|JPRI Working Paper No. 26: November 1996
Information Technology and Political Control in Singapore
by Garry Rodan
Long before scholars began to hail the advent of information technology (IT) as a major force for the breakdown of authoritarian political control and the promotion of democracy, George Orwell had a quite different vision. In his novel 1984, he described a society in which every home had something resembling a television screen from which 'big brother' could watch and direct citizens. Today, more optimistic writers think that the volume and form of communication made possible by electronic technology will greatly compromise, if not totally undermine, the capacities of authoritarian regimes to blunt the circulation of opposing views. In the demise of such regimes in Eastern Europe, and the coordination of students leading up to the Tienanmen Square massacre in China, attempts by the authorities to insulate locals from what was regarded as sensitive information proved futile because dissidents had access to facsimile machines and satellite television. And since these events there is still another, more powerful medium said to promote political pluralism and democracy: the Internet.
This communication medium is non-hierarchical, interactive, and global. Its
usage is also growing exponentially. The Internet affords unprecedented access
to information and new avenues for individual political expression. The
following extract from a letter published in the April 2, 1996, South China Morning Post captures the optimistic liberal mood pervading discussions of this technology's political significance: "The Internet and associated technology is like a snowball which is rolling and getting bigger. It gives everyone a voice, which is why it will still be going while those who seek to regulate it will have departed the scene." The Internet's by-passing of the strictures of formal political organizations and the scrutiny of government authorities is one factor behind the view that a direct, global democracy is now a prospect. Another factor is the interactive, as opposed to passive, nature of this medium, which some see as greatly enhancing mediation between decision-makers and citizens.
In any evaluation of the impact of IT on authoritarian political structures, Singapore presents itself as a fascinating and essential case study. Singapore has one of the most comprehensive strategies for the development of IT anywhere in the world, supported by huge state-led infrastructural investments. Indeed, its policy-makers are committed to transforming the island economy into an information hub, trading in ideas rather than commodities. Yet Singapore's authoritarian leaders have no intention of surrendering political control in the process. Certainly they recognize the existence of some tension between their economic and political objectives. However, to date they have shown considerable capacity for reconciling the two. One technique has involved giving businesses privileged access to satellite television, while steering the general public toward the more content-controllable cable television.
Although the Internet represents a more difficult technical challenge for Singapore's control-minded officials, the government is embarking on an ambitious attempt to superimpose strict censorship on the medium. It is too early to assess the success and effects of this strategy, since the legislation has only just come into effect. But a number of general questions are raised by the attempt. First, can access to the Internet be effectively controlled, or will it have the sort of snowballing political effects predicted by some? Second, to what extent is control of the Internet a technical question alone, and how important are social and political structures in shaping the Internet's impact? Third, has the Internet's potential political significance been over-estimated? Does a plurality of individual political and social views on the Internet necessarily translate into organized political and social action?
Singapore's IT Strategy
Singapore's economic planners began promoting the widespread application of IT in the early 1980s, seeing it as strategic in the restructuring of the economy toward higher value-added production. They also wanted Singapore to be a production site for the IT industry. Accordingly, in 1980 a ministerial-level committee, the Committee on National Computerization (CNC), was established to ensure the computerization of the civil service, to boost training of software professionals, and to encourage the indigenous software and services industry. Economic recession in 1985-86 only served to reinforce the emphasis on IT as a basis for creating new competitive advantages. Thus the National IT Plan of 1986 urged the National Computer Board, Singapore Telecom, the Economic Development Board, and the National University of Singapore to collaborate on achieving more integration between hardware manufacturing and telecommunication and software services. In support of this plan, the late 1980s saw a range of complementary institutional initiatives and substantial state investments in physical and social infrastructure.
In 1992, the National Computer Board put forward a new strategic statement: IT2000-A Vision of an Intelligent Island. Under IT2000, it is now envisioned that all 750,000 households on the island will be connected to a comprehensive computer network by the year 2000 with the compulsory installment of broadband coaxial and optical fiber networks. Households, businesses, schools, libraries, government departments and statutory authorities will be electronically linked to facilitate shopping and other commercial and official transactions, as well as being provided with cable and interactive television services and the Internet. A wireless communications network will also afford mobile computer access to information throughout Singapore. So extensive is the plan that even public space is likely to be wired. It is proposed that television cameras be fitted in corridors, elevators, public parks, public parking garages, and neighborhood centers for monitoring purposes. The plan is well underway, with 100,000 households already connected with wiring to support broadband applications.
The economic rationale behind IT2000 is grounded in a recognition that Singapore's traditional role as a broker facilitating commercial exchanges between regional economies and the rest of the world needs to undergo a transformation. According to Minister for Information and the Arts George Yeo:
Geography will matter less in the future. We must therefore think of new ways to retain our position as a hub. Over the next 20 to 30 years, we must make sure that we have the new infrastructure to remain a junction for goods, services, people, information and ideas. If we succeed, we will be one of a number of great cities in the Pacific Century. If we fail, other hubs will displace us and we will be relegated to a backwater.
Singapore wants to maintain its position at the
crossroads of East and West, but now telecommunications and other electronic
media will be deployed to broker design, research, engineering, manufacturing,
distribution, sales and marketing to global sites. But when policy-makers
originally conceived of inter-connecting all Singaporean households,
businesses, government departments and institutions with an interactive medium,
it was not the Internet they had in mind. Rather, it was Teleview--the world's
first interactive video-text system, which receives and reacts to instructions
from a user through a phone line. This was commercially launched by Singapore
Telecom in 1990, and at the time of the initial IT2000 statement in 1992 had about 10,000 subscribers. Most significant, this was a nationwide, not an international, interactive information service.
The subsequent take-off around the world of the technically superior and international network, the Internet, forced the authorities to rethink their plan. They decided to upgrade Teleview so that it provided access to the Internet. This made commercial sense, both protecting the initial investment of S$50 million in Teleview and providing businesses in Singapore with the most advanced electronic infrastructure. But this decision involved a challenge to customary levels of political control over information flows. Before long, Singapore had three separate commercial Internet service providers, and by March 1996, Internet business services in Singapore were worth around $S10 million and expected to double by the end of the year. There are now more than twenty companies whose sole or major business is Internet services.
It is important to note, however, that while the Internet
is now embraced as a crucial element of the IT2000 strategy, it is something that evolved rather than having been an integral part of the original conception. Also, in turning Singapore into an "intelligent island" providing a range of services that depend on creative intellectual capacities, innovation and a free flow of information, Singapore's leaders have a good deal of prior experience in controlling the political spillover from various other industries not normally associated with restrictive political cultures.
An Early Model of Profits and Censorship
A decade ago, plans to make Singapore a publishing
center were scoffed at in light of the strict limits on critical journalism and
well-publicized clashes between the government and the executives and
journalists of publications such as Far Eastern Economic Review and Asian Wall Street Journal. Nonetheless, such major and reputable publishers as John Wiley, McGraw Hill, Addison-Wesley, Simon & Schuster, Reed Elsevier, and the Thomson and Times Mirror group have adopted Singapore as their regional base. Evidently, combinations of infrastructure, production and distribution factors, advertising revenue and other considerations outweighed apprehensions about the restrictive political climate in Singapore. Already we see a similar pattern shaping international investments in some of the electronic media.
Indeed, the attempt to make Singapore a regional broadcasting center for the Asia-Pacific area is proving remarkably successful. Prominent international television networks--including the U.S. entertainment and video loan giant Home Box Office, the music channel MTV, the sports network ESPN, and multi-media Walt Disney-are now operating from Singapore. Ironically, while private satellite receivers are banned in Singapore, the island is used to beam services into the rest of Asia. (Eligibility to apply for a satellite dish license in Singapore is restricted to financial institutions approved by the Monetary Authority of Singapore, commercial institutions approved by the Economic Development Board, media organizations approved by the Ministry of Information and the Arts, foreign embassies approved by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and ministries and statutory boards.) Singapore's role as a regional broadcasting center will be further enhanced if the government realizes its plans to have a satellite in space by 1999 capable of redirecting television shows, telephone, telegraphic and other communications to extensive areas across Asia.
The exceptions the government makes for private-sector access to satellite television within Singapore is explained by George Yeo in terms of the commercial imperative of up-to-date information. However, he also insists that the preservation and transmission of what he refers to as 'cultural values' is a separate question too important to be entrusted to the market. With this in mind, the government has launched a comprehensive cable system to meet the domestic demand for foreign broadcasts while retaining its ability to screen out 'objectionable' material. Cable TV in Singapore is run by a conglomerate called Singapore Cable Vision (SCV), comprised of the state companies Singapore International Media (31%), Singapore Technologies Ventures (24%) and Singapore Press Holdings (20%); and Continental Cablevision (25%), which is the third-largest cable operator in the United States. In June 1995, SCV offered an initial 25 channels, including MTV, ESPN, Discovery, Prime Sports, TVBI (Hong Kong), CNN and Star TV's Channel V. When the infrastructure is completed, SCV will be able to offer up to sixty-four channels to all Singaporean households.
To date, the self-censorship among international companies eager to secure a position in the Singapore market has obviated the need for authorities to exercise much direct control over content. CNN has even gone so far as to alert SCV of potentially sensitive material, as it did before screening coverage of the case involving U.S. teenager Michael Fay who was found guilty and caned for vandalizing cars in Singapore. More generally, cable service providers have offered material that is either apolitical, such as music and sports, or that is family oriented and that reinforces the sort of conservative values championed by government rhetoric. These companies are demonstrating that there are profits to be made from accommodating rather than challenging authoritarian leaders in Asia.
The government's goal of content control is also aided by the policy of wiring residences on a mandatory, rather than subscription, basis. Authorities have taken care to do this in such a way as to continue to insulate Singaporeans from access to television channels in neighboring countries. Housing Development Board flats fitted with antennae to receive UHF frequencies include filters to block out UHF 26, which is the frequency on which Malaysia's TV3 is broadcast to the southern Johor and Singapore region. Presumably the concern here is to ensure control over the delivery of news and current affairs reporting in Singapore, especially as it relates to coverage of ethnic politics.
The Internet's Technical Challenge
The question is whether the quite different electronic technology of the Internet will be less readily controlled. The Internet involves access to information through a variety of means, including newsgroups, world wide web (WWW), email, gopher, telenet, file transfer protocol and Internet relay chat. The first three are by far the most common in current use. Newsgroups provide a format for discussion that has enabled individuals to exchange views and information across the globe. There are thousands of specialized newsgroups, most of which are unmoderated. World Wide Web sites (or home pages), of which there are currently about 30 million, provide individuals, organizations, and corporations the opportunity to transmit and receive information in text and graphic form. Email is an electronic mail system and one of the oldest and still most popular uses of the Internet.
In the debates over whether or not the Internet can actually be subjected to effective censorship, the prevailing view seems to be that control-minded authorities have met their match. By its nature, the Internet provides the possibility of obtaining and disseminating information via multiple electronic routes, thereby making it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to impose restrictions on sufficiently determined and technologically literate individuals. For example, access to any newsgroup can be cut off to customers either as a result of pressure from authorities on an Internet Service Provider (ISP) or at the discretion of the administration of a given ISP. However, a user could find a publicly accessible news server that carries the censored newsgroup. This might be done, for example, via a WWW page. Email could be used to the same effect. A second option would be for the user to take out an account with an ISP in a different country. A third option would be for a user to take out an account with a professional search service for WWW and newsgroups, giving the user access to articles via their news server. This is done through access to such a company's web site. In yet another option, users could employ third parties to pass on contributions to newspapers as well as receive them from third parties.
Similarly, the authorities could simply block access to the WWW by preventing a user access to a particular server. The problem with this technique is that it may inadvertently block a range of other services which might be available on a banned server. It is also cumbersome, costly, and likely to increase significantly the time a server takes to process general requests. It also assumes that authorities are fully aware of the content of web pages available. Ways around this form of blocking include the use of a proxy server, which allows the user to retrieve information from a prohibited server indirectly. Another way would be to email a message to a server dedicated to allowing email access to the WWW. These servers are known as 'email to WWW gateways.'
Software is also widely available which is designed to block general access to specified material. Surf Watch, Cyber Patrol, and Cyber Sentry are examples of such software. Some of this software searches for key words and filters out material generated by searches for them. However, this can inadvertently filter out material not targeted. The ISP America Online, for example, found that its filtering process was unable to differentiate between pornographic material using the word 'breast' and serious discussions of breast-cancer.
A number of points need to be stressed in connection with this ongoing struggle between regulators and advocates of an uncensored Internet. First, the technology is still in its infancy, making it impossible to declare a victor. Second, the difficulty of blocking information needs to be assessed in terms of the political will of authorities and the consequent resources made available for the exercise. Third, the question of political control and the Internet is broader than whether or not information can be blocked. It is also a question of whether the Internet can be monitored.
Monitoring is a less crude mechanism of political
control, especially since it is not necessarily apparent that it is occurring.
It is also comparatively easy to undertake when it is focused and involves the
cooperation of domestic ISPs, other local telecommunications providers and/or
administrators of computing services within organizations (such as a
university). Monitoring particular individuals' use of the Internet is
technically easier the closer information is intercepted to the point of
departure or receipt, as opposed to being intercepted midstream. This could be
as simple as tapping a phone line linking a user to an ISP, or inspecting the
messages to or from particular individuals as they pass through an ISP. On this
point, the editor of Australian PC World responded to a letter in the July 1996 issue which expressed concern (based on a personal experience) about the private information that could be obtained about an individual user on the Internet:
". . . if anyone wants to go to the trouble, it's possible to trace all your activities on the Internet, and discover everything you've looked at, how long you looked at it on-line, and what you've down-loaded to look at off-line. . . . Your boss can easily monitor all your activities if you're connected via your local network, and if not your ISP can monitor all your activities in great detail, if they can be bothered. Administrators and anyone with any technical skill can easily read your email. . . . Far from preserving our anonymity, the Web makes us far more exposed. There's no getting around it. The more we use machines like telephones and computers for communicating, the more we're susceptible to surveillance. If you want to remain anonymous, you have to go lo-tech."
A fourth point concerning the potential to monitor or block information on the Internet is the mediating role of social and political structures. When extensive networks of political surveillance are already in place and a culture of fear about such practices exists, the impact of monitoring is likely to be strong. Indeed, in certain social and political settings, the Internet has the potential to assist authorities in the exercise of identifying government critics. In such settings, the mere use of encryption can serve to arouse the suspicions of authorities, however costly or technically difficult, if not impossible, this technology may make it for authorities to read messages.
In short, expectations that the widespread use of the Internet in Singapore is likely to lead to the rapid erosion of authoritarianism are not borne out by the evidence so far. Rather, the political effects of the Internet appear to be uneven: facilitating some new avenues for individual political expression, but also giving authorities new information about individuals that can be used in refining political control strategies. Moreover, the single most important feature of political control in Singapore involves the obstruction of organizational bases for alternative social and political views to those of the ruling party. It is this criterion, rather than individual expressions alone, against which the democratic possibilities of the Internet must be judged.
The Government's Dual Strategy on the Internet
By mid-1996, the number of Internet users in
Singapore was around 200,000. In addition to 100,000 subscribers, this includes
those frequenting the various cyber cafes that have recently sprung up. The
government has also set up 10 Internet clubs at state-run community centers.
With regular Internet use involving 5-10 percent of the population, Singapore
has a participation rate rivalling the U.S. and ahead of Australia. But while
this is in line with the IT2000 strategy, it nevertheless causes the
government some anxiety. More than 9,000 newsgroups containing discussions or
picture data bases are accessible through the Internet, including sexually and
politically explicit material. In a reference to the flow of ideas, images and
information on the Internet, Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew contends that:
"The top 3 to 5 percent of a society can handle this free-for-all, this
clash of ideas" (as quoted in The Washington Post, February 11, 1996). For the bulk of the population, however, the Senior Minister considers exposure to such material as likely to have destabilizing social and political effects.
Out of concern over some of this access, Singapore's authorities have gone to extraordinary lengths to demonstrate their technical capacity to monitor Internet usage. In 1994, a scan of public Internet accounts held with local ISP Technet was conducted in search of files with the extension 'GIF' (Graphical Interchange Format). This produced a total of 80,000 files, of which five were considered by authorities to be pornographic. While the government has indicated it does not intend any further unannounced searches, its demonstrated capability to search files on this vast a scale may, in itself and by design, have a suitably chilling effect. There is also a reported case of officials at the National University of Singapore dismissing an academic after confronting him with text copies of email messages critical of an administrator that the academic had sent over the Internet.
Such exercises in monitoring are aided by the structural characteristics of the domestic telecommunications industry and the corporatist political relationships that are typical of Singapore. Initially, Singapore Telecom monopolized public access to the Internet through Singnet, which began operating in mid-1994. In September, 1995, this monopoly was broken with the entry of Pacific Internet, a joint-venture involving Sembawang Media, part of the government-linked conglomerate Sembawang Corporation, and ST Computer Systems & Services, a unit of the government-owned Singapore Technologies. A third ISP entered the public market in March, 1996, when Cyberway was launched. Cyberway is a joint venture between the domestic press monopoly, Singapore Press Holdings Ltd., which is another government-linked company, and the government-owned Singapore Technologies Pt. Ltd. Providing Singapore's Internet service is thus wholly in the hands of government-owned and government-linked companies.
The potential of authorities to monitor Internet traffic has been heightened by the agreement in May, 1996, among the three local ISPs to establish a Singapore Internet Backbone. With this, traffic between local ISPs no longer needs to be routed via the U.S., a process that incurred extra costs and time. The new links mean faster connections within Singapore, but also a more self-contained system that enhances the capacity of authorities to follow the passage of information. Added to this is the fact that, owing to the monopoly enjoyed by Singapore Telecom over phone lines, there is only one way in or out of the country when travelling on the information superhighway. A further consideration in all of this is the fact that all Singaporeans have an identification card and a corresponding number that has to be produced to open an Internet account.
The belief that the Singaporean government
regularly monitors individuals on the Internet is widespread. One contributor
to soc.culture.singapore cited a personal experience and posted a
message via a remail service in the U.S. in order to insure anonymity. This
person claimed to be a civil servant who had posted articles 'questioning the
wisdom of some government policies' and had reason to believe that his/her
phone was subsequently bugged. A friend had also revealed that someone had been
'asking questions about me-my character, who did I associate with, etc.' The
intimidating aspect of this experience was evident, as the individual expressed
fears of losing his/her job and warned: "I know for sure that all messages
on scs [soc.culture.singapore] are closely monitored by MITA [the Ministry of Information and the Arts]. There are information officers whose job is to read messages on scs and feed the important ones back to the high ups."
Authenticating these and similar claims is of course difficult. What matters, however, is the impact these messages have on other users. It is even possible that some claims are fabricated by, or on behalf of the authorities with the aim of creating apprehension and promoting self-censorship.
Research by Peng and Nadarajan reveals that broad Internet censorship is present in Singapore, with access to newsgroups through local ISPs affected by the way the local telecommunications provider--the state monopoly Singapore Telecom--operates its lines. According to them, for example, "The Unix shell used by Singapore Telecom has been deliberately crippled to remove some functions. Subscribers have to use a menu to get access to Internet services. Internet service providers in Singapore censor Usenet groups by filtering out those with suggestive names. The system administrators can also set conditions for usage, revoke certain services from users' accounts, or deny log-in access totally. These rules tend to be haphazard and crisis-oriented."
Despite these practices, access to a wide range of
political material is still available through the Internet. For example, the
U.S. Department of State reports on human rights as well as similarly critical
material on Singapore from Amnesty International are readily available on
newsgroups and WWW. The discussion group soc.culture.singapore is the
one, however, which has been of most concern to the Singapore government. Over
10,000 messages were posted on soc.culture.singapore from mid-1994 to
mid-1995, so it is a popular forum. It does not generally contain radical
critiques of the ruling People's Action Party (PAP). Nonetheless, soc.culture.singapore is an unmoderated discussion group whose agendas, in stark contrast with most other media in Singapore, cannot be controlled by the PAP. It has given expression to perspectives and information sufficiently critical of the PAP for the latter to adopt a strategy of direct political engagement with its detractors on the Internet. Significantly, this has been the preferred option over instructing local ISPs to block access to this newsgroup.
In early 1995, amidst criticism of Singapore on the
Internet for falling short on democracy and human rights, MITA Minister George
Yeo foreshadowed the party's entry into cyberspace. "We must have our
battalions there all ready to engage in that debate," he wrote in The Straits Times of February 20, 1995. The party organ Petir elaborated
in its May/June 1995 issue: "Presently, there are quite a few individuals
who spread falsehoods about Singapore and the PAP. Other destructive behavior
includes impersonating our President and PAP leaders. We need to respond
decisively, convincingly and stylishly. We have a duty to combat misinformation
and make a stand for the PAP." The task, it was emphasized, was urgent:
"If we delay, the opposition parties and more irresponsible users will
beat us to it." Accordingly, the party youth organization, Young PAP,
began regularly commenting on soc.culture.singapore.
This PAP presence becomes especially evident during
certain debates, such as that over the appropriateness of Prime Minister Goh Chok
Tong's being awarded an honorary degree from Williams College in the U.S.
Protesters argued that the curbs on free speech and critical inquiry in
Singapore under Goh rendered any award from an American university offensive.
In the various exchanges on soc.culture.singapore, the stance by Young PAP was bolstered by the appearance of a spokesperson on behalf of the Ministry of Information and the Arts, who attacked government critics and played a custodial role for the PAP's position.
However, as an adjunct to this combative entry into cyberspace, the PAP government also embarked on a creative and polished information offensive. To promote positive images of business and government in Singapore it has established its own web site. http://www.sg/infomap/ includes the Republic's yearbook and other official publications. InfoMap requests for May 1996 numbered a high 511,268, suggesting this service is proving attractive to Internet users. An inter-agency group with representatives from both the public and private sectors has also been formed to encourage the representation of Singapore in cyberspace.
However, in this two-pronged strategy, the PAP
government remains determined not to concede any more media control than is
absolutely necessary. As George Yeo (quoted by United Press International, July
7, 1995) emphasized, "Censorship can no longer be 100 percent effective,
but even if it is only 20 percent effective, we should not stop
censoring." Announcements in early and mid-1996 of a tough new regimen
covering the Internet suggests the authorities are aiming a lot higher than
twenty percent. Described by Yeo (in Asia Times, March 6, 1966) as "an anti-pollution measure in cyberspace," regulation of the Internet was transferred from the Telecommunication Authority of Singapore (TAS) to the Singapore Broadcasting Authority (SBA). The latter is to 'concentrate on areas which may undermine public morals, political stability or religious harmony in Singapore.' Yeo also distinguished between private electronic communication or 'narrowcasting,' and the 'broadcasting' of information to millions of users at one time. He emphasized that 'our interest is in the broadcasting end of the spectrum,' with the focus of attention on Web sites.
The following are the main features of the new regulations which took effect on July 15, 1996. First, local Internet service operators and content providers will have to be licensed and subject to SBA-imposed conditions. Furthermore, all political parties and religious organizations and other organizations and individuals with Web pages discussing religion or politics must register with the SBA. Second, service providers must take action to prevent the availability of 'objectionable content.' Content that threatens public security and national defense, racial and religious harmony and public morals is not allowed. This includes 'contents which tend to bring the Government into hatred or contempt, or which excite disaffection against the Government' and 'contents which undermine the public confidence in the administration of justice.'
The SBA will supply information on blacklisted sites, but service providers will also need to exercise judgment in the provision of subscription services. Commercial Internet access providers are required to make use of proxy servers, while public providers such as schools, cyber cafes, libraries and community centers are required to connect with a proxy server and install software, such as Surfwatch and NetNanny, to restrict access to 'objectionable material.'
Third, licensees are required to provide details on users targeted by their service, the names of editors, publishers and organizations involved in the service, and keep detailed records on subscribers and their Internet use to assist with investigations. Licensees are also required to accept responsibility for content. Finally, electronic newspapers targeting subscriptions in Singapore must be registered and subject to local media laws under the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act.
The transfer of regulatory responsibility to SBA signifies that the government intends to make no legal distinction between the Internet and other media. As an SBA statement reads, "By licensing Internet content powers, SBA also reinforces the message that the laws of Singapore such as the Penal Code, Defamation Act, Sedition Act and Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act apply as much to communications on the Internet as they do to the traditional print and broadcasting media." However, service operators and content providers have argued that their positions are not analogous to that of a newspaper editor. As one operator asked, "If someone uses a fax machine at a post office to send a libelous letter, should the post office be held responsible?" But under the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act, not only author and editor can be prosecuted for defamatory or libelous material, but also the distributor and printer. The idea seems to be to exert as much pressure as possible to foster self-censorship.
The attempt to render the Internet subject to
comparable legal requirements and responsibilities to other media is of course
not peculiar to Singapore, nor of special political significance. Service
providers such as Prodigy and CompuServe have already been sued in the United
States for having allegedly libelous statements distributed across their
networks. In February, 1996, an anonymous posting in Singapore from the
Cyberheart Cafe on soc.culture.singapore about three local lawyers immediately resulted in an apology from the cafe's owners, who also disassociated themselves from the content of the posting. Several cyber cafes have subsequently reconfigured their newsreaders so that patrons can only browse and not post material on newsgroups. This might seem an over-reaction. However, what compounds the sense of vulnerability of service operators in Singapore is the extreme political sensitivity to criticism on the part of the government, something that has produced many prosecutions and stiff financial penalties for international newspapers, encouraging a high level of self-censorship among international publishers based in Singapore. This is the background against which Internet service operators and ISP managers contend with an act that emphasizes the need to assure 'political stability' and avoid 'objectionable content.'
The new regulations on Internet service operators and ISP managers attempt to bring them into line with the terms and pressure under which other media operate in Singapore. The requirement that Web sites of political parties and religious organizations be registered and licensed is also aimed at producing uniformity. The regulations will impose the spirit of the Societies Act, which limits public political comment and organized political activity to those organizations specifically registered for that purpose. This act represents a major obstacle to civil society in Singapore, effectively barring interest group politics. Even before these regulations were announced, one of Singapore's few organizations registered as a non-party political discussion group ran into difficulties with its Web page when it tried to sponsor on-line political dialogue. The Socratic Circle, a small and politically moderate group of professionals, briefly held some lively political discussions in 1995 before it was informed by the Registrar of Societies that it would have to cease all activities other than recruitment and the dissemination of club information on its Web site. Public Internet discussions of politics were deemed illegal because they would involve non-members. It is a specific condition of the Socratic Society's registration under the Societies Act that its discussions can only involve members.
While the new regulations may at one level be
simply a logical extension of existing curbs on other media and civil society
in general, there is at least one respect in which they depart from previous
legislation. Local journalist Koh Buck Song has made the important observation
that SBA regulations have a much more explicit party-political component in
calling for protecting the security and stability of the 'government,' as
opposed to the 'nation.' Barring content that 'tends to bring the Government
into hatred or contempt, or excites disaffection against it,' warns Koh, could
"grant unchecked--possibly uncheckable--power to the ruling body to deny
any criticism of it on the Internet" (quoted in The Straits Times, August 5, 1996).
SBA guidelines barring 'contents which undermine
the public confidence in the administration of justice' are also significant.
The Singapore government is especially sensitive to suggestions that its
judiciary is anything other than wholly independent from the ruling People's
Action Party. This point was underlined when it took legal action against
American scholar Christopher Lingle in response to an article by him in the
October 7, 1994 edition of the International Herald Tribune. The new SBA guidelines leave open the question of what constitutes "undermining public confidence in the administration of justice." Would documenting a case of the maladministration of justice, for example, invite prosecution of the whistleblower?
Among regular Internet users, the new regulations have come in for public criticism. One Web site based at Stanford University and set up by Singaporeans studying overseas, the Singaporean Internet Community protested
the new regulations by displaying a black ribbon, mimicking the blue badge of
U.S. sites objecting to Federal regulations to curb Net content. One active
newsgroup participant on soc.culture.singapore, Benedict Chong,
submitted a detailed petition to the SBA from users on that discussion group.
The petition opposed 'any attempt to limit or control political, religious or
other debate on the Internet' and expressed concern that licensing and
registration requirements would lead to over-cautiousness on the part of
content providers and Web page designers. Moreover, the petition stated:
"We do not believe that any SBA or IASP [Internet Access Service Provider]
functionary has the moral authority to be the judge and jury on what
constitutes 'objectionable content,' especially with regards to political or
social commentary." A contributor to Sintercom, Gerard Lim (quoted in The Straits Times, July 21, 1996) also argued: "The vagueness and carte-blanche nature of these criteria run counter to the clarity, fairness and transparency that the rule of law is supposed to provide."
The reaction among opposition political parties has
also been predictably negative, although to date they have made little use of
Web pages. Generally, they lack the technical and financial resources to fully
exploit this possibility. Nonetheless, opposition parties have no illusions
about the aims and implications of the licensing and registration scheme.
Singapore Democratic Party Secretary-General Chee Soon Juan welcomed the SBA's
declared intention to curb pornography, hate literature, and criminal
activities. But, he asked, "what does the regulation and licensing of
political parties, think-tanks, Islamic, Christian and Buddhist associations
have to do with sex, hate and crime?" The real agenda, he emphasized, was
political control to "help buttress the PAP's total domination of
Singapore's politics for a few more years" (quoted in The Straits Times, March 6, 1996). He expressed concern that under the guise of dealing with those who excited "disaffection against the government," authorities could stop all manner of political debate, including criticisms his party had recently levelled at the government over cost of living increases.
This point was echoed by National Solidarity Party
(NSP) Assistant Secretary-General Steve Chia Kiah Hong, who argued: "We
are a political party. If we are successful in voicing what the PAP has not
done, and people begin to dislike the PAP, is that 'objectionable content?''
(quoted in The Straits Times, July 13, 1996). NSP Secretary-General Yip Yew Weng simply described the regulations as a 'violation of democracy.' Nominated member of parliament and National University of Singapore law professor Walter Woon made the point that since the proposed laws can only be effective in Singapore, "the only people who will comment on Singapore politics will be foreigners and Singaporeans living in exile, and that's not healthy."
Despite the SBA's announcements, the NSP has subsequently gone ahead with its plan to set up a Web page making it the only opposition party to have done so (although NMP Kanwaljit Soin also has an individual Web page ).
The NSP Web page provides details about the party, copies of its press releases
and other information about the NSP. It also contains a political discussion
board and guestbook where comments can be posted--both of which appear to be
extensively used. Interestingly, the introduction to the discussion board
contains the following italicized caveat: Please note that all comments are strictly the views of the authors. The National Solidarity Party shall be in no way responsible for the views, comments and actions of the users of this www political discussion board. Contrary to this disclaimer, the regulations do, in fact, render the NSP responsible for content on this site.
Meanwhile, commercial Internet content and service
providers continue to express apprehension about the responsibility they have
for assisting the SBA in censorship. Pacific Internet's chief executive
Nicholas Lee rather ominously explained his predicament: "The boundaries
are still kind of grey. We have to test each case to find out where the boundaries
are. The grey areas will lead to self-censorship" (quoted in Business Times, July 12, 1996). Installation and operation of the necessary infrastructure to block content as required by the SBA will also significantly increase costs for companies. Nonetheless, providers have quickly fallen in line with the new regulations. Subscribers to the recently established Cyberway are already on proxy-serviced lines, and Pacific Internet and Singnet are taking steps to ensure all their subscribers are connected to a proxy server. Whatever executives and managers of such commercial organizations may think of the tight political controls imposed through the regulations, as in other commercial media organizations operating in Singapore, these sentiments are tempered by business considerations in a rapidly-expanding market.
The above discussion is nothing more than a cursory consideration of some complex questions. However, it does indicate that the political impact of electronic technologies is more complicated than the prevailing literature suggests. Various dimensions include the political will to obstruct certain information and views; an efficient, technically competent bureaucracy; an established regime of political intimidation and surveillance; and embedded corporatist structures facilitating cooperation between state officials and administrators across the public and private sectors. This is a formidable mix, although it certainly does not constitute a foolproof means of halting the advance of information. It nonetheless suggests some of the political consequences accompanying the otherwise warm official embrace of the electronic revolution.
GARRY RODAN is a Senior Research Fellow at
the Asia Research Centre, Murdoch University, Australia. He is the editor of Political Oppositions in Industrialising Asia (Routledge, 1996).
1. Hwa Ang Peng and Berlinda Nadarajan,
"Censorship on the Internet: A Singapore Perspective," Communications of the ACM 39:6 (1996), pp. 72-78.
2. "Singapore Laws Apply in Cyberspace," The Straits Times, (February 24, 1996), p. 23.
3. Quoted in a Reuter article, "Singapore's Internet Curbs Worry Some Analysts," posted to SEASIA-L March 6, 1996.
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