Tuesday, August 19, 2008

PM Rally Speech: Men-in-White or Men-in-Grey?

Amongst the usual pro-family, pro-integrated society policy tweaks we are used to hearing, it was quite surprising to hear PM Lee announce the lifting of the ban on political pod/vodcasts during election campaigning periods. More surprising was the easing up of restrictions governing the use of the speakers’ corner; allowing for future public demonstrations the location.

Even more surprising was the promise of a light touch in regulating the use of the space. Significantly, the police would hand over management of the site to N Parks.

Of course, as with many PAP policies, there are ambiguities and grey areas which somehow always seem to hinder dissenting voices whilst protecting others.

For example, videos that are “purely made-up material, partisan stuff, footage distorted to create a slanted impression” remain prohibited. PM is probably referring to those smear campaign commercials which are rampant during US presidential elections. But to expect political videos, originating form parties or non-partisan individuals, not to have some sort of slant, is a bit na├»ve. We shall have to see how consistent the ‘regulators’ are with categorizing videos that emerge during the period. We wouldnt want a situation whereby only pro-PAP videos pass the 'censors'.

Alas, the move to allow for public protests could be a means to plug the apparent hypocrisy with regards to “government-linked” demonstrations (ala CASE). A lack of use of the facility (due to poor location..etc) would also give the PAP more political fodder to declare a happy citizenry not opting to demonstrate although allowed to. And of course here comes the caveat. This ‘privilege’ only remains “as long as the demonstrators adhere to basic rules of law and order, and stay away from issues of race, language or religion.” – a huge grey area if you ask me.

Why should the PAP have the monopoly to discuss issues of race, language or religion? -- This among all other areas is where an easing in restrictions is required.

Singapore to ease ban on political videos, public demonstrations
By Imelda Saad, Channel NewsAsia

SINGAPORE: Political engagement in Singapore is set to change with the advent of new media.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong acknowledged this as much and said the government will have to adapt, get used to it, and turn it to positive effect.

Hence, the government will ease up on the ban on political videos and outdoor public demonstrations, he said at his National Day Rally on Sunday night.

The new-generation Singaporeans, weaned on the likes of Facebook and YouTube, are getting news off websites and discussing issues online.

"By the next GE (General Election), 5 years will have passed. Cyber years are like dog years. One year in cyberspace equals to 7 years in real life," Mr Lee said. "That's the pace at which things change. So 5 years times 7 means 35 years in the real world."

Mr Lee even conceded that his National Day Rally has become a multi-media event.

To show this, he took out a mobile phone and proceeded to film the audience before him in the auditorium. Behind him, on a giant screen, the audience saw themselves featured on the Web page of the Prime Minister's Office - live.

"There you are, simple as that. I've just made our first non-political video," he said to laughter from the audience.

And since anyone can do this anytime, anywhere, Mr Lee said an outright ban on party political films is no longer sensible.

But there will still be safeguards.

"Some things are obviously alright - factual footage, documentaries, recordings of live events. But I think some things should still be off limits... (for instance) if you made a political commercial so that it's purely made-up material, partisan stuff, footage distorted to create a slanted impression," he said.

Unlike the last General Election, podcasts, videocasts and election materials will be allowed. But those who upload such material online will have to maintain accountability and responsibility.

The Advisory Council on the Impact of New Media on Society - led by former Singapore Press Holdings editor-in-chief Cheong Yip Seng - will set out its recommendations on these issues later this month.

The restriction remains for outdoor demonstrations, but Mr Lee said the government needs to find ways to allow Singaporeans to express themselves safely.

He said Singapore will allow outdoor public demonstrations at the Speakers' Corner, a public space for free speeches. This is as long as the demonstrators adhere to basic rules of law and order, and stay away from issues of race, language or religion.

The government will manage the liberalisation with a light touch, said Mr Lee. So there is no need for the Police to be involved. In fact, the NParks will manage the Speakers' Corner, instead.

Mr Lee said: "The overall thrust of all these changes is to liberalise our society, to widen space for expression and participation. We encourage more citizens to engage in debate, to participate in building our shared future.

"We will progressively open up our system even more. If you compare today with 5 years ago, 10 years ago, it's much more open today."

Even then, Singapore cannot progress just by copying others. Mr Lee said the country must find the right path for itself.
- CNA/ir

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