The Singapore Blog Police

This is a bit of a shocker — except if you’re familiar with how closely Singapore controls media criticism of the government.

A Singapore student has shut down his blog and apologized unreservedly after a government agency threatened to sue for defamation.

Chen Jiahao, a 23-year-old graduate student in the United States, said he closed his personal Web site after ASTAR, a Singapore government agency focusing on science and research, threatened legal action for what it said were untrue accusations.

Chen said Monday he had removed all material from his site and posted an apology April 26 after receiving e-mails from the agency’s chief. But the agency told him last week his first apology was insincere and they wanted another.

On Sunday he posted the new apology on his Caustic Soda blog, saying: “I unreservedly apologise to ASTAR, its chairman Mr Philip Yeo, and its executive officers for the distress and embarrassment caused to them.”

“They sent me an e-mail with these words,” Chen said from the United States, where he studies chemical physics at the University of Illinois.

Yeo said he accepted the apology and considered the matter closed. “We wish him well,” he said.

Paris-based Reporters without Borders said the case highlighted the lack of free expression in Singapore, which is among the 20 lowest-scoring countries in the organization’s worldwide press freedom index.

“Chen criticized some of AStar’s policies but there was nothing defamatory in what he wrote,” said Julien Pain, head of its Internet freedom desk.

I know how they punish and bully newspaper reporters who are “overly critical,” but bloggers?? If you go to the student’s site you’ll probably have the same impression I did — that the government scared the crap out of him.

The Discussion: 16 Comments

It’s a slippery slope they’re going down.

May 10, 2005 @ 3:25 pm | Comment

Any ideas on what was originaly posted that resulted in this outburst from the Singapore authorities?

There are times *cough*WizBang*cough* where bloggers do cross the lines and legal letters result in posts being removed for legitimate reasons.

And what did you write last week, Richard, about Singapore’s form of censorship being acceptable?

May 10, 2005 @ 5:14 pm | Comment

Tom, not sure what was on the site beyone what the article hints at. My point was that people could live with Singapore’s style of censorship — not allowing Cosmopolitan or other prurient material, and cutting the fun scenes out of movies — and still be relatively free. However, if they keep pulling stunts like this, I’ll reconsider that opinion.

May 10, 2005 @ 5:57 pm | Comment

Phillip Yeo is a tyrant. Phillip Yeo is a prick. Phillip Yeo is corrupt.

OK, now I’ll wait to receive my threatening email. I’ll tell you what’s in it.

May 10, 2005 @ 7:11 pm | Comment

Keep posting comments like that and Singapore is going to try to close down Peking Duck, FSN9!

May 10, 2005 @ 7:17 pm | Comment

Oops. Sorry Richard.

I hereby state, for the record, that Peking Duck does not endorse any of my views, and should not be held accountable for any views expressed by FSN9.

Hope it helps. ๐Ÿ˜›

May 10, 2005 @ 7:33 pm | Comment

Richard:

Don’t forget the warning telephone call that Andrea See received from the Singaporian authorities when she was blogging from the Lion City.

May 10, 2005 @ 7:37 pm | Comment

many more details about acidflask at:
http://tomorrow.sg/archives/2005/05/06/acidflask_replies_to_cna_report.html

May 10, 2005 @ 8:35 pm | Comment

eswn, than you for that priceless link. It was hard to control the laughter.

May 10, 2005 @ 8:39 pm | Comment

Hi

Jillian, I think you have to understand that the Singapore government is not on a slippery slope. The boundaries of what can and cannot be said, are not defined. We call them OB markers, and no one knows where they are.

Conrad, what actually happened to me was… a friend of my father’s, who was some legal person in the Ministry of Home Affairs (home of the Internal Security Department) read my website at my father’s request (long story and unrelated to this). He then told my father to tell me to be careful of what I said when I was being critical of government policy. And I promptly ignored it, lucky for me blogging was unheard of in Singapore back then.

Second, what happened to AcidFlask. Basically:

AcidFlask is a former PSC scholar (a civil service scholarship that bonds you to work for the government for X years after your graduate). There have been many bond-breakers of late, and AcidFlask is one of them. He is now studying for a PhD. So, a Singapore newspaper obtained some quotes from him about bond-breaking, and after they were published, someone from A*STAR (a government agency that gives out scholarships) started monitoring his blog. Unfortunately for him, he posted about ten times on his caustic.soda site about A*STAR’s scholarship policy. On 22 April, he received the first demand fron Philip Yeo (head of A*STAR). He took his site down and left an apology around 25 April, because he was studying for his exams and did nothave time to faff around. He says that he received 11 e-mails from Philip Yeo, and replied three times, asking for clarification, i.e. exactly which posts were considered defamatory. He got no response, so it’s also possible that A*STAR might be holding him responsible for commenter’s postings. He says that he was also threatened with legal action if he ever revealed the contents of the e-mails he received. Anyway, he apologised according to what they demanded in the end.

(AcidFlask gave an example of something he’d written. A*STAR’s policy was that scholars had to maintain a GPA of 3.8 and above, and he thought it was a bad idea, because it would encourage scholars to take easy classes. No one knows if this was the offending post, but A*STAR says there were all sorts of what THEY determined as defamatory statements against A*STAR and Philip Yeo on his site. Amongst other things, A*STAR said they were defending SINGAPORE’s reputation by doing this. No word on how they’ve damaged their own reputation by doing this.)

You can get more information and a better rundown here:
http://www.singaporeangle.blogspot.com/

May 10, 2005 @ 8:45 pm | Comment

FS number nine

You don’t get a threatening letter, you have to say something that isn’t widely known to be true.

May 10, 2005 @ 11:00 pm | Comment

I’m keeping my name out of this – something I rarely do – because I understand full well of what the PAP is capable.

First, this story holds no surprises at all. The Singapore government has been monitoring overseas students for years in several ways: through Singapore student organisations (students themselves inform on other students), the local Singapore embassy/consulate (which keeps close tabs on the Singapore Student Clubs by hosting events), and informers within the Singapore expat population itself. That the Singapore government keeps tabs on the web sites and blogs of overseas students is simply an extension of an extensive network of monitoring already in place.

Second, the level of engagement with the student is par for the course. The Singapore government keeps control through fear. Most people don’t realise this because it’s not the knock-on-the-door-at-midnight-type fear. Fear in Singapore is more insideous. For instance, if the government thinks that a person is behaving inappropriately (politically or socially), they are more likely to send a message down to the grass roots level (via a very extensive network of political and social organisations) whereby a “friend” will simply pull the person aside and tell them to change their ways. This might not sound very terrible, but knowing the government has its eye on you and has sent a message via your closest friends sends two powerful signals: i) they know everything; and ii) your friends will side with the government if push comes to shove. The knowledge that you are alone after such an event is a very sobering experience. The student in question was contacted directly by the government, which probably scared him even more.

Third, and related, students overseas are often on some form of government scholarhships. The risk to such students who “defame” the government is obvious.

Fourth, the government likes to publicly shame individuals and bring attention to their families. The fear for families is that others (including the goverment) will think rats breed rats (if the son is wayward, what does this say about the parents?) is usually enough to have the family tell “wayward” offspring to alter their behaviour.

Fifth, many job opportunities in Singapore are either directly or indirectly linked to government patronage. Many private jobs are actually in GLCs (Government Linked Companies) and so publicity like this has effectively curtailed a number of career choices for the person in question.

So, yes, the government scared the crap out of him. And if I were Singaporean, had family in Singapore, wanted (needed) to work in Singapore, I’d have done exactly the same thing. In fact, I would never have put my name on the blog in the first place. The Singapore government rules by fear. The myth about this country is that its populace is apolitical. That’s wrong. Its populace is scared.

May 11, 2005 @ 12:04 am | Comment

Anon, thanks for the great comment. Very upsetting. Still, I wonder whether most people in Singapore are concerned with such things; I was struck when I lived there by how much the people appeared to venerate Lee Kuan Yew and cheerfully accepted his son was best fit to take over.

May 11, 2005 @ 6:06 am | Comment

Dear anonymous,

Your comment hit the mark when you mention as “insidious” how deep the Singapore government instils the chill effect. However, I would like to point out that the comment than verges towards paranoia.

The insidious and hence, more troubling thing is this : There is no deliberate surveillance system in place for Sg students studying overseas. Instead, the system of “surveillance” comes from your friends, your peers.

The system in Sg perfected Althusser’s term of the ISAs (ideological state apparatus) as you create truly loyal citizens who are devoted to the system and the ruling party. These friends than speak to you and convince you. These are the surveillance operatives, your friends and family who believe in the system. So not all the people in Sg ae scared. There IS a majority who subcribe to and are loyal to the system.

At work also in the Sg system which creates this surveillance mentality is the overriding sense of competitiveness in the education system. The fear of failure and the need to see your contemporary fail, manifests as well a whistle-blowing culture. Meritocracy extremis.

This is more insidious. This is Foucault’s Panopticon perfected.

May 11, 2005 @ 6:57 am | Comment

What the government actually uses is the “divide and conquer” method which is extremely effective.

Because most of Singapore citizens are more concerned about their ricebowl, they would rather sacrifice their freedom of speech then speak up against unfair policies. The few dissidents can usually be convinced by this majority. And viola! we have a citizenship that appears to be political apathetic. And the government says that we are “politically apathetic”?

Quote: ‘The people appeared to venerate Lee Kuan Yew and cheerfully accepted his son was best fit to take over.” Richard, no, we have no choice in this. Public protests require a “police permit” which is impossible to get in this case.

Sincere apologies for stating the obvious; I just want to get this off my mind.

May 17, 2005 @ 12:24 am | Comment

Trackback: Elia Diodati, Wiki, The AcidFlask Affair

May 29, 2005 @ 9:46 pm | Comment

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