It’s been a challenging few weeks for Thum “PJ” Ping Tjin, to say the least. The Singaporean academic is so on edge that when his barking dog awoke him and his wife one recent night, he assumed the worst.
“My thoughts quickly went to ‘are the police coming through the door?’,” he told the Globe via video chat earlier this week from his home in Singapore.
Thum, a Oxford and Harvard-educated former Olympic swimmer, is Managing Director of New Naratif – a Singaporean news outlet that has been subject to a police investigation since September 18 for an apparent breach of campaign laws during the city-state’s recent General Election.
The breach, claimed the government, stems from the paid ‘boosting’ of certain Facebook posts – reportedly in violation of Singapore’s Parliamentary Elections Act stipulating that paid campaign advertising needs to be backed by a candidate and labelled as such.
The news website, which had its attempts to register in Singapore rejected in 2018 and is now predominantly run out of Kuala Lumpur, has only a few remaining staff in the city-state, including Thum. Subject to a four-hour interrogation himself on September 21, Thum rebuffed the investigation’s legitimacy.
“The distinction was made that in a few of our articles, the ‘post boosting’ was the problem,” explained PJ Thum. “It was not the actual post of the article, it was just the ‘boost’.”
The accusations, only flagged after the election, don’t hold salt with Thum – who believes the claims are arbitrary, the law too broad and the police report and investigation a means to harass.
“The law is extremely broad,” Thum said. “It’s so broad that any legitimate, normal political commentary can be construed as election activity.”
At the time of boosting, nothing out of the ordinary was flagged to Thum and New Naratif by the authorities, with their original ‘offending’ post pulled down by Facebook. “At no point did the elections department tell us that we were in violation of the law,” Thum said.
During the election period, New Naratif boosted 13 posts, with Facebook automatically blocking four of them. Nothing else was said or flagged.
“Then the elections department of the prime minister’s office put out a press release saying that we were violating the law,” Thum explained. “They never communicated directly, they never made it clear what they considered wrong, they never actually explained what the criteria they were using.”
The longform journalism site – established in 2017 by Thum, journalist Kirsten Han and comic artist Sonny Liew – has, since its inception, been a critic of the Singaporean government in promoting human rights and democracy, and thus an equally long-held target for harassment.
Thum believes these most-recent charges are simply a case of intimidation of independent media in the city-state, shown by the different treatment given to those who tow the party line.
Thum explained that they looked into how many posts the government-friendly Singapore Press Holdings boosted through their many outlets during the campaign, with 240 in 10 days of campaigning at AsiaOne alone. “148 of them we counted directly to do with the election,” explained Thum. “It’s quite clear that what’s happening isn’t about election advertising or boosting posts – it’s about trying to attack New Naratif.”
The way the police investigation has been carried out has further cemented that conclusion to Thum and New Naratif.
There’s no need to seize my laptop, they have all the evidence, it’s all there online … But they’re holding on to it, and it’s been over two weeks now
On September 21, Thum was called in for questioning by police, in what turned out to be closer to a four-hour interrogation. “The questioning was very clear – they weren’t interested in establishing facts,” said Thum. “They tried to get me to admit that I knew it was election advertising and that I deliberately did so in defiance [of the government].”
That same day, at Thum’s home, police confiscated his laptop and mobile phone. “There’s no need to seize my laptop, they have all the evidence, it’s all there online [the Facebook posts and boosts],” said Thum. “But they’re holding on to it, and it’s been over two weeks now, yet they keep insisting they still need to investigate. They don’t – there’s nothing more to investigate.”
Sitting on his laptop for weeks, refusing to press charges – investigations against dissenting voices such as the one currently underway against Thum often drag on, sometimes over a year, as authorities claim they are thoroughly investigating. To Thum, however, it’s a subtle form of government intimidation through legal warfare.
“Until they charge me, I don’t get access to a lawyer – only until they charge me do I get legal protection,” explained Thum. “But before that, they can harass me, call me in for questioning, take my belongings.”
Thum explained that often a lot of critics aren’t eventually charged, rather, they are investigated for up to 18 months before the case is dropped and a warning issued.
“It’s a war of attrition, grinding down the critics until they’re too exhausted to do anything,” he said. “It has had an impact – my mental health definitely is affected by the knowledge that at any moment they [the police] come through my door.”
Thum said the support has been overwhelming, with the site recently revamped to deal with the increased traffic. It’s a pattern that he has noticed in previous instances of government action against the outlet – a double-edged sword in which harassment sparks an outpouring of public and financial backing.
“The support has come from all over the world,” said Thum. “Singaporeans have reached out and many are putting their money where their mouth is – we had a massive spike in new memberships the week after the police interrogation.”
But while this backing is welcomed, there is no escaping the bleak reality that the outlet could be cut off from its largest support-base at any moment. The outlet remains in a precarious position as it has received more than three statements classified by the government as being ‘fake’. Under the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation bill passed in October 2018 – colloquially known as Singapore’s fake news law – once you exceed three, they are able to block the site entirely.
“At any moment, they could ban our site in Singapore and cut us off from a big chunk of our funding,” said Thum. “So we have to plan and prepare for that.”
This worst-case scenario isn’t inconceivable. Thum believes the recent investigation shows that the government is getting increasingly worried about the work New Naratif is doing, especially since the ruling-People’s Action Party’s less-than-convincing election victory in August.
“The fact that the Workers Party has maintained a foothold, and grown, it now actually shows the depth of public anger and public dissatisfaction,” said Thum. “The election focused less on the pandemic, and on far more deep seated issues.”
The two big issues, according to Thum, being transparency and accountability. “There’s too many scandals now, and people are very frustrated with this with all the secrecy.”
The government, however, has the tools at its disposal to intimidate and harass independent media and dissenting voices in the city-state. The full force of Singapore’s ‘fake news law’ is yet to be seen, but a defamation case brought to court this week by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong against a blogger who shared an article on Facebook linking the PM to Malaysia’s 1MDB scandal shows the breadth of its scope.
Thum explained that while he and New Naratif will never self-censor, nor be intimidated by the Singaporean government, he is well aware that their retaliation may be long, arduous and continuous.
“As this government becomes more insecure, it’s going to lash out, we see that again and again, throughout history,” he said. “I can’t predict the future. I can only say we’re going to keep fighting for democracy and freedom in Southeast Asia for as long as we can.”