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Monday, 30 December 2013

Reply to The Online Citizen on MDA Regulations

In this rebuttal to my article on the Free My Internet’s statement, Mr Lee raises several points which I will clarify below.

Firstly, my comparison of the Breakfast Network and the Independent was never based on mere statistics. Instead I clearly stated that it is untenable to keep asserting that with respect to the Breakfast Network’s demise, “it was the regulatory hurdles that killed it, rather than a lack of managerial expertise and depth.” 

One of the fundamental mistakes that FMI and like-minded detractors keep making is the misunderstanding that it was the website that the Media Development Authority was trying to regulate, rather than the company set up to operate the website and other related social media. This has led to the absurd accusation that the MDA (and I) do not understand how websites operate. 

A company is set up in order to establish a commercial, profit-making enterprise. A company has directors and senior employees also have to take responsibility for the actions of the legal entity. (thus needing all senior management of the company to sign off on the forms of the MDA – if a company is relying mainly on volunteers, then one has to wonder how serious that company is in being a sustainable business).

A successful company also needs a strong management team and sufficient financing, especially in the start-up stage to not only survive the competition, but also to ensure that the start-up complies with the law – regulatory or financial.

It is thus my opinion that looking at the two management teams, the primary  reason for the Breakfast Network Pte Ltd’s demise was NOT that the regulations were too onerous, but that its team (being essentially consisting of the founder and a team of volunteers) was too weak to navigate and set-up the necessary internal processes in order to comply with the regulatory environment. 

On the other hand, The Independent’s team consists of a successful entrepreneur with a track record of success, a founding partner of a law firm and a veteran journalist who also owns shares in a leading PR firm in Singapore.   It is also my belief that given the financial circumstances of the founders of The Independent, and strength in numbers, the company that owns The Independent was in a stronger financial position to ensure that the company is able to comply with regulatory requirements moving forward.

The failure of The Breakfast Network Pte Ltd was thus not a regulatory failure, but a business failure. To blame its demise on ‘onerous forms’ is thus to ignore the fact that its rival has managed to survive and maybe even flourish, arguably as a result of a stronger management team and finances.

Secondly, FMI’s and similar detractors’ inability to differentiate between social media, and the company that operates social media, has further led to their confusion and unjustified anger towards the MDA’s insistence of regulating the Breakfast Network Pte Ltd’s (the company’s) Facebook and Twitter feeds, even after the website was shut down. 

(Mr. Lee, in his Op-Ed, on the other hand mistakenly believes that the MDA wanted to regulate the Facebook and Twitter feeds after the COMPANY was shut down. This is false).

It does not matter what new media the Breakfast Network Pte Ltd (the company) uses to publish its socio-political views – be it website, Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. It is the COMPANY that MDA seeks to regulate, not the media per se.

Now that the company is in the process of being liquidated, there is no company left to regulate. If the volunteers of the Breakfast Network continue to run the Facebook page as a hobby, this is a different matter.

Mr. Lee’s points regarding Yahoo and The Broadcast Act are also egregious examples of a stubborn refusal or inability to understand the difference between class licenses, individual licenses, the responsibilities under the Broadcast Act, and the registration required of the companies that own The Independent and The Breakfast Network.

To apply for individual licenses (that for example Yahoo are regulated under), is in fact more onerous than the requirements needed under registration under class licenses. For example, Yahoo has to put up a 50,000 Singapore Dollar bond, that The Breakfast Network and The Independent were not required to do. They are also subject to the 24-hour take-down clause, which again The Independent (having registered) is not required to do.

The Broadcast Act’s provisions, are also more stringent than the class license registration. For example, the Broadcast Act allows the MDA to declare a foreign broadcasting service to be interfering in domestic politics and have their business restricted. This is a provision that The Independent is not subject to.

The parts of the Broadcast Act that regulate SPH and Mediacorp also allow the Government to ratify the appointments of their CEOs and object; again an additional layer to ensure that whatever foreign advertising they receive are bona fide. The Independent is not subject to this.

Therefore, by allowing the companies that own The Independent and The Breakfast Network to receive bona fide foreign advertising, and requiring them to ONLY register under a class license (rather than obtain an individual license), and to give an undertaking not to receive foreign funding, is in fact a LESS onerous regulatory regime than all the other examples Mr. Lee has brought up.

I recognise that the Broadcast Act and the various distinctions between class licenses and individual licenses are complicated and phrased in legalistic terms. If  Mr. Lee, the FMI movement and similar detractors have problems understanding them, they should seek expert advice, instead of insisting on the ridiculous accusation that the Government has failed to explain itself.

Saturday, 28 December 2013

Response to Free My Internet statement and Breakfast Network’s Shutdown

In the wake of the shutdown of the Breakfast Network, the Free My Internet movement issued a statement questioning the Media Development Authority’s ability to act as a Media Authority.
This is not only an overreaction, it was a statement based on several logical fallacies.
To begin with, the shutdown of the Breakfast Network has been held up as an example of how the MDA’s regulations have caused the demise of alternative media, and the first new media martyred by actions of the MDA.
Although it is true that the Breakfast Network had to shut-down because it did not register, it is a leap of logical reasoning to say that it was because the registration was too onerous that it did so. This is especially when its rival, The Independent, not only chose to register, but did so without raising a hue and cry in cyberspace.
It is curious why the Breakfast Network could not follow in the footsteps of The Independent when both are helmed by print media veterans, Bertha Henson and PN Balji respectively. Both individuals, as respected journalists with years of experience, would also have intimate knowledge of the Government’s longstanding objections to foreigners, through funding or otherwise, interfering in Singapore politics. It is even more perplexing why The Breakfast Network would find the legal commitments too onerous, when the Independent, whose co-founder is a senior lawyer, was able to navigate the same regulations.
There would be a stronger case for the Breakfast Network if both it and the Independent, had both been unable to register, especially since arguably, the Independent has the stronger team with years of entrepreneurial, legal and journalistic experience in its founding team. If it also foundered at the regulatory stage, then the Breakfast Network, arguably a one-woman company, could argue that it was the regulatory hurdles that killed it, rather than a lack of managerial expertise and depth.
But this is not the case. Instead, the Independent has, by being able to deftly manoeuvre throug  the regulatory space, put itself in the position of being the only overtly commercial alternative media covering politics in Singapore, which stands it in good stead of becoming Singapore’s Huffington Post. 
The basis of the Free My Internet Statement – the Breakfast Network’s demise - is thus a weak example to base their criticism of the MDA upon.
There were also other egregious examples of a failure to understand the current regulatory framework.
Firstly, print and broadcast media has always been subjected to rules discouraging the interference of foreigners, including funding, in local politics. Yahoo, brought up as an example of inconsistency by the FMI movement, is already covered by the Broadcast Act. There are no double-standards.
Secondly, Facebook and Twitter feeds owned by individuals that cover political content, which are prima facie not commercial or commercialised, cannot reasonably be asked to commit not to take foreign funding. Being non-commercial, many run as a hobby, they do not need any funding in the first place. It makes no sense for any regulator to ask an individual hobbyist to register a company so that they can regulate him. That is just twisted logic.
Overall, a lot of the misunderstanding about and distrust over MDA’s regulations, and the apprehension regarding the impending updating of the Broadcast Act, can be dispelled if one fundamental principle can be understood: that Cyberspace is not a separate world, but part of our real world.  The internet is just another media, and should be subject to the same laws that cover all media, be it print or broadcast. It is not special. 
Most of all, the emergence of a new technology is insufficient reason to re-evaluate fundamental principles a society has been based on successfully for years. The Internet is no different.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Litte India Riots: Has the Population White Paper Also Gone Up In Flames?

Any hope the Government still harboured of the electorate accepting the "6.9 million" Population White Paper may have just gone up in flames.

One must not underestimate the shock to the Singaporean psyche in seeing images of burning police vehicles, crowds attacking ambulances and rioting masses; for Singaporeans born post-independence, these things just do not happen in Singapore. They see them on the TV, or the internet, or the papers -- but not in their own backyard.

When news of a riotous crowd attacking police vehicles started filtering out, the reaction from Singaporeans, online and on the streets, was one of utter disbelief.

People do not attack police vehicles in Singapore, much less set them on fire. The most difficult situation ambulance drivers have to normally handle is unruly patients; never in their wildest dreams have they imagined themselves running for their lives from an angry mob.

The Government may try its best to deny that the riot has anything to do with immigration policy, but it will fail. It may exhort Singaporeans not to politicise the issue but it will fail too. The Government may rail against xenophobia but it will also fail, because I fear reason cannot overcome the images from Sunday's riot already burnt into the mind's eye.

Cost of immigration
I have written elsewhere that I support the Government’s immigration policy because I have seen the statistics, the facts and I know that if we do not take in immigrants, we would be faced with a rapidly ageing population and a shrinking workforce. I also know that we need a foreign migrant workforce because in order to build more homes and infrastructure for a growing population, we need these foreign workers to do the jobs Singaporeans are not willing to do at an economically feasible wage – construction, building sewers, paving roads.

But the best way for the Government to convince the population of these facts is not to merely present its vision for a rosy future, but to be honest about the costs involved.

And one of those costs is that immigrants need to be assimilated, and foreign migrant worker populations do not just disappear during weekends after toiling the entire week to build our homes and roads.

It may, however, be too late.

Even if the amateur psychologists and sociologists on the internet may all be wrong in speculating why the foreign workers rioted, their narrative is a powerful one.

The Government may like to frame the issue as simply a law-and-order matter, but no amount of briefings will make people forget the fact that the people who rioted were foreigners. There is no way that the Government can make the events of Little India disappear from the psyche of an electorate already skeptical about its immigration policy.

Two alternative scenarios

It now has two choices.

First, it can roll out all the bar graphs and pie charts again and show the people the bleak future Singapore faces with an ageing population, minus immigrants. But this time, it must be completely honest about the costs of this policy.

The Government needs to show how it intends to work with Singaporeans to ameliorate these social costs. These include a plan on assimilating new immigrants, as well as that of dealing with an ever-increasing foreign migrant worker population, needed to build infrastructure for a growing population.

With a bigger foreign worker population, the Ministry of Manpower will also have their work cut out, policing cases of exploitation and employer malpractice, as well as finding ways to house the foreign workers. Trade-offs have to be made with businesses having to commit financial and human resources to ensure foreign workers hired are treated well and paid fairly; these increased costs to businesses means highers prices to consumers, which makes raising productivity even more urgent.
The population at large will also have to expect these migrants workers to be in their midst and adjust to it.

This is not an easy ask: as can be seen in Little India, enclaves of foreigners can form, and we can neither expect them to assimilate (since they are transient workers) nor to completely follow the norms of a foreign culture.

Thus, the Population White Paper may be anchored on irrefutable facts and figures, but the costs and challenges of implementing the policy paper must be made clear to the electorate.
It may well be that the electorate find these costs too much to bear, even in the face of a dire population problem.

The second option then is for the Government to abandon the Population White Paper and come up with a Plan B.

Plan B

What is Plan B? It is certainly not some watered-down version of the Government’s plan that the Workers' Party has presented.

Plan B has to deal with the other alternative -- that of an AGED (rather than ageing) population, with a small work force, but a small immigrant population.

Plan B is an economy less reliant on foreign workers, with Singaporeans taking up jobs in construction, and all the other manual work that we now take for granted.

In this, critics of the Government, as well as opposition politicians, need to be honest too.

There will also be social costs to plan B, and these costs will also be painful for Singaporeans to adjust to.

Firstly, Singapore will need higher taxes from a smaller active work force to support an aged population. There will also be a less vibrant Singapore, with old people making up a larger proportion of society. We may even have to draw down on our reserves, if taxes on the work force are not to become prohibitively high.

We will (as we are already presently) have to get used to more old people taking on work that the young do not want; retirement age also has to go up. The entire economy has to be re-configured to adjust to an aged workforce, a task that will be fraught with risks and no guarantee of success.
In order for more Singaporeans to take up the jobs that foreign workers are now doing, wages have to go up. But that means prices may have to go up as well.

If bus drivers are to be paid more in order for Singaporeans to take these jobs, then bus fares will either have to rise, or taxes have to rise in order for the Government to subsidise fares. Homes may be built less cheaply, even if productivity rises. That means either HDB flats will either cost more, or again, more tax revenue has to be raised for bigger subsidies.

Singaporeans have to learn to do a lot more household maintenance jobs, like in some developed countries, where blue-collared jobs are highly paid. These are also not easy challenges to adjust to.
Plan B is a possible scenario, but it is not enough for detractors of the PAP to criticise its immigration policy and not present the alternative with the trade-offs. There is no perfect solution and both sides in the debate must be honest about the costs of the options available.

The problem I fear is that the shock of the riots of Little India has irreparably tarnished the PAP’s immigration plan. Every conversation it will have from now on will consciously or subconsciously be associated with images of foreign workers flipping over a police car and setting it on fire.

The Committee of Inquiry will not be as important as the Government presenting to the population how it intends to manage the growing foreign migrant worker numbers, needed to build the infrastructure for a larger population.

And it needs to be a convincing story.

Otherwise, it is time to seriously consider Plan B.