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The ‘own goal’ issue

This week: The saga of POFMA and an academic website, Soh Rui Yong is left out of the Asian Games, and Parliament votes not to suspend Iswaran as an MP for now.

Happy weekend! Is everyone going to the Singapore Climate Rally in Hong Lim Park this afternoon? If so, I’ll see you there!

I’m calling this the ‘own goal’ issue because the top two news items are really just… *eyeroll*. The establishment/authorities might think that they are making Important Arguments or Taking A Stand or something, but really, what Singapore is losing is more than we’re winning in either case.

POFMA trundles on

East Asia Forum is a website, based out of the Australian National University, where academics write about politics and policy in East Asia and the Pacific. As with most academic sites, it’s not exactly the hottest place on the Internet. I read it from time to time, when it pops up in my Google searches while I’m looking up something about Asian politics, or when I come across something about Singapore, or when some of my nerdy friends contribute to it and share the fruits of their labour on social media with their other nerdy friends (me). I’d assumed that it was just going to continue in this vein—informative but not very exciting or gangster—for the longest time. But then the Singapore government went for the nerds.

East Asia Forum was whacked with a POFMA correction direction last week, in relation to an article headlined “A spate of scandals strikes Singapore”, written by Ying-Kit Chan from the National University of Singapore’s department of Chinese studies. The government was upset about the way Chan had questioned the independence of the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) and characterised Lee Hsien Loong’s response to parliamentarian sexy shenanigans. East Asia Forum posted a link to the government’s statement at the end of the article’s comment section, but did not comply with the correction direction, so the government then ordered local internet service providers to block access to it. I cringed at how bad this makes Singapore look—especially after the government had assured academics that POFMA wouldn’t affect academic freedom. And all for what? Because they didn’t like how Chan phrased bits of his piece?!

Anyway, East Asia Forum is now unblocked, because the article was removed from the site “at the request of the author” and the Prime Minister's Office has decided to cancel their POFMA orders. Worth noting: TODAY reported that the article has been “retracted” but removing an article at the author’s request is not quite the same as a retraction on East Asia Forum's part. A retraction usually means that a publication is officially withdrawing a piece because they have lost faith in its integrity or can no longer stand by it. Although the outcome of “removing at the author’s request” and a retraction is the same, there are very different connotations here.

On top of asking that the article be removed, Chan also issued an apology so grovelling it feels like he must have sent it under duress. I mean seriously, get a load of this (excerpts taken from TODAY’s article):

“I am remorseful and deeply sorry to the prime minister, CPIB (Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau), NUS, and all the persons whom I have named for my actions and the distress my article has caused.”
“My neglect and oversight of the facts have resulted in a flawed and biased article, which lacked academic rigour and conveyed false and misleading information to its readers.

“I will exercise greater prudence in my scholarship and hereby undertake that I will not contribute to speculations and unverified rumours.”

He then went on to thank PMO for its corrections and said: “I am truly sorry and have retracted the article from East Asia Forum.”

He thanked the PMO for ordering corrections via POFMA?! Dr Chan, blink twice if you need help!

As if this isn’t enough, NUS then swoops in to do some butt-covering with an internal email on “Responsible Communication” signed off by university president Tan Eng Chye. The email doesn’t mention Chan directly, but it’s quite clear what prompted Tan’s message. “Faculty members… have a duty to educate students, advocate critical thinking, and demonstrate true scholarship which strives to differentiate truth from falsehoods,” he writes. He points to a number of sections in the NUS Code of Conduct for Staff, including a section of the Public Communications and Publications Policy that says “all faculty and staff members should not distribute or otherwise publish anything in any official capacity that may be libellous, defamatory, obscene, indecent or abusive, or that may otherwise violate any law.” This is really quite overkill, considering that a POFMA correction direction doesn’t necessarily indicate that the article was any of those things.

“When putting forth views and opinions in one’s personal capacity, ensure this is clearly stated, and that these do not represent the views or position of NUS. Do not use the NUS affiliation in such instances,” Tan reminds NUS staff. It’s a weird email; one that insists that “NUS is committed to and upholds academic freedom” and that academics “are free to express and share their views and opinions on any subject matter” while being a panicked over-reaction to one academic getting POFMAed.

All this kerfuffle. For an op-ed that wasn’t that salacious and wasn’t really saying anything that others weren’t already saying (i.e. that the recent spate of scandals weren’t good news for the PAP).

Self-sabotaging ourselves out of medal glory

It’s official: Soh Rui Yong is not going to the Asian Games, despite being the first male Singaporean athlete to qualify for the 10,000m and marathon races. In other words, there’ll be no male athlete representing Singapore in the Asian Games 10,000m and marathon. That means 0% chance of winning a medal, even though we have a Singaporean with a good shot of bringing one home. And why liddat? Because the Singapore National Olympic Council (SNOC) don’t like his attitude. And what attitude is this? Being a bit snarky and smart alecky on social media. Meanwhile, the former president of the SNOC had to resign in disgrace because he couldn’t keep it in his pants.

This isn’t anything new in Singapore. When I interviewed Soh some time back for the August issue of Mekong Review, we talked about how his exclusion from the Asian Games team has parallels to people in other professions running into roadblocks for unconvincing reasons that suggest something more is happening in the background. Piss off the wrong powerful people, get into their bad books, and suddenly you might find yourself black- or grey-listed. Is this really about what's best for everyone? Or is this just about power and exercising power?

Parliament says no to suspending Iswaran

Parliament has rejected the motion filed by Hazel Poa of the Progress Singapore Party to suspend S Iswaran as a Member of Parliament, which would then cut him off from the generous MP allowance that he’s still receiving. Poa also filed another motion to suggest amendments to the Parliament (Privileges, Immunities and Powers) Act that would allow Iswaran to be reimbursed if he was cleared of wrongdoing at the end of the investigation.

Leader of the House Indranee Rajah filed a counter-motion calling on Parliament to consider the matter at the end of the CPIB investigations. She also said that the PAP will consider clawing back the MP allowance if Iswaran does end up getting charged.

The Workers’ Party also voted for the PAP motion while rejecting PSP’s. Pritam Singh said that the WP could not support PSP’s motion due to the principle of innocent until proven guilty.

I was kind of “WTF!!!” at first when I heard the news, but upon further reflection it makes sense because if an investigation is all that’s needed to suspend an MP from Parliament and cut their allowance, then Pritam Singh and Faisal Manap are also under police investigation and this would open the door for the PAP to insist that they also be suspended. It's not a good precedent to set. But it is galling to think about the money that Iswaran is still being paid even though he isn’t doing any of his duties. It’s not a small amount! An MP’s annual announce is $192,500—which works out to over $16,000 a month.

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From Kinokuniya's Instagram page. 😎

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