By Ernest Lee (17A01B), Gan Chin Lin (17A01B), Bryan Ling (17S06C), and Hari Kope (16S06H)
The World Press Freedom Index ranks Singapore 154th out of 180 countries – the 85th percentile. In terms of press freedom, Singapore is barely staying out of remedial. Discussions about the presence, role and freedom of the media in Singapore never exclude buzzwords like ‘authoritarianism’,’ ‘free speech’, ‘draconian’ and ‘harmony’, but what do these terms actually mean?
Students were invited by Raffles Debaters to spend an evening pondering the relevance, legitimacy and implications of these concepts in the second instalment of the Hodge Lodge Debate Series. Upon entering, members of the audience were challenged with the motion ‘This House regrets media censorship in Singapore’.
Two choices were given by the host: to sit on the left, and support proposition; or to sit on the right to stand for the opposition. This initial poll seemed to indicate sympathy for the opposition, but the debate had yet to begin – the night’s speakers, with their wealth of experience and skill, promised to change some minds.
The panel for proposition consisted of former Press Chairperson, national debater and debate coach Mr Lee Chin Wee alongside Ms Jolene Tan, author of ‘A Certain Exposure’ and ardent advocate of freedom and rights; whereas on opposition, former national debaters Mr Arthur Lee and Mr Darion Hotan.
Chin Wee starting the event off strong.
Chin Wee began by noting that the press, rather than being a pure expression of democracy, curiously serves the role of protecting the government. Censorship, be it physical or online, entrenches political illiberalism. Character assassination of dissidents, social engineering, reinforcing historical narratives and suppressing counternarratives are just a few of the methods used. This state monopoly on information can only regress democracy when ideas no longer come to public prominence and serve as a means of expression.
Arthur recharacterized free speech as a potential means to ‘denigrate, demean and decry’: restrictions, he argued, were necessary to defend society. Citing the already liberalizing state of affairs, an unfettered media could serve as a means to oppress and exclude those already vulnerable in the public sphere. Preventing a race to the bottom when self-interested news agencies publish incendiary or misleading pieces was also crucial to nation building- another point for censorship.
“I haven’t debated in a while so please forgive my lack of… debate-ness.”
Ms Jolene Tan, however, challenged the degree, intensity and certainty of control pervasive in state censorship, and recast liberalization as an attempt at damage control rather than genuine political concessions. Positing that a centralized, total control of narratives would be the problematic end goal of the current model of censorship, the audience certainly appreciated the uniquely Singaporean context of the debate.
The debate concluded with Darion’s examples of laughable Daily Mail headlines as destructive instances of free speech: reminders that free speech did not always correlated with quality reporting, and that some degree of trust was present in government-sponsored sources. STOMP and other websites were brought up as reinforcers of xenophobia and polarization: the real enemies of the state censorship targeted.
Darion Hotan closing off the debate.
One thing striking about all speakers was their thorough engagement with the Singapore context. Local case material ranging from anecdotes of ISA detainees witnessing force feeding during detention to an analysis on the legalistic methods of repression utilized by Singaporean entities were focal points of the debate, and speakers all avoided the trap of lapsing into oft-parroted arguments about third-party harm or right to choice.
Audience members taking the opportunity to engage in lively discussion.
After the main debate, the floor was opened to audience members during the Q&A and discussion panel components. One particular exchange that stood out was a lively discussion on the true value of democracy to a society – challenging an earlier premise proposed by Chin Wee that freedom of the press is important due to its intrinsic role in preserving democracy, and resulting in an unexpected but intriguing digression into the role of the CCP in China’s growth and success.
Another question provided an interesting insight into the personal experiences of Chin Wee and Ms Jolene Tan – How can bloggers avoid antagonising the government whilst discussing controversial issues? Being popular bloggers themselves, Ms Jolene Tan talked us through her thought process before writing a post – first and foremost avoiding any conflicts of interest due to her professional involvement with AWARE.
Post-debate panel of discussion.
Chin Wee expressed similar sentiments, noting his current occupational involvement with the SAF and thus generally steering clear of commenting on related issues. Both agreed that a general rule of thumb seemed to be to steer clear of party politics and bribery accusations, though they once again emphasized that there were no hard and fast “out of bounds markers” set by the government.
“A lot of these discussions are largely theoretical – it’s really intellectual – but the question is how does that translate to real life?” Ms Umarani, teacher in-charge of Raffles Debaters, shared her thoughts on the motivation governing the Hodge Lodge Debate Series. “We’re so idealistic when we argue in class, but then after that that’s it – it just dies. So we just want to create an awareness first, to try and reach out to the larger community to get people thinking. Some people will act on it, most won’t, but at least for the few who will act on it.”
“I just hope it sparked more thought,” said Chin Wee when asked about his thoughts on the debate. ”Personally I lean towards political and press liberalization, but I don’t claim that everybody should hold that opinion. But what I do think is if you do hold an opinion, you must have considered the alternative, and you must have reached a logically consistent reason for why you believe in that stance, because knowledge in the absence of discourse doesn’t really count as knowledge – it’s just something that you feel.”
Chin Wee’s blog: stuffaboutsingapore.wordpress.com
Ms Jolene Tan’s blog: jolenetan.org