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TOC goes down ahead of an anti-foreign interference bill

This week's issue is brought to you by STRESS. If you haven't yet, check out the mid-week special issue on the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Bill, introduced in Parliament on Monday. We all thought POFMA was bad, but FICA is like POFMA+++.


The timing is uncanny — like it was planned? 🤔 — because the Infocomms Media Development's beef with The Online Citizen also came to a head with week, when they suspended the independent news website's class licence, which led to TOC's chief editor Terry Xu taking the site and its social media platforms down on Thursday. Some of the mainstream media reports I've seen have been a little confusing about what's at the heart of conflict between IMDA and TOC, so here's what I know: TOC wasn't allowed to take foreign funding, and was required to regularly account for its donations to IMDA so they can check that the website hasn't violated the ban. TOC says they've been doing that, but where the problem comes up is that IMDA wanted them to not only declare their donors, but also their subscribers. TOC, on the other hand, argued that subscriptions are commercial revenue, not donations, and therefore shouldn't come under the prohibition on foreign funding (donations). But IMDA started taking issue with TOC's subscription model, claiming that it's really just a donation model in disguise because — in IMDA's opinion, anyway — subscribers aren't sufficiently distinguished from donors. According to Terry, TOC has also been running a subscription model since 2014, but it was only in 2019 that IMDA started to make a fuss. And on and on and round and round, and here we are today.

In another instance of uncanny timing, the police have also issued stern warnings to both New Naratif's publisher, OSEA, and New Naratif's managing director, Thum Ping Tjin, for running unauthorised election advertising during the 2020 general election period. The police also felt the need to note in their public statement that New Naratif receives foreign funding and has non-Singaporean members. 🤨

All this is going to be used in the "foreign interference" discourse as the PAP pushes forward with FICA. The next parliamentary sitting could be as soon as the first week of October, which means that this whomper of a bill, with serious ramifications, could be bulldozed through and passed in as soon as two weeks' time. One Elmo on fire isn't enough to express how terrible I feel about this, so let's double down:


Quartz has a story on how both Singapore and Hong Kong — supposedly proud global cities — are using "foreign interference" as a way to justify more laws and control. Grim.

Where's the space for independent media in Singapore?

Allow me to dwell a little longer on the suspension of The Online Citizen. The site has a special place in my heart because it's where I started as a volunteer way back in 2010, and my experience with TOC was key to my political awakening. It meant a lot that it was a place that welcomed a wide-eyed, naive 21-year-old me and gave me the opportunity to encounter things that I would probably never have otherwise. I'm not even sure I'd be where I am today if TOC hadn't given me a start a decade ago.

I know there's a lot of criticism of the site, some of it valid, some of which I've made myself. But what I'd like to focus on here isn't the pros and cons of TOC itself, but the space for independent media in Singapore.

This attempt to harass TOC out of existence should concern all of us because it shows how precarious a Singaporean independent media outlet's presence is. Prohibited from accepting foreign funding — which cuts off access to all the media development funds, investments, and grants that many media start-ups around the world rely on — a Singaporean independent media outlet can only rely on local funding. Yet local funding isn't forthcoming, either. The government is a major funder/advertiser, but they won't give you money if you're consistently running critical, hard-hitting, or investigative pieces that don't support their interests and agendas. Private businesses might also be wary of funding you or being overly associated with you, lest it affect their own reliance on or connections with the government or government-linked companies. The big philanthropists tend not to think about throwing money at independent media, either because they're part of the elite that supports the status quo, or because they don't want to get into the PAP's bad books either. There are smaller local donors, but relying this method isn't reliable because the market is small, and donor fatigue is a real problem — the people who are most willing to fork out money for an independent media outlet tend to also be the ones who will donate to human rights NGOs and campaigns, etc. and there's always too much to fund and not enough money to go 'round.

The independent media that exists in Singapore exist in an environment that is actively hostile to its development, growth, and potential. There's harassment, bullying, obstructionism, attacks on reputations, and all sorts of other nonsense designed to make it difficult for you to sustain your operations, much less grow and expand your scope and capacity. And now FICA is coming to make it worse.

This isn't just a problem for civil society and independent media; it affects all Singaporeans. And so it's not about whether or not you like The Online Citizen, or New Naratif, or any other independent media outlet (not that there are many others), or even this newsletter. Even if you don't like what's on offer at the moment, is there any space or opportunity to build anything better?

The lowest hanging fruit would, of course, be to support the independent media outlets that you do like — sneak attack asking you to support this newsletter! — but we need to do more to preserve the space rather than just individual outlets. That's why it's important that Singaporeans also pay attention to, and speak out against, overly broad and oppressive laws like FICA. Do whatever you can think of: the usual things like starting online petitions and writing to your MPs, but also find other ways to reach out to more people and organise within your own networks.

Foreigners and immigration get discussed in Parliament

There was a massive debate in Parliament over employment and immigration and foreigners this past week. The Progress Singapore Party proposed raising the income threshold for foreign workers, and imposing a nationality cap on staffing numbers; I'm a fan of neither idea, but think their suggestion of creating standing select committees for every ministry to monitor the implementation of policies is worth thinking about. The PAP said that being overly restrictive with regard to immigration will hurt Singapore. In their speeches, the Workers' Party repeatedly emphasised the need for transparency, so as to combat things like cynicism and resentment. I appreciated He Ting Ru pointing to the black box within which the authorities make decisions on things like visa applications and renewals (ugh, bane of my life). Jamus Lim talked about free trade and free trade agreements; I found his speech a useful read because this is a subject that usually boggles my brain.

Still, all attention on this debate was quickly derailed by video/audio clips of Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan making snarky comments about the Progress Singapore Party's Leong Mun Wai, calling him "illiterate" and wondering out loud how Leong had made it into Raffles Institution, saying that it "must have been a lousy school". Balakrishnan has since apologised to Leong, but the damage is done. Man, imagine being a grandfather multiple times over and still fixating on where people went to school. 🙄

Got some more...

🧑🏻‍💼 A new law has passed in that will make it easier for the Attorney-General to intervene in court cases if they deem that it's in the public interest to do so.

👩🏻‍⚖️ The government is proposing the repeal of the Sedition Act, which is nice until you realise it's because they can already whack people using other laws. Alongside this repeal, the government is also proposing amendments to the Penal Code, including making Sections 298 and 298A (i.e. the bits that Preetipls and Raeesah Khan got investigated under) arrestable.

🚶🏾‍♂️A pilot scheme will allow up to 500 migrant workers in dormitories to spend up to six hours a week out at pre-identified locations. This sounds better than nothing because they've been cooped up for over a year now, but 500 out of over 300,000 is a really miserable number. Jeremy Lim, the director of global health at the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, says that migrant workers should be allowed out, and makes very good points about the need for clarity over what it means to treat Covid-19 as endemic.

Thank you for reading! Feel free to forward this on to anyone you think might be interested. 🙏🏼 Once again, a reminder that becoming a Milo Peng Funder is an awesome thing to do! You can also make a one-off contribution via my Ko-Fi page.