Way before Breakfast Network and Independent, there was Sintercom

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How things hardly change in Singapore. Here is an interview with the man behind Sintercom, a news website founded in 1997 that decided to register but finally closed down because of government attitude. Tan Chong Kee now lives in San Francisco.

sbacoverMany Singaporeans are not very familiar with Sintercom. For their benefit, can you tell us what happened between Sintercom and the government?

Before anything else, I want to make this clear: The registration process is a way for the authority to hang a Damocles Sword over the heads of non-establishment voices. You can euphonise it anyway you like, example, “light touch”, but the reality is that its effect is that of a Damocles Sword. What’s “light” about that is the gossamer light thread from which it hangs. It is past time for us to call a spade a spade.

Founded in 1994, Sintercom was probably the first website in Singapore dedicated to fostering an open and honest discussion about all things Singaporean: our culture, economy, and politics. Some of the things we did include: creating the first online Singlish dictionary; maintaining a popular food review section called Makan Time; interviewing trail blazing Singaporeans such as Paddy Chew, the first person to come out as HIV+, and Constance Singam, then twice president of AWARE; hosting discussion panels with academics and activists on Internet regulation and led a campaign to amend them; and unbiased reporting on electioneering speeches of both PAP and opposition parties candidates at the 1997 general election.

Initially the government perceived Sintercom as an innovative endeavor, with more positive than negative potential. Almost all our editors were university students in Stanford, NTU, Oxford, Yale, etc. Mr Philip Yeo was our early champion and persuaded us to move our content from servers in these universities to a centralised server in Singapore, hosted by Sembawang Media.


As each of us graduated, some left and others, like myself, became more plugged in to local civil society. I initiated new projects like “Not the Straits Times Forum”, putting published forum letters side-by-side their originals to show how they had been edited to dull or even change key points. Sintercom also became involved with TWC, a coalition of NGOs, and tried to launch a media watch organisation. This is the period when the government became less happy with us, culminating with the demand to register.

You decided not to register Sintercom. What were your reasons?

That is incorrect. Sintercom was registered. This is a misconception popularised by Dr Cherian George, for example, in his 2007 article “Looking for patterns in 10 years of ‘light touch’ regulation” where he wrote: “Two non-party sites were asked to register as political websites. One of them, Think Centre, complied. The other, Sintercom, refused to… Rather than register, the Singapore site was closed down… Arguably, Sintercom overreacted.” George’s reply is at the end of the article.

This is what actually happened.

In 2001 just before the general election, we were told by SBA (now MDA, I will henceforth use MDA to avoid confusion) to register as a political site. As part of the registration, we had to list all the editors’ employers and salaries. Since a good number of our published articles are critical of various government policies, they could be construed as already contravening the guidelines. The content guidelines prohibited content that “tend to bring the government of Singapore into hatred or contempt, or which excites disaffection against the government of Singapore.” By signing the form that said I am accepting personal liability for all content, am I not already doomed and the slightest misstep in future could land me in court?

Since the previous MITA Minister had exempted Sintercom from registering as a political site, I tried to reach out to MITA and MDA, to discuss this issue. Both organisations refused to meet me.

Notwithstanding these issues, we registered as a political site with MDA on July 2001.

The interesting part is what happened after registration. First, I tried to comply with the Code of Practice, which stated that webmasters unsure of the suitability of their site’s content should consult the MDA. I consulted the MDA on the suitability of various already published content. I made it clear to MDA that if they decide that those content contravened the guidelines, Sintercom would remove them. From Sintercom’s point of view, we would even have continued operating as a registered political site, if in our operations, we could at least make the OB-markers more defined and visible, and thus subject them to public scrutiny and debate. Making clear we are ready to remove any offending articles would also ameliorate the risks and allow us to continue with some semblance of integrity. It would have allowed us to continue publishing articles we felt were cogent without second-guessing and self-censorship. If the MDA decides to censor something, they can easily do so but it would then be visible that censorship has occurred.

However, MDA refused to answer my question. They told me instead to “exercise judgment”. When regulations are vaguely worded and the authority enforcing it refuses to clarify how to comply, we have the classic setup to induce self-censorship.

Under such circumstances, it became clear that there is no space for Sintercom to operate. I closed Sintercom down the following month, in August, to demonstrate this fact. If nothing else, I hoped the bad press from it would make them think twice about doing it again to anyone who comes after us. Think Centre understood the significance of the closure and wrote accurately about it.

Did I over-react? Could Sintercom have continued? Of course we could. Somehave even chided me and said half a Sintercom is better than none. If my primary goal were to keep the Sintercom brand going, that was obviously possible. But I am not a super human immune to the pressures that our government exerts. If I had continued, I would have ended up practising self-censorship, and my self-censorship would have been invisible. MDA would have an absolute victory, being able to claim “light touch” while bringing Sintercom to heel. Sintercom’s goal was to create a space for non self-censoring public discourse, how could I let it end up being one that self-censors in order to continue? I could not find the stomach to do that. That is why I had to close it down.

These events were documented day-by-day and published on the Sintercom homepage. As the news broke in the mainstream media, anyone could surf over to Sintercom’s homepage and follow the developments there. They would have seen that we had registered, and read the emails I sent to MDA querying them about certain published content, and eventually my detailed explanation for choosing to shut down. In fact, someone unknown to me has preserved this last page on the Internet and you can access it here: http://www.oocities.org/newsintercom2001/sba/

These events were also documented and published in the book “Building Society Space in Singapore” (Select 2001).

Based on the erroneous narrative of what really happened with Sintercom, Dr George was able to conclude that: “The case files from 1996 to 2006 suggest that the government’s powers under the Class Licence and the Internet Code of Practice have indeed been applied with a light touch. The authorities did not deviate from their assurance that they would use their filtering powers mainly for pornography and not for political censorship. The Internet has since developed into a lively space for a counter-discourse that frequently challenges the mainstream media’s framing of events.”

This assessment legitimised MDA’s claim that its regulation had always been “light touch”, and that if any site closed down because of it, it was itsr own fault. This framing reduced the blocking effects of Sintercom’s sacrifice. It even implicitly and subtly credited MDA for the work done by a new cohort of courageous Singaporeans.

Looking back, would you have done it differently?

The Sintercom project revolved around one central question: could ordinary Singaporeans have a stake in our country if we operated completely within the bounds of what the PAP had publicly said it would tolerate? If one refrained from contesting the PAP government for political power, gave constructive criticism, avoided engaging in libel or disrespectful language, stayed resolutely on matters of principles and never criticise any personalities, in short, if one did everything in one’s power to obey the rules of public discourse as laid down by the government, could one then be allowed to speak frankly in public?

I discovered that it was not possible.

Given that, one thing I might have done differently is to not deliberately keep my silence for so long. I had previously reasoned that Sintercom was too dominant and became the default site for alternative discourse. Since I could not shift the landscape, I should fade away and let others try. I decided not to actively contest Dr George’s inaccurate description of events. This I now see is a mistake because it shrouded the necessity to close Sintercom in mystery, and set things up so that MDA could do it again. By keeping silent, I have also deprived civil society and online community the opportunity to learn from what happened to Sintercom, and the ability to be more prepared when the authority decides to use registration as a tool again.

Now there is a similar issue with Breakfast Network and The Independent Singapore. What does this tell of the Singapore government?

One explanation that will fit all the facts is that the Singapore government wants firm control of all local media and will not allow any alternative views to gain too much legitimacy. There may be other plausible explanations, but I cannot think of another that will fit the facts better.

Why do you think the government is singling out Breakfast Network and The Independent Singapore? After all, there are so many news websites in Singapore and they don’t come under government rules.

Breakfast Network and The Independent are the two sites that have created business entities and plan to become profitable businesses. So they are using a lever of control that is effective for businesses. I suspect their calculation is that to protect future profits, these two businesses will toe the line. If both had quietly registered, then the “light touch” narrative would have scored another victory.

Now that one has registered and the other closed down, it is just like the Sintercom and Think Centre scenario again — curious how history repeats itself. There is a risk that, when the dust has settled, someone else will step forward to use your decision to register to label Breakfast Network’s decision to close down an over-reaction or a misstep. It is easy to make this argument. I just did a search and saw that the published guidelines now no longer contain prohibition of political content. If the more politically motivated regulations in 2001 were “light touch” how much more “light touch” it must be now, with those most glaring words removed? Over time, this official assessment could become the main narrative and we are back to business as usual.

However, I think it will be harder to go back to business as usual this time because we now have social media helping to spread the details about Breakfast Network.

They are not as isolated as Sintercom was in 2001. Few stepped forward to defend us then, but many have stepped up now to query MDA’s responses. The few “authoritative” voices of the past are now balanced by a multitude of other voices debating and seeking the truth. Their ability to create and maintain a believable official narrative is now curtailed. I am especially glad that Dr George has come out in support of the site that refused to register this time.

On the other hand, The Independent is now in a unique situation. You could toe the line and try to compete with SPH by being just slightly more forthright. That in and of itself already has value. Or you could really push the envelope and create more space for everyone. One choice could seem less commercially viable than the other. But the bolder choice may allow you to be a reader-funded news site instead of an advertisement-funded one. There may be enough Singaporeans willing to put their money where their mouth is and make a bold Independent a lucrative project. Ultimately, we get the kind of journalism we deserve. After weighing the risks, you could decide to make history and completely change the landscape of journalism in Singapore. But even if you don’t, every little attempt to provide an alternative will likely be appreciated.

How will the latest move shape the internet community and the way people consume news online?

In the short run, I think it may slow the decline of SPH. As long as organised business challenges to SPH can be nipped in the bud, less savvy Singaporeans will remain longer as news consumers through SPH. However, in the long run, the effectiveness of registration as a lever of control will decline, and alternative voices will gain greater audience. Already, the regulation has fewer teeth than before. These changes did not happen by themselves because the authorities decided that certain powers are no longer necessary. Even if the government will not admit it, changes happened because we pushed for them.

Crystal gazing aside, what I hope will happen is that more Singaporeans will come to understand that even though it might appear they have made little progress, and be called names to boot, changes could still result from their efforts. With social media, one can push for even more changes than were possible a decade ago. I look forward to following these brave men and women on their journey, and hope to count The Independent among them.

Where do you live now and what are you involved in?

I live in San Francisco now and am involved in a start-up called Bay Bucks. Bay Bucks is a regional currency for the Bay Area. The goal is to foster a more just and sustainable local economy.


CHERIAN GEORGE’S REPLY

I thank Chong Kee for pointing out the error in my 2007 blog post, though I wish he hadn’t waited six years to tell me! I have amended the incorrect phrase “Rather than register” to read, “Rather than accept the risks that came with registration”. But the earlier sentence that Chong Kee cites – where I say that Sintercom “refused to” register – is not inaccurate when read in its original context.

That sentence refers to the first time that Sintercom was asked to register – 1996. It did indeed refuse to at that point, and the authorities backed down. Sintercom agreed to registration only when it was asked the second time – in 2001. It is a complicated story, but since there is interest, I’ve just posted an article about the episode on my journalism.sg blog. It is an extract from my 2006 book, for which Chong Kee was a valuable source