Bloggers vs. Government: Open Democracy of the Internet

My friend Jun informed me that The Economist recently added some blogger-related news to their monthly City Guide for Singapore:

Net losses
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”.

10 thoughts on “Bloggers vs. Government: Open Democracy of the Internet

  1. Chen Jiahao was not an A*star scholar. He was with PSC and his story was incidentally featured by the New Paper in April. I supposed that was when Philip Yeo got to know about his (now infamous) blog.

  2. Thanks for clarifying… there’s really so much information missing. I was wondering how Philip Yeo actually found his blog…

  3. Hi Kevin, my 2-cents:
    1) A*STAR isn’t “the Singapore government”. It’s an agency funded by the government. There’s a difference. A*STAR has as much influence in controlling blogs as say, NLB (my employer) — which is nil.

    2) The whole issue was really between Philip Yeo (i.e. representing A*STAR) and AcidFlask. The Singapore Government was out of the picture as I saw it (ok, the “conspiracy theorists” can say what they want).

    3) The “scuffle” was never about SG bloggers Vs A*STAR (though some saw it that way). But since AcidFlash was part of the SG Blogger community, some in the SG blog community naturally felt that they might be “persecuted” and took issue with A*STAR. I think that’s where things got blown up. I know people in A*STAR. They didn’t take issue with bloggers. They just took issue with AcidFlask.

    4) As for this statement:
    >>>
    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…
    >>>
    Really? Too much Star Wars? : )

  4. Hahaha… I kind of felt that it was overblown, but never really understood the extent of it. Thanks for clarifying! 🙂

  5. Ivan, regarding (3), I think even though you are factually correct, I think the real punchline that concerns concerned bloggers is that ‘if an agency sponsored by the government has the ability to shut down blogs, this can happen to any one of us’. Hence, the outcry.

    Like you suggest, the people in the org didn’t take issue with bloggers, only with acid. What if one day the org wants to take issue with my blog or your excellent library blog? Would the exact same thing happen? Threatened lawsuit followed by closure?

    I think the situation is more like the proverbial ‘First they came for the _xxx_, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a _xxx_’ sort of thing. Seen from this perspective, the reactions from the local blogsphere and international press are not unreasonable. Conspiracy theories aside, there’s no doubt in my mind that justified fear has caused some to rethink their blogging careers… 🙂

  6. Speaking for myself, I see several themes here, but the biggest one being “where that darn line is drawn”. In Singapore, we get caught in this “grey area” when we push our media into a part of social space that tests how system accepts it.

    As always, the government intervenes on behalf of the citizens to justify whether the stuff in the grey area is conceptually good or bad.

    To the list of home-grown Singaporean plays, movies, books, should we now add blogs to the list of subjective content deemed for government condemnation should they see fit?

  7. Hi Jeff, in response to your comment:
    >>>
    What if one day the org wants to take issue with my blog or your excellent library blog? Would the exact same thing happen? Threatened lawsuit followed by closure?
    >>>

    Well, we have to believe in something (or things). And my belief is that it’s not in the current Singapore Government’s interest to take such draconian measures. In a globalised world, doing so is as good as a death sentence for Singapore (i.e. no investors will come). We’re not like China where potential for profits exceed the political risk.

    But say if my employer (or some agency) wants to shutdown my blog, I’ll be angry and I’ll be worried. But finally I will just be philosophical about it and let it go. It’s just a blog (I don’t quite buy the “blogging is freedom” hype). Another of my belief is that “it’s all an illusion of control anyway”.

    We have to “Blog Smart” (as they say in Microsoft).

    (p.s. My blog, excellent? You sure know how to flatter, eh. Thanks!)

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