Censored S’poreans take to the Internet for free speech

3 June 2005

The events leading up to Shanmugam Murugesu’s execution in Singapore had enough excitement, anguish and cries of injustice for a fast-paced novel, or at the very least an interesting news story.

But in this Southeast Asian city-state where the mediais ordered to report in the “national interests”, the pleas for mercy from Murugesu’s twin 14-year-old sons and his eventual hanging last month for importing marijuana received only a passing mention in the
mainstream press.

“11th hour bid fails, it’s death for trafficker”, the Straits Times newspaper reported on its inside pages, while the main English news radio station failed to report on his hanging.

Just a few mouse clicks away, however, members of a brave new world pulled no punches in voicing their repugnance over what they described as Singapore’s ruthless drug laws.

“The way our country functions, clamouring for first-world status yet maintaining draconian laws for less serious crimes like (Murugesu’s), speaks much of the leaders and the justice system,” wrote “realtuakee”, one of 70 users on online forum Sammyboy’s Alfresco Coffee Shop (http://forums.delphiforums.com) to criticise the execution.

Indeed, with the traditional media shackled by press controls and a virtual blanket ban on public rallies — Reporters Without Borders ranks Singapore 147th out of 167 countries on press freedom — the Internet has emerged over recent years as a hotbed for Singapore’s dissenting voices.

Numerous Internet forums, such as Singapore Review (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Sg_Review/) and the satirical TalkingCock.com(www.talkingcock.com), offer refreshing, often bold, insights into Singapore life
and politics.

“The Internet remains the only medium that’s free from discretionary licensing by the authorities,” Cherian George, a media lecturer at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, told AFP.

“One can’t say that it allows ‘free speech’ in the strictest sense, but the space for critical speech is certainly greater online than offline.”

Blogs, already wildly popular among Singapore’s tech-savvy youths as online diaries, are also turning up with a nascent political spin.

Visible on http://singaporerebel.blogspot.com are the perennial struggles the city-state’s filmmakers face as they battle to avoid the snip of government censors.

“No political films please, we’re Singaporeans,” screams the home page of freelance video editor Martyn See’s blog, a caustic jibe at the government’s famous intolerance for any form of political dissent.

See, who is under police investigation for making a documentary about vocal opposition politician Chee Soon Juan, posts articles and comments on his blog castigating the city-state’s ambiguous film laws.

In one of his recent entries, he mused: “The Films Act of Singapore seems to be scripted by a group of brilliant horror story writers. Difference is, the horror is real. The spooks do show up in your house.”

Government clampdown on online dissidents

In another recent sign the Internet is starting to play the role in Singapore that tradional media does in most other developed nations, an anti-casino online petition set up last December gathered close to 30,000 signatures.

Even though the government decided in April to proceed with plans to build two casinos on the island, the response gave the organisers much cause for hope.

“I’m happy that people were willing to come forth and say ‘I stand on this side of the line’,” Fong Hoe Fang, one of the founding members of the group, told AFP.

“So many individuals who dared to put their names and addresses and identity card numbers against what is perceived as a government initiative — this is very rare in Singapore as the fear factor is really great.”

Yet, despite the encouraging signs, civil rights activists say the day when Singaporeans can freely engage in rambunctious political debate on the Internet without fear of reprisal from the authorities remains a long way off.

“The laws are restrictive, political websites have to be registered, and hence are open to libel and defamation charges for the contents,” Sinapan Samydorai, president of local civil liberties group the Think Centre, told AFP.

Legislation passed in late 2003 also allows government security agencies to launch pre-emptive strikes, such as deploying scanning programmes, to weed out those suspected of using computers to endanger national security and essential public services.

Even though authorities insisted that the new powers would be non-intrusive in nature, critics have likened them to the Internal Security Act, which has been used to detain political dissidents and other people deemed “national threats” without trial.

Samydorai was one of the most outspoken critics when the law was introduced, warning then it could be used as an “instrument of oppression”.

Adding to fears the government is widening its scope to clamp down on Internet dissidents, a government agency threatened last month to sue a Singaporean student after he posted “defamatory statements” on his blog.

After initially trying to stand up to the city-state’s Agency for Science, Technology and Research (ASTAR), former government scholar Chen Jia Hao, a chemical physics student at the University of Illinois in the United States, shut down his blog and unreservedly apologised for unspecified comments.

Nanyang Technological University’s George, who also wrote the local political bestseller: ‘Singapore: The Air-Conditioned Nation’, said the government would not give up in its quest for greater control of the Internet as online dissent continued to expand.

“There’ll be Singaporeans who want to use the Internet in a more underground way, to spread their ideas without exposing themselves,” he said.

“Technology will only probably give them new solutions, at least for a while, until the authorities catch up again.”

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