AMENDMENTS TO PARLIAMENTARY ELECTIONS ACT
Opposition MPs say that the new rules are restrictive, while others hail the change as a step in the right direction
LIBERALISATION or restriction? MPs were divided yesterday over their reading of the amendments to the Parliamentary Elections Act.
Government Parliamentary Committee chairman for Information and the Arts Chew Heng Ching hailed the proposed changes to the Act as a step in the right direction, as they spelt out a “positive list” of features that were allowed on political websites during the election.
He added: “This is also in line with our gradual move towards liberalisation of our censorship policies and the media as we become a more developed country.”
Disagreeing were opposition MPs Low Thia Khiang (Hougang) and Chiam See Tong (Potong Pasir), and Nominated MP Simon Tay.
Both Mr Low and Mr Chiam said that the new rules on political campaigning on the Internet are to suppress the opposition, keeping it from spreading its messages through the new medium during the election.
Mr Low said: “Why is it necessary to move this amendment Bill now?
“Because in the past, only the newspapers and television have the capability to transmit messages to the voters and all this media come under strict control of the Government.”
Mr Tay’s reason for disagreeing was broader: Election rules should move towards a free and fair debate, and “if anything, must err on the side of freedom in order to give people their say”.
He said that he would have preferred a short specific negative list, rather than a positive list with the features allowed on the Internet.
“This would then allow much more creativity between different political parties in dressing up their websites, in doing many more things.”
Then, commenting on the two opposition MPs’ portrayal of the local media, Mr Tay said there are “many good journalists”, and there is a new dynamic in the media scene.
“The competition that the Government has fostered in the last year will, I hope, bring competition, freedom balanced with responsibility,” he said.
Welcoming the “positive list” approach was Mr R. Ravindran (Bukit Timah GRC), who said that it would provide clear guidelines to those involved on what is permissible for election political campaigning.
Nominated MP Zulkifli Baharudin said that if the new rules help to prevent the irresponsible use of the Internet, then, in the overall interest, “I think it is worth it”.
Like many of the 11 MPs who spoke yesterday, he was alive to the dangers of the Internet, and supported moves to regulate its use.
He said: “The Internet gives us the freedom to inform. But one can also agree that we need to inform truthfully and responsibly.”
While supporting the new rules, Nominated MP Noris Ong, Associate Professor Chin Tet Yung (Sembawang GRC) and others also expressed concern that the definition of “election advertising” might be too broad.
Mr Ong said that this might “unwittingly send a wrong message to our already politically-apathetic younger generation that they cannot communicate anything with a political flavour, especially during the election period”.
Prof Chin asked the minister to “make it very clear to every Singaporean that the regulations are not intended to stifle political comment, especially during election time”.
“That would be inimical to the democratic process that we are fostering, and I believe that it would also be against the idea of active citizenry,” he said.
Responding to their concerns, Minister for Information and the Arts Lee Yock Suan stressed that the new rules on election campaigning would allow all parties to enjoy a series of liberties not allowed before on the Internet, such as putting up party posters and manifestos, candidate profiles and party positions on issues.
He said: “The list is not exclusive. There’ll be other elements which are still being drafted. The whole point is this covers practically everything that they want to do…
“People can go and attend rallies, they can read your speeches on the Internet, so this is definitely a step forward.
“This is allowing campaigning on the Internet within certain regulations.
“What we want to do is make sure that the parties and the people responsible know that they have to comply with the law, they have to be careful what they put up, to not libel anybody, not spread falsehoods.”