12 Jul 2006

Express yourself

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
Guardian Unlimited

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.



john said...

Ministers argue that if greater freedom of expression were allowed, Singapore's economy, and consequently its society, would collapse.

Hahaha. That was funny! Maybe the minsters meant their salaries and 'household economies' would collpase

Anonymous said...

a distorted version of what LHL said, that if there were 20 opposition MPs, he would be too busy answering them to run the economy

this is the kind of problem that gives PAP cause to distrust froeign press (or any press except their own)

by attaching so much importance to jokers like mr brown, the foreign press and the protesters are making it harder for serious discussions to take place

Anonymous said...

Mr Brown live true to the essence of journalism. Reporting the truth. The mainstream media chief acts as a pimp and order his prositutes to submit to every garment's demands

Anonymous said...

to the previous poster, i don't think the guardian was quoting LHL to begin with.

the guardian observed correctly that this is the essence of the arguments made by various PAP officials - that they ultimately cite economic and social instability as reasons for limiting freedom of expression.

Anonymous said...

I doubt they said singapore would "collapse"; if the paper equates "economic and social instability" with "collapse", then they are proving PAP guys right to distrust foreign press

mr brown proved PAP right too, that they cant trust jokers either and they have to watch every word printed in the press - since the government owns Today, they would look weak and not in control if they dont take action

that's the consequence of being in control of everything - you cannot permit any surprises

soci said...

"then they are proving PAP guys right to distrust foreign press"

The PAP also argues that every foreign influence is distrustful even if its a request from a UN official not to hang someone - or the weak performance in a freedom of the press index, or a human rights group arguing that foreign workers in Singapore are poorly treated, or two economist at NTU, or an SIA pilot, or a memeber of Amnesty International, or South East Asian Press Alliance, foreign academics, foreign universities pulling out of a deal because of human rights.... the list goes on and on.

Name me an NGO or a foreign publication, academic etc who isn't 'distrustful'?

Or who doesn't simply criticise without providing solutions, according to a PAP reply.

The same PAP rebuttal for decades and yet no-one outside the PAP gang can substantiate it, support it, agree with it.

Rhetoric is something that is easy to spot in Singapore, but a politician engaging with an argument as opposed to the usual rhetoric is a rare thing.

Anonymous said...

balakrishnan chaged from one to the other in just a few years; this is the consequence of the "system"

anything that's not part of the "system" cannot be trusted

Anonymous said...

noticed that that papsmear mps always work for party-defence, party-protection even if it is against their own individual conscience - in other words, their goals being control and authoritarianism.

jean-luc picard said...

"I doubt they said singapore would "collapse"

The PAP does not merely warn of 'instability' should their policies and leadership be rejected; they never fail to prophesy about how the decades of hard-earned economic prosperity and racial harmony will unravel at the hands of the opposition. A most recent example is the warning of 'time bombs' in the WP's manifesto. Is this not a picture of 'collaspe'?

These so called 'evil foreigners' have no vested interest -- we have no oil to fill anyone's pockets nor any poppy fields to drug the west. Let us not flatter ourselves by buying into the PAP's rhetoric of a malevolent foreign press.

Anonymous said...

singapore, the hub of hubs, the hub of people buying toilet paper for the shit house. even the hub of little girls who spend half the week sitting on the john, shitting the food they eat because its cheap, giving them gastric, and the other half on mc, the list goes on.

Foreign press will only comment when they seek a point worth writing about.

of cours Balakrishmen claims the pap takes no interest in foreign press and their comments.
until the day arrives when a certain London or ew York company director declares to his board and shareholders, enough is enough, pull the company out of singapore, we cannot trust them anymore.

Ad I am certain the day will arrive whe this will happen, and not very far away from now. uless the pap opens up the writig is on the wall, or george soros decides to wreck the singapore economy.

Anonymous said...

"Ministers argue that if greater freedom of expression were allowed, Singapore's economy, and consequently its society, would collapse."

For the past few years, minilee had already killed the economy by himself - far worse impact than this small talk, ok...........

and if more freedom of expression would make them more headache and can't handle, then this would certainly prove that the papsmear are not capable group of peanuts.

sinsling said...

"Ministers argue that if greater freedom of expression were allowed, Singapore's economy, and consequently its society, would collapse."

collapse in economy = collapse of society

How well the PAP knows its people.

Unfortunately, I sometimes believe its true.

Anonymous said...

Recalled: my place had two men committed suicide by jumping down from their respective block of flats, ok......TRULY, THE HIGH COST OF LIVING COUPLED WITH UNEMPLOYMENT HAVE CAUSED ONE TO HAVE DISTRESS AND DEPRESSIONS....isn't this A WORSE IMPACT THAN JUST POKED FUN BY MR BROWN????

look at what others have to say and their consequences....

From http://forums.delphiforums.com/sammyboymod/messages/?msg=111037.1

We were atg a tze char shope today and had a brief chat with two old aunts andtow old uncles who operated the shop. The subject of High cost of living , increase in taxi fare etc and electricity bills came up..

The old couple s told us that they are barely scrapping through after paying rents and that unfortunately th eclientele want scheap food so increaising their prices is out of th equestion. Yet they do not lik eto short change their customers so they end up earning lesser admidst all the increases in cost....However should the landlord increase the rental th e next year they will call it a day...

Then they talked about illness and how at least three old people they knew in th eneighbourhood chose to commit suicide so as not to burden their kids once they knew they had to have an operation of some sort ..these were people over 65.

One chose to die by falling off a block of flats becaus s he was due to go for cancer treatment which would have drained his son's medi save as well so he took the quickeiest way out.

Another did not want to burden her daughter-in-law who was already widowed and had to support three kids so she also said bye bye to the world the same way..And the 3rd died in an accident but they felt he must have allowed it to hapen as he was having many medical problems and his family was really poor...

Loooks like Sucide is nowadays in vogue in our Mother of all Hubs Paradise city!


Anonymous said...

or is papsmear trying to hide the TRUE FACTS and inorder to be DEFENSIVE AND PROTECTIVE OF ONE'S EGO, once again to SILENCE another OUTSPOKEN CITIZEN?

Is this what a FIRST WORLD CLASS GOVT's tactic??

Anonymous said...

If allowing greater freedom of expression could collapse a nation's economy, and consequently the society, then all those nations ranked in the top for democracy would now be at the bottom for peace, stability, wealth and prosperity.

But I presume it is easier to convince the Singaporeans with this kind of rubbish as we are already well-known for being 'stupid'.

teck soon said...

City Hall MRT station is indoors, not outdoors. It is, after all, underground. Therefore, a permit to hold the gathering of over four persons was not legally required. Is this correct? (This is a question - I hope someone who understands the laws can help clarify this detail.)

Anonymous said...

listen up guys....is it anywondr Singapore just scored another shaeful accolade for being the most unhappy nation in ASIA in today's report on Happy Planet Index by a doundation in UK??

How can we be happy if we worry shotless over things like even can we dare we all wear brown to do a protest?? will PAP take pix of all the ppl who dared showed up to protest? will we get arrested ???

how to be happy when we r so fearful to be us in a world that is so dictated by PAP . their world of economics and capitalism is breeding one unhappy nation. Wake up PAP before you do us in.

Anonymous said...

MRT stations are public places; when you have a meeting in a privately owned function room you do not need police permit

Sad said...

Surprisingly, Minister Raymond Lim was not asked to comment on the blog issue.

He was also once a critic, too.

But the PEOPLE of SINGAPORE deserve what we got. SO no point complaining as we have too many hypocrites amongst us. Now how SAD, we are now branded as one of the SADDEST country in Asia.

DId we all in some way allowed this to happen ?

SO, don't we all deserve all these - price hikes, more rules, higher levies, taxi and maybe bus price hikes, etc... expected after every election. With the hypocrisy, and indifference, can we blame ourselves for being selfish Singaporeans. Look at the newspapers and there are so many news about our concieted behaviour from kiasuism, 'none-of-my business' attitude, etc...

So,let us TRY to be happy by going to a happier country on weekends with our children. !

And take this place as a HOTEL, as someone once said and a working place, not a place to be lived and enjoyed, as confirmed by so many press reports and daily anecdotal observations.

So sad.

Happy too Not reading loacl papers said...

I concur with previous comments.
How so true!

Just to give you a silver lining:
(A Happy Note or a sign of things improving !)

Heard about the new CJ's directive to judges not to 'talk down to lawyers' and his wise advice.

And the Community Court formation,and MORE humane sentences meted out recently, etc....(not saying that there were no such humane sentences meted out in the past by other enlightened and more worthy judges). All these are long awaited.

Finally came. The ground feelings and sentiments of the public are finally vindicated and proven.

Notice did the press (especially the Straits Time) give any good such alternative views and suggestions all these years ?

NONE whatsoever!!!

They are of no help at all to the community.
This where they could have played an important role WITHOUT writing FOR or AGAINST the govt. (but yet be constructive in many areas of public interest).

The press could have help the judicial process and country with good ideas rather than being mere SCRIBES.

Now everybody sings a different tune.

We must at least congratulate the NEW CJ Chan Sek Khong for his enlightened views in the midst of darkness abetted by the press and hypocrisy of the 'herd'.

Hope that we do not hear sarcastic remarks like the ones from the OLD CJ at many people incl accused, lawyers and even about other judges, anymore in our esteemed courts.

It is a vindication that there were so many things wrong in the past.

Let us be 'happy' that some of these are being corrected.
As the saying goes, you cannot fool everybody all the time.

Let us be happy for a moment, at least. God Bless the souls of the good people.

(and DO NOT READ THE LOCAL PAPERS, except the free ones -- to keep your sense of balance of world views and sanity).