July 10th, 2006
It started with a innocently with a usual humor piece by mrbrown titled S’poreans are fed, up with progress! on his weekly Friday column on Today (a free press in Singapore). It isn’t the first time mrbrown (aka Lee Kin Mun), the self-acknowledge humorist who “documents the dysfunctional side of Singapore”, making fun of government policy but it is the first that got a very strong rebutal from the government: Distorting the truth, mr brown?.
What follows after went crazy. Supporters comes to mrbrown’s defense on his blog, upset at the statement from the government. Even Paris-based Reporters without border chipped in criticising the Singapore government. Then when mrbrown informs his readers that his weekly column was suspended, more people comes to mrbrown defense and sending letters to the editors, the CEO of mediacorp (owner of Today) and even to the Minister, the Prime Minister and the President.
Sadly, none of the letters was published. Today rejected all the letters essentially enforcing a news blackout on the topic but the debate goes on the Internet and on other prints, first on UFM100.3 (radio station), then on Straits Times and finally on ChannelNewsAsia.
To be fair to the government, I don’t think MICA “ordered” the suspension of mrbrown or the news blackout. The relationship between the media and Singapore government is fairly complex but could loosely classify as “master-mistress” relationship, ie ‘do whatever you like but never forget you are my mistress’. The fact that this was on the other main stream media is an attestment that there is no ‘secret memo’.
In other words, it is a ‘self-censorship’ enforced by Today management. Sadly, they have miscalculated the response. In most media outfit, the management will be screaming with joy, let the debate go on publishing both side of the arguments and watch their readership shoot through the roof. Unfortunately for them, the self-imposed censorship backfires with a population who no longer tolerates censorship so it becomes a double whammy – first slap by the government then second slap by their readers.A week out and it is apparent people are still angry over the incident1. Some went as far as organizing a flash mob silent protest yesterday. It was amazing because this is the first non-political related protest in Singapore for many years. The fact that 30 people willing to break the law (gathering of more than five people to protest is illegal without a permit) to make a statement is a sign how much people are affected by it2. So not surprisingly, the police made a statement that they are looking into this protest, out of neccessary as law enforcer and perhaps as a warning to others who maybe trying to pull off the stunt again.
I have been on the phone with mrbrown every night, mostly to give him support through this difficult time. When one have hundreds of supporting comments, sometimes people let their ego goes over their head. One thing I learn about Singapore is that confrontational don’t go down well. So far, mrbrown has handled it well and carry through the difficult time with a cool head. His only vague response is a podcast that basically say “I am Singaporean…So Say We All”.
While the comments are slowly down, the news of this incident has went on to oversea, reported by Jeff Ooi and even Slashdot. AFP already cover this and last I heard, there will be a story on Asiaweek. I would not be surprise if RSF go on and lower Singapore press freedom rating further from its current #140 because of this. Last year, the AcidFlask incident made it on the US State Department human right report on Singapore. While AcidFlask could be argued as a defamation case, the mrbrown incident is one clearly on free speech, one that is sacred to Americans. While the government has already said they wont let foreign press affects their policy, it would be hard to say if Americans companies decided to pull out of Singapore (not that I wish that happens of course).
This is also the week that the National Internet Advisory Committee (NIAC) issued their revised recommendations. Among them, NIAC discussed and rejected an blogger registration policy (*phew*). This was sadly lost in the noise when everyone attention was focus on mrbrown.
1 While the Singapore government called out mrbrown as trying to “Distorting the truth”, one explaination of the public outrage is not because his satire is influenting the public but it is a reflection of the public sentiment on the ground. Perspections often differs from the truth and as we all know, perspections > truth.
2 Officially, there was no arrest made during the flash mob but apparently a few was pulled aside for questioning by plaincloth police.