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Bertha HarianBertha Harian

News Reports

Talking points for that Talking Point show

This is the bimbo talking. I tell you I was more worried about the way I looked and my suit slipping off my shoulders than what I was going to say at the Talking Point show last night. I told the makeup artist the lip stick she applied was too light-coloured. She said it was just nice. The expert must be right, I thought. Then my mother calls me the next morning to tell me I looked like a ghost on television. “What happened to your lipstick?’’


Still it was an interesting experience. I learnt a few things. I was told I was too quiet when the first commercial break came on. Barge in! Don’t let the minister get away too lightly, I was told. And I thought I was just being polite, waiting for the moderator to prompt me instead of interrupting someone in mid-flow or jumping in un-requested….
Frankly, the journalist in me kicked in way from the start. I was taking copious notes as Minister Tan Chuan Jin and Prof Arun was speaking – and jotting down questions. I was in press conference mode. Except I was supposed to be talking too and giving a point of view.

I had drafted a sort of “position paper’’ in the afternoon but forgot to bring the paper with me. In case you’re interested, here’s a glimpse.

a) The licensing scheme for news sites is a shock. Why? One would assume that in this day and age, the G would discuss the matter or at least float a balloon or fly a kite before proceeding with the action. The Singapore Conversation is going on and it isn’t having a conversation with the most vocal group of Singaporeans on this issue. Boggles the mind.

b) Yes, of course, it can issue regulations because it is allowed to do so under the Broadcasting Act. And it has done so with many other laws. It is well within its rights to do so. But there are regulations and there are regulations. This set of regulations affects a group which is traditionally suspicious of G’s motives. To get them on board, they should be consulted – yet the G is giving them further fodder to reach certain conclusions.

c) On a par with traditional media? Online medium is in the first place unlike mainstream medium. It’s a new animal and the G will be playing catchup if it wants control because the medium is still morphing. Unlike MSM which is serviced by one corporate group, online sites are usually an agglomeration of news and views provided by more than just the main content provider. That’s why it’s viewed as too heavy-handed, it affects too many people.

d) Also, when the words “on a par’’ or “parity’’ is used, some netizens will construe it as the G wanting a “tamed’’ animal. That is how MSM is viewed, however, unfairly.

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e) Defamation laws, Sedition Act, contempt of court laws still remain applicable. And there is the Class Licence Act which could have been invoked in any case. The argument that take down must be quick – then, this would apply to just 10 sites. If it is so important to take down, all sites should take down the offending piece because it is likely to have been shared. Unless the G has minute by minute monitoring of the 10 sites.

I told moderator Daniel Martin that I basically had one point to make, what really, really is the G’s rationale for the licensing scheme? Now, I am always willing to give the G the benefit of the doubt. It always has strong arguments when it wants something done. Never mind it gets high-handed at times, somehow there is some reasoning behind its actions that I can more or less live with, even if I hate it.
The hard time Minister Tan had answering questions whether from panellists or callers showed how “wonky’’ the licensing scheme is. He ended up repeating himself, insisting that the scheme was not an attempt to curb discussion and noting that the G had never used its “take down’’ powers to curb political discussion.

I think he tried very hard but seemed to have a limited script to play with. That he was in the hot seat instead of Communications and Information Minister Yaacob Ibrahim showed that someone, somewhere thought he would be more acceptable to the online crowd. He maintained his composure throughout, although he too would have realised that he was speaking in circles. That the callers were repeating questions (obviously, CNA needs to refine its pre-screening process and tell callers that answers had already been given) must have been dis-comfitting. That, plus the climbing vote numbers that went against the scheme as the show progressed.

Moderator Martin asked what Prof Arun why he thought the numbers were climbing, he said he hoped it was because of the “persuasiveness of arguments’’. What a nice man, I thought. I probably would have blurted out that Mr Tan wasn’t very convincing.

Still, it could be because the topic was such a contentious one calculated to bring the “anti’’ group out in droves. The Free Internet Group organised Thursday’s internet blackout, Hong Lim Park gathering and petition was probably on standby at their computers and phones. Plus it is people to mobilise people using social media as several governments have found out to their dismay.

It could well be that people who supported the scheme or had no view on it or plain couldn’t be bothered because it doesn’t affect them, didn’t think it was such a big deal as to be galvanised into action. Some people would probably say this was the silent majority? Or minority?
No one can tell for sure.

But that there has been a discussion offline and online on something like freedom of speech bodes well for the growth of civil society here. It means we are starting to think about more than just how to accumulate material possessions. Maybe we should also start to think too about the responsibility of a vocal civil society.

Here are other points I didn’t have time to get across in yesterday’s show.

a) The licensing scheme shows the G has no confidence in the ability of the online community to police itself. But there have been examples when the community weighed in on objectionable material, such as photos of the children killed in the Tampines accident or more recently, how netizens weighed in against trolls who poured cold water over a film producer’s win in Cannes.

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b) The problem is that the G seems to engage the online community mainly by way of letters of demand. Why not exercise the same policy of “a right of reply’’ that it demands of mainstream media? Having specific policies will give us something to discuss. A blanket ruling is viewed as too draconian.
c) Might it not be better for major online sites to decide with its own readers how to ensure responsible content on the Internet? Let us decide, for example, on our own policies that will improve transparency and reduce the potential for conflict. I cannot speak for anyone else but I think who ever writes for public consumption should be named. This is the tradition in the print media which at first encountered a lot of resistance. But there is a great deal of acceptance now.

Anyway, the deed’s done and it would be quite amazing if the G repeals the regulations as protestors have asked for. It is likely however that it will think twice before it decides to do something similar in future. The fact is, we’re living in a digital age, with a society that is more questioning of laws, regulations and guidelines, especially those which have been hastily imposed.

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An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

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