Thursday, July 06, 2006


"I have been informed that TODAY has suspended my column," writes mrbrown. Thus, Today appears to have acted on the government's statement on opinion columns in mainstream media (see earlier posting). We don't know if there was any explicit instruction from the government to discontinue his column, but Today editors probably felt they could not read the government's letter any other way. The government said that "it is not the role of journalists or newspapers in Singapore to champion issues, or campaign for or against the Government", and implied that mrbrown is a "partisan player in politics", "exploiting his access to the mass media to undermine the Government's standing with the electorate". Indeed, the main intended audience of the government's response to mrbrown's column may have been the editors of Mediacorp Press and SPH, who have been trying to increase their publications' cool quotient by co-opting aspects of online culture, including celebrity bloggers.

The 1990s had the Catherine Lim Affair. Will Singaporeans be talking about the mrbrown affair in the years to come? It is too early to tell what it spells for Singapore media and politics in the long term. One thing, though, is clear: the government is drawing a distinct line between alternative niche media and mainstream mass media. Mrbrown's offence was that his views were "widely circulated in a regular column in a serious newspaper". Presumably, his blog will continue to be tolerated. Indeed, 10 years after the government introduced the class licence and registration rules for the internet, it has yet to block or ban a single political website. (At a conference recently, I put the question to messrs brown and Miyagi: by and large, has the government kept its promise to regulate the internet with a "light touch"? Their answer, at the time: yes.)

While this regulatory distinction between mainstream and alternative media seems clearcut, there remain some question marks over the government's position. First, experts on media regulation usually say that rules should be platform-neutral. Otherwise, especially in an age of digital convergence, you may end up with an inconsistent policy, with the same content being banned on one medium but not on another. But perhaps the distinction being drawn in this case is not a technological one between print and online, but is based on relative reach and influence (like the way cinemas, subscription TV and free-to-air TV are subject to different censorship rules).

Second, what does this mean for newspapers' attempts to move with the times and borrow from online culture, including the Straits Times' much-hyped STOMP? The online activities of registered newspaper companies are accorded a special status: for example, they are considered "news" and thereby exempt from the rules against online electioneering. But, when free-wheeling bloggers and online discussants are co-opted by the likes of STOMP, should they be treated with a light touch a la the rest of cyberspace, or to the "higher standard" of mainstream media since they are circulated with the mainstream media's stamp?

Third, it is one thing to demolish an individual article and declare that it has crossed the OB markers, but it's another thing altogether to decide that the writer is himself permanently out of bounds, and that even his future, unpenned views cannot be published. That is what the suspension of mrbrown's column amounts to. If Today's decision reflects official policy, then it strikes me as a policy of going after the man, not the ball, and is a retrograde step in Singapore's political development.


DramaMama said...

"If Today's decision reflects official policy, then it strikes me as a policy of going after the man, not the ball, and is a retrograde step in Singapore's political development."

Well said, prof. Can't agree more with you on that point.

Anonymous said...

This would not have happen if PAP did not politicise everything deem to their advantage.

PAP should not politicise the media.

I mean it is like PAP have politicise everything including NDP.

But why the need to politicise?

Is controlling Singaporeans right down to the bone that important and advantageous to PAP? Nothing more is important to them?

This would not have happen if the media was not politicise. The determination by PAP to control all things is scary.

They want to control but refuse to be responsible or apologetic when things go wrong is even scarier.

All we ordinary people can do is vote Opposition in every election even if the Opposition loses. I cannot think of any other way to make PAP eat humble pie.

Then no one would have the need to feel fear,tension and paranoid in their own homeland.

PAP has to be Opposition for some time for Singapore's culture and climate to change, that is the only way.

My vote is nothing but many votes is something.Please do not forget today's lesson even if PAP loosen control come GE 2011.

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What is more scarier is that PAP took the most popular blogger in Singapore to put on chopping block and use it to show as an example to everyone who wants to blog about politics. (Kai Dao: Open Knife)

It is a very good political move by PAP.It has increased the fear factor by many notches. We are back to the 70s & 80s again.

Most probably after this episode, there will be less activity on political blogs and Singaporeans will be apathetic again which PAP always 'advocates'.

Maybe Mr Brown might even fizzle out.

Anonymous said...

Isnt TODAY guilty of politicization of the issue and being partisan by dropping Mr Brown?

I mean Mr Brown gave some private opinions and PAP replied. End of story.

Let the people decide who is right and who is wrong.
Not PAP or Mediacorp.

There is no need to drop Mr Brown and make this issue a political fight between PAP and Anti-PAP.

In fact, it is Mediacorp who is politicising the whole issue. It is Mediacorp who is partisan.

Anonymous said...

Please suspend all the Pro PAP Journalists as well for being partisan and politicised.

There are train loads of them. Everyday churning out Pro PAP news until like PAP is God.

They paint Opposition like demons so they are partisan as well.

Please be fair in implementing laws(if any) and policy.

I can name some for you: Chua sisters, Loh Chee Kong, Aaron Low, Nicholas Fang etc.

Please suspend all of them as well.

Eugene Neu said...

I'd comment, but then I might get my chances at being a journalist shot in future wouldn't I? *sarcasm*

Good shots all around prof as usual, though whaddaya think of TST quoting you?

Gerald said...

MICA's letter to TODAY was excessively harsh and unnecessary. However, I doubt TODAY received instructions from the government to drop mr brown. It was an over-reaction. By going all the way and suspending mr brown's column, when its editors could have just been more selective in publishing his commentaries, TODAY has demonstrated its willingness to "go the extra mile" to second guess what it thinks the Government Ministers want to see.

simplesandra said...

Nice post. Too bad the Straits Times quoted you out of context, though. :)

haveahacks said...

Regarding sg_patriot's post, actually, I think it would have been far worse for Today to have been "selective" in publishing his columns than to have dropped it entirely. If it starts selectively toning down his columns, or worse, persuading Mr Brown to self-tone-down his columns, we are back in the Straits Times model.

Back during the apartheid era in South Africa, the government demanded that a newspaper drop a particular article. The newspaper complied by simply leaving a blank space where the article would otherwise have been. Sometimes the dogs that don't bark are the most reliable witnesses.

As political commentary, Mr Brown's latest podcast ( was masterful. My respect for his talent has gone up many notches. See ? Who says engineers aren't good at expressing themselves ?

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Are the following "light touches?"

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Jul 2002 : The police again raided internet critic Robert Ho's home and confiscated his computer for two articles posted on soc.culture.singapore. On the same night, social activist Zulfikar Mohamad also had his computer carted away by the police for an article posted on Both postings had raised the issue of nepotism. The two men were being investigated for criminal defamation which can result in a prison sentence of up to 2 years, a fine, or both. Mr Ho complained that, 2 weeks after seizure of his computer, authorities had compelled him to stay in a mental facility for more than a week. Zulfikar Mohamad has since left for Australia.

Aug 2002 : Bloomberg news service publicly apologized and agreed to pay $595,000 in damages to Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong and Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew for an internet-distributed column which had alleged that Ms Ho Ching, Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's wife, was promoted to the senior position in government investment firm Temasek Holdings because of her relationship with the senior leadership.

Sep 2005 :, an Asian online publication, issued an apology and agreed to pay an unspecified amount of damages and legal costs to PM Lee Hsien Loong, SM Goh Chok Tong and MM Lee Kuan Yew for an article about the Lee family and Temasek Holdings.

Oct 2005 : Two bloggers who allegedly posted racist remarks online were sentenced to jail under the Sedition Act, a colonial-era law used by the British to fight communist insurgency, and invoked for the first time since independence. In the same month, sedition charges were also brought against another blogger who allegedly posted inflammatory remarks about Muslims. The district court placed the 17-year old student on probation.

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