9 Mar 07
When Time magazine named “You” as its Person of the Year for 2006, the award was particularly apt in the case of Singapore.
Last year, Singapore’s bloggers and Web-based writers signaled that they were a force to be reckoned with. And in a state where government control over the mainstream media has been a fact of life for more than four decades, Singapore’s freewheeling blogosphere is set to have significant political and social
In a poll conducted last year by the state-run Media Development Authority (MDA), it was found that half of all teens between the ages of 15 and 19 maintained a weblog. About 46% of the next age bracket of 20-to-24-year-olds did likewise. Many of Singapore’s blogs are relatively innocuous diary-type spaces, including the popular Xiaxue (xiaxue.blogspot.com). But others, such as “Mr Wang Says So” (mrwangsaysso.blogspot.com) and independent filmmaker Martyn See’s “No Political Films Please, We’re Singaporeans” (www.singaporerebel.com), take on hard social and political issues.
It’s still altogether unclear what direction the Internet revolution will take in Singapore. While there have been few moves toward legally protecting Internet-based writers, there haven’t yet been any official signs of a comprehensive clampdown, despite an accelerating migration of readers from the traditional media to the digital medium. Freedom of expression over the Internet is being put to the test in neighboring Malaysia, where two bloggers are being sued for their postings by the politically influenced New Straits Times newspaper.
The Singaporean authorities have been stealthier in their tactics. Some of Singapore’s veteran bloggers remain wary of the so-called Sintercom saga of 2001. In the months leading up to that year’s general elections, the MDA insisted that the politically oriented Sintercom website register with it for “engaging in the propagation, promotion or discussion of political issues relating to Singapore”.
Once registered, Sintercom editors could have conceivably been criminally liable for content posted on the site, should the government or senior politicians happen to have taken affront. Instead of complying with the heavy-handed order, and considering the country’s long track record of politicians resorting to prohibitive criminal and costly civil lawsuits to stifle criticism, Sintercom instead opted to close itself down.
Many wondered whether 2006 would see a replay, or worse, of that experience, particularly considering the more recent proliferation of politically oriented websites and blogs. Last April, Lee Boon Yang, the minister for information, communication and the arts, fired a warning shot at all Singapore bloggers when he told the semi-official Straits Times: “To help bring some order to this chaotic environment, we have made it a requirement for political parties and individuals who use websites to propagate or promote political issues to register with the MDA.”
A few weeks later, electioneering began in earnest, but rather than self-censor their content, bloggers’ political coverage increased. The boldest ones were those that had been set up specifically for election coverage, but in defiance of the MDA had anonymously hosted their sites abroad. Notably, the MDA did not force any site to register during the election season, and some interpreted the inaction as a tacit government admission that it was left with few options against a rising tide.
The political content on many blogs was overwhelmingly anti-government, a fact recognized by People’s Action Party (PAP) politicians after the elections, which, as usual, the party swept in resounding fashion.
“I know that something has gone wrong when more than 85% [of the bloggers] write negatively about the PAP,” ruling-party member of Parliament Denise Phua told a public forum. The government should figure out how to “manage this channel of communication”, she added, a remark that itself brought down a ton of digital bricks on her head.
Two months later, optimism about freedom of speech over the Internet would be tempered. The government objected strenuously to a column written by a well-known blogger, “Mr Brown”, published in a print daily newspaper, in which it was alleged that the government had withheld adverse economic data from the public until after the elections. The newspaper promptly ditched “Mr Brown” from his regular column. Bloggers saw that as heavy-handed punishment for controversial postings in the blogosphere.
Media observers such as Associate Professor Cherian George of Nanyang Technological University thought the incident should be interpreted narrowly. Lee Kin Mun, whose nom de plume was “Mr Brown”, was after all free to continue his blog on which the offending article was posted; it was his print column that was discontinued.
This reinforced the theory that the government was making a distinction between mass media – print and broadcasting – and media on the digital fringe, including blogs and websites with smaller audiences. The government has appeared to keep the mainstream mass media on a shorter leash, for fear they may ape the activity over the Internet, but allowed considerable more leeway to Internet-based writers.
This may simply be because the available instruments of control are more sophisticated and reliable when it comes to the mass media. The Singaporean government does not pre-censor the media, but simply makes sure that editors have a keen sense of what should and should not be reported when doing their jobs. Much of the character of reporting and commentary in The Straits Times or the various television channels run by government-owned Mediacorp can be explained by self-censorship.
The same leverage has also been applied to the leading foreign titles. Last August, Time magazine, Newsweek, the International Herald Tribune and The Financial Times were each required to post a S$200,000 (US$131,000) deposit and appoint a legal representative in Singapore. This was in case governmentministers wished to sue them in future. The Far Eastern Economic Review was asked to do likewise, but it refused, and consequently import and sale of that magazine was banned. The publication is currently being sued for an article it published about opposition politician Chee Soon Juan in mid-2006.
In fact, the MDA’s regulations provide for similar means of control over websites and blogs. If required to register, a website’s owners and editors are criminally liable for any content that the government finds objectionable. As Sintercom discovered during its final phase of abortive negotiations with the government in 2001, when it tried to get the state to spell out clearly what it considered objectionable, the powers that be refused. As with the mainstream media, they wanted Sintercom’s editors to make their own judgment, with the government reserving the right to punish them after the fact.
However, the dispersed nature of the blogosphere makes enforcement less than cost-effective. It would mean going after numerous sites, each able to pop up again anonymously after being shut down. As the election period demonstrated, there is already widespread discontent with the government among political commentators on the Web, and this would only be inflamed by any official attempt at a crackdown.
But these calculations can change over time, as has been proved over history. Should an issue become critical enough for the government, such as the growing disparity between the rich and the poor, it may be worth the political price to invoke draconian regulations or file suits against a handful of consistently critical blogs. Likewise, should any blog get a large readership, the government could likewise be tempted to intervene.
As it is, the impact of the Internet has become quite measurable. In a recent survey of younger Singaporeans aged between 15 and 29 – that is, the generation with the highest average Internet use – the Singapore Polytechnic’s School of Business demonstrated how social attitudes of this generation have vastly changed compared with their forebears. Of this cohort, 46% approved of premarital sex (45% disapproved) and 50% considered homosexuality “acceptable” (42% disagreed).
Lecturer Kwa Lay Ping attributed this to the widespread use of the Internet and the diversity of views presented over the medium. “As they go on the Internet, they’re a lot more exposed to more liberal programs about alternative lifestyles than youths were in the days before the Internet,” she said.
The director of the same school, V Maheantharan, concurred. “But I’m not surprised, because they are under so much more different influences than what I went through. They’ve got 100 movie channels and they’ve got the Internet.”
That is provided that the government does not step in. As it is, the authorities have maintained their arsenal of laws and regulations aimed at curtailing critical political commentary, even if they have so far used them only sparingly. Hence it remains possible that should any website develop into a digital newspaper dependent on commercial revenue and run by paid editors, the government would likely apply the same squeeze as it has on the traditional press.
Thus freedom on Singapore’s Web may only be a luxury so long as blogs and website audiences remain small and atomized. It is notable that where Malaysia has spawned the critical Malaysiakini.com and South Korea has the widely read OhMyNews.com, in Singapore, despite a vibrant blogosphere and Asia’s third-highest Internet penetration rate, so far nothing as established has blossomed in the island state.
That raises another important question: By maintaining such an uncertain and potentially punitive legal environment over the Internet, could Singapore be ruling out for its future an entire value-added industry? Singapore’s mainstream media are too stunted to grow regionally or globally, but that shouldn’t stop foreign media eventually making inroads into the local market.
How can Singapore, in its purported aim to become a cutting-edge knowledge-driven economy, afford not to have a vibrant digital news industry? For now, there are no indications as to whether this question is even being addressed in the corridors of power, though it is being vigorously discussed in various Web-based forums.
With just one high-profile clampdown last year, there are still not enough markers to chart the government’s next move. Though judging by certain official comments, they may well be just treading water, waiting to see how technology, censorship tools, and reading habits evolve.
Alex Au is an independent social and political commentator, freelance writer and blogger based in Singapore. He often speaks at public forums on politics, culture and gay issues.