In a state where protests are rare, John Aglionby sees a columnist inspire a small band of Singaporeans to take to the streets
Tuesday July 11, 2006
The 30 people dressed in brown who gathered outside Singapore's City Hall underground station on Sunday were probably not noticed by most passersby.
But that is not too surprising considering they did not stand in one group, they did not shout slogans and only one person, who had the words "I am fed, up with progress" printed on the back of his t-shirt, gave any hint as to why they were there.
But the illegal demonstration - it is against the law in the tightly controlled city state for more than four people to hold an outdoor gathering without a permit - marked one of the first times Singaporeans have so publicly marked their dissatisfaction with the nation's lack of freedom of expression.
They were stirred into action by the reaction to a column written in the Today daily tabloid on June 30 by one of country's most popular bloggers, Mr Brown.
Mr Brown, 34, whose real name is Lee Kin Mun, wrote a harsh, humourous and satirical attack on the government over the growing disparity in people's incomes, rising living costs and the fact that about a third of households had seen their incomes shrink since 2000.
He also had a dig at the government for not releasing the data on which his article was based before the May general election, in which the ruling People's Action party won 82 of the 84 seats and 66% of the votes cast.
"We are very thankful for the timing of all this good news, of course," Mr Brown wrote in his article titled "S'poreans are fed, up with progress!"
"Just after the elections, for instance. By that I mean that getting the important event out of the way means we can now concentrate on trying to pay our bills.
"It would have been too taxing on the brain if those price increases were announced during the election period, thereby affecting our ability to choose wisely."
The government did not take the criticism kindly.
Three days later Today published a letter from Krishnasamy Bhavani, the press secretary of the minister for information, communication and the arts.
She branded the "diatribe" as "polemics dressed up as analysis" and said the "piece is calculated to encourage cynicism and despondency".
Her most stinging rebuke was left for last. "It is not the role of journalists or newspapers in Singapore to champion issues, or campaign for or against the government," she wrote.
"If a columnist presents himself as a non-political observer, while exploiting his access to the mass media to undermine the government's standing with the electorate, then he is no longer a constructive critic, but a partisan player in politics."
Three days later Today "suspended indefinitely" Mr Brown's column.
"No reason was given and he didn't ask for one," Edmund Tan, a friend handling media enquiries for Mr Brown told Guardian Unlimited. "But we think it was related to the letter."
When Mr Brown posted Ms Bhavani's letter on his blog it attracted 686 comments. His announcement that Today had fired him has so far garnered 889.
The vast majority are supportive and many complained about the fact that the newspaper was refusing to publish any correspondence relating to the matter.
Mr Tan said Mr Brown's blog was one of the world's most popular, with his podcasts regularly surpassing 20,000 downloads, and during the election the figure topped 200,000.
When approached by Guardian Unlimited, Mano Sabnani, the managing director of Today, would only say the decision to suspend the column was taken by the editors and would not comment on anything else.
Ms Bhavani, when contacted by Guardian Unlimited, reiterated the contents of her letter, saying that Mr Brown's comments were unfair and unsubstantiated. She declined to comment on whether the government had participated in the decision to dismiss Mr Brown.
Chee Soon Juan, the secretary-general of the opposition Singapore Democratic party said he was not surprised by the government and newspaper's response to the column.
"What is surprising though is that for once Singaporeans are not sitting back and taking it silently," he told Guardian Unlimited. "Only a few years ago nothing would have happened."
Mr Chee said the government reacted so strongly because the article was in a traditional media outlet. "If it had just been on his blogsite, then I think they would have left him alone," he said.
Although Singapore has one of the world's highest internet penetration rates at more than two-thirds of the population, the government allows greater freedom of expression than in traditional media, although the rules were tightened for the election campaign.
Ministers argue that if greater freedom of expression were allowed, Singapore's economy, and consequently its society, would collapse.
Many people think that with its inability to control the internet, the government is fighting a losing battle.
"With the internet generation we hope there will be acceptance of a greater diversity of views," Mr Tan said.
Mr Chee predicts that the growing disparity between what is available online and offline in Singapore will force the government either to open up the mainstream media or clamp down harder on the internet.
"They have to work on one or the other to make the divide less apparent than it is or else the mainstream media will lose all credibility," he said.
Meanwhile some of the brown-clothed protesters say they are "spooked" after the police took names and identity card details from some of them, and the Straits Times newspaper reported yesterday that the police were "looking into" the incident.