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Academics Rage Against the Machine
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High Court dismisses Li Shengwu’s application challenging AGC’s order to serve papers outside Singapore
The High Court dismissed an application by PM Lee Hsien Loong’s nephew, Li Shengwu, to challenge an court order allowing the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) to serve him papers outside Singapore (Mr Li is currently a junior fellow in Harvard University) for contempt of court. The decision paves the way for contempt of court proceedings to commence against him.
Last year in July, Mr Li wrote in a Facebook post shared with friends only that the Singapore Government was “litigious” and has a “pliant court system”. His comments accompanied an article in the Wall Street Journal about the dispute between his father Lee Hsien Yang, his aunt Lee Wei Ling, and his uncle PM Lee over the Oxley Road house of his grandfather, the late PM Lee Kuan Yew. The AGC wrote to Mr Li six days after the comments were made, asking him to “purge the contempt” by deleting the post and issuing a written apology on his Facebook page. Mr Li did not do so and denied that his private post (shared without his authorisation) was, in context, an attack on the Singapore judiciary – he amended the post to “clarify [his] meaning”.
The new statutory provisions governing contempt of court in Singapore (although this came into force only in October 2017, a few months after the incident with Li Shengwu). More detailed legal analysis of the new provisions here
Does number 6 sound familiar? ? (Li Shengwu is an Oxford alumnus)
Civil Society up in arms over not-so-civil Select Committee
Civil society activists released a signed statement criticising the way that the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods conducting its public hearings. Civil society groups Community Action Network and Function 8, as well as historian Dr Thum Ping Tjin, journalist Kirsten Han, and The Online Citizen editor Terry Xu all signed the statement . They voiced their concerns that the hearings were not consultative enough, with leading questions being asked and ‘yes-no’ answers demanded, and argued that this signalled the committee was not really interested in their views.
They also stated that some of their views during the hearings had been misrepresented in summaries put up on the Parliament website and requested for changes to these summaries. In response, the committee made some of the changes, but noted that they felt Ms Han’s request to take down the summary while it was being amended was contradictory to the views she expressed before the committee, sparking a rejoinder from Ms Han that it was important to distinguish between legally mandated take-down orders and voluntary retractions.
Over 200 academics sign open letter in support of historian Thum Ping Tjin, MP Charles Chong and Oxford Project Southeast Asia jump in
More than 200 academics from around the world have put their names to an open letter in support of academic freedom and historian Thum Ping Tjin. The open letter, addressed to the committee chairman Charles Chong, questioned the motive behind the “grilling” of Dr Thum by Minister Shanmugam and expressed concern about the implications for freedom of expression and academic freedom in Singapore. Charles Chong responded with a letter of his own, defending the proceedings of the hearing, likening it to Zuckerberg’s testimony to Congress. Chong further questioned Thum’s credentials, asserting that he is neither an academic historian nor an Oxford employee.
Around the same time, however, Oxford University’s Project Southeast Asia also released an official statement defending Thum and academic freedom in Singapore. They referred to Thum as a historian, having completed his history doctorate at Oxford in 2011.Oxford’s Project Southeast Asia stressed that Thum’s research has “already met the rigorous standards of examination at Oxford, and in peer review by fellow historical experts on the region”. The undersigned criticised the hearing for subjecting Thum to forcefully answer academically complex questions in binary yes/no answers, and also accused the media for its “unflattering and one-sided reporting”. It is also striking that neither Charles Chong nor the Straits Times made reference to Thum’s full-time position at Oxford University’s Project Southeast Asia.
New Naratif accused of foreign influence by ACRA, responds with official statement … and a cartoon!
On 11 April, Singapore’s Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority (ACRA) rejected New Naratif’s application for its company, Observatory Southeast Asia Ltd. (OSEA) to be registered, as it would be “contrary to national interests”. ACRA took issue with OSEA, a UK based company, being awarded a grant of $75000 from Foundation Open Societies Institute (FOSI). ACRA described FOSI as closely associated with Open Society Foundations (OSF), which is founded by US-Hungarian billionaire George Soros. ACRA therefore alleged that New Naratif is “being used by foreigners to pursue a political activity in Singapore”. In the United States, in Great Britain and in Hungary, discrediting liberal political acts by saying they are funded by George Soros is a textbook move of the far right.
New Naratif responded stating that ACRA’s allegations were unfounded, stressing its commitment to transparency. New Naratif conducts monthly open meetings for all to freely attend to provide feedback and ask questions about their operations, and is committed to regularly publishing financial reports. It also stressed that New Naratif is substantially supported by revenue from over 420 members from 17 countries who subscribe at variant rates. In his personal Facebook account, Sonny Liew, a founding member of New Naratif, shared that OSF even funds things like the Sundance Film festival, implying that any issues with the grant is “only in the much, much wider sense of systemic questions about the nature of wealth and philanthropy all over the world”. Since the ACRA allegations, membership and readership of New Naratif has increased according to their website.
Food for Thought:
A commentary on South China Morning Post about the leadership transitions in Singapore’s political parties, and what this means for the future of Singapore’s politics. Will the Workers’ Party gain more seats in the next election? What about wildcards such as the Lee siblings and Tan Cheng Bock?
President of the United States Donald Trump plans to visit Singapore this year. He is reportedly inspired by Singapore and interested in imposing the death penalty on drug dealers, but he has also castigated the country for stealing American jobs. How the unpredictable President’s visit to Singapore will shift relations between the two countries remains to be seen.
RICE Media digs in on ACRA vs New Naratif to reflect on the idealisation of truly independent journalism
“Having a paymaster or receiving external funding doesn’t mean that factual and honest reporting cannot exist. Being awarded a grant by OSF shouldn’t discredit the New Naratif team’s ability to produce credible content. Even if it’s biased, it shouldn’t be a concern. After all, the website acknowledges that it aims to build a “movement” that educates its readers and reshapes their perspectives. It makes its agenda clear… In today’s media landscape, no truly independent publication exists. All the more we should focus on raising our media literacy instead of blindly believing that our favourite website has no vested interests, or insisting that media platforms must be bias-free.”
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