So POFMA came a-knockin'...

Issue 90

Lots to cover today! But I’d also like to recommend this feature on Singapore in Nikkei Asian Review. I’m putting it in this intro because I wasn’t sure which section I should slot it into!

And Happy Lunar New Year, everyone! 🧧If anyone would like to leave an angpow, you can always become a Milo Peng Funder, or head over to my Ko-Fi page.


Coronavirus in Singapore

There are now three confirmed coronavirus patients in Singapore. But while people should be concerned and prepared, there’s no need to panic. All hospitals are capable to treating confirmed cases. Screenings are now being conducted at border checkpoints, since heavier traffic is expected ahead of the Lunar New Year. Retailers are also stocking up on face masks. Even the transport company, Comfort DelGro, says they are stockpiling masks and disinfectants for their taxi and bus drivers.

Take care, everyone!

Family drama ahead of Lunar New Year

Li Shengwu has had it with the contempt of court case against him. He says that the Attorney-General’s Chambers have been trying to get parts of his defence affidavit struck out and also sealed, so the public won’t know what was struck out. “In light of these events, I have decided that I will not continue to participate in the proceedings against me. I will not dignify the AGC’s conduct by my participation,” he wrote on Facebook.

The AGC did not take this announcement well. They say that Li’s actions show that “he knows that his conduct will not stand up to scrutiny” and is therefore coming up with excuses to run away. They also said that they were going to ask him questions about his Facebook friends, and how many are members of the media—according to the AGC, this would demonstrate whether Li would have expected his friends-only comments to be spread more widely. Li says who his FB friends are is none of the AGC’s business.

Then there’s the family drama, because Li’s FB post also mentioned that he’s unfriended his cousin, Li Hongyi, son of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. The premier’s younger siblings allege that Lee and his wife Ho Ching have plans to bring Li Hongyi into politics.

Li Hongyi’s since responded via a public Facebook post response to his cousin. “I don't know whats going on between you and the government, but I've got nothing to do with it,” he wrote. (Thought: maybe he should sign up to this newsletter so he will find out what’s going on. 😛)

If you’d like a recap of the family saga, I refer you to Issue 37 of this newsletter. It’s a little out-of-date but you’ll get the gist.

Kena POFMA

I really should start a permanent POFMA section to this newsletter, shouldn’t I…

I wrote an op-ed for the New York Times on POFMA this past week, covering the four cases (up till that point) and looking at how the usage of the law hasn’t lived up to the reassurances that we were given ahead of its passage.

Then I got POFMAed the next day.

To be clear, I wasn’t POFMAed for the op-ed (the timing was just magic 😘). Instead, I was given a POFMA order because Minister for Home Affairs K Shanmugam was POFMA-ing Malaysian NGO Lawyers for Liberty. If you remember from the last issue, LFL had put out a statement claiming that, in the event of a rope breaking during an execution, prison officers were told to kick the prisoner in the back of the neck. The Singapore government has now responded by issuing a Correction Direction to LFL, but also to The Online Citizen (who had published an article about the allegations), Yahoo! Singapore (who had shared a link to a story containing the allegations), and to myself (for sharing the statement on Facebook).

In the government’s response, they say that LFL’s statement is “completely baseless”. They also say that the rope has never broken during executions, and that prison officers aren’t given any of the training that LFL alleges they have.

It’s completely reasonable that the government be able to respond to LFL’s claims. That’s not in dispute. But the method is troubling. After sharing the statement on Facebook—in which I made no statement or conclusion as to the truth of LFL’s allegations—I’d sent questions to the Singapore Prison Service to seek their response and other information related to how executions are carried out. The Online Citizen did the same, before they ran their article. Neither of us received a response, only the eventual POFMA order.

This matters because, unlike press statements or other responses to the media, Correction Directions under POFMA come with other implications. Non-compliance can result in a big fine or imprisonment, and even if you do comply, there are other considerations too. I covered this in a previous supplement.

Yahoo! Singapore has complied with the order. The Online Citizen applied to the minister to get him to retract the direction, failed, and will be taking the matter to court. I’ve added the correction notice to my post, but with additional comments. LFL themselves, though, have stated that they aren’t going to comply, and have taken legal action in the courts in KL to declare the order illegal.

And in more POFMA news, the Singapore Democratic Party’s appeal against their POFMA order is ongoing. They are arguing that the law should only be going after “deliberate falsehoods”, and therefore shouldn’t cover their interpretation of publicly available data. But Deputy Attorney General Hri Kumar Nair argued otherwise. He says that POFMA also covers matters of interpretation, as well as implied statements. Bertha Henson quoted this astonishing excerpt from his submissions:

“Different people may therefore reasonably read or understand a publication differently. It is evident that where one segment of the public may reasonably understand the statement in a way which is false, the relevant Minister is permitted to take action to deal with that falsity. It is irrelevant that the statement may also be reasonably understood in another way which is not false.”

😰😰😰

The judge has reserved judgment in the case, but the AGC is now asking for further hearings because they’re taking issue with how SDP characterised their arguments in public statements.


In the era of POFMA

Reproduced with permission from the artist, Joshua Chiang.

And don’t miss this talk by Cherian George, either:


What’s new on New Naratif?

We’ve got a research piece for you this week about the British colonialists and how they constructed racial categories in Malaya that still have an impact on our lives today.

Please join New Naratif as a member—your fees go directly to supporting our operations and content. (If you’re a Milo Peng Funder of this newsletter, you get a discount on New Naratif membership too!)

Book writing.

Stunning allegations about executions—what will the authorities say?

Issue 89

Hello from Kaohsiung! My time in Taiwan is going by far too quickly, but it’s time to return to responsible adulting.

A warm welcome to all the Milo Peng Funders who joined us via New Naratif’s flash sale!


Allegations about executions in Singapore

We start this issue with some really alarming allegations. Lawyers For Liberty, a human rights NGO in Malaysia, says that they’ve received information from a Singapore Prison Services officer who’d been involved in carrying out executions.

CONTENT WARNING: VIOLENCE AND BRUTALITY

According to Lawyers For Liberty, this officer says that there’s a procedure in place in case executions don’t go to plan. It apparently involves one officer pulling the body one way, while another officer pulls the rope towards him the other way, and then delivering a forceful kick to the back of the neck to break it.

Needless to say, these are serious, astounding claims. On top of this description of a brutal killing, Lawyers For Liberty also says that prison officers are explicitly told not to divulge information about this.

Information from inside prison is hard to come by, particularly when it comes to the death penalty—much of it is classified under the Official Secrets Act—but this goes so far beyond the worst thing I could ever have imagined happening in prison. I’ve written to the Singapore Prison Service to follow-up on Lawyers For Liberty’s statement, as well as ask for more information about how executions are carried out. I asked in my email that they get back to me by Friday, but I haven’t heard back yet (which, to be honest, doesn’t surprise me). Lawyers For Liberty has also called for a Commission of Inquiry into this. Now we wait for the government’s response.

SDP’s POFMA fight

The High Court hearing into the Singapore Democratic Party’s challenge of the POFMA offers issued against them by Minister for Manpower Josephine Teo began on 16 January. The case was heard in chambers, which means that it wasn’t open to either the public or the media. There isn’t any particular conspiracy surrounding it; it’s just that originating summons (the type of submission that SDP made to the court) are usually heard in chambers since they don’t require things like witnesses/testimonies. The judge ruled that there was no particular reason for the case to be heard in open court. All lawful, but disappointing, given the public interest in the use of POFMA. Not to mention the bad optics.

The SDP are ownself representing ownself here, and are arguing that it’s inappropriate for POFMA to be used against them since the matter has to do with the interpretation of data, and not “deliberate falsehoods”. As I’m writing this, the hearing has continued into its second day.

What Pink Dot tells us about activism and politics in Singapore

This is a personal little segment (and replacing the usual New Naratif links section) because this week New Naratif published my two-parter on Pink Dot and its development. Part One covers the early days of Pink Dot, questioning where pragmatic resistance ends and respectability politics begins. Part Two looks at the evolution of Pink Dot—how it was affected by political shifts that took place during and after the 2011 general election, and how the dynamics of political power still get in the way.

I’ve written about Pink Dot before, but have wanted to do a deep dive for some time. When I attended Pink Dot last year and heard them declare themselves a protest, I knew it was time to get my act together and write something at last. I sat down for a long interview with Paerin, then started piecing it together, and just… kept going. I’d initially pitched this to the rest of the New Naratif team as a 2,000-word piece, but it kept growing and growing as I included context and background. Ultimately the story of Pink Dot, like anything else in Singapore, can’t be seen in a vacuum—it’s affected by politics, by society, by events that happen around the world.

I’m so grateful to be able to have something like this published, because it covers all the aspects of Singapore—human rights, civil society and activism, politics, democracy—that I’m most interested in. I hope you enjoy reading it, and do take note of Joy Ho’s beautiful illustrations! The header images for Part One and Part Two merge to form a beautiful panorama.

Let’s get real about racism

A Chinese Singaporean artist, Jonathan Lim, was removed from an exhibition after his racist outburst on social media went viral. I saw lots of comments about it on social media, but haven’t followed the whole thing very closely, so I’m going to point you to much better voices:

Race Tuition Centre is a newsletter on race and racism in Singapore. It kicks off with a rundown of this racist incident, then follows up with a really important post about apologies. Subscribe subscribe subscribe.

And in case we think this Jon thing is an isolated incident, it isn’t.

Still got some more

Read this piece by Associate Professor Ian Chong about foreign influence and Singapore: it’s much more helpful in terms of thinking about principles and approaches than random finger-pointing at activists.

This op-ed about homelessness is thought-provoking, highlighting a discussion we should be having more. Note particularly the bit about the Destitute Persons Act, and think about how we stereotype and patronise others.

Observing #Taiwan2020

People here in Taipei keep asking me if I’ve come to cover the elections in Taiwan. It’s not an unexpected question: plenty of foreign journalists have descended upon the island to follow an election that has become extra interesting to outsiders since protests kicked off in Hong Kong.

I’m not actually here to cover the elections; the truth is that I’ve come simply because a friend told me flights were going cheap 😅. I love Taiwan, so I thought it would be a good chance to visit friends, eat good food, and get work done while taking a little break from Singapore. But when I realised that my trip could coincide with the elections, I decided that I’d have to stick my head in and take a look.

I’ve been disappointed by a number of elections in recent years—with the election of Trump in the US and the Tories in the UK leading the pack—but I’m still very interested in this democratic exercise, and how powerful it is as a way for people to make a decision for the future of their society. I also love seeing how people assemble and coalesce around elections; I like to observe the activities and events, the organising and mobilising, the rallies.

Yesterday I also got the chance to look at how the votes are counted in Taiwan: a very low-tech but incredibly transparent and accountable system. Once the polls close at 4pm, the ballot boxes are sealed and an area cordoned off. The polling centre then transforms into a counting centre, where the same volunteer election agents begin to count the votes openly, with anyone allowed to observe and photograph and film. Anyone is also allowed to call out mistakes—in the first counting centre I arrived at, the volunteer called a vote wrongly and the crowd immediately pointed it out so it could be rectified.

Because of how quickly the counting begins and how it takes place, the results also come in pretty quickly. Counting starts at about 4pm, and the results start trickling in from about 6pm to 7pm onwards. I headed to the headquarters of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), whose presidential candidate was the incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen, running against Han Kuo-yu of the Kuomintang (KMT).

DPP supporters had already gathered in pretty large numbers by the time I arrived. At that point it already seemed like Tsai was in the lead for the presidency, so people were pretty excited already, and the jubilation in the crowd only grew as the night wore on and Tsai’s lead on Han continued to grow. Tsai and the DPP would eventually close the night on a high note, with Tsai winning the presidency by a landslide.

There was plenty of solidarity with Hong Kong on show as well, with the emcees on stage mentioning Hong Kong several times throughout the night. Many Hong Kongers have also travelled to Taiwan to observe the elections and encourage Taiwanese to vote. Hong Kong protest flags flew among the crowd outside DPP HQ, and occasionally Hong Kong protest chants would start up and get picked up by the crowd.

While not defining the election, the Hong Kong protests made an impact on the election, driving home the message that “One Country, Two Systems”—the arrangement the Chinese Communist Party claims should also be implemented in Taiwan, which it claims as a part of China despite the CCP never having ruled it—isn’t viable for people who want to maintain their democratic practices and freedoms. It’s crystallised the idea that this election is also about taking a stand to safeguard Taiwan’s competitive democracy; in the DPP rally I attended on Friday night, as well as the gathering outside DPP HQ on Saturday, it was repeated over and over that the Taiwanese people’s votes are a demonstration of their resolve to protect the freedoms that were hard-won through the country’s journey out of martial law.

To really appreciate how much of a landslide Tsai Ing-wen’s win was: she ended up receiving more than eight million votes, out of over 14 million votes. That’s more than any other presidential candidate in Taiwan has ever won. She’s been on the receiving end of sexist attacks, dismissed as a cat lady (instead of refuting this, she’s leaned into it entirely), accused of having faked her PhD… and this still happened.

After Tsai’s victory speech thanking her supporters, her team, and even her opponents and the people who hadn’t voted for her—emphasising that everyone is Taiwanese and the conflicts that arose during election time should now be set aside—the crowd began to disperse, but not before more solidarity was shown to the Hong Kongers who lined the street to high five people.

I don’t follow Taiwanese politics close enough to know much about each party’s policies or track records, and ultimately I don’t really have skin in this particular game. But it was really interesting to observe nevertheless, if only to take note of how differently things are done from what I’ve seen in Singapore. While there are also rallies during Singapore’s (extremely short) election season, the assemblies that I witnessed here had such a different vibe and energy.

I wouldn’t say it’s something that I would like Singapore to replicate, but I do hope that we can all reflect more on the bigger questions: about what Singapore is, what we want it to be, what it means to be a citizen, what our responsibilities as citizens are to ourselves and one another, what we want to stand for, and what we want to protect. I would like us to think bigger and dream bigger. If there’s one thing I saw while standing in the middle of a crowd of cheering Taiwanese, it’s that it can be really empowering to feel part of something bigger than oneself.

My watch for the election is (never going to be) ended.

Issue 88

This issue is coming to you late because I’m in Taipei being a kaypoh over the Taiwanese elections. Over the past couple of days I’ve been to a rally for Freddy Lim in Wanhua, both the KMT and DPP rallies on Ketagalan Boulevard, then went to New Bloom’s pre-election party, attended by what felt like half of East Asia Twitter.

To any Taiwanese subscribers of the newsletter out there: have a good election day! For those who want to keep an eye on the results as they come in, The News Lens is running a live results page.


The endless watch for #sgelections

When the heckity-heck is Singapore’s next general election going to be? I hate trying to figure it out because it often feels like guesswork dressed up as some sort of in-the-know punditry. Pritam Singh asked about the Electoral Boundaries Review Committee and if they’re done yet, but Chan Chun Sing says they’re still deliberating—so still no clear hint of exactly when the vote is going to take place. Either way, election fever is kind of creeping up on us, and the local media is stepping up their coverage: TODAYonline took a shot at identifying some of the big issues to watch.

The opposition parties are trying their best not to be caught off guard, and to be prepared for what’s coming. Four opposition parties—Singaporeans First, Reform Party, People’s Power Party, and Democratic Progressive Party—have announced that they’re going to be forming an alliance, contesting the election under one banner.

As I’ve said before, I don’t know if I’m ready or not ready for an election. Given Singapore’s political landscape, I’m afraid this might turn out to be all anticipation with very little surprise at the end, but I might just be a jaded election sceptic now after all the disappointing elections around the world that we’ve seen in the news.

POFMA talk

Sometimes I wonder if I should just make POFMA-watching a permanent fixture in this newsletter, because we keep coming back to it.

Both the States Times Review and the Singapore Democratic Party have taken steps to challenge POFMA directions. Unsurprisingly, STR’s application to Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam to review his order was rejected. So was the SDP’s call for Manpower Minister Josephine Teo to retract her order and apologise; a move they’ve taken issue with, saying that there was a failure to provide grounds for why their application was rejected. The party has since lodged an appeal with the High Court, and their case will be heard on 16 January.

The fact that all the POFMA orders issued so far have taken aim at content published by political opponents or critics hasn’t gone unnoticed, but Minister for Communications and Information S Iswaran says that’s just a coincidence. Considering that PAP ministers are the ones with the discretion over what orders to issue and when (and even who they might want to exempt from the law by gazette), I’m just like…

And while all this POFMA action was going on, this also happened: Pritam Singh of the WP asked for more data on the distribution of employment between citizens and non-citizens. In particular, he wanted a more detailed breakdown of the figures that have already been provided. But the PAP has taken issue with this asking, while saying that they have “nothing to hide”, they’ve questioned Pritam’s intention in asking the question, suggesting that it’s an attempt to play up divisions between Singaporean citizens and Permanent Residents.

Contempt of court

Jolovan Wham’s appeal against his conviction for scandalising the judiciary is going to be heard on 22 January by five judges at the Court of Appeal. It’s a public hearing, so anyone can head down at 10am to sit in the gallery and listen to the proceedings/give moral support.

READ: The International Commission of Jurists have published a report on online freedom of expression in Southeast Asia. Among their findings about laws that impact freedom of expression: “These frameworks commonly include vague, overbroad legal provisions; severe and disproportionate penalties; lack independent oversight mechanisms; and fail to provide effective remedy or accountability. Conceptions of “national security” and “public order” have been conflated with the perceived interests of the ruling government or other powerful interests to target specific expression.”


We’re kicking off 2020 with Garry Rodan providing a comprehensive overview of Singapore, capitalism, and political ideology. It’s a four-part series, and the first two are already up. Check them out here and here.

You’ll notice that you’re able to access all our pieces through these links despite New Naratif having a paywall on our site. That’s because every New Naratif member has a unique URL that allows them to share articles with anyone they want. It’s our way of balancing the need to remind people that such content needs to be paid for, while not barring anyone’s access. Please join New Naratif as a member—your fees go directly to supporting our operations and content. (If you’re a Milo Peng Funder of this newsletter, you get a discount on New Naratif membership too!)

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