Defamation lawsuits in Singapore usually involve ruling-party politicians and their opponents. But in May, a government agency used the threat of legal action to force a university student into shutting down his online journal or “blog”. Chen Jiahao, a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, apologised for his “Caustic Soda” blog, which criticised Singapore’s Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*star). Mr Jiahao’s web journal had gripes about the agency (which had awarded him an academic scholarship) and its chairman. A*star said the student’s remarks went “way beyond fair comment”.
The agency’s behaviour brought a rebuke from the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists, which accused A*star of using lawsuits to “chill commentary on the internet”. Reporters Without Borders, which ranks Singapore only one place ahead of Iraq in its worldwide press freedom index, said the case underlined the limits of free expression in the city-state.
Before you read what I’ve got to say, do note that blogs that talk about the entire incident have been chronologically link to by Huichien Loy at The Singapore Angle. Loy also provides a plea to fellow bloggers in respect to the protection of bloggers involved.
Here I go with my late and rather quick reflections on what happened:
(If you spot any inaccuracies, please help me clarify any mistakes I make in my account)
I just got to know AcidFlask (aka Chen Jiahao) before this incident and also wrote in with the five or so other comments on his “controversial” article before Mr. Philip Yeo demanded the article be removed. Since then, Jiahao’s been keeping the rest of us Singaporean bloggers in touch with what’s going on. I think it’s rather silly how this started…
The article he posted discussed issues he had with A*Star and their bonded scholars (Jiahao was one such scholar). I agreed with Jiahao that there was nothing offensive when we looked at the article again, but Mr. Philip Yeo apparently took offense to one of the blog comments of the article (not sure who’s) and demanded Jiahao to remove the article and post an apology for defamation. Jiahao had no choice but to removed it of course, and posted an apology. Philip Yeo felt the apology wasn’t good enough and wanted a more unconditional apology. Fearing for his family back in Singapore, Jiahao complied, and even removed the blog entirely (which is a good move since his anonymity was compromised). FYI: He has a new blog up under a new pseudonym.
This incident really shows the dark power of our Singapore government and how the Internet allows citizens to fights back with the technological affordances of open democracy… How? Because by the time Philip Yeo sent out the demands, the rest of the Singapore blogosphere took action and posted the news on their own blogs… First the foreign press started publishing the news, then followed by the local news media like Channel News Asia and The New Paper (you can figure out why this sequence is so).
You can really see how information flowed based on this event. At one point when the media coverage of this incident went more than mainstream, the Singapore government even issued a press release stating that “Singapore government decides not to sue blogger“… ’nuff said.
It’s a clear win for the bloggers, especially for Singapore bloggers. With the kind of potential democratic power blogging provides, it’s clearly one strong reason why I blog. It’s available power to tip the status quo for those who seek it. There’s no better time to heed the words of academia: “Publish or Perish”.