On accusations and gaslighting.
Hello, my name is Kirsten Han, and I’ve been accused of being a destabilising agent of foreign influence in my home country of Singapore.
That’s a sentence I never thought I’d write.
I’ve been a target of trolling and harassment for years; no surprise when you start your civil society activities as an advocate for the abolition of the death penalty, in a firmly pro-capital punishment country with an enthusiastically pro-capital punishment government. But the rhetoric has intensified in the past two years.
Last year, following two unhappy sessions before the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods for both my colleague Dr Thum Pingtjin and myself, the Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority denied the application to register a subsidiary of the company that publishes New Naratif. They also went and issued a press release, so I found out about the details of rejection when a journalist contacted me for comment (the press release had been embargoed until 6pm, while the email informing us of the rejection was sent at 5:14pm, and I was working a temp job in an office at the time and hadn’t had a chance to look at my inbox).
In the press release, our acceptance of a grant from a foundation associated with Open Society Foundation was highlighted, and New Naratif—a platform for Southeast Asian journalism, research, art, and community-building—was framed as a vehicle of foreign interference. Registration, ACRA said, would be “contrary to Singapore’s national interests”.
Later that year, we were subjected to yet another round of harassment and abuse online after PAP MP Seah Kian Peng accused us of having invited Malaysian prime minister Mahathir to intervene in Singapore’s domestic politics. He also took PJ’s comments about Singapore, Malaya, and Malaysia out of context and blew it out of proportion, concluding that PJ “does not wish Singapore well”. We ended up having to file complaints to Charles Chong, the chair of the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods, and Lee Hsien Loong, Prime Minister and Secretary-General of the People’s Action Party.
Things died down after that, but these baseless allegations continued to circulate on social media.
The latest episode
Following the cancellation of the “Dissent and Resistance” programme at Yale-NUS, I noticed the harassment growing again. Activists, including myself, were accused of wanting to teach students how to protest—as if they don’t have their own minds and ideas about what they want or don’t want to do—and seeking to destabilise Singapore with violent protests.
A video of a speech I delivered in 2016 (emphasis because this is really important) was edited out of context and spread around to claim that I wanted Singapore to be like Hong Kong in 2019 (told you it would be important), where protesters are engaged in pitched battles with the police, and teargas chokes the streets. A former PAP MP wrote an op-ed, first in Chinese, then translated into English, about how Singapore had no need of a “colour revolution”, where he regurgitated unverified claims touted by the pro-Chinese Communist Party media.
Today, things were turned up a notch once more when Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam himself repeated the accusations that the trolls had been hurling at my colleagues and I for the past couple of years. As part of his speech on foreign interference tactics and countermeasures, Shanmugam claimed that my colleagues and I had asked Dr Mahathir to bring democracy to Singapore and other countries. He also said, and I quote:
“Ms Han, on video, has said that Singapore has failed compared with Hong Kong, because 500,000 people don’t go on the streets to march, unlike (in) Hong Kong. And she wants to change that through classes run by New Naratif.”
This comment was a reference to my 2016 speech, the one that had been chopped up and circulated by pro-PAP troll pages on Facebook (does the Law Minister follow them and treat them as actual sources?)
But it’d been taken completely out of context: in my speech, I’d said that it would appear as if Singapore had failed compared to Hong Kong if our metric of success was to see 500,000 people on the streets. But my point was that “500,000 people on the streets” is not a useful KPI to use in measuring the strength and maturity of a country’s civil society—the communities, the networks, and the solidarity between them are far more important. These are the things that you need regardless of whether you have 500,000 people on the streets to protest or not. If there are democratic processes that work, then great, there’s no need for half a million people to protest. Problem solved. But you’re still going to need a mature and resilient civil society to be part of a functioning democracy.
As for the classes run by New Naratif… back in 2016, New Naratif didn’t even exist. The platform was only founded in September 2017.
The talk of foreign interference has increased of late, from pro-PAP pages on Facebook to events like the one that Shanmugam spoke at. It will probably come as no surprise to anyone that the government will likely soon be introducing new laws to deal with foreign interference.
While tackling foreign interference isn’t an objectionable goal in and of itself, the way my fellow activists and I have been smeared on social media and in the mainstream press rings alarm bells over who and what is going to be the target of such legislation.
Hysterical claims that I, a freelance journalist and activist, seek to somehow turn Singapore into Hong Kong are so overblown that I wonder about why they’re necessary. Given the PAP’s dominance in Singapore, under-resourced individuals like Terry (of The Online Citizen), PJ, and myself, or platforms like TOC or New Naratif, don’t pose much of a threat. We’re not going to get people to take to the streets. For starters, we don’t have the budgets for the amount of chicken rice and abalone porridge that’d be required.
One question to ponder: when there are so many other people or networks with far more proximity and access to power, why would any foreign actor choose to back members of civil society who sometimes can’t even get a government corp comms department to reply to our emails?
This sort of rhetoric is playing with fire, turning Singaporeans against their fellow citizens by painting them as dangerous threats to the nation (especially in a country where the militarism, nationalism, and the siege mentality are all fairly widespread). It reminds me of the increasingly shrill rhetoric that’s been whipped up by populist politicians elsewhere, such as Donald Trump in the US or the Brexiters in the UK. The conspiracy theories, the turning of people against one another, the whipping up of fear and hate has been horrifying to watch unfold. It’s scary and disappointing to see parallels in my own home country.
Such baseless accusations also lower the rationality and quality of public discourse, spreading misinformation/disinformation and distorted claims rather than encouraging actual engagement with the question of foreign interference, a complex issue that spans economic, social, and national spheres.
Another question to ponder: so why is this happening?
How to react?
I’ll admit, when I first saw Shanmugam’s comments in the news today, my first reaction was one of shock and fear. Oh my God, he’s saying all these things about me and painting me in such a bad light. Jialat.
But as the initial “stun like vegetable” reaction wore off, I realised I was reacting as if I’d been caught doing something wrong.
But I haven’t.
I haven’t done anything wrong. I have no idea why those in positions of power find dissent and divergence to be such a threat, but I’m merely exercising my rights as a Singaporean in Singapore. I’m doing my job as a journalist, and following my convictions as an activist. I support the families of death row inmates because it’s the least I can do when they’re already grappling with such anxiety and grief. I hold democracy classrooms to facilitate space for others in Singapore to have good faith conversations on important national issues, because they have a right to express themselves and engage in dialogue with others too.
New Naratif, conceived as a Southeast Asian platform, is supported by membership, donations, and grants. We’ve received foreign grant money, but we received it following applications through the proper channels, and we don’t take money if the funder wants to influence or control our editorial or operational decisions. New Naratif also operates with remarkable transparency: PJ and I are highly accessible, be it through email or regular open meetings, online or off. We also publish regular transparency reports where we openly talk about our achievements and challenges, and share full financial statements so people can see what money we have and how we spent it.
We operate far more transparently and with more accountability than our accusers, and we’ve worked with freelancers across Southeast Asia to produce high quality work that I’m confident speaks for itself. I’m not going to apologise for any of this, especially not in a context where we all know that no one with substantial amounts of money are going to back independent media platforms out of fear of pissing off powerful people, and that it’s government money that comes with strings.
When one is among those singled out, it’s a common Singaporean reaction to feel like one should shrink into our shell and “be good” (i.e. be quiet), in the hopes that we won’t kena anymore. But why should I be gaslit into feeling like I’ve been “naughty”, when I haven’t done anything nefarious or harmful? Why should any Singaporean?