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The Singapore PAP's alternative media - Shut down dissent and building their own The Singapore PAP's alternative media - Shut down dissent and building their own
by Zulfikar Shariff
2021-09-21 08:38:20
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I remember when there was no Internet in Singapore.  When for most of us, all the information and all the news we received were from the government owned TV, government owned radio and government owned newspapers.

Whenever there were any political discussions, journalists would interview PAP politicians or PAP linked community leaders.

singme0001_400If there were discussions about the opposition, it was usually done in mockery.  Our socio-political understanding, all the ideas (not just of what was going on but why decisions were made and how to think) were defined by the PAP.

It took us a long time to break out of that indoctrination. We still have not.  Not fully.

Many of us still define our thoughts through how the PAP want us to think.

We just do not realise it.

We have internalised these ideas so completely that we now think the PAP’s authoritarian system is how things are supposed to be.

Worse, we now think that the PAP’s ideology is what defines us as Singaporeans.  To be Singaporean is to think how they want us to think.

With the internet and social media, PAP’s controls over how we think and the narratives used to legitimise their arguments have been challenged.  There are now competing voices. 

We learn that there are other ways to think.  We learn from others’ experiences. We understand that politics does not need to be what the PAP wants it to be.

For many, it is a struggle to reconcile what they have been taught from these new ideas that question the PAP’s ideologies.

The challenge is one that the PAP recognises.

In order to retain control, there are two things that the PAP typically does.

1.      Regulate and if possible, shut down dissenting voices.  We have seen this so many times over the years, from the PAP suing the foreign press or limiting their publications (such as FEER, AWSJ) to creating laws to do the same to local alternative media.

In 2001, the PAP government enacted the political donation act. It then demanded several websites register as political organisations and to submit their financial accounts to the government. Sintercom (a discussion forum), Thinkcentre and Fateha.com were told comply or risk prosecution.

Sintercom protested publicly and its founder, Dr Tan Chong Kee declared that it would shut down rather than be forced to register as a political organisation and accept the unwarranted investigation.  Thinkcentre, a political think tank shut down the “Speaker’s Corner” (their online forum).

Fateha.com refused to comply.

Upon receiving the letter from the Singapore Broadcasting Authority (SBA), we emailed the officer to explain their demand.  According to the SBA because we discussed religion and Singapore politics, we had to register as a political organisation and submit our financial records.

We declared that we would not.

We only had $600 in our bank account, and it was not an issue to show it.

But we rejected the intimidation and attempt to control political discussions. We informed the SBA that The Straits Times Interactive (STI- the online version of the Straits Times paper owned by the government) discussed Singapore politics too and we would only submit if they similarly register STI as a political organisation.

We were aware that discussing politics in Singapore then was a taboo.  To be registered as a political organisation would have ended the website’s functions to draw attention to the Muslim community’s issues.

We also knew that the PAP’s intent was to intimidate. Singaporeans were already afraid of being known to support the opposition .  There were regular discussions whether the PAP knew who they voted for during elections.

To be registered as a political organisation and show the list of donors would have terrified any Singaporean. We decided to take the stand of non-compliance.

In the ensuing months, the SBA stopped their demands.

2.     While the PAP attempted to regulate or shut down dissenting voices, they build their own alternatives.  These supposed alternatives are marketed heavily and supposed to full the space that was opening up, in lieu of those not under their control.

In the late 1990s to early 2000s as Sintercom, Thinkcentre and Fateha.com gained traction, the PAP started several news organisations.  They launched Project Eyeball, Streats and Today.  These organisations were supposed to tap into the internet generation and quick read (and free) tabloids. They were also marketed as being less controlled, freer and even a little dissenting.

So as the PAP tried to curb the independent dissenting voices, they created their own supposed alternatives.

Today we see the same lessons repeated.  The PAP now seek to shut down The Online Citizen (TOC) and discussions of Singapore politics from outside the island.

The editor of TOC, Terry Xu was sued by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong for sharing an article that implied Hsien Loong may have tricked his father, Lee Kuan Yew into bestowing their ancestral home to him.

The article recounted accusations made by Lee Hsien Loong’s estranged siblings about the Prime Minister.

On 1st September 2021, the judge awarded Lee SG$210,000 in damages.

Two weeks later, the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) suspended TOC’s licence and demanded they stop publishing on their website and social media for failing to reveal all their sources of funding.

The IMDA’s main interest is to gain information on TOC’s reader subscription framework.

Alternative media platforms headed or advised by former Straits Times journalists, PAP leaders and bureaucrats are now filling the space.

Expect more of the supposed alternative PAP media to emerge. 


Zulfikar Mohamad Shariff writes on Islam, politics and international relations. He is the former editor of Fateha.com.  He now writes at www.fitrahmedia.com

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