Sunday, March 11, 2007

Watchful Eyes on SINGAPORE’s Blogsphere; Website’s Owners & Editors Criminally Liable for Content; PM Lee H L Interview: What must change in S'pore?

To blog or not to blog in Singapore; By Alex Au

SINGAPORE - 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 ramifications. 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 (

But others, such as "Mr Wang Says So" ( and independent filmmaker Martyn See's "No Political Films Please, We're Singaporeans" (, 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.

Anti-government sentiments. 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 government ministers 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.

Measurable impact
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 and South Korea has the widely read, 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.

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Tom Plate INTERVIEWS Singapore PM Lee Hsien Loong; CHANGES to be Competitive with Dynamism to make Singapore Conducive for Business & to Stay

What must change in S'pore

American journalist Tom Plate*, founder of the Asia Pacific Media Network, interviewed Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at his Istana office on Feb 22. This is an edited extract from the transcript: via Mar 03, 2007 The Straits Times

[*Tom Plate, former editor of the Los Angeles Times editorial pages and a longtime journalist with New York and Time, has taught in the Communication Studies Department at UCLA since 1996]

Tom Plate: Every time I come to Singapore, things seem to be moving on very nicely. I know there are small problems underneath, but what would be two or three things, or maybe more, that have to be changed within Singapore so that when, perhaps, Tom Plate comes back here 10, 15 years from now, it has still gone forward?

Mr Lee: The economy must continue to change. That means it has to be competitive and must grow and we must have the vibrancy and the dynamism to continue to reinvent ourselves, which means taxes have to come down, especially direct taxes. It means skilled talent has to be here. We have to educate our people, and to attract talent here. That means the whole business environment has to be favourable so that people come here and say this is where I want to live, this is where I want my business to be and I can do the business of business, which is to make money and the place can prosper. I think that's one major priority.

The second one is education: to develop our people so that they are prepared for this brave new world. We have quite a good system. I think it needs to be further improved, both in the content of the schools and institutions which are there, and also beyond that so that people continue to be educated and learn, even into their working careers, more systematically and in a more flexible sort of way, because you can't quite decide exactly what are the skills needed for the future. If I train you as an engineer, you can do a lot of things but if I just train you to do a particular job and the world changes - the Chinese come along and do that better and cheaper, well, what will you do?

So you have to learn to be flexible and our schools must get people into that mindset to know how to do this and to be prepared for this sort of world. That's a big thing. Thirdly, if you're looking at 10, 15 years, social cohesion is an important issue because with our incomes stretching out like everywhere else, you must make sure that the people who are at the lower end feel that they have something in this, they have a stake in this. We talk about free markets and free trade and it's the only way we can prosper - through free markets and free trade. But if free markets and free trade lead to half the population with stagnating incomes, which is what's happened in America and...

* And in China...
In China, maybe less but still a significant number, and Japan is widening too, then you have a political problem. You can see the pressures in Congress now, particularly with a new Democratic Congress. Even the Republicans are talking like this. And nobody wants to support any free trade agreements or trade promotion authority for the President. So taking care of the lower end but also equipping them to look after themselves and motivating them to do well for themselves is a big issue. We haven't done badly because we've got public housing, which is a very big boost for the lower end.

Our education system is a big help too, but in addition to that, we've just introduced what we call Workfare in our Budget last week, which is our form of what you call an Earned Income Tax Credit, but with not so much in cash. A big chunk of that goes into the Central Provident Fund savings for the future, for their pension, for their medical, for their housing. But basically it's still a transfer and I think it's something necessary to do. So, that's the third thing if you're looking at 10, 15 years. If you are looking beyond that, then the population is an issue. Procreation in young people, immigration and integrating the arrivals as well as the births, so that you have a cosmopolitan but cohesive and stable society. That's the challenge.

* Not much you can do about it?
You can make yourself attractive to people to come from the rest of the world - which we are doing and we are bringing big numbers in. We have about 35,000 births a year. We actually would like 50,000 births a year. We have about 30,000 people take permanent residence every year, almost as many as are born here. Of course, not all of them become citizens, maybe only 12,000 a year. Even that is not small in terms of needing to settle them and integrate them into our society and not have them become an enclave or a ghetto, or a separate group that generates new social problems. That you can do something about. Babies, well, we can encourage couples to have more, but we haven't been very successful.

* Very few governments have done that.
The French have not done badly.

* ...What are two or three things in this region that you'd like to see changed so that in 10, 15 years it is easier for Singapore to be Singapore?
Security is one issue - terrorism and terrorist groups which are in the region continue to be a threat. We're concerned about that, and I think so are the other governments although it's not easy to deal with. Whether it is Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines in the south, or Thailand in the south, we are in the middle of this. We need to deal with that effectively, not just operationally, not just tactically hitting the bad guys, but also at a strategic and philosophical level. Getting people not to want to become terrorists or think like them, but to live peaceful lives and to tackle the extremists who are purveying this poison.

* You know, in America when we use the term terrorism, a lot of people think one cohesive lethal empire - but each is a sort of sui generis. They have their own issues, and their own problems.
You are right, but there is some collaboration. The Thais have a different separatist group. The MILF (Moro Islamic Liberation Front) in the Philippines is a separatist group, but they have definite links with the jihadists. They collaborate together quite extensively and, in fact, they host the jihadists and provide training facilities and bring the jihadists on missions so that they can practise shooting at real soldiers. The Malaysians and Indonesians and us, well, the group which we broke up, the Jemaah Islamiah, that was one group which straddled all three countries. In Indonesia, of course, you're talking about many different outfits, different militias. It's a big country. The second thing is that we want to see a more cohesive Asean.

We're talking about the Asean Charter, and working towards signing it this year. We're talking about Asean Community 2015. We say Asean will have two wings, China and India, which will help us to take off. But to have two wings, you need astrong body. Otherwise it's two wings without a body and we'll fall apart. That means you have to take political decisions to cooperate on economics, on security, on politics, on many issues. That's an urgent matter. It's not easy to put priority on that when you have so many other domestic priorities, but it's a matter of some concern.

Thirdly, we would like to see America continue to play a positive role in the region. Security-wise, it's crucial. The Chinese cannot take over this role. Economics-wise, it's also crucial. The Chinese will be a very big trading partner and powerful economy. But in terms of powerful multinational corporations, using the technology and creating jobs and being able to project investments in the way HP or Motorola, or Exxon Mobil can do -that's some distance off. So we need the US for economics. In fact, the countries in this region are all very happy to be friends with China and also to have America continue to be in this region. So that's something we would like to continue but, of course, that will depend on the overall strategic trends - America's relations with China and Japan and also America's relations with Muslim countries and Muslim societies.

* Right. How do we handle this?
With China and Japan, I think things are going quite well, at least as far as the administration is concerned. The administration is doing the right things. The pressure is there from the ground and from Congress which reflects the ground. The trade deficit has become a political issue. It has been linked up with the exchange rate. Economically speaking, it doesn't follow but that's the politics and you can't unlink that, not even Hank Paulson (the US Treasury Secretary). So that is a problem and if Congress pushes the wrong way, you can have a lot of rough weather as you did with Japan in the '80s. But this will be much worse because China is much bigger and it's a completely different relationship.

The US can fight with Japan and it's not going to be your enemy. But if you fight with China, that's very big trouble. With the Muslim countries, I think it has to be a long-term effort. The Bush aministration now knows this - that you can't just fight Al-Qaeda. You also have to get the Muslim countries on your side, and at least not against you. If you look at the popularity polls of America in Muslim countries, it's almost uniformly unfriendly. Not good at all. The question is how you reach out to them. It's not just a charm offensive, it's also your policies in the Middle East, and particularly, on the Israel-Palestinian issue, where you have to be seen to be more even-handed and not against the Palestinians.

* I think the totality of that point that you made, I mean the sweep of that, is enormous - and I think it's often missed in the United States. Our position on the Middle East just waves right through.
Yeah. It used to be that the Middle East was far away from South-east Asia. If you have problems there, it's an Arab, Middle-Eastern problem. It was always an unstable part of the world. But today with Internet, with satellite TV, what happens in the Middle East immediately impacts all over the world, on Muslim societies everywhere. When the war happened in Lebanon last year, 200 people showed up in Jakarta volunteering to take the next plane to Lebanon to do jihad. I don't think they actually caught the plane but the temperature went up and the governments were under pressure.

In Malaysia, Khairy Jamaluddin, who is the Umno Youth Deputy Leader, and also happens to be (Prime Minister) Abdullah Badawi's son-in-law, led a very fierce demonstration outside the American Embassy. Some of it is just because America is what it is, the sole hyper-power in the world, but some of it is also your policies and the attitude of 'I will go in right or wrong, whatever others say. I will do it alone.'

* Ten years ago when interviewing your father, then your government's Senior Minister, I asked him for one piece of advice to take back to America. He thought for a minute and said: "My hope would be that America would get its relationship with China right. I would make that number one. If you get that right, it's good for everybody to get along, good for everybody.' Have we gotten it right more or less?
Ten years ago would have been 1997, would have been Bill Clinton midway through his first term by which time he had learnt...he was gradually convinced and did the right thing, and George W. Bush after a rocky start has also been doing the right thing. Bush is quite clear on Taiwan. He's quite clear on China. He's got his plate full elsewhere in the world and he doesn't want another adversary.

He knows that he needs to develop a constructive relationship, even if you don't call it a partnership across the Pacific. So I think that's good. But whether he can maintain that in the face of popular pressure and whether the next President can sustain that remains to be seen because when you had CNOOC bidding for Unocal, there was an emotional and irrational reaction in the US. The President had to go along with it. And you're just showing the Chinese how to break the rules of globalisation.

* Absolutely. That ended the collaboration right there?


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