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Foreign policy, online freedom, and the point of conditional warnings

This week: Yet another piece of legislation giving the government power to issue directions against online content, and some back-and-forth in Parliament about Singapore's position on the invasion of Ukraine.

I’m making good progress on the secondary newsletter that I have in the works, and the first issue is due to drop on Tuesday, which I’m excited about. 😊 If you subscribe to We, The Citizens now — whether free or paid — you’ll automatically be signed up to this secondary newsletter, since it sits under the wider WTC umbrella. But I’ve set it up so that it’s possible to unsubscribe to this secondary newsletter if, after you’ve taken a look at the first issue, you decide you’re not interested. So don’t worry about your inbox getting spammed! (It’s also going to be an irregular newsletter so there won’t be a ton of emails, I promise.)

Here comes yet another bill to regulate online content

Earlier this year, the government indicated that they’re looking at new legislation to deal with online harms. Here it is: the Online Criminal Harms Bill.

If you’ve looked at POFMA and FICA, a lot of the Online Criminal Harms Bill will be familiar to you. Like those two other laws, the bill allows the government to issue directions if they suspect that an offence has been committed, or if they have reason to believe that “any online activity is preparatory to, or in furtherance of, the commission of a scam or malicious cyber activity offence.” They’ll be able to issue stop communication directions, disabling directions and access blocking directions, among others.

Essentially this continues the ongoing development of the government gaining power to issue direct orders without first having to go through the courts. Like FICA, the directions issued under the Online Criminal Harms Bill can be appealed to the Minister for Home Affairs or a reviewing tribunal.

If you look at the list of specified criminal offences that will be affected by this bill, there are things that aren’t controversial, like child sexual exploitation, but there are also categories that are more concerning, like “offences relating to harmony between different races, religion, or classes of the population” or “offences relating to incitement of violence or counselling disobedience to the law”, because these could capture a lot more activity. We’ve already seen how people have been investigated or even charged on the grounds of inciting racial hatred because they spoke up about racism and racial justice in Singapore. And given how broad our laws are in Singapore, social media posts that could be interpreted as encouraging people to do things like protest could fall under “counselling disobedience”.

It’s troubling how legislation that allows the government so much latitude and power without adequate checks and balances is now becoming normalised. Even on a personal level, I’m finding it hard to summon the same amount of energy, outrage and alarm I had while reading POFMA and FICA in previous years. It’s just exhausting. But even though it’s incredibly tiresome, and it’s certain that the bill is going to pass, Singaporeans shouldn’t let such things go without any comment at all.

And while we’re on government directions, this past week POFMA orders were issued to Terry Xu and The Online Citizen again for the story about the elderly lady and the police.

Has the government’s position on the Russian invasion changed?

There was some back-and-forth in Parliament over the past week between WP’s Sylvia Lim and Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan. Lim was referring to a speech that Minster for Home Affairs and Law K Shanmugam delivered in March about the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In the speech, Shanmugam said, “The West has to reflect on whether Russia’s concerns were adequately dealt with, even as NATO expanded. The West and NATO, in my view, were not uninvolved bystanders who had no role to play in the current situation.”

The speech rang some alarm bells within circles most concerned about foreign policy, geopolitics and tracking the development of the war in Ukraine, because it was seen as a shift from Singapore’s initial position of unequivocally condemning the Russian invasion and imposing sanctions on the country. Lim wanted to know if Shanmugam’s comments had been cleared by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (since that’s their turf) and if they reflected the official position of the government.

The exchange is quite frustrating to watch because “is this the position of the government” is really a yes/no question, but Balakrishnan doesn’t answer Lim’s question directly. He insists that the government position has always been clear and consistent — even though more than one observer I’ve been in touch with had detected a shift — but also says that there is a “diversity of views”.

Balakrishnan also said that he and his ministry did not vet Shanmugam’s speech beforehand, although the government is generally aware of each minister’s speaking engagements. However, Shanmugam said that he had “cleared the speech with the highest levels of Cabinet.” So who cleared the speech, if not the Minister for Foreign Affairs?

Got some more…

☹️ In November last year I wrote about an application I’d filed seeking leave to commence judicial review proceedings against the state in relation to a conditional warning I’d received over a Facebook post. Since then, I managed to get legal representation, and the case has wound its way through the process and the judgment was delivered yesterday. The High Court dismissed the application, saying that a conditional warning has no legal effect and “is only an expression of the authority’s opinion coupled with a statement of intent”, which I personally understand to be a fancier way of saying “a threat”. This decision is, of course, disappointing. I’m going to read through the judgment a couple more times and take a little bit of time to process, then write something more substantial about what the judgment says and my reaction to it.

👀 Lee Kuan Yew’s lawyer, Kwa Kim Li, has been ordered to pay a $13,000 fine for misconduct after a disciplinary tribunal found that she had failed to “scrupulously safeguard” LKY’s confidentiality, and had misled Lee Hsien Yang and Lee Wei Ling. I’ve seen comments online questioning the difference in penalties borne by Kwa and by Lee Suet Fern, who was suspended for 15 months.

A photo I was sent from a vigil in Melbourne for those executed for drug offences in Singapore.