The Singapore Government this morning responded to the recommendations submitted by the government-appointed Advisory Council on the Impact of New Media on Society (AIMS). It spelled out in its 18-page paper the reasons for accepting 17 of the 26 recommendations made by AIMS, and for rejecting the rest.
Summary of responses
The Government has agreed to rethink some of its current citizen engagement processes, like closing the feedback loop and replying to online letters in mainstream media websites. However it has declined to engage directly with bloggers on their turf, preferring to use its own portals like REACH (the Government feedback unit).
It has also declined to give more space for civil servants to voice their opinions.
On the Films Act, the Government has said it will liberalise it to allow political films which are “factual and objective, and do not dramatise and/or present a distorted picture”. The Government will continue to disallow “dramatised, sensationalistic and emotive” political films. An independent advisory panel, headed by a retired judge, will decide the fate of all party political films.
The Government will retain Section 35, which gives the Minister the discretion to ban any film, and has rejected AIMS recommendation for the Minister to spell out his reasons for doing so.
On the protection of minors, the Government has agreed to lift the symbolic ban on 100 websites only after a coordinating agency is satisfied that its programmes to protect children are working effectively.
However it has declined to pay for Internet filtering services for parents, except for certain low-income families.
Finally, the law will be changed to confer limited immunity from defamation actions on websites that host content.
COMMENTARY & ANALYSIS
Rethink some of its current citizen engagement processes
The Government has said that it will explore measures on how to formally recognise well thought-out suggestions and feedback submitted to it every year, to encourage more Singaporeans to come forward and be engaged.
This is an encouraging move. I’m sure there are many Singaporeans who, like me, have given up sending feedback to REACH (the Government feedback portal), because it all seems to go into a “black hole”, to be read only by junior civil servants. Although I don’t expect the Government to accept every suggestion, well-intentioned and considered views should not simply be filed away. They should at least be published and recognised so that other policymakers and stakeholders can read them and consider them for future implementation.
Engage voices outside of current Government platforms
The Government said that “it is not practical or feasible to respond to all blogs or forum postings”. No one is expecting the Government to respond to all blogs. But this should not prevent them from responding to some blogs, particularly those of serious socio-political bloggers who make cogent and rational suggestions in their posts.
It may be true that “not all bloggers welcomed (sic) the Government’s voice on their private blogs”, but there are some that do welcome a response.
I sense that the Government’s fear is that responding to a blog that is critical of the Government will lend the blog credibility, when it is more interested in discrediting opposing voices. Another fear is that a response will generate even more opposing views, which the Government may not have a response to. This may make the Government look bad.
I am glad to hear that the Government has decided to reply to online letters carried in the online letter forums of the local mainstream media. This should have been done all this while. There is no reason to believe that online letters are any less worthy of a response, since they too have been carefully selected for publication by the newspaper forum editors.
Giving more space for civil servants to voice opinions
The Government’s response to AIMS on this was a flat “no”. However, I feel the Government should consider allowing civil servants to comment publicly on policy matters outside the purview of their own ministry. For example, there is no conflict of interest for a MINDEF officer to comment on social welfare issues (which comes under the purview of MCYS).
Online Political Content
Certain party political films will be allowed, and during election period
It is a step forward for some party political films to be allowed, as opposed to the ridiculous blanket ban currently. Films that are “factual and objective, and do not dramatise and/or present a distorted picture” will be allowed under the amended Films Act. The Government has said that it will continue to disallow “dramatised, sensationalistic and emotive party political films which would do harm to rational and objective political debate”.
But who is to judge what is factual and objective, or a dramatisation, a distortion, sensationalistic or emotive? These are very subjective judgment calls, which I doubt even the Independent Advisory Panel would be able to make fairly.
It would be much better to treat political films no different than normal commercials seen on TV. Companies who produce commercials which mislead consumers can be fined. But you don’t ban all TV commercials on the pretext that a few commercials may be false and misleading.
I am disappointed that the Government has taken this approach. I believe the real rationale behind it is that the Government wants to pre-empt the making of any films which may swing an election against them. This is not just self-interested, but kiasu (afraid to lose).
My stand is that Section 33 of the Films Act should be repealed completely. False and misleading films can be prosecuted under advertising or defamation laws. Citizens should be trusted to judge the rest, whether they want to believe them or reject them.
Section 35 of the Films Act
The Government has agreed with AIMS recommendation to retain Section 35 of the Films Act (Minister may prohibit possession or distribution of any film). But it has rejected AIMS recommendation for the Minister to be required to provide reasons for the ban.
This means Section 35 remains as an omnibus law which gives the Minister almost absolute discretion in banning a film. This renders any liberalisation of Section 33 (party political films) almost meaningless.
I have noted that the Government has stated that “films that may be banned under Section 35 will not be party political films”. But since the Minister can simply ban films without giving any reasons, this power can be used to ban films that even the Independent Advisory Panel has approved.
It should be noted that Martyn See’s “Zahari’s 17 Years” was a political film but it got banned under Section 35. Precedent already contradicts the Government’s claims.
Extend positive list for Internet Election Advertising
Political parties will now be allowed to use podcasts, vodcasts, blogs and other new media tools for Internet election advertising. This is a positive move. The onus is now on political parties to make full use of the increased space they have to communicate with the electorate to help them to make a more informed decision at the polls.
Overall, I feel that the Government’s moves are a positive step forward in engaging citizens and liberalising the political atmosphere. However they are not nearly what is expected of a country at such an advanced stage of its economic development.