Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Police arrests Singaporean netizen over YOG remarks: Time for chilling effect to take its course

Abdul Malik Mohammed Ghazali made it to the fourth page of the New Paper today (Aug 25, 2010), given the calibrated newsworthiness of the Youth Olympic Games.

Although the news story was about him being arrested, the story was under the banner "News: Youth Olympics 2010".

According to the New Paper, Malik had participated in a Facebook group concerning the Youth Olympic Games, titled "I hate the Youth Olympic Games (YOG) Organising Committee". He aired his opposition to the way the YOG has been organised.

It was reported that Malik was unhappy with "a series of incidents connected with the games" and turned his attention to the auntie-killer Minister with the gender-ambiguous name Vivian Balakrishnan, doctor of many Chinese auntie's hearts.

Malik had posted a comment, with regards to the incident in which 21 staff and volunteers suffered food poisoning. It was reported that he wrote "that the incident showed it was time to 'burn' the minister".

His post was not replicated in the report, and Malik was reported to have "called on the public to 'rally together'". However, it should be noted that the context in which he made these comments are not reported, and hence not known to the wider public.

According to the Temasek Review, a site that plagiarised a couple of my blog posts over the years but only practised linking back after I complained to them, several netizens had been called into question by the police in a series of raids. However, this news has yet to be confirmed.

The New Paper reports that three plain clothes police officers arrived at Malik's workplace August 24, 11am. In the process of calling him in for interrogation, Malik reportedly mentioned that the police were focused on a few words taken from his online comments.

This is indicative that the police may have taken Malik's words out of context, literally interpretating them so they can make a legitimate case out of it. Malik indicated on Facebook that his charge was for "inciting violence and public disorder".

By the way, Malik has erroneously indicated on Facebook that this charge is under "Section 267 chap 244", an unchecked fact reproduced by forums and other websites. It is Chapter 224, which is the penal code. And Section 267C which involves:

Making, printing, etc., document containing incitement to violence, etc.
267C. Whoever —

(a) makes, prints, possesses, posts, distributes or has under his control any document; or

(b) makes or communicates any electronic record,

containing any incitement to violence or counselling disobedience to the law or to any lawful order of a public servant or likely to lead to any breach of the peace shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to 5 years, or with fine, or with both.

The police interpretation of "burn" appears to show that there is a difference in enforcement when it comes to a Prime Minister that speaks of "fixing" the opposition. "Fix" may be read as using underhanded ways to put another party at a disadvantage. "Fix" may also be read as torture or assassinate.

In Malik's case, the authorities see "burn" as having only one meaning and that is to set alight with fire. I believe that even if Malik used "grill", he might also be arrested because the police has already set their sights on him.

It makes me wonder if the police are there to actually protect Singaporean citizens, or are merely part of a wider public relations management team for the Youth Olympic Games.

It is also undemocratic and unconstitutional if people are not allowed to "rally together" to air their views or voice their disapproval (nonviolently).

Speaking of constitutional, Singaporeans have the right to express their opinions. And the job of the police is to protect this, not arrest them. We are not talking about liberal democracy (United States) or soft authorian illiberal single-party democracy (Singapore), but about constitutionality. In Singapore, when you speak up, the police surrounds you not to protect your right to speak, but to take that right away from you.

The laws of incitement to violence and public disorder are enforced without the commonsensical understanding of the social and political context of the country. How many Singaporeans will even be drawn out of their social and political apathy, do the generally irrational thing and commit professional suicide and be engaged in violence and any other activity the ruling party may interpret as public disorder?

In fact, the interpretation of public disorder may even extend to a person standing on the streets carrying a sign indicating disapproval of something or another. Imagine the possible difference in enforcement when you have a PAP MP or Minister versus Chee Soon Juan or Seelan Palay doing the same activity. Well of course, when the PAP MP or Minister does it, no one will give a shit, so they will have to mobilise bodies of grassroots softsoapers, I mean volunteers, to make it look like a legitimate spectacle. The PAP is so white. I shall return to this later.

The only act of "disobedience" in the eyes of the authorities, is when people have enough information in their hands minus the blackouts and censorship, and are able to peacefully voice their opinions without fear, and/or cast their votes. This disobedience is a democratic right, is a constitutional right.

Moreover, the heavy-handed police standard operating procedure of confiscating the information communication devices (e.g. laptops, desktops) is a very potent psychological weapon of thuggery intimidation. This tactics also create a chilling effect in online speech made by Singaporeans

In reality, when it comes to cases involving online speech, speech is made and stored in the domain of cyberspace, and not in the tangible equipment the police demand to seize. Is the law able to catch up with these trends, or are the police going to act on their interpretations and dated standard operating procedures for their handling of such cases?

Any way, all these stand in stark contrast to the whiteness of the PAP. They are free of sin and free of scrutiny. As pointed out in a research by Leong in "Sexual governance and the politics of sex in Singapore" in the Terence Chong (2010) edited book "Management of success: Singapore revisited", the whiteness of the PAP reflects their scandal-free, heterosexual, full-of-virtue persons. Perhaps there are concessions made for PAP members when it comes to enforcement and protection. The media is also tightly controlled and with the amount of legal resources and contacts most party members may have, issues can be silently settled out of court. This is classical optimal public relations management, in which your good image will stick forever. Of course, these are all just speculative. I am sure everyone in Parliament is heterosexual and scandal-free and have never had a run-in with the law or a close relative who had a run-in with the law, on paper. The whiteness of the PAP is here to stay.

Now, contrast this with the systematic destruction of alleged dissidents, or persons whose views are contrary to the establishment.

1) Character assassination: The media, with information from the police, army, and public officials (whispering into their ears), has long played a pivotal role in making certain personalities look less human, disingenuous, compulsive liars, recalcitrant, insane, etc.

This is one of the most effective approach when the media is used as an apparatus to destroy the credibility of a person, using a selective concoction of facts and histories oriented towards a character assassination in the favour of the ruling party.

In Malik's case, he admitted that he was once jailed, but character assassination is not merely inferred from the form of the news but also the function the news serves. In its "form", the reporter stated that Malik had admitted, indicating he voluntarily stated his previous offence and jail term. However, the consumption of the news itself, and how the news "functions", is up to readers' interpretation and they will see that Malik, because of his criminal record, is less credible.

2) Police and secret police tracking: It is an open secret that resources and technologies have been used to track Singaporeans who have been redflagged by the PAP government as possible threats to peace and public order.

The PAP government has an interesting interpretation of "peace and public order", and it appears that their political legitimacy and public image have been silently subsumed under the legal rubric of "peace and public order". Most democracies engage in this form of citizen surveillance here.

But do the Singaporean police and ISD officers track Ministers and PAP Members of Parliament, or exercise surveillance on their phone calls and internet downloads? Our government is one of the least corrupts governments in the world, but shouldn't the police continue to make sure it remains the best government by exercising surveillance on them?

I am sure that the scenario of a corrupt government official will have far greater social, political and economic repercussions than a skinny Seelan Palay standing alone with his placard in some random place in Singapore. So shouldn't the police take the preventive measure and do the right thing (in the utilitarian sense, for the greater good)?

Of course, there is always the ethical issue when the government watches itself, because the idea of B being employed by A to watch A simply does not make sense. You cannot bite the hand that feeds you, and you certainly cannot bite the hand that could pull the plug on you and your family.

The police and ISD should understand that the alleged Singaporean "dissidents", who constantly voice their disapproval of certain governmental decisions, are not anti-Singapore. They are not anti-Singaporeans or anti-people. This is why they do not use violence or force. It is the police who use force and intimidation to get confessions from these "dissidents". We cannot blame the police, because they are employees themselves.

It is really sad to know that the Singaporeans who speak up for other Singaporeans and the inequalities some face, are treated like animals. If there are Singaporeans who really fucking hate the PAP government, let them speak, don't jail them just because of image, face and arrogance issues.

3) The fact that the PAP government has created a system in which lives can easily be destroyed with one "wrong" move: Looking at this sociologically, Singaporean life is oriented around having materials, paying for a home, possibly raising (and paying for kids), having insufficient retirement funds because CPF has reduced employer contribution over the years, having influx of foreign talents to drive down wages, the reduction of the emphasis and role of social welfare, etc. One "wrong" move, and you are blacklisted for life. So Singaporeans thinking logically in the way the government wants them to think logically, and stay away from politics and engaging the government. This is a system to control Singaporeans, and most of us willingly obey.

Our obedience is a rational choice born out of fear. This is a legitimate fear that once you are marked by the government or the secret police, your employment will somehow be affected. In the process, the government spins its own story by reading this obedience as genuine support. At the same time, look at National Service, with the minimal incentives as well as threat of incarceration, Singaporean men appear to be "supportive" by enlisting. Families cannot speak up against National Service either, simply because the media would not give them an avenue, or they fear further repercussions for their Singaporean sons. Same goes for the elections, when the gerrymandered GRCs see no opposition contest, the PAP assumes that Singaporeans support the PAP. Given the truckloads of intelligent people who run the nation, it is very odd that we are fed uncritical and non-reflexive rationalisations that make no sense whatsoever.

Any way, coming back to Malik's arrest, I agree with Malik's comments that people should rally together, in the sense, that like-minded sufferers should peacefully voice their views to the government and make the government live up to its words as one that listens and appreciates its people.

However, I personally find it difficult to appreciate the "burn" comment, in whatever context it was used. Obviously, PAP MP for Yio Chu Kang Seng Han Thong was at the receiving end of a vicious attack in which some pissed off sacked cab driver set him on fire.

Singapore is a country that cannot appreciate metaphors. Singaporeans see things literally, and so too does the government. And this is why whenever a public official's statements are "taken out of context", there is substantial public relations corporate communications follow-up to provide a detailed clarification, fighting the PR fires and showing Singaporeans the context in which the statements were made. Yeah, right.

That said, "burn" is not the best choice for a word. Unlike Lee Kuan Yew and his army of public relations communications specialists (and lawyers) to help clarify statements made by him that might have caused public uproar, Malik has nothing. I just hope he is treated with respect and dignity as investigations go on, even though the confiscation of his belongings and raiding of his home already constitute violations of these principles, and on top of that, are indicative of a strategic psychological warfare engaged against him by the state.

This arrest should not scare Singaporeans who genuinely care about how things are being run in the country. If Singaporeans are unhappy, they should voice the reason for their unhappiness, and suggest what can be done to make things better. Surely, that is not an anti-Singaporean sentiment. All the more, the police should be protecting these Singaporeans who choose to speak up. It is very perplexing that our Singaporean police do not protect the constitutional right of Singaporeans to voice their opinion, moreover in a peaceful manner.

The reality that the state uses force and physical and psychological intimidation where/when Singaporeans don't, is indicative of the state of mind the PAP government is in. Singaporeans know that they stand to lose a lot and have their futures put in danger should they step out of line, but they also have the right to peacefully articulate their opinions and disapproval, even if it meant making the government look foolish. Making someone look foolish, by the way, has nothing to do with defamation.

If the government does a good job, it cannot expect praises. Just like a referee who does a good job, a good government will enjoy freedom from negative criticism and scrutiny. But if there are Singaporeans voicing their disapproval and asking questions, the government has the responsibility to engage, and given its position in authority, it has to do so with grace and poise, not force and intimidation.

It is only with force, intimidation and heavy/high-handed tactics, that will generate poor public opinion of the state and its various agencies. And the state should not allocate resources (i.e. manipulate the media, use heavier police enforcement, etc.) to make itself look better in the eyes of the public, but actually humbly address its own shortcomings and improve from there.

Like the police, the media cannot be lapdogs to the government. As I have mentioned in previous posts, the media coverage of the YOG is a severely blatant overexposure, which is good for the athletes, but also serves to make it look like a successful event. Even the media and information semi-literates can smell this calibrated news propaganda from a mile away. Only the editors will know the truth though.

It is only natural with mainstream media exposure, we force a counter-discourse in online media, in which people air their differing views on the games. And what does the government do? Arrest Malik, and probably others. More surveillance. More control. Doesn't make sense at all.

I do not agree with the organisation of the Youth Olympic Games, but as I have continually emphasised, I feel it is very important for our local athletes to get the competition and media coverage. Only time will tell if our local athletes will get the same kind of support and media coverage in the future, similar to what they are getting now. Only time will tell if National Service will (and continue to) rob a large segment of our male athletes' dreams and they disappear from the sporting world.

The government may see it as "Singaporeans want more and more", but I see it as "Singaporeans deserve better".


Transitioning said...

Thanks for the nice writeup.

Its alarming for all bloggers.

I have posted your article on my site

Take care.

Gilbert Goh
Support site for the unemployed

Gary said...


By virtue of the action taken by the police IMO Viv Bala has now been put on the spot. How he is going to behave as this incident pans out is going to either help him dig or help him out of his political grave - FIGURATIVELY SPEAKING. The choice is his.

Kittyeatdog said...

Reading your posts are like catalysts for my artworks.

Seelan Palay said...

Excellent piece! But I'm not that skinny, am I?