Why being based overseas does not matter
Note: The following is an edited version of a letter sent to The Temasek Review.
With the recent outcry in Singapore’s blogosphere and political scene over the news that The Online Citizen has been gazetted and demanded by the MDA to register within 14 days, attention has turned to the Temasek Review, a Singapore opinionated news blog whose web traffic in Singapore exceeds TOC (at least by Alexa’s ranking). While the local papers and media did not appear to discuss why TR was not gazetted as well, it is understood by most to have evaded the requirement because they are largely based overseas. As TR puts it in a press release today:
Temasek Review is indeed technically “funded” by foreigners and we are not hiding that fact. The server lease is paid by us (editors) and most of us have obtained foreign citizenship although we used to be Singaporean. The present server lease was paid in full for a year by a Chinese lady whom we sold the domain to following the Temasek Holdings fiasco. The Chinese lady has no editorial or administrative control over our site and has agreed to allow us to continue using the domain until she decides to sell it or use it personally for her own venture.
Of the 7 editors in our team, 4 are now “foreigners” with 3 pending. 95% of contributions (authors and contributors) are received from Singaporeans (we do check) and all our moderators are Singaporeans. The remaining 5% are editorial pieces from us.
Predictably, the reaction from some online quarters have been furious. On the comments page of that TR article carrying the announcement some of the reactions includes charges that TR does not represent Singaporeans or cannot do so because of where they are based or due to the composition of their editorial board. Yet for many reasons such a claim remain unfounded.
It’s important to realise that an organisation can represent the interests of citizens of an undemocratic country even if they are based overseas or have renounced or lost their citizenship. As an example, let’s take a look at Burma’s government in exile.
After the Burmese junta, a good friend and ally of the ruling PAP party, lost the 1990 elections to Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) in a landslide, the NLD government was forced into exile overseas while the poll results were invalidated. The NLD was recently outlawed last year after it failed to register for elections which Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo was quoted as saying was “a major step forward” despite much of the rest of the world decrying it as sham. Yet the NLD has never been looked upon by ordinary Burmese as being unrepresentative of them. Hence those who argue that TR is foreign-run and funded without any care for Singaporean issues should take a step back and look at various other countries where democratic parties and organisations have been outlawed and operate in exile.
Are they also implying that these exiled governments are illegitimate and shouldn’t claim to speak up for their oppressed citizens? Or how about the various democracy advocacy groups in support of Burma? Does being based in New York instead of Rangoon mean that they cannot effectively represent the interests of the Burmese people? Or that the officially sanctioned Burmese junta-approved political organisations based in Burma are a better representative of the Burmese people?
Another example of a government-in-exile is the Central Tibetan Administration which was was outlawed in 1959 by the Communist government in China. Is anyone willing to claim that its head, the Dalai Lama who is also a Nobel Peace Prize recipient is a complete foreigner who doesn’t have Tibetan interests at heart? Of course it’s not surprising that China regards the current Dalai Lama as a “terrorist”. But the world and most of us know better.
In addition, here’s a list of other governments-in-exile.
If anything, what the above has shown is that sometimes organisations are forced overseas simply because the political climate in their originating country do not tolerate its existence or as in the case of TOC, vulnerable to legal harassment by the authorities. It doesn’t mean, as some have myopically said that they cannot and do not represent the interests of Singaporeans.