Singapore’s domestic debate is a matter for Singaporeans, Mr Lee Kuan Yew once said to an American audience.
This is why under the Broadcasting Act, registered Internet Content Providers which engaged in the promotion or discussion of political issues relating to Singapore are required to be transparent about their sources of funding. This is to ensure that such sites do not come under the control or influence of foreign entities. It ensures that there is no foreign influence in domestic politics.
As a registered Internet Content Provider, The Online Citizen Pte Ltd (“TOC”) has to abide by the rules of the licence. However, it has repeatedly failed to declare all its funding sources for its 2020 annual declaration. This was despite being given multiple reminders and extensions.
Worse than failing to declare its sources of funding, TOC has informed the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) that it does not intend to comply with its obligations under the law.
TOC’s refusal to comply with the law raises many questions. Is TOC above the law? More importantly, why is TOC so shy and reluctant to be transparent about all its funding for 2020? Is there something to hide? If there is nothing to hide, why is it so difficult to be transparent? Could it be that TOC is in fact, receiving funds from questionable sources? These are important questions of interest to Singaporeans as they point to just how ‘independent’ TOC is as it claims to be. It will also reveal its motive behind many articles including many baseless attacks on the Singapore Police to undermine law enforcement in Singapore.
The foreign connection with TOC is not something new. One will recall that TOC hired many Malaysian writers to write almost exclusively negative articles on Singapore’s social and political matters, including inflammatory articles that seek to fracture social cohesion.
One article by Malaysian Rubaashini Shunmuganathan aka “Kiara Xavier” called for Singaporean civil servants to follow the example of Hong Kong civil servants in protesting. Another article by the same writer made allegations about Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong including attacks on his character and fitness to hold office. This led to 2 separate defamation suits by the Prime Minister: against Rubaashini Shunmuganathan, the writer of a TOC article and against Terry Xu, the editor of TOC. The suit was recently concluded with PM Lee awarded S$210,000 in damages by the High Court on Wednesday (Sep 1).
That’s not all. TOC has also demonstrated that it is very comfortable with dishonest journalism. Its attempt to lie about how 4 police officers had “clustered an elderly woman who had taken off her mask because she was feeling breathless” was very quickly exposed and demolished by body-worn camera footages. (You can read it here.)
TOC’s refusal to apologise to the son of the elderly woman for exploiting her vulnerability in conducting an interview with her despite the fact that she has dementia shows that Terry Xu is lacking in integrity and principles.
Given that TOC would resort to unscrupulous means to mislead the public, it is perhaps unsurprising that it has refused to be transparent about its funding sources. In fact, it has refused to fully complied with its obligation to fully declare its funding sources since 2019. It was issued a Warning on 4 May 2021 for failing to clarify discrepancies in its foreign advertising revenue in its 2019 declaration.
IMDA takes a serious view of non-compliance with the Broadcasting (Class Licence) Notification because the threat of foreign interference in our domestic politics is real. In its letter, IMDA said that it may take appropriate enforcement if TOC is unable to provide good reasons for its non-compliance.
“The threat of foreign interference in our domestic politics has always been present. Singapore was a target of two such operations in the 1970s involving newspapers The Eastern Sun and the Singapore Herald. These newspapers received funding from foreign sources and ran articles that sought to undermine Singapore’s nation-building efforts. There have also been reports from other countries, that foreign players and their agents attempted to influence their politics by buying off political parties and individual politicians. We need to be cautious as the prevalence of the Internet and social media platforms makes it easier to influence large numbers of people.”