Government web-wary in Singapore

Alex Au
Asia Times Online

When Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong recently suggested in an interview that his government would consider relaxing regulations governing the Internet, some read his candid comments as an admission of defeat.

It remains unclear what precise changes might be in the cards, but that Lee’s highly centralized and controlling government’s rendition of news and events is openly being challenged by the digital revolution is clear for all Web surfers to see. As is the growing clout of critical bloggers, which, judging by Malaysia’s recent experience, some believe could influence future election results in Singapore.

“The next general election is three, four years away. There will definitely be new developments in new media,” he added, revealing, apparently, his chief concern. “It is no longer a new thing for Singaporeans to create blogs online. People can now make video clips. Previously, it was podcast. Now, it is vodcast. People film their own video clips and upload them on YouTube.”

As in several other Asian countries, Singapore’s bloggers and other online commentators are fast reshaping the national debate, cutting deeply into the government-influenced mainstream media’s long-time dominance over news and views. Some reports suggest that as many as two-thirds of Singaporeans in their 20s either blog or participate in online forums – blogging is also common among the 30s and 40s set.

The Online Citizen has become one of the most widely read blogs, while other popular and often critical sites include Mr Wang Says So and the news aggregator Singapore Surf. At the same time, Singapore’s netizens operate under the threat of restrictive laws, putting themselves at risk of punitive fines or even jail terms for online content the authorities consider offensive or a threat to national security.

According to the OpenNet Initiative, a collaborative Internet censorship project comprised of Harvard, Cambridge and Toronto Universities, as of 2005 Singapore maintained some of the toughest restrictions on free expression on the Internet. Rather than technological filters, it does so through the threat of legal action and access restrictions, the research found.

Currently, any Internet content that discusses “political or religious issues relating to Singapore” is illegal without a license under the Broadcasting (Class License) Notification. Meanwhile the Films Act outlaws any set of moving images, including YouTube clips embedded into blogs, unless it has been passed by the Board of Film Censors. Internet service providers (ISPs) are required to enforce bans on online speech considered harmful to the state.

The overt contradiction of those rules and state policies to promote new media has become something of a national embarrassment. That’s particularly true as the government prepares to release its new master plan, known as Singapore Media Fusion 2015, to position the island state as a major regional media hub. Exact details of the new plan have not yet been released, but the government is expected to invest hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars in the plan and aims to attract top global media talent.

Homegrown talent, however, has faced harsh official harassment. For instance, when local filmmaker Martyn See asked the Board of Film Censors in 2005 to rate his documentary Singapore Rebel, about opposition leader Chee Soon Juan, he was threatened with prosecution for making a political film. The film itself was banned, but copies of it can be accessed at YouTube, which the government has decided not to block, and elsewhere.

The attempt to muzzle See made him into an online celebrity and gave his film more publicity than he had ever hoped for. See’s latest film, Speakers Cornered, also a feature on Chee Soon Juan, was passed earlier this month by the board, albeit with conditions that barred youth from viewing the politically oriented film.

Transformative technology

Many saw the board’s more lenient treatment as a government concession that its laws on Internet content have for all practical purposes of censorship become meaningless. Meanwhile, readership of Singapore’s main English-language newspaper, the Straits Times, has been stagnant for years.

Instead, Singaporeans are in growing numbers turning to the Internet for their news, a trend that presents real risks to the Singapore government, which has long relied on a compliant press to shape public opinion in its favor. One example of how digital voices are beginning to set the political agenda was recently seen in Singapore’s parliament.

In this week’s session, where the February 27 escape of alleged terrorist Mas Selamat Kastari was debated, members of parliament asked questions which were first raised in the blogosphere, not the mainstream media, about whether the commission of inquiry was truly independent and why the police gave misleading information to the public after the suspect’s escape.

There are also regional lessons that have recently hit close to home. The shifting balance of influence between the mainstream and new media was starkly clear in neighboring Malaysia, when opposition parties who made savvy use of the Internet achieved unexpected gains during last month’s general election.

Similar to Singapore, Malaysia’s Barisan Nasional-led government controls the mainstream media, leaving the Internet as the only channel for the political opposition to air its views. When opposition parties won control of five out of 13 states, a dramatic increase from the one they previously controlled, Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi conceded that he had underestimated the political power of the Internet.

While Singapore officials have so far remained mum about the Malaysian election results, they have clearly taken note of how the opposition used the Internet to its electoral advantage. The example of how popular Malaysian blogger Jeff Ooi was able to raise money through his blog to contest and win a seat in Malaysia’s elections was apparently what Lee was referring to when he recently said:

“Many people will be willing to donate money to parties that need money, but political donations are never unconditional. You win the election and after you come into power, the donors will politely ‘seek payment for debts’. What do you do for such debts of gratitude?”

That comment struck some Singaporean bloggers as a red herring, since demands for payback take place regardless of whether the donation came via the Internet or through more traditional channels. Lee’s clumsy attempt to confuse the issue demonstrated to some that his government is grappling with the question of how to free up the Internet, as the fast-changing technology dictates, while maintaining his party’s tight grip on political power.

When changes to Singapore’s Internet-related laws finally come, seasoned political observers predict they could be more symbolic than substantive, designed to score points with the younger generation the party risks losing at the next polls.

Lee himself has already said, “We will proceed with caution to avoid creating a negative impact.” Echoing that cautious call, Cheong Yip Seng, the retired chief editor of the Straits Times, said, “Video can be a powerful, emotionally charged medium. Wrongly used, it can degrade the quality of public discussion and politics.”

Cheong now chairs a 13-member advisory committee which was established in 2007 to study “the impact of new media on society”. The committee had planned to produce a report by the first quarter of this year, but now says it plans to put up a consultation paper in the middle of this year.

Although the committee claims to be holding widespread consultations, many influential bloggers say they have yet to be contacted. In response, 15 bloggers formed their own alternative study group in December last year – this writer among them – to produce its own set of recommendations for Internet deregulation.

The group submitted its proposals to the government on April 21, calling for a major overhaul of the regulatory system, particularly in regard to dismantling all controls over political speech. Although the government is not expected to adopt any of the study group’s main recommendations, it once again shows how Singapore’s netizens are moving to redefine the terms of the island state’s political discourse – whether the government welcomes them or not.

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.