Terry Xu: “I Am Ready to Go to Jail Forever.”
Much like how Fluffy’s name is apt yet unremarkable, its owner calls himself an “average individual”. But unlike Fluffy, Terry is cursed with the desire to help others—or so he tells me.
Having served as Chief Editor of The Online Citizen (TOC) for close to 3 years, Terry has become the de facto face of anti-establishment media in Singapore. Following the General Election in 2015, he was called upon during a post-election forum to shed light on how social media had influenced the outcome of the election.
At the same time, this reputation doesn’t translate into any kind of swagger or antagonistic posturing from the man. Instead, he seems almost devoid of ego. His responses are measured and thoughtful, and he often launches enthusiastically into replies before immediately catching himself, a habit that results in many abrupt pauses that punctuate his speech.
Terry shares that up until he was 21, he struggled very little both academically and financially. As a result, he lived in a kind of bubble that informed his views as a “hardcore PAP supporter”, a fact that led to many heated arguments with his grandfather.
National Service, however, changed everything. He signed on as a regular during Basic Military Training, having rationalised that it was only an additional year and a half, on top of which he would be drawing a full-time salary. After being posted to a Signals unit, he began to notice how many of his superiors who were deserving of merit went unrecognised while others who were less deserving were promoted.
Later on, during an overseas exercise in Thailand, he observed an incident in which an officer was involved*.
It was then that he found himself wondering, “If the officer had actually been a specialist instead, would he have gotten the same kind of treatment? Or would he have actually faced consequences?”
What followed was his involvement in the multi-level-marketing company Sunshine Empire. While he only owed about S$30,000 at the beginning, the amount eventually snowballed, and he went on to declare bankruptcy.
He shares that in the period that followed, he struggled with depression and low self-esteem as he saw his friends accumulating possessions and advancing their careers. While none of them emphasised this difference in their circumstances, he couldn’t help making comparisons anyway.
“That was basically me at the lowest point of my life,” he says. He cut ties with most of his friends, and started spending all his time at home on his computer. This was when he stumbled onto TOC on Google News.
After responding to a call for volunteers to document AWARE Singapore’s 25th Anniversary Birthday Party, he gradually became more involved in TOC. In 2011, he took a week’s leave from work to cover the General Election.
Terry tells me that back then, TOC wasn’t really anti-establishment. It happened that a lot of publicity was being given to the People’s Action Party (PAP) by the mainstream media, and so he decided to cover the opposition more to add some balance to media coverage.
Over the years, a number of incidents have crystallised TOC’s anti-establishment standing.
The first involved a report on the homeless community at Sembawang Park by TOC co-founders Andrew Loh and Joshua Chiang, which led to a subsequent raid of the premises. Prior to this, government agencies had still been forthcoming with regards to responses and press releases that were regularly sent to TOC. This stopped after the above-mentioned incident.
The second was the gazetting of TOC as a political association. In a nutshell, this meant that all of TOC’s sources of funding would have to be disclosed—a move many donors perceived as a signal that the government would now know who they were.
“Basically everyone moved on because TOC could not provide a living,” Terry tells me.
He was appointed Chief Editor just before the 2015 General Election, although he expresses continued “apprehension” towards this role due to his command of the English language.
“My family communicates in Chinese so my thought process has always been in the form of Chinese,” he says, “So when it comes to grammar, hard to correct certain practices.”
Between trying to secure adequate funds for operations and finding writers who are willing to contribute without compensation, TOC continues to struggle to sustain itself despite attracting over a million views every month. In a Facebook post dated August 2nd, Terry writes, “Art industry is complaining that there is not enough money going around to support artists. I would complain media is worse.”
The post goes on to detail how TOC has only twelve subscribers to date, which brings in S$40 a month. Terry himself has drawn only $500 a month from the site for the past two years, and supports himself through part-time videography work. Last month, for the first time, he paid himself $2000, although he admits that it might not be sustainable for him to keep doing so.
That said, he gets that this is the reality he has to contend with. He acknowledges that in Singapore, there is a very real fear of any association with being anti-establishment. It doesn’t even matter that it’s not true that the PAP knows if you’ve voted for an opposition party, or that campaigning for migrant workers’ rights would hurt your chances of securing a BTO. The paranoia alone is enough to handicap your convictions.
Terry shares that he does his research so he knows “how not to tread on certain landmines”. But in cases like that of Dr. Ting Choon Meng, where Singapore’s Court of Appeal ruled that the government is not a person and so cannot press charges under the Protection from Harassment Act of 2013, he highlights the importance of “pushing until you know where the boundary is”.
While all of this sounds fairly unexciting, what’s clear is that not everyone can do what Terry does. He describes two occasions in which he had run-ins with the law.
The first was during the late Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew’s funeral, when he was detained and searched by plainclothes police officers even though he was just reporting on the event. The second was when, earlier this year, he was barred from leaving the country because of his participation in a candlelight vigil outside of Changi Prison during the recent execution of Prabagaran Srivijayan.
“I’m not really intimidated,” Terry says. “I’m actually really prepared to go to jail at any point for what I’m doing, and to be jailed indefinitely.”
He also adds that he has no intention to start a family, although he did apply for a HDB flat last week as a single applicant.
Presently, he feels like the opportunities for certain big life decisions have already passed, and he now wants to do something meaningful with his life. For instance, there was the woman he last dated for about 2 months before she went back to her ex-boyfriend: “She was the one I wanted to settle down with, but it didn’t work out.”
At the same time, he acknowledges that civil activism and the anti-establishment movement both have a long way to go in Singapore.
While he agrees with the view that a lot of current activism tends to be perceived as aggressive and excessively moralising, he doesn’t think this is something that needs to be changed. Rather, he believes there needs to be more individuals “in the middle and not just at the extremes” to create greater diversity of dissenting voices.
Taking the success of Happy People Helping People Foundation as proof that Singaporeans might not be as apathetic as some think they are, he describes how it is possible to galvanise popular support for social issues. It just doesn’t help when activism is led by individuals who can be “a bit too liberal for other people to relate to,” and unwilling to empathise with the perspectives of average Singaporeans.
“As long as you believe in something and are willing to stand up for it, it’s activism,” Terry asserts. The challenge is getting Singaporeans to care about things beyond paying off their loans and pursuing conventional definitions of success.
There is also a need for Singaporeans to mature in terms of learning how to engage one another regardless of how controversial or different their opinions are.
As current affairs blogger Jeraldine Phneah mentions in a recent post, quoting Dr. Cherian George, “Majority of Singaporeans don’t really value combativeness and are allergic to people they perceive as argumentative, often accusing them for creating trouble and disturbing the peace”.
The site might have had few high profile successes, but its mere existence is like a “thorn in the flesh for the government.”
“This thorn might not affect my health, but it’s really irritating,” Terry says, his eyes lighting up as he elaborates on the metaphor.
“Irritating yet reminding me that if I screw up, there will be problems, issues that I have to face. So they are always on guard and addressing concerns. Just like the opposition. You might not have the majority, but so long you have a voice in parliament, the government has to act as if they care.”
While Terry might be mild mannered, he remains clear on the lengths he will go to to keep TOC’s vision intact. In 2015, when TOC was still held under The Opinion Collaborative Ltd (TOCL), it was told to incorporate as The Online Citizen Pte Ltd in order for funds to be transferred from TOCL to TOC.
When a co-founder then asked to be made a director of The Online Citizen Pte Ltd, Terry refused.
“He was the kind that, if there’s pressure from the government, he will bend. So I’m okay paying him a full salary and everything, but he can’t be allowed to make decisions.”
Even then, Terry admits that if there’s anything that would motivate him to give up running TOC, it would be the prospect of being able to settle down with someone. He remains sentimental about Bangkok, where he met his first girlfriend.
He recounts how that relationship ended because of his “arrogance and conceit”. It was also around that time that his father fell ill and had to go for heart surgery. Shortly after that, he filed for bankruptcy.
That period in his life, he tells me, taught him to be less arrogant, but also made him more confident.
It is through this story that he insinuates: as long as he’s involved with TOC, it puts his loved ones at risk. As to whether this belief is justified, one needs only to look to methods employed during Operation Spectrum, as detailed in the film, 1987: Untracing the Conspiracy.
“I can’t run away from instances where people ask for help or favours,” Terry acknowledges. “I think that in many ways this has hampered my personal life.”
He adds, “I’m just an average person with average thinking, so I would like to have a smooth sailing life, a family, so on. But this attribute is on a higher order than my needs. That’s why I call it a curse.”