Firm that ran TOC website ordered to return foreign funds

One of TOC's directors, Mr Howard Lee.
One of TOC's directors, Mr Howard Lee.PHOTO: ST FILE

A company that once managed The Online Citizen has been ordered to return $5,000 it received from a British company. The Opinion Collaborative (TOC Ltd) took the money for a sponsorship deal for an online essay competition it organised last year, when it was still running the socio-political website. It stopped doing so last September.

The money came from Monsoons Book Club (MBC), a non-profit company which has Singapore fugitive Tan Wah Piow as one of its directors.

In a statement yesterday, regulator Media Development Authority (MDA) said TOC Ltd had gone against specified licensing conditions that forbid organisations from receiving foreign funds.

Under the Broadcasting (Class Licence) Notification, TOC Ltd is registered with the MDA as an Internet content provider discussing political issues on Singapore.

As part of the registration, it undertook not to receive funding from foreign sources for the provision, management and operation of the website, "except for bona fide commercial purposes", the MDA said.

The company is also not allowed to receive advertising revenue from non-commercial foreign sources.

LACK OF FUNDS

(TOC Ltd) runs on a tight budget every month... We don't have funds to pay back the advertiser.

MR HOWARD LEE, one of TOC Ltd's four directors.

Said the MDA: "This is to ensure that foreign entities do not engage in domestic politics and to uphold the principle that domestic politics must remain a matter for Singapore and Singaporeans alone."

TOC Ltd has 30 days to return the money to MBC, which describes itself as a "non-profit making association of concerned individuals interested in books and ideas relevant to the social, political and economic progress in the South-east Asian region".

This is the first time a registered website has been asked to return advertising revenue, the MDA said.

Even though TOC Ltd said last December that it has de-linked itself from the website, MDA said it remains the registered entity "and is therefore accountable for any funds it receives for The Online Citizen website".

MBC was incorporated in Britain in February last year.

Tan, one of its three directors, fled Singapore in 1976 after failing to report for national service enlistment. He was stripped of his citizenship in 1987 and is now a British citizen who lives in London. He was also the alleged mastermind of the Marxist conspiracy in the 1980s.

Under the licensing regulations, TOC Ltd has to give routine updates of its foreign funding to the MDA. It declared the $5,000 in an update last year.

When contacted, one of the company's four directors, Mr Howard Lee, 40, said it "runs on a tight budget every month" and funds have almost dried up.

"We don't have funds to pay back the advertiser. The funds were given to us almost a year ago," he added, saying the directors will meet to decide what to do.

Mr Lee, a part-time lecturer at a private school, also said the MDA had asked him about the money last November. He told the MDA that it was to sponsor an essay contest on The Online Citizen website. "We didn't think the funding would be a problem," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 05, 2016, with the headline 'Firm that ran TOC website ordered to return foreign funds'. Print Edition | Subscribe