Low key Middle Ground upper management

It was the opportunity of a lifetime – the chance to work on a solidly-funded news portal with one of Singapore’s most seasoned journalists. How could I pass it up? All I needed was to pull together the seasoned journalist, the news portal and the financial resources to keep the publication viable.

I met Bertha when she had just started up Breakfast Network and was looking for writers. A mutual friend suggested that I could contribute as a volunteer and I was happy to, since I had been blogging on socio-political issues for a while. Bertha was happy to give me a shot and that was the start of a wonderful year where I received my first lawyer’s letter threatening to sue the site for defamation, marked my inaugural participation in a G press conference as a member of the media and watched a whole drama with the MDA unfold. I was keen to sign up to MDA’s demands, but that was a corporate call in the end.

When Breakfast Network was finally closed down, going back to blogging didn’t seem to be quite enough for me. My work in a small PR agency kept me busy and paid the bills for my burgeoning family, but what could have been at Breakfast Network always nagged at me. It was a job left incomplete; an opportunity not seized; a risk not taken.

I spent the next year following up with Bertha, and through her, found the resources to get a newsroom and a small company up and running. As with a new company I had no illusions: nothing would go according to plan, so I detailed a year-long blueprint so that there would be a plan that nothing could go according to. We tried to reconstitute the wonderful ex-Breakfast Network team and offer them something more substantial.

Why, though, would I step away from 12 years of agency life and my stable and growing public relations firm (disclosure: I’m still on the board) to go into the tough, saturated market of publishing, especially in Singapore, where even the incumbents have trouble doing profitable business? Did I really hope to be able to run a sustainable business?

Management scion Peter Drucker said that “there is only one valid definition of a business purpose: to create a customer”. And that is what I hope to achieve at The Middle Ground as publisher. I want to gather readers around our way of doing the news and in so doing, influence the way society thinks. It is long-term thinking; it is something for the next generation, something that doesn’t pander to short term results like mere traffic and clicks but that builds fundamental values.

This is the country and the world I hope to leave to my children – one with citizens who are discerning of the news and of the flow of information (a REAL smart nation), who know the difference between fluff and subject expertise, who can handle both sides of an argument, who respect intellectual property and who are intelligent enough not to get offended or alarmed by satirical articles.

I want this industry to adapt and thrive because we all need it to, and am happy to be one of what I hope are many other news publications and magazines that can chart a new way forward in the digital age and beyond.

And that is why I am trying to fill this gap, even as our team works to fill the digital pages in The Middle Ground. Thank you, dear reader, for reading and for engaging with us. You are our Middle Ground and it is you whom we hope to serve and foster.

9-ish ways that MDA’s, you know, Breakfast Network “thingie” is, like, vague. Yeah.

When the sole owner of then-Breakfast Network Pte Ltd (BNPL), Bertha Henson, said that MDA’s handling of the Breakfast Network registration saga had been vague, MDA announced: “We object to this.” Bertha also called the proceedings “farcical”, but MDA didn’t refute that.

Ace Attorney objects.
(image: cdn.cultofmac.com)

Let’s take a look at some of the stickier points of this farce:

1) MDA’s forms required that the “editorial team” involved in the “provision, management and/or operation of the website sign the undertaking”, including pro-bono members. Now, almost anyone in publishing knows that junior writers (and even interns) are part of the “editorial team”. MDA then said that “volunteer contributors” don’t need to sign the forms. No, MDA, that doesn’t make it clear.

2) MDA’s forms required that these members of the “editorial team” undertake not to receive foreign funding. In which Singaporean company is the editorial team in charge of funding decisions? Funding is decided by Directors, and sometimes by CEOs and CFOs. The editorial team produces content – so why is the editorial team responsible for something they have no control over?

3) Now that BNPL doesn’t exist anymore, why is MDA so interested in who is running the Breakfast Network Facebook Fan page? (go “like” it if you haven’t!) Obviously BNPL isn’t running it anymore – it doesn’t even exist! Is MDA planning to clamp down on non-companies too? Individuals?

4) Now that BNPL doesn’t exist, can an individual re-launch the Breakfast Network website as a personal project? MDA is still completely vague on this.

5) How is a Pte Ltd company more susceptible to receiving and being influenced by “foreign funding” than an individual or other entity? This has been the backbone of MDA’s rationale for licensing registration, but it doesn’t make any sense. You’d think it was easier for a sinister foreign spy network to bribe/drug/kidnap/buy free breakfast for an individual blogger. Now BNPL has turned back into a bunch of individual bloggers.

6) MDA said that the “registration requirement seeks to uphold the principle that politics must remain a matter for Singapore and Singaporeans alone”. This hasn’t been the case. andyxianwong’s blog goes in-depth about the xenophobia/hypocrisy and points to a political agenda.

7) Why did MDA single out TISG and Breakfast Network for registration, why not other more insidious, illegal and damaging sites that are making money off advertising already?

8) Why did MDA make last-minute amendments to its Class Licensing Form C, especially in the light of an impending change to the Broadcasting Act in parliament? Its initial correspondence to BNPL said that even the registration reporting conditions were subject to change. Change to what? Why now?

9) MDA’s description of itself:

About Media Development Authority of Singapore (MDA)

The Media Development Authority of Singapore (www.mda.gov.sg) promotes the growth of globally competitive film, television, radio, publishing, music, games, animation and interactive digital media industries. It also regulates the media sector to safeguard the interests of consumers, and promotes a connected society. MDA is a statutory board under the Ministry of Communications and Information (www.mci.gov.sg).

Way to #fail.

Commissioner of Police Ng Joo Hee’s interview in the Sunday Times put some hard numbers on the developing trend of using cameras to aid in police work. That number is an average of more than eight cameras per HDB block, which comes to almost 100,000 little digital eyes watching over our neighbourhoods by 2016. This is just for Singapore’s 10,000-odd HDB blocks.

Those of us following the issues closely will recall comments earlier this month in the news where Ng said that police “are prepared to share the footage with other agencies such as the Land Transport Authority and National Environment Agency.”

Surveillance cameras are nothing new to us Singaporeans, if we are attentive, we will notice than we have already been watched for a long time – MRT stations, malls, and major roads are already covered by a comprehensive, live network of cameras. On a typical day, I count at least 25 government cameras that have picked up my movements. Still, this is the closest that Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon has come to our homes, and privacy advocates are going to get antsy.

It falls short of the endless surveillance of George Orwell’s Oceana – an authoritarian police state whose government uses every possible means to control its population. It is in this Orwellian dystopia that the phrase “Big Brother is watching you” is first used.

When confidence in the G is high, people generally don’t worry about an invasion of privacy – the annual Edelman Trust Barometer ranked Singapore second out of 26 countries surveyed for trust in the G. The machinations of surveillance in Oceana and Singapore may be very similar today, but our governments are very different, save to a small segment of die-hard conspiracy theorists.

I’ve really got nothing to fear from the G. They can watch me all they want – I’m a citizen in good standing. Maybe they’ll uncover my secret penchant for picking my nose in private, but I don’t think they’ll really care. When it comes to police work and fighting crime, you can say I trust the government.

Trust means that I’m not too concerned with the G being able to find me on some camera the moment I step out of my house or poke my head out my window, but is that trust misplaced? What if circumstances change? I really know nothing of the internal processes and checks that exist to govern how the information captured on surveillance cameras is accessed, disseminated and used.

As usual, the G is quite opaque on how things are run on the inside. Which elements in the G can view surveillance footage? Who signs off on it? How does footage get passed from one agency to another? How long is it kept? Is it governed by some sort of privacy law?

You see, most Singaporeans have no clue about our privacy rights. Many do not even know the implications of the Personal Data Protection Act that came into effect at the start of 2013. Will we even know when the line is crossed and the government starts putting cameras that peer into our homes?

A system shrouded in secrecy is a system that breeds fears of abuse by rogue elements. What happens if some stalker NSF in the SPF is keeping tabs on my daughter’s movements? What if someone I’ve offended in some government agency can get his hands on surveillance tapes of my front door? What happens if there is a change in government? Can surveillance footage be abused for political power? Will footage of my daily journeys be sold to some data-mining corporation for a quick buck?

“With great power comes great responsibility”, some hero’s uncle used to say. With the power to enhance our safety and uphold the law through surveillance comes the responsibility to ensure that such power is not abused. We need to be assured that data thieves and snoopers cannot be given an opportunity to exploit a system meant to prevent physical crime.

For this to happen the limits and laws governing surveillance need to be very clear. I think the G needs to be more pro-active and communicate the processes and checks that are in place to preserve the privacy of residents.

This article was first written for Breakfast Network.