Why don’t NGOs who like to whack S’pore attend the Select Committee’s public hearings?

Don't shy leh.

By Sulaiman Daud | March 28, 2018

It’s WrestleMania season, and the WWE’s stars are getting ready for the biggest show of the year.

One of the most anticipated matches is between John Cena and the Undertaker. They have yet to meet face-to-face, but will do battle and find out who’s the better man.

But it would be a real shame if after all the hype, the Undertaker failed to appear at WrestleMania and left Cena all alone in an empty ring.

That’s kind of what it felt like when international NGOs Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Reporters Without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontières or RSF) have yet to show up and give evidence to the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods.

Time to step up

The Committee are currently holding public hearings on ways to tackle deliberate online falsehoods.

They have invited people from all walks of life to give evidence, so it can hear their concerns and suggestions before producing their own report for Parliament.

So far representatives from academia, the media, tech companies, and members of the public have been heard.

If you have ideas for how the government can tackle the problem of falsehoods, or even want to criticise their policies, then this would be a great opportunity.

After all, these hearings are conducted in a public setting, with both international and local media present. And whatever is said would be protected by the laws of Parliamentary privilege.

For people based outside Singapore, the Parliament Secretariat has indicated in some cases that it would even fund their travel costs.

Shots fired

So it’s quite puzzling to hear that representatives of two rather famous organisations, HRW and RSF, have yet to attend any of these hearings, or made any plans to do so.

Consider that HRW recently published a report named “Kill the Chicken to Scare the Monkeys” – Suppression of Free Expression and Assembly in Singapore.

As you might have guessed from the title, it’s about how Singapore’s laws threaten such freedoms.

On RSF’s part, it ranked Singapore a pathetic 151st place in its World Press Freedom Index for 2017, behind luminaries like Pakistan, Ethiopia and Russia.

It also frequently publishes commentaries on what it sees are infringement of press freedoms in Singapore.

Despite online chatter that the Select Committee hearings are all wayang, it still extended invitations to both NGOs.

After all, real wayangs don’t bother to invite fierce critics to show up at their door, with full license to say whatever you like, and get paid to travel too.


Unfortunately, both organisations have failed to agree on a date to show up.

RSF’s Head of Asia-Pacific desk Daniel Bastard has said that due to “organisational reasons”, a trip to Singapore would take up too much of his time.

As of March 27, RSF was also silent when offered the chance to give evidence via video-conference.

HRW’s report was criticised during a hearing on March 23 by representatives of the PAP Policy Forum, an arm of the PAP that engages the government on policy issues.

Despite initially agreeing to attend, it has yet to agree on a date or to give evidence via video-conference.

On March 27, HRW published a statement, saying that:

  • The request to turn up before the Committee on a particular date was too “last-minute.”
  • It had submitted queries to Singaporean Ministers about its report, but received no reply.
  • Its recommendations were offered in good faith to promote and protect freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.

It also said that it was “ironic and absurd” that the Ministry of Law and members of the PAP were accusing it of being unwilling to defend the report, saying that the authorities had not disputed its findings or replied to its recommendations.

On the same day (March 27), the Office of the Clerk of Parliament announced that the Committee would extend another invitation to HRW, saying:

“As has been announced, Parliament will be prorogued in April. We can hear you on any date in May, or after May, after Parliament reopens.”

The Ministry of Law also released a response, outlining the timeline of HRW’s exchange with the Committee and their failure to agree upon a date. It added:

Their latest statement leaves out any explanation for why they are unable to attend through video-conferencing, from an overseas location – at any time over a period of 14 days from 15 to 29 March.

HRW’s lack of enthusiasm in wanting to defend its Report is obvious.”

Missed opportunitiy

As entertaining as this tit-for-tat may be for the kaypoh observer, it kind of leaves you wanting more.

After all, if you agreed with the NGOs, you might have been eager for them to rock up to Parliament House, take the oath and demolish everyone on the Committee with powerful arguments.

And if you disagreed with them, you might also have been eager for them to defend their findings and see if their arguments hold water.

But this coy dance, this litany of “No leh, shy mah” just makes you frustrated.

After all, Select Committees are not formed every day, and this is truly the one chance for anyone interested in the topic to tell the government what they think.

Other people showed up

It wasn’t just these NGOs. Other individuals and representatives of organisations who have criticised certain government policies in the past were invited.

People like Terry Xu of The Online Citizen, former TOC editor Howard Lee, journalist Kirsten Han, activist Jolovan Wham and MARUAH vice-president Ngiam Shih Tung all showed up to present evidence to the committee.

Whatever you may think of them or their views, you can’t deny that they made the effort to be there.

The same can be said of other international experts and organisations like Facebook, Google and Twitter. If they all agreed to attend these hearings, why should HRW and RSF get to debate the issues solely on their own terms?

Perhaps the difference is that those who showed up have a stake in Singapore’s future, because they either live here or work here. And for those who did not turn up, perhaps they do not really have any skin in the game, and are content to pass judgement from the sidelines/abroad.

As President Theodore Roosevelt once said:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena.”

And as former WWE champion John Cena once said:

“Undertaker, you need to do something. There’s only one week left. You either do something, or nothing.”

Screen shot from Twitter.

Related stories:

Daniel Bastard of Reporters Without Borders invited to S’pore by Select Committee, but likely no-show

NGO Human Rights Watch rebuts S’pore govt criticisms as ‘ironic and absurd’


NGO Human Rights Watch accused of spreading falsehoods to change S’pore, being non-transparent


Top image adapted from Arabic Sport and Wikimedia Commons.


About Sulaiman Daud

Sulaiman believes that we can be heroes, if just for one day. His favourite Doctor is Peter Capaldi's Twelve. In his spare time he writes about film, pop-culture and international politics, which you are very welcome to read here.

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