tiger

Under Lee Hsien Loong’s leadership, the Government has attempted to master what it perceives to be an Internet beast. Unfortunately, because of its failure to understand how the Internet works, it is unable to make either head or tail of it. To speak metaphorically, the younger Lee has muzzled the tiger’s ass and leashed its eyebrow. The effort is futile and perhaps even counterproductive.

Lee Kuan Yew supposedly rode the Communist tiger in his time. For Lee Hsien Loong to succeed, he must stop trying to follow in his father’s footsteps. Just as the older Lee could never really subdue the tiger, the younger Lee will never be able to master the Internet. The Internet, like the older Lee’s tiger, is a conduit for the wishes of the Singapore people. The people are not the Government’s subjects. It is the Government which is the people’s servant. Both Lees have got this wrong for a long time. Maybe with TRS, the younger Lee will finally understand.

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[Edit: A  member of The Real Singapore’s editorial team has sought to clarify that the person known as Melanie Tan doesn’t actually exist. She claims that the evidence was initially taken from the TRS exposed blog by The New Paper, but that it was always flimsy to begin with. According to her, the photos on the blog are of three different people, not the same person.]