02 April 2018

Will the real Dr Thum please stand up?

As events have proven, Dr Thum Ping Tjin made an unreasonable, ill-considered, and indefensible claim in his submission to the fake news Select Committee. As argued before, Thum had fallen short of his duties as a historian and public intellectual, in refusing to consider more recent events as well as historical incidents in Singapore that reasonable people might agree were caused by fake news or even deliberate falsehoods.

There was therefore no need for this blog to refute Thum's actual claim about Operation Coldstore being a fake news operation by the Singapore government. There are some who believe that the select committee hearing has done that in its 6-hour session with Thum. Thum himself has alleged his entire life's work was grilled in the committee hearing. To explain and evaluate what transpired in the public hearing, we may have to consider that there is more than one Dr Thum, that they could be separate individuals espousing different opinions, inhabiting the same body at different times.


26 March 2018

Has Singapore ever been affected by fake news?

The concept of fake news can be challenged by applying various strands of communications theory from both journalistic practice and academia which have been surveyed earlier on this blog. Most of these theorists have been dead for decades, and still their models survive scrutiny and have established themselves to the point of consecration. Yet, there is a troubling lack of communications experts and theorists called to give oral testimony to the committee committee.

The wide consensus between critical, prescriptive, positivist, interpretive takes on communications theory may lead a reasonable man to conclude that fake news may exist but is largely indistinguishable from the political spin, propaganda, advertising, manufactured consensus, rumour and urban legends employed by the state, political parties, citizen groups, advertising and publicity agencies, and the press in everyday life.

A reasonable man would thus reject any claim, such as one made by a Dr Thum Ping Tjin, that fake news has not had much of an impact in Singapore aside from Operation Coldstore and Operation Spectrum.

I wouldn't say the good doctor has shot himself in the foot...

24 March 2018

5 basic principles you can learn at a select committee hearing

On 22 March 2018, select committee for deliberate online falsehoods member Minister Shanmugam subjected Facebook representative Simon Milner to a long and tough question session. That is a fact. Incontrovertible.

It is possible to track how the domestic and international news reportage, as well as general commentary by various interest groups is playing out. Several narratives have arisen from that one incontrovertible fact. Each narrative is indicative of the position, positioning, and position-taking of its respective author.

Did Facebook prevaricate? Did Milner discombobulate? Did Facebook get what it deserved? Was a normally unaccountable Facebook taken to task? Was Facebook treated unfairly? Was Shanmugam an inquisitorial bully? A competent publicist for the Singapore government might have even spun a narrative about Shanmugam striking a blow for consumer rights worldwide.

Don't forget advertising and PR agencies!

20 March 2018

Are Singapore's fake news public hearings a waste of time?

Singapore's Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods have begun hearing testimonies from the public.

It is tempting to dismiss the proceedings as a prelude to new laws against free speech online. But it is more profitable to suss out the complexities, competing agendas, inconsistencies, and blind spots that arise from select committee hearings even as the committee balances its fact-finding function with its practical role in parliamentary decision-making and consensus-building.


In other words, ignoring a select committee's public hearings is an indicator of political illiteracy.

26 February 2018

What is a reasonable response to the fake news problem?

The window for public submissions to the Parliamentary Select Committee on fake news shutters on 28 February 2018 in Singapore. We at Illusio have decided not to make a submission to the committee. What we have written on the matter is intended a resource for the public at large, legislators in parliament, media practitioners and consumers, and legal and communications researchers, specifically on the knowledge gaps that the committee is expected to acknowledge, address, and recommend further research on before it authors a White Paper.

There may be unknown unknowns, but have we dealt with all the known unknowns of fake news?

25 January 2018

Are Fake News laws inevitable in Singapore?

Civil society activists in Singapore will no doubt claim that legislation against fake news is inevitable and imminent, that it is part of the authoritarian government's general clampdown on the online media.

In terms of Westminster procedure, Singapore's inevitable march towards fake news laws is in its infancy. Cabinet signals interest and concern on an issue in a Green Paper, a Select Committee is convened. That's where we are at now. Public hearings need to be convened, a committee report drafted and presented in parliament, the cabinet's response to its recommendations and findings presented in another parliament session, a White Paper drafted by the cabinet, potentially more public hearings convened for feedback, the White Paper debated in parliament, a Bill drafted and read twice before passing into law. That is how much more needs to be done.

Yet given how Singapore puts its own spin on Westminster procedure, our hysterical activists might well be right.

19 January 2018

Everything you know about Fake News is wrong

Aside from Singapore, other far more democratic countries are considering or have already passed laws against fake news. When the inevitable accusations of authoritarianism and censorship are made by the usual quarters, all Singapore's minister for communications and information (or his permanent secretary needs to do is to point at France and Germany, which have just recently enacted them, and Canada, which has had them for decades. Even the UK has begun the process of studying whether it needs a fake news law.

If the minister and his permanent secretary are competent, they will point out that these laws have been passed in the "liberal West" even in the face of criticisms about the chilling effects on free speech, and promise to be responsible and circumspect with their new powers.

But that will still not detract from the elephant in the room: Fake news is fake.

10 January 2018

Keppel and Lava Jato corruption: Is there a cover-up in Singapore?

News of Keppel Offshore & Marine's (Keppel O&M) decade-long bribery in Brazil has filtered slowly into Singapore. The initial announcements in 2014 happened in a country far away. The denials by Keppel's chairman, a former cabinet minister, were robust enough. What really did happen? Investigations were taking place and Singaporeans were willing to give the benefit of the doubt, hoping that all would be revealed in due course.

It is only after investigations have been complete, record regulatory fines paid to anti-corruption agencies in Brazil and the United States that Singaporeans are beginning to realise the enormity of the situation (the enormity being Keppel's fine ranks number 7 in FCPA penalties, historically!)

Lava Jato involved international companies paying bribes to Petrobas,
kickbacks moved down the economic chain, and to also the ruling party and its coalition
But the response from Singapore's government has been most disappointing and a cause for concern.

08 January 2018

Is Singapore's leadership succession planning a myth?

The People's Action Party (PAP) has been Singapore's sole ruling party for more than half a century. The PAP ruled Singapore since self-governance in 1959, its federation with Malaysia in 1963, and independence in 1965. It is accepted wisdom, if not state-sanctioned narrative, that Singapore's leadership transitions are carefully managed: a prime minister is 'chosen' by peers of their cohort, serves for more than a decade, and stays on to guide the next prime minister and their cabinet as a "senior minister".

The managed succession of Singapore's political leadership is a fairy tale concocted for the consumption of the gullible and the politically illiterate.


03 January 2018

Is corruption part of Singapore's foreign policy?

Singapore tolerates no corruption internally, especially within the ranks of its public service. Officials who are accused face thorough investigations by the Corruption Practices Investigation Bureau. Officials who are caught face fierce prosecution and lengthy jail sentences. Even the prime minister himself had to be exonerated by his fellow parliamentarians last year when his relations alleged he misused his power and state agencies to settle a personal dispute.

It is a fine set of principles to live by, garnering accolades for the tiny, resourceless island nation. Transparency International ranks Singapore 7th least corrupt in the world. Its intolerance of corruption makes it one of the most friendly places to do business as well.

Yet the recent corruption scandal involving Keppel Offshore & Marine in Brazil (a subsidiary of Keppel Corporation) raises questions about whether Singapore's intolerance of corruption overseas, despite the declarations by its prime minister that "the actions of Singaporean citizens overseas are treated the same as actions committed in Singapore, regardless of whether such corrupt acts have consequences for Singapore", and despite signing and ratifying a global anti-corruption agreement.

The corruption monster!