On 3 Nov 2001, Singapore held its general election. A few months earlier that year, the milestone Sintercom website was approached by the authorities to register the website as a political one. Tan Chong Kee guessed correctly that from the vague terms and conditions on registering Sintercom as a political website, he was liable for civil and criminal action, regardless if comments in his website were not by him. Fast forward to 2011, it is deja vu because the authorities have gazetted The Online Citizen (TOC) as a political association on one hand so that it cannot get foreign donations, and as a political website under condition 4 of the Schedule to the Broadcasting (Class License) Notification’. So it is a pincer assault for the alleged kingmaker in opposition politics despite the rightly politically correct denials.
What is this Condition 4?
"An Internet Content Provider who is or is determined by the Authority to be a body of persons engaged in the propagation, promotion or discussion of political or religious issues relating to Singapore on the World Wide Web through the Internet, shall register with the Authority within 14 days after the commencement of its service, or within such longer time as the Authority may permit"
What is a Political Association? According to the Political Donations Act,
"political association" means —
(a) a political party or an organisation which has as one of its objects or activities the promotion or procuring of the election to Parliament or to the office of President of a candidate or candidates endorsed by the organisation; or
(b) an organisation (not being a branch of any organisation) whose objects or activities relate wholly or mainly to politics in Singapore and which is declared by the Minister, by order in the Gazette, to be a political association for the purposes of this Act;
Political Website Yes, Political Association Maybe
Without doubt TOC is a political website so MDA's intimidating request for it to register its team of citizen journalists should not come as a surprise to TOC or its readers. The contention is whether TOC is a political association simply because of declaration by a Minister via a gazette. "Light touch" pledge broken or not, MDA and MICA supposedly think so because TOC has dabbled in online activism e.g. from its public transport to anti-death penalty campaigns. Moreover, since the new leadership of TOC under Joshua Chiang and with the seminal Face to Face pow-wow of the major opposition players in December last year, there are signs that TOC is becoming more ambitious and we the public welcome its tentative crossover from online to offline presence.
Hence, TOC is a political website but not necessarily a political association depending on who is asked. Being branded as a political association ironically legitimises TOC further and enhances its credibility. So the new TOC under Joshua Chiang has to decide whether to reject this branding and implicit acknowledgment of TOC's effective activism and go to court where the outcome is rather clear, or to welcome it and be proud of the political signature which TOC has marketed since 2006. Be proud of being political. Some writers or editors in TOC might naturally feel the strain although hopefully they all reach consensus and register accordingly as dissent in the ranks would be a poor show of confidence in TOC's direction.
Stay Around They Lose or Go Away They Win
Responsibility in its opinions on political, racial or religious views is constantly seen in TOC's writings so the MDA political website leash has no effect. If they wanted to, they would have used it on TOC long ago. The authorities' paranoia of foreign funding in the case of TOC is most ridiculous and unless TOC has foreign funding currently or has plans to in the future, the Minister's gazette of the site would not affect TOC's existence anyway. Thus, TOC should stick around and accept the mantle and make a stand.
The alternative is for TOC to cease existence in its current form and like a phoenix from the flame...