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Wake Up your idea

This week: The admin of a popular online platform is charged with criminal defamation, and two online events for your consideration.

This newsletter is a day early because my bestie and I have planned a day off today—now that I think about, I don’t think we’ve ever done this, we’ve only ever done work together—and I want to try to clear the decks as much as possible so I can just have fun for the day. I mean, I have to work in the weekend... so by the time you read this on a Friday, I intend to be completely lost in a novel in a peaceful little café. Or playing with plushies. Something like that. I DESERVE IT


Ariffin Sha, the admin of the popular online platform Wake Up Singapore, has been charged with criminal defamation for publishing a story about a miscarriage at KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital that turned out to be false. This was something that happened over two years ago, when Wake Up published a story in which a woman claimed KKH mismanagement had led to her miscarrying. Wake Up later discovered that their source had lied, after which they retracted the story and issued an apology with an account of their process. When they got POFMAed anyway, they compiled with the order. Now Ariffin is getting charged with criminal defamation, the maximum penalty of which is imprisonment of up to two years, a fine, or both.

Opposing this charge doesn’t mean we think falsehoods should circulate freely online with no consequences. But there needs to be consideration for proportionality and impact.

Mistakes are made in the media. It happens even with established, fully professionalised media outlets. Sometimes it looks like getting bamboozled by a freelance journalist who has cooked up fake sources in multiple stories (The Guardian). Other times it’s buying into government officials’ lies and mischaracterisations to justify an unjust war (a huge chunk of the US mass media, and other large news outlets too). Even the kindest reading of the situation would suggest that The Straits Times and other Singaporean news outlets dropped the ball on journalistic standards of proof in 1987—therefore misleading an entire population—when they uncritically published the Singapore government’s claims about Marxist conspirators. What more a small, amateur platform in Singapore run by volunteers who are just trying to do what they can in a highly skewed media environment? (And surely we’re not suggesting that it’s okay to be fooled by governments, but that it’s criminal to be tricked by a member of the public who, as far as we know, has no political clout?)

I’m not saying this to excuse or minimise the fact that Wake Up made a mistake believing a dodgy source that led them to publish fabrications. But they apologised once they found out, retracted the story and published an account of what had transpired. The authorities then also POFMAed them for good measure. Both the retraction and the correction notice—which were also reported in the mainstream press at the time—would have set the record straight, to the best of anyone’s ability. Is this criminal defamation suit, coming more than two years after the story’s initial publication, really necessary? What, exactly, was the harm that was caused to KKH in these two years, that the retraction, apology and POFMA were insufficient to repair? Have Singaporeans lost confidence in that hospital as a place to deliver babies and stopped seeking medical care there? If the harm or damage to KKH’s reputation was so serious, why wait until now to charge Wake Up’s admin? Did it really take law enforcement all this time to investigate the publication of a story that Wake Up already admitted was false two years ago?

In a nutshell: was the harm to KKH so great that, beyond retraction, apology and correction, we have to potentially send the admin of an independent media platform to prison to make up for it?

There is also impact beyond Wake Up and this specific case to consider. I don’t think I have to explain to subscribers of this newsletter how incredibly out of whack the Singapore media landscape is. Singaporean traditional media—newspapers, TV news and radio news—are dominated by those in power, and echo their views accordingly. There are precious few platforms, outlets and publications that don’t have to toe the government line, and even among these are many who self-censor or have to pull their punches at least some of the time. (I’m not saying this in a judgy way; it’s just the reality of operating in an environment with very limited media freedom. Even with We, The Citizens, I must admit that I have sometimes moderated myself more than I’ve wanted to, in an attempt to mitigate risk.)

This makes independent outlets especially precious, imperfect though they might be. All indie outlets in Singapore are struggling in some way: limited funding, limited manpower, limited capacity, limited everything. This doesn’t meant that we should get a free pass and be able to operate and publish with impunity—in fact, it is good for growing experience, honing skills and improving the overall media environment when readers and audiences hold us accountable in good faith—but we should oppose heavy-handed measures that grind these efforts into the ground. Independent platforms like Wake Up and The Online Citizen gave civil society groups space when the mainstream media refused to report on their activities or advocacy. TOC covered migrant workers’ issues and wrote about homelessness back when no one else wanted to touch these matters, and Wake Up was the one that exposed SPH fudging their circulation figures. We might disagree with some of their work sometimes, but we can do that while still acknowledging their value to the overall media landscape. (Also, if there’s a publication you read that you’ve never ever disagreed with, not even once, I’d suggest you’re not reading it critically enough.)

This criminal defamation charge could severely damage Wake Up’s operations, if not kill it off completely—and at a time when we’re all anticipating a general election, too. As citizens with a vested interest in media plurality and outlets for expression that aren’t government-controlled, we should be alarmed by this move against Wake Up and stand in solidarity with Ariffin. We all ultimately suffer if we perpetuate an environment where the margin of error for independent outlets critical of the government is set at zero, because all media outlets, big or small, screw up at some point. If we want Wake Up to do better, we should be thinking about how we can support them to improve, not cheer punitive moves that could shut them down.


Come and talk about the proposed racial harmony bill! Last weekend, I mentioned that the government is soliciting public feedback on a proposed Maintenance of Racial Harmony Bill, and said something about possibly organising a democracy classroom/discussion session. Well, here’s one: join the Transformative Justice Collective for a discussion tomorrow afternoon over Zoom (if you're an email subscriber, you should already have received an announcement about this). And here’s another one, this time offline, in the evening of 3 May.

My offer to facilitate offline discussions, if you’d like to host one, still stands! Just email me and let’s see if we can work something out.


Interested in learning about “security” and capitalism in the Singaporean context? Then the Transformative Justice Collective’s first public webinar of the year, held at 4pm on 4 May, is for you. Here’s an excerpt from the blurb:

Through the lens of critical criminology, Joe Greener and Eve Yeo will explore how "criminal justice" is used to realise a series of political objectives, including the maintenance of a set of unequal economic relations based on gender, 'race' and class. The discussion will reveal the innately political and contestable nature of "security" in Singapore.

Telegram group!

I saw Checkpoint Theatre's Secondary: The Musical last night and it was truly truly excellent. I laughed and cried my way through it. Just beautiful. Pain, but beautiful.

Thank you for reading! As always, feel free to forward this weekly wrap to anyone you like, and spread the word about this newsletter!