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Bertha HarianBertha Harian

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Foreign money – for nothing?

When The Middle Ground tried to crowd source funds using the Patreon channel, I wondered about what we should do if, ahem, a George Soros or Rupert Murdoch or Jeff Bezos decided to plonk down a big cheque.

I imagined drafting various apologetic replies to turn down good money that we so badly needed by saying that we weren’t allowed to take in foreign donations. Actually, we weren’t really sure. After all, it’s a gift with no strings attached and we’re not registered as a political society which must declare donations. Then we also thought that this could be considered as taking money from a foreign donor who does not have a bona fide commercial purpose for giving it. As a website that is registered under iMDA, we’re not allowed to take such money.

But if George or Rupert or Jeff gives the money to a red-IC Singaporean to pass to us, can we take it? Then again, how would we know if they are really proxies? I was reminded of what Mr Chan Chun Sing had said last year about becoming unwitting pawns in the big foreign game.

Well, the deep-pocketed foreigners didn’t give us money, and the Singaporeans who did had to surrender their identity card numbers, the iMDA told us rather belatedly. And no, we didn’t get enough money from locals which meant we couldn’t afford to carry on.

But if, by George(!), the foreign billionaire did offer money, my first instinct would be to turn it down because there was sure to be trouble somewhere down the road. (I had wondered too about the foreigners we hired as part-time interns and reporters. Would they prove to be our Achilles Heel if the G decides to make an issue about foreigners involved in the dissemination of views or local news? We hired them anyway because if the G should suddenly go mad and decide to wield the axe, it would fall on the heads of the key staffers who control content, namely, myself and the publisher.)

In my past life, as well as the present one, I make a point of not being cultivated by foreign diplomats. There was a “rush’’ to do so when I first left MSM in 2012 and I had to tell several embassy staffers straight in the face that I do not want to have breakfast, lunch or tea with them, nor attend their diplomatic soirees. I did not want to “pumped’’ for information nor do I relish appearing in Wikileaks. I didn’t think about whether they would try to “influence’’ me to hold a certain point of view; I am too much of an old hand to be seduced so easily.

Singapore, or rather the G, has an allergy to foreign involvement in local causes even from our early independence days. There’s no chance that foreign actors can control the mainstream media given the way our laws are drafted, but this doesn’t mean that they can’t reach an audience through the Internet. Remember how the G had referred to the involvement of foreign players in the early days of The Independent? It’s something that was never fully clarified.  More recently, it kicked up a fuss over money given to The Online Citizen to run an essay competition about Singapore which was funded by a London-based book club.

So the New Naratif couldn’t get its company registered here because the Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority (ACRA) believes this would be contrary to national interests. “Singapore’s politics should be for Singaporeans alone to determine. We should not allow foreigners to interfere in how we should govern our country. Nor should we allow any group of Singaporeans to lend themselves to being used by foreigners to pursue a political activity in Singapore,” Acra said.

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It is using Section 20 of the Companies Act:

Registrar of Companies (i.e. ACRA) has power to refuse registration on several grounds, namely:
(a) the proposed company is likely to be used for an unlawful purpose or for purposes prejudicial to public peace, welfare or good order in Singapore; or
(b) it would be contrary to the national security or interest for the proposed company to be registered.

I don’t remember a time when ACRA has taken such an action based on such grounds. The Registrar of Societies, yes, but the Registrar of Companies? You’d wonder if ACRA does the same kind of due diligence on other wannabe registrants. In any case, according to New Naratiff, they answered every question that was asked, including the US$75,000 from Foundation Open Societies Institute given to its UK-based parent company Observatory Southeast Asia Ltd (OSEA UK),

It had, at least, not chosen to hide the donation.

If Acra’s main problem was the donation, then it can be handed back to Mr Soros if New Naratif so desires. It can forswear further foreign donations. But does Acra have other problems with the site as well?

In its press statement, it said: “New Naratif has been publishing articles critical of politics in regional countries. For example, its articles have claimed that certain regional governments are using violence to maintain political control, had manipulated events or framed them for political gain, and have “rigged” their electoral systems.

“The purposes of the proposed company are clearly political in nature.’’

So is this the key problem then? That the group, which wants to organise events such as “Democracy Classrooms”, is “clearly political in nature’’? Does this mean it should be  registered as a society instead and gazetted as a political entity?

I had wondered about what the net effect of failure to register as a business would be. I gather that it means that the New Naratif will not have a corporate entity to conduct business or hold funds, and the individuals with have to do “business’’in the own names. (So they have to pay income tax instead?) So it could still function in much the same way – unless the adverse publicity scares off potential donors and subcribers.

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I think it is a correct approach – foreigners have no business in local issues and locals should try to resist foreign overtures even if they are convinced of the nobility of the gesture. This, I think, should apply even to organisations and societies that espouse causes deemed to be “in the national interest’’. I can hear cries of derision now, but if I want to extend the argument about undue foreign influence further, I can suggest that there might be foreign agents hoping to turn some organisations around in more subtle ways than an outright donation.

When the G decided to pull the plug on foreign funding for Pink Dot, that annual carnival at Hong Lim Park, I had wondered if this would be like a nail in the coffin. Local businesses, however, stepped up to the plate. Organisers took on board every inconvenient measure imposed for security reasons, such as having to hire security guards and doing bag checks.

At the end of the day, we should put up the money ourselves if we believe in a cause. I myself won’t put money in New Naratif because I disagree with some points in its manifesto, especially about taking an “openly subjective” perspective on regional developments. But those who are bemoaning a G “clampdown’’on different/dissident views and want to stand behind the group’s manifesto should put their money where their mouth is instead of simply wringing their hands.

I certainly won’t stand in the way.

But that’s just me.

And I am not the G.




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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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