TOC: The Overkill Censor?
We are an open platform… We do this because we’re concerned Singaporeans who believe that it is better to ask questions and raise issues, than shut up, sit down, and never be heard at all.
– Chief Editor Joshua Chiang, Former Chief Editors Andrew Loh & Choo Zheng Xi in a statement to its readers.
…we are a website that provides regular Singaporeans with a platform to share their opinions about all aspects of life in Singapore…
In short, we are a place where Singaporeans can come and talk about what is foremost on their minds. We do not engage in partisan politics, and we have no interest in engaging in partisan politics.
– Chief Editor Joshua Chiang, Former Chief Editors Andrew Loh & Choo Zheng Xi in their initial reply to PMO appealing the decision to gazette.
So wrote the admins of The Online Citizen when they were gazetted by the PMO to be designated as a political association. Yet in many ways TOC’s actions fall far short of what they proclaim to be. TOC has come a long way since they were founded in late 2006. Seen by many as the “voice of moderation” in the generally rambunctious Singapore blogosphere, TOC has lived up to that reputation… literally. There’s much to like about The Online Citizen, it’s occasional breaking scoop stories such as the press releases by RP insiders on the recent break-up of the party which cannot be found elsewhere, the clear-writing style of its contributors and certainly the articles of Leong Sze Hian whom every now and then dissect and question rosy statistics released in the often biased mainstream media. In contrast to another major blog Temasek Review, where insults are regularly hurled at other commenters and readers, comments on TOC’s articles are generally seen as less vitriolic and more moderate.
But one major flaw of TOC is their practice of extreme censorship, where not only personal attacks are censored, but reasonable dissenting opinion as well. The Online Citizen has long been accused by its detractors of overly promoting liberal Western ideals such as gay rights, migrant workers’ rights, anti-mandatory death penalty campaigns at the expense of local concerns such as the cost of living. Concerns such as the cost of living do feature prominently on the front page of TOC, especially when written by Leong Sze Hian. But things often take an ugly turn when TOC turns to Western style social issues, where they are often out of touch with the socially conservative Singaporeans.
Take a recent case for example. gemami, a long time commenter on TOC recently posted a dissenting comment on a TOC article written by Joshua Chiang, TOC’s Chief Editor criticising MDA’s decision to limit the screening of lesbian parenting film The Kids are All Right to a single copy to be shown in cinemas in Singapore. Unfortuntately, gemami’s comment violated a gratuitous 500-word limit TOC imposed on all comments (How does anyone reasonably expect others to respond to long pieces with a comment limit of 500 words?) and it was not approved. Chief Editor Joshua Chiang subsequently posted it as a separate piece on TOC here, and a heated discussion ensued.
Reading through the comments posted on the article, one gets the impression that gemami was outnumbered by his critics and almost certain to lose. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that commenters have actually sided with his position, but these comments were censored by Joshua Chiang, in an apparent bid to silence dissenters. Here are some comments, one by myself which was censored:
Take a good look at the comment. It was nothing more than a call for civility. Yet for some inexplicable reason TOC decided not to approve it. Two other comments, the latter by a friend of mine were also censored or deleted by TOC:
yag’s comment which highlighted the general nature of the discussion, that of a majority of commenters bashing gemami without any support has been deleted. As was my friend’s (Unfair) which made much the same point:
Meanwhile TOC openly tolerated insulting comments (which have nothing to do with the article) such as the following:
Agents Provocateur 21 February 2011
However, it was not until I was contacted by gemami over email and sent an explanation (with accompanying screenshots) that I really learned what was going on with the discussion. It turns out that TOC denied gemami his right of reply to his critics by withholding his comments to make his position appear untenable. His email is reproduced in its entirety below:
My comment to TOC Chief Editor, Joshua Chiang, went under instant moderation (screenshot 1) after he was cornered in the argument; refusing to clarify whether a person who has undergone sex-change is as normal as one who shaves or cut his nails. This was mentioned by one of the gays (Will) who argued that sex change is as normal as described. It supported my argument, live and on air, that the gay community cannot find it in itself to chide its wayward members even when their perception of who they really are is clearly wrong, and this is one of the reasons why mainstream people are pessimistic and apprehensive in their outlook on the gay community. It also supports my other reason that such an outlook is partly due to the gay community’s own fault.
Immediately after it went under moderation, it disappeared completely(screenshot 2), sending a clear message that TOC Chief Editor must have the final say. So be it and truth be told.
As if having the last say wasn’t enough, TOC Chief Editor saw it appropriate to censor my reply to another reader, Lobo76 (screenshot 3), putting it under moderation for goodness knows how long more. In it, I corrected Lobo’s error by pointing out the fact that the pedophile subject was first broached by Joshua and supported by him; both using it to symbolize abnormality in their separate arguments. By so doing, I wanted to know from them what had driven them to such a conclusion and whether the faculty that made them came to such a conclusion is no different from the faculty that others have used to conclude their views and opinions of the gay as abnormal. It too went under moderation while other readers are now having a field day bashing the hell out of the Christian religion with non-Christian self-professed Christianity Scholars entering the fray and making quotes from the Bible as if they are the know all and be all.
I urge sane readers to read my posts and conclude for themselves whether I had at any point derided the gay and its community? Did I resort to name-calling etc? Did I even pretend to say what the gay should or shouldn’t be? No, all I did was to present my standpoint and why I am compelled to do some of things I had to do in my understanding and my love for my God – very much like what the gay is compelled to do based on his understanding of who he is and his love for his own. Can he not see how he has been slapping himself in the face? It is now 7.42am on Wednesday morning, 23/02/2011. Case is rested.
In addition gemami posted two other explanatory comments on Solo Bear‘s blog detailing what had happened:
Not sure if you have been following events at TOC but just two days ago it’s Chief Editor, Joshua Chiang, published an article he had written, titled: ‘MDA; Abnormalising the normal?’, another one of those regular posts championing the gay cause as the title clearly suggests.
Amid the first few pat-on-the-backs comments by its gay members, there was nothing else of interest to crow about; not until I gave my two cents worth; taking the editor to task for using the ‘normal’ folks of the gay community in its push for equal treatment of the gay community as a whole and deeming the entire bunch as normal folks, cleverly evading that little corner of its community where, for example, bodily mutilation is accepted as the norm of society.
Not wanting to taint his article, perhaps knowing that the anti-gay folks would quickly descend there, the editor immediately placed my comment under moderation (what else) and published it as an article of its own in a new tread. No permission was sought and there wasn’t even the courtesy of a note to inform me. So the anti-Christian bash begun, headed by the very chief editor himself.
By the second day, the gay lobbyists and activists were back-tracking and retreating because I stuck to my guns, asking a simple question: “Whether attaching fake penis, carving fake vaginas, inserting silicon to bloat up artificial breasts, and slicing off fats to flatten chests were all acts which could be considered normal. With no clear cut answers forthcoming, the Christian bashing intensified. The chief editor attempted to switch the argument to 377A and Christian love, but I did not yield, insisting that he provide me the answer I was seeking because his article was about being either normal or abnormal. The answer to my question will put all arguments to rest once and for all. Yet of the 48 commenters who posted their two cents worth against mine, none could provide the answer I was seeking.
It felt very strange that there were no one on my side and everyone on their side. Not until I understand from Defennder that his posts and that of his friends never saw the light of day.
By the end of the day, Lobo76 joined the fray and we were happily exchanging notes when suddenly my post went into perpetual moderation…till this afternoon, before it was taken off air. The chief editor, perhaps knew he was cornered and with no way out, also moderated my comment to his last post, and a few minutes later it too went off air. (I have e-mailed the screenshots Defennder, the owner of The Furry Brown Dog).
This afternoon, I tested a post by writing: “Yoohoo! The author cannot comment anymore?” It went online before it was moderated and taken off within minutes. I then posted a reply to two readers, V and Richard, the former of which supports the gay cause and the latter neutral, and it went under the knife as well.
Minutes later, the chief editor made his message known by publishing a post directed at me. He accused me of imposing my Christian views on others and for slandering fellow posters.
I recommend that your readers take a look see at my posts and tell me if I am guilty as charged. I will happily subject myself to their verdict. In all my argument, all I did was to repeat that I have a religious conviction to decide things the way I do based on this conviction. I ask readers to go count the number of names I have been called. I never once used a name on anyone. His final word was that I should consider not participating in future and that my non-participation will not be missed. Is he speaking for himself or for the Community of Singaporeans. As I write here, there are two readers awaiting my reply, encouraging me to hang in there, and complimenting my courage to stand alone and provide answers to all 48 gay lobbyists and activists there. The chief editor claimed that the volunteers in TOC are traumatized by my writings and would consider them slanderous. I ask your readers to be the judge and I will happily stand before their judgment.
What the chief editor wrote was quickly taken down as soon as he received my reply after knowing that I have read what he had posted. This way, no one else would know what he had done, to force those who do not conform to its kind of community to leave.
He accused me of never having participated in any of TOC’s activities and events and have never shook hands with any of TOC volunteer staff. How strange this is. Is shaking their hands so important? Do they think they are celebrities, already? It tells on his thinking does it not?
Finally, I told him very clearly that I had participated in some of its activities without him realizing it. I told him I was even invited by Andrew to join him but I had turned it down because I felt it was better for some of us to remain on the outside so as not to be influenced by the inside in order that TOC can truly be balanced in its dealings and reporting. I told him I had to keep my identity anonymous because I did not want the former owner of TOC, Andrew, to know that his elder brother was working for his and TOC’s interest from the outside. I told him that from today on, gemami no longer exists because Andrew is no longer the owner of the blog and that TOC is now run by gay activists.
By gemami’s account and the evidence provided by the screenshots there is conclusive evidence that not only did TOC actively block and censor comments which were obviously neither spam nor personal attacks, it deliberately orchestrated such censorship in order to actively steer the discussion to gemami’s disadvantage and in favour of commenters championing LGBT causes. To underscore this point gemami, in an email, highlighted how TOC’s unreasonable and partisan censorship resulted in a lopsided ratio of pro-LGBT comments to anti/neutral ones:
When I left the forum yesterday there were 117 comments from 53 readers. Of these, 48 were pro-gay, 1 neutral (Richard), and 4 on this side.
How exactly is such a shocking practice different from that of the mainstream press, which often rejects or censors forum letters which it deems too critical of the government or which casts it in a bad light? I can find no discernible difference.
Feedback comment censorship
Even feedback in the form of comments telling TOC in a civil manner to cut down on unreasonable moderation are not approved (despite the fact that Ganga, a TOC moderator had replied to the comment):
As far back as 2009, TOC’s previous Chief Editor Andrew Loh had declared that comments questioning the focus or TOC’s coverage would not be allowed such as in this article:
Yet much of this egregious moderation is not new. In fact, Solo Bear has documented past experiences whereby TOC not only censors comments but also deleted all the articles by previous contributor Farquhar here. And for what reason? It is not known. Yet hypocritically, TOC finds within itself the cheek to chastise YPAP Facebook for moderating out opposing opinions whey they carry out much the same practice themselves. There’s an entire blog here, for those interested, dedicated to criticising TOC though it has not been updated recently.
Does power corrupt? It’s worth taking a minute of digression to see if TOC’s immense popularity in Singapore’s new media landscape has made it more aloof and arrogant towards its readers and commenters which they are now increasingly taking for granted. There was a time when TOC genuinely treasured and featured reader comments such as this article from 2008:
This website is about your voice, not ours. It would be ironic to talk about human rights and democracy without highlighting your involvement in shaping the discussion.
The beginning of Your Voice underscores the advantage of new media over the old. The internet is unique in its ability to generate organic intellectual discussion, and is a good microcosm of healthy participative democracies. You, our readers, have proven this by taking the debate to ever higher levels.
In the spirit of free speech and democratic dialogue, keep the comments coming!
Fast-forward to 2011, when it is now much more well-known, it’s not quite surprising that former Chief Editor Choo Zheng Xi was quoted by a mainstream media reporter as saying TOC had aspirations to become a “kingmaker” of the opposition in Singapore, and that he hopes TOC would be “the de facto online platform for all political parties to engage netizens”.
As one of the leading blogs in the Singapore’s new media, TOC practices a brand of moderation chillingly similar to the government controlled mainstream media. On what grounds can it claim, by its own words, that it may serve as a platform for all Singaporeans to share their views on issues that matter to them? Why does it deserve its current perch as one of the leading and credible socio-political blogs on the Singapore political scene? How can netizens trust TOC to adequately represent public opinion on the Internet when it has shown itself all too willing to censor and delete comments which reflect sentiments, especially on Western social issues, contrary to its preferred stand? Especially when those sentiments are well-articulated and not expressed in the in the form of insults and personal attacks?
Is it really surprising that TOC was gazetted as a political association by PMO, given its apparant activist slant towards Western liberal activism and views, as I previously wrote here? As I had asked earlier on, of all the activism which TOC engaged in for 2010, how many of them were on issues which weigh heavily on the mind of ordinary working-class Singaporeans? How many petition letter campaigns did TOC conduct on the behalf on Singaporeans on rising HDB prices? How many rallies did it hold in Speakers’ Corner protesting the rising cost of living for ordinary Singaporeans? How many public statements did it issue to the Singapore Government to cease-and-desist importing foreign labour which drives down wages while pushing up the cost of living?
Each and every one of those questions above link to an event TOC held over the past year. Click on them to read and ask yourself why didn’t they do likewise for the concerns of Singaporeans? Is TOC as they claim, really “a community of Singaporeans”? Or are they a special-interest group intolerant of opposing opinion (much like the mainstream media), and all too eager to promote their liberal Western agenda in Singapore which are out of step with socially conservative Singaporeans?
For many of us, TOC still remains a good read apart from its disagreeable moderation practice and out-of-step focus on liberal Western social issues. One can only hope that they will over time come to the understanding that being the “voice of moderation” doesn’t mean one has to practice so literally. I certainly hope that they would do so. The ball is in your court now, TOC. What will you do next?
Update: TOC has issued a reply here.