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POFMA: The G should “chill” too

So I asked the people on my Facebook timeline how they would interpret the word “activist”. Most of the 70-plus people who responded related it to championing for political or social causes or agitating for change of some sort. Of course, some pointed out that you could be a “green” activist, or even a “tennis” activist. There were also those who put in a requirement that activists should not just “talk” but invest time and energy to actively seek change in some way.

Is being labelled an activist a good or bad thing? Let’s just say from my sense of the feedback sought that an activist is not as good a label as “advocate”. I suppose we take our cue from the G and the MSM which sort people into various boxes. I am generalising here, but I think it’s more likely that those in trouble for their views or actions are more likely to be known as  “activists” than “advocates”.

I asked a second question, which is whether they would consider me an activist. Most of them said no. Those who said yes said I champion the cause of better journalism and transparency in governance. But there were also quite a few who said that I crossed the line from commentary into activism when I put up a petition template for people to write in to their MPs to ask for a delay in the passage of the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill.  (Definitely didn’t work)

Why am I concerned about such labels? It’s because I teach part-time at the National University of Singapore as an Adjunct Professor. At a stretch, this former  journalism practitioner can be called an academic. And it’s also because I continue to report and write, sometimes copiously when I am seized with an issue, such as the proposals to amend the elected presidency in 2017 and the current POFMA fuss.  So I looked long and hard at what Education Minister Ong Ye Kung said about academic/activists when he joined in the POFMA debate in Parliament on Wednesday. He was referring to a letter signed by more than 120 academics both in Singapore and outside asking for assurances that their research work would not be compromised by POFMA.

An excerpt of what they said:

Wide dissemination of ongoing research—which may be considered “facts in dispute”—is a global public good facilitated by the borderless internet.  Our concern is that POFMA’s wide reach, both “in and outside Singapore”, its broad definition of Singapore’s “public interest” (e.g. covering matters deemed related to “Singapore’s friendly relations with other countries”), its holding “internet intermediaries” responsible for all items posted on their platforms, and its severe penalties of large fines and long prison terms for deemed violations, will discourage this for an indeterminately wide range of subjects and individuals. These provisions may have unforeseen consequences for Singapore’s ability to serve as a global hub of first-rate academic research and technological innovation.

Under these circumstances, POFMA is likely to make many academics hesitant to conduct or supervise research that might unknowingly fall afoul of POFMA, or refer colleagues or students to faculty positions in Singapore’s respected universities.

They suggested that the result would affect Singapore’s standing as an international hub for research and scholarship.

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Academics have weighed in on other forums. Singaporean economist Linda Lim, a professor at the University of Michigan in the United States and a signatory to the letter, told University World News that academics had already asked the government to put protections for academic freedom in the law “but they have not done that”.

“The whole thing is very vague. The public interest is very broadly defined and it also applies to people publishing outside Singapore and putting it online,”  she added. “If it has relevance to Singapore that might damage Singapore’s public interest, it might not even be about Singapore – so it’s the broadest definition,” she said.

Dr Teo You Yenn, associate professor and head of sociology at Nanyang Technological University  in Singapore, had a commentary in the same publication asserting that academic work is “circumscribed by the government’s desires”. The G has multiple levers, including publicly shaming academics or by curtailing funding of research work, she said. Although her book, This is what inequality looks like, is a bestseller and she remains in academia, “none of this diminishes my anxiety about the future of my scholarship and that of others”.

“The social and political context which makes my book an anomaly has not changed,” she added.

Mr Ong’s response should lay some of their concerns to rest. He acknowledged that academic work goes through a rigorous process of peer reviews, empirical evidence and citations. There is a rigorous self-checking mechanism. Academic work would not even clear the first gate of “false statement of fact” under the law – unless the data used to support conclusions had been fabricated, much less cross into the second gate of public harm. Likewise, academic work which present theories and hypotheses are “opinions” which do not come under the Bill, said the minister.

He answered the point on challenges to academic conclusions based on “incomplete data” – a big bugbear of academics and which had led to a high-level rebuke for two academics in 2003. There was a difference between the G using POFMA against falsehoods, and disagreeing with academics’ opinions, he said. Academics must expect the G to come down robustly if it disagrees with them. In other words, academics shouldn’t be thin-skinned when their opinions (not facts) are challenged.

He also said there was a difference between research and activism and the two should not be conflated. He speculated that some of the signatories were more concerned about their activist role being stifled, than about being able to pursue their academic work freely. (I would like to add that that is his opinion, not a fact.)

“Academics are well-respected members of society. We hold academics to “conduct professorial” – high standards of integrity, in their teaching, their research, and the validity of their views put forward in public. This is especially so when they speak or make social media posts on current affairs while bearing the title of a professor in a publicly-funded local university.

“So you can put out an opinion that Singapore’s growth model has failed, meritocracy has failed, that the education system is elitist, our social welfare does not work and it does more harm than good. POFMA will not apply to you because that is your opinion. But in the interest of open debate and given your stature in society and position in a publicly-funded university, please expect Government agencies, if we do not agree with you, to put out the data, put out our arguments, and to convince the public otherwise. If that has a chilling effect, please chill.”

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So it is precisely because academics have stature and their views will be well-regarded by members of the public that they should expect a more robust response from the G when they use their scholar credentials to move into political territory. In other words, there will be no change to the status quo with POFMA. The G will give as good as it gets.

I would like to add that the G has to chill too, because what any G member opines in public could have a far greater impact than any quiet correction order. The G may assert all it wants about not having a hand in the appointments or career progression of academics in Singapore’s autonomous universities, but it’s a rather big pill to swallow given its omnipresence in every part of Singapore life.

Dr Teo said this in her commentary: “Among academics in Singapore, it is an open secret that work is circumscribed by the government’s desires. At conferences and workshops, academics awkwardly and regularly ‘joke’, tilting their heads to glance over shoulders, about their remarks being heard by ‘the government’. Students and younger scholars regularly ask if they should avoid certain topics because of ‘sensitivities’.”

I can testify to this. I would go further and posit that foreign academics are rather more afraid than locals about contravening those unseen OB markers.

I think the right way for journalists and academic activists to handle POFMA is to stand their ground if they believe they have the facts. So correct  or clarify them because you have to, but append a note like news agencies do, if you have cause to feel aggrieved.

And if the facts are incomplete, keep bugging the newsmaker, usually the Government agencies, to release them if they don’t want to go through the trouble of issuing corrections. Or, if you’re desperate enough, get your MPs to file a question in Parliament. You’re supposed to get your answers there.

I think the G should expect that there would be more, not fewer, requests for information in this POFMA age. Too many corrections to fill in information gaps don’t look good on it either.

As for public disagreements with academics over opinions, I would like to think academics are made of sterner stuff than laymen. Their scholarly work and intellect should be their shield against the “chilling effect”. Take it as engagement in the political discourse, not a shaming or a rebuke. Make it an argument between equals. Remember that the G isn’t so stupid as to alienate members of the intelligentsia.

Oh dear! Did I just cross into activism?

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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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