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Singapore moves up to DORSCON Orange as China considers freedom of expression

Issue 92

After sending out the issue last week, I received further questions about how things are in Singapore with the Wuhan coronavirus, so I’ll do my best to describe what I’ve seen, plus what’s being reported in the news at the moment, linking it with developments from elsewhere and other national issues that might seem separate but are still relevant.

Level: Orange

At the time of writing, there are 33 confirmed cases of 2019-NCOV in Singapore. Over the past week there have also been locally transmitted cases, including people who have not only had no recent travel history to China, but also don’t appear to be connected to other confirmed cases. 😰

Given this development, the government has raised Singapore’s Disease Outbreak Response System Condition (DORSCON) level from yellow to orange. This means there’ll be extra precautionary measures implemented, such as more temperature-taking and vigilance for respiratory symptoms. Schools will also suspend inter-school and external activities. (Speaking of schools, a teacher at Victoria Junior College tested positive this week.)

Things had been pretty sensible, but now that the DORSCON has levelled up people are getting into panic-buying mode, although I don’t really know what everyone is stocking up for. I needed a few things from my local supermarket but thought they would already be shut… only to discover that they were open way later than usual on a Friday night just because the queues were abnormally long. A big thank you to all the supermarket staff across the island who had to work overtime last night.

The government is stepping up the Leave of Absence system (for those who have some risk but not as much as those who’ve been in contact with people diagnosed with the virus, who will have to be quarantined) for workers returning to Singapore from China. As far as I can tell from local reports, the mask distribution has gone fairly smoothly, although only about 6% of households went to collect masks on the first day. Unfortunately, it didn’t go quite as smoothly for some university students who were given extremely short notice to move out of their dorms so the buildings could become quarantine areas.

On top of this, the World Health Organisation is investigating a conference in Singapore involving over 100 international staff of a multinational company, where at least three employees have tested positive for the coronavirus.

Generally, though, things seem to be under control (apart from the racists and xenophobes). As far as I can tell, the government is communicating the measures that they’re implementing fairly clearly and regularly—which is quite reassuring—but I don’t know enough about infectious diseases and viruses and best practices to be able to discern what’s sensible and effective, and what’s political theatre to placate an anxious populace (which, the most cynical part of me whispers, could be kind of handy in an election year). So I read with interest this op-ed by Professor of Virology Hitoshi Oshitani about containment and/or mitigation.

Grief and anger in China

Meanwhile, people in China are grieving the death of Dr Li Wenliang. The 34-year-old ophthalmologist had posted a message in a chat group with his medical school friends warning them about an outbreak of viral infections. For this, he was reprimanded by the authorities early this year and made to sign a statement admitting that his warning was an unfounded, illegal rumour. Of course, we all know now that it wasn’t an unfounded rumour—but this bitter knowledge has come too late for Dr Li, who has succumbed to the very coronavirus he’d warned against.

This outpouring of grief is also accompanied by anger, particularly at the authorities who have mishandled the situation and clamped down on Dr Li for flagging something so important. Even usual Chinese establishment voices have made comments that could be construed as critical of the system. I’m going to quote from this New York Times piece that was quite an emotional read:

Many people posted a variation of a quote: “He who holds the firewood for the masses is the one who freezes to death in wind and snow.” The original version of the saying came from the Chinese writer Murong Xuecun about seven years ago when he and some friends were raising money for the families of political prisoners.

It was written as a reminder to people that it was in their interest to support those who dared to stand up to authority. Many of those people had frozen to death, figuratively speaking, as fewer people were willing to publicly support these dissenting figures.

I’m so, so sorry about Li’s death—he’s so young, and will never meet his second child. But I’m also reading about Chinese reactions to his death, the outbreak, and how it relates to whistleblowing and freedom of expression:

Wang Gaofei, the chief executive of Weibo, which carries out many of the orders passed down from China’s censors, pondered what lessons China should learn from Dr. Li’s death. “We should be more tolerant of people who post ‘untruthful information’ that aren’t malicious,” he said in a post. “If we’re only allowed to speak what we can guarantee is fact, we’re going to pay prices.”

While not wanting to minimise the (many) serious issues with freedom of expression in China, Wang Gaofei’s comment quoted above naturally brings to my mind Singapore’s own situation with “untruthful information” and what’s at stake in a society where what’s true and false is determined by one party.

Truth and information (the POFMA section)

In his court judgment in the case of the Singapore Democratic Party’s challenge of the POFMA order against them, Justice Ang Check Hock ruled that the burden of proof should fall on the government. He argued that, by wanting to impose a Correction Direction, it’s the government minister who is seeking to constrain the recipient’s freedom of speech, and therefore the minister has to justify that decision. He also pointed to a “clear information asymmetry” between the minister and the recipient of the POFMA order—while this doesn’t automatically mean that the burden of proof is on the minister, the judge questioned whether Parliament would have intended to place such a onerous burden on the maker of the statement targeted by POFMA.

But the Attorney-General has already argued that Justice Ang was “incorrect”. In the closed-door hearing for The Online Citizen’s challenge against the POFMA order served on them, the AG (representing the Ministry of Home Affairs) argued before Justice Belinda Ang that the government isn’t required to prove that the statement is false. If the government has to prove that a statement is false, the AG argued, then anyone can “make up all sorts of falsehoods on sensitive matters without any basis and thereby potentially compel the Government to disclose such sensitive information as it has the burden to disprove the falsehoods”.

The problem that I have with the AG’s position has actually already been alluded to in Justice Ang’s judgment. The information asymmetry in Singapore is serious. The government has great monopoly over data, and many of us—be it journalists, activists, researchers, etc.—run into brick walls when trying to gain access to information.

Take, for example, Nominated Member of Parliament Anthea Ong’s attempt to get more data about statistics for suicide among students. Instead of actually providing the information, Minister for Education Ong Ye Kung said he was “not sure if it is useful to cite all the data”, citing just one piece of data that doesn’t give us anywhere near as clear a picture of the situation as Anthea Ong had been trying to obtain.

While some students are now advocating for the introduction of freedom of information legislation—good for them!—this is something that I don’t think the PAP government is keen on. And so we exist in a situation where the average citizen’s access to information is quite limited, while the government has a monopoly. In many cases, if the government insists that something is false, there’s little avenue for independent verification, because there’s very little opportunity to fact-check the government. Justice Ang’s ruling requiring the government to prove their claim in court is one way to check such power, and guard against the government labelling things as “false statements of fact” without providing evidence of falsity.

Now we’ll have to wait and see what Justice Belinda Ang says.