Southeast Asian leaders flounder in the face of online criticism

Analysts say regional governments have little idea how to cope with dissent, so turn to libel suits and draconian laws to silence bloggers

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 June, 2014, 5:33am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 June, 2014, 3:04pm

Political leaders in Southeast Asia are spooked by escalating online dissent and have no clue what to do except implement draconian legislation or file lawsuits, according to analysts.

In Thailand, the junta behind the latest coup d'etat monitors social media to weed out troublesome bloggers, while in Vietnam, laws implemented last year can see critics fined for saying anything negative online about the regime.

Malaysia's prime minister is suing an acclaimed independent news website, and his counterpart in Singapore is taking similar action against a young blogger.

Described as a David vs Goliath case, the lawsuit in Singapore is grabbing headlines. It is the first time a Singaporean leader has hauled a blogger to court for defamatory online comments.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's lawyer says the blogger, 33-year-old Roy Ngerng, had made statements accusing Lee of "criminal misappropriation" of the Central Provident Fund (CPF), the state pension fund.

The [solution] may actually be more transparency
Academic Chong Ja Lan

Around 2,000 people gathered yesterday at a park designated for protests, a large turnout for the city-state.

Some carried placards demanding the government return their pension funds, while others listened to speakers on stage including Ngerng, former presidential candidate Tan Kin Lian and former opposition politician Dr Vincent Wijeysingha.

Critics say Lee, the highest paid prime minister in the world, is acting like a bully, while others say it is important for Lee to sue the blogger to ensure slander and libel does not become rife.

Activists insist such defamation suits create a climate of fear and muzzle political vibrancy. And some claim this is a public relations disaster for Lee.

"This situation may be unfortunate for Lee, since he has consciously been trying to cultivate a more approachable image for himself and his People's Action Party since coming to office, as seen in his efforts to get on Facebook, wear pink shirts, take selfies and so on," said political scientist Dr Chong Ja Lan, an assistant professor at the National University of Singapore.

"It is conceivable that people may begin to wonder about his inclinations."

Other analysts, though, said it was tough to determine whether Lee's image had already been hurt even before next month's court case.

"Perhaps the government is trying to push back to a more conservative way. Or it can be viewed as an ongoing process [of] trying to find the right balance," said Dr Alan Chong, an associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. "But I don't think it has inexorably hurt Lee's reputation."

In Malaysia, Prime Minister Najib Razak is suing news portal Malaysiakini for publishing readers' comments which allegedly condemned him and his ruling party, Umno.

Tricia Yeoh, chief operating officer at Malaysian think tank the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs, says the defamation suit represents all that is contradictory about the Malaysian government.

"On the one hand it makes itself out to be an open, transparent government willing to communicate with the public, but on the other hand, it does not tolerate any sort of public criticism," she said. "The problem here is for the official media, as they will increasingly feel the need to self-censor comments, not necessarily out of fear but for very practical reasons like not getting sued."

The general consensus among experts is that governments can do much better in handling opposing voices online.

"The way to handle such issues may actually be more transparency, not less," said Chong Ja Lan. "Loosening their grip on dissent may ironically increase the viability of these long-ruling parties [the People's Action Party and Najib's National Front coalition], which many see as using outdated methods to bolster their positions."

But others say it is not as simple as free-speech advocates make out.

"A lot of our societies in this region are multicultural and developmental, so we can't subscribe automatically to the Western notion of freedom of expression," Alan Chong said.