2018

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Here’s a summary of some of the major events that have shaped our world and our little island-state of Singapore in 2018.

But please note: this is NOT meant as a substitute for your own regular reading of newspapers/ news websites. If you hope to excel in GP, you must stay connected with the world. Don’t just read about the world – take a personal interest in it. General Paper is a subject in which engagement and passion are essential.

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Two African-American men are arrested at a Starbucks in Philadelphia after they declined to buy any drinks while waiting for a business meeting, and the manager called the police. The incident triggered protests against racial bias, and prompted Starbucks announced that it would close 8,000 stores in the US for anti-racial bias training. Starbucks executive chairman Howard Schultz and CEO Kevin Johnson met personally with the two men, Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, to apologise. Starbucks also reached an undisclosed financial settlement with the two men and, according to Robinson, committed to help them complete their bachelor’s degrees. Nelson and Robinson decided not to sue the city of Philadelphia and instead accepted symbolic US$1 payments and asked the city to fund US$200,000 for a grant programme for high school students aspiring to become entrepreneurs, to which the city agreed. More here

Chinese company SenseTime Group Ltd. became the world’s most valuable artificial intelligence (AI) startup when it raised US$600 million from Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. and other investors. This implied a total valuation for the company of more than US$3 billion. SenseTime, which specializes in systems that analyze faces and images on an enormous scale, said it closed a Series C round in recent months in which Singaporean state investment firm Temasek Holdings Pte and retailer Suning.com Co. also participated. SenseTime didn’t outline individual investments, but Alibaba was said to have sought the biggest stake in the three-year-old startup. With the deal, SenseTime has doubled its valuation in a few months. Backed by Qualcomm Inc., it underscores its status as one of a crop of homegrown firms spearheading Beijing’s ambition to become the leader in AI by 2030. And it’s a contributor to the world’s biggest system of surveillance: if you’ve ever been photographed with a Chinese-made phone or walked the streets of a Chinese city, chances are your face has been digitally crunched by SenseTime software built into more than 100 million mobile devices. More here

Singaporean historian Thum Ping Tjin, a Rhodes Scholar and Research Associate of Oxford University, appeared before his country’s parliamentary Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods after making a written submission claiming that there are already adequate laws dealing with the spread of falsehoods in Singapore for malicious purposes. He noted that where online falsehoods have arisen in Singapore, with clear provenance, impact, and intent, they have been swiftly dealt with using existing laws. These include:

  • The Telecommunications Act 1999 — Clause 45: “Any person who transmits or causes to be transmitted a message which he knows to be false or fabricated shall be guilty of an offence…”
  • Section 298 of the Penal Code criminalises the “deliberate intention of wounding the religious or racial feelings of any person”, and was amended in 2007 specifically to include any electronic medium. This was used to prosecute Amos Yee.
  • The Sedition Act 1948, which was used to prosecute The Real Singapore.
  • The Protection from Harassment Act 2014, which was designed specifically to make acts of cyberbullying and online harassment a criminal offence.

“Given the speed and severity with which online falsehoods in Singapore have been dealt with, further legislation is not required,” he opined. He also noted that social media has proven adept at rapidly debunking untruths and hoaxes, with “fake news” often not merely debunked but also then mocked and ridiculed online. “As perpetrators of racism and discrimination have discovered, Singaporeans have been very quick and efficient at policing online communities,” he said. “It has been suggested that the speed at which social media operates allows ‘fake news’ to spread faster and wider than before; however, there is also clear evidence that the same speed of social media allows ‘fake news’ to be rapidly debunked and ridiculed.”

Dr Thum further alleged in his written submission, “Fake news’ is not a problem in Singapore — with one major exception: the People’s Action Party government has, historically, spread ‘fake news’ for narrow party-political gain.” He gave examples of the numerous detentions sanctioned by the PAP government under the Internal Security Act. “Beginning with Operation Coldstore in 1963, (PAP) politicians have told Singaporeans that people were being detained without trial on national security grounds due to involvement with radical communist conspiracies to subvert the state,” he noted. “Declassified documents have proven this to be a lie. Operation Coldstore was conducted for political purposes, and there was no evidence that the detainees of Operation Coldstore were involved in any conspiracy to subvert the government,” he added.

Dr Thum was grilled by Law Minister K. Shanmugam before the Parliamentary Select Committee for six hours, during which the minister questioned his academic credentials, accused him of being selective in his use of evidence and asserted that Dr Thum was practising “not scholarship but sophistry.” More here.
(Dr PJ Thum is a colourful character who has made very bold analyses of Singapore politics over the years. You can read one such example here.)

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