MDA ruling: discussing the discussions

As you’re probably aware by now, the MDA’s recent ruling to implement a license for websites has sparked many discussions. From the conspiracy theorists who see the ruling as a sign of future mind control to the government loyalists who don’t see where the issue is with online media being more tightly regulated, debates have gotten fiercer and fiercer.

Interestingly, the MDA’s clarifications didn’t really appease tensions and the debate even intensified when Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin went on TV to defend the policy instead of MDA Chief Koh Lin-Net.

The initial intent of this article was to go through the many opinions expressed in forums and article comments to show the various arguments people gave for being for or against the ruling. But as the number of passionate reactions has multiplied the animosity of certain discussions has also increased.

Instead, it seems more apt to try to gain a better understanding of what these discussions mean for the future of Singapore’s democracy as a whole.

This article by Calvin Cheng is quite interesting in this regard. The author tries to give a balanced outlook on the issue at hand, summarising the concerns and arguments of both sides and showing how both are somewhat overreacting, making this issue a bigger one that it needs to be and forgetting to see the potential opportunities it could generate.

Cheng also brings up a point that’s become fairly typical of this sort of Singapore-centric debate. The question of whether or not Singapore can afford to act like other first world nations: “in the West, the press is not the independent, morally-upright defender of democratic rights and truth that some would have us believe. Instead, most of the major newspapers and TV stations are owned by media barons whose objectives are to make profit”.

As a standalone statement, Cheng is absolutely correct. But in the context of a highly contested set of government restrictions, his logic is flawed.

By pointing out that things are not perfect and ideal elsewhere (“The West”, as if it was a solid and unified ideological and cultural block …), the author is implying that it’s not so bad that things aren’t perfect and ideal over here. This sort of moral relativism is dangerous because it not only puts “The West” at the top of a fictional hierarchy of values and achievements (“If the West can’t handle things perfectly, how are we expected to do any better?”), it also demeans all efforts to bring things closer to a perfect or ideal state (“If the West can’t handle things perfectly, should we even try?”).

Additionally, by pointing out that private media corporations and private media barons have overtaken the global media industry, the author is implying that making a profit is incompatible with responsibility, accountability, and self-restraint (“I am here to make a profit, not to follow your regulations”). In reality, one can be a media baron and still be accountable for what one broadcasts, whether it’s on TV, radio, or the web. In any normally-functioning democracy, laws apply to everyone equally, and media barons, political personalities, or activist bloggers are not exempt.

This natural tendency to compare actions and ideals to what “the West” is doing or thinking is of course not specific to Cheng. Singaporeans policy-makers, activists, and politicians all turn, one way or another, to examples of better or worse situations to highlight what they want to highlight; “In Finland they have childcare centres in the workplace, why can’t we?”, “In France they tried to tax the rich, and look where it got them!”, “In the US many jobs have been lost to cheaper labour, we can’t let that happen here”, etc.

The tendency is also nothing new. Ever since its inception Singapore has been looking to what its neighbours, allies, opponents, and competitors have been up to in order to guide its policies. Many of the nation’s livelihoods depend on the actions of others – natural resource management of Indonesia, military capability of Malaysia, industrial development of China, trade regulations of Europe, financial markets of the US, etc.

The difference in this particular case is that media regulations, just like any other method of structuring or channelling speech, are a highly “personal” matter. Muslim countries have very strict policies on nudity and violence on TV. The French have very specific laws regarding the prioritisation of French-produced content. The US restricts some types of content to cable or late-night shows. China has some taboo topics and keywords that people know to stay away from. Anything these countries implement can’t be enforced here and vice-versa.

In other words, this is one area in which Singapore should only look to itself for answers instead of seeing what’s being done elsewhere for guidance. Much like the loosely-defined concept of “democracy”, media rules and regulations are unique and non-transferable.

That’s why it’s very important that we see the current discussions on the MDA ruling not as obstacles to change but as engines of democratic development.

This is our chance to shine and show that we are mature enough to go beyond our political differences to find what’s right for Singapore.

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