Saturday, February 16, 2008


Freedom of expression, although recognised as a right in Singapore’s Constitution, has never really been held in high regard here. It is treated as a highly conditional right, which in effect means that it is not a right at all, but a kind of privilege or favour extended by the state to certain types of communication that meets whatever standards it chooses to impose. In Singapore, unlike liberal societies, there is certainly no wish to provide “freedom for the thought we hate” (to borrow the title of a new book on the First Amendment by Anthony Lewis).

The shenanigans of cyberspace have only served to harden conservative values. The alleyways of the internet reveal the vile, vulgar and venomous instincts that lie within human beings. Is any more proof required that a peaceful, harmonious society cannot afford to let these passions loose? Here, however, I would like to offer a counter-intuitive view: socially irresponsible expression on the internet is precisely what should nudge Singapore towards a rights-based perspective on free speech. There are three main points in this argument.

First, the internet means that the practical policy choice is no longer between freedom and non-freedom. The government has made it clear that censorship is no longer an option. Therefore the real choice is between freedom taken and freedom given. At present, Singapore falls squarely in the former category. Singaporeans know that the space they enjoy was not provided by socially recognised rights. Instead, they have simply seized the freedom provided by technologies that they acquire.

Second, freedoms seized in this manner are not burdened by any sense of social responsibility. Singaporeans exercising their freedom on the internet can tell themselves that it is their own individual cleverness that earned them this freedom. They bought their computers, subscribed for the internet, downloaded the programs and mustered the gumption.

It could be argued that the government contributed the infrastructure for internet access and the high quality education that makes Singaporeans so clever. However, the government has repeatedly said that such investments are primarily for economic development. It considers a more vocal population to be an unintended negative consequence of Singapore’s development. Therefore, members of such a population cannot be blamed for seeing their expression as private accomplishments, achieved in spite of their society, not because of it.

In contrast – this is the third point – societies with a deep tradition of free speech constantly remind their members that this individual human right is secured for its value to society. It is said, for example, that free speech has to be protected because “civilized society is a working system of ideas”. In the political culture of liberal societies, the moral basis of free speech is a profoundly social one. This is why, in the field of journalism, it is the free societies that have generated the most meaningful professional codes of ethics. Today, when journalists and journalism students in unfree societies need guidance on thorny ethical issues concerning, say, respect for privacy or dealing with children, they turn to literature developed by professional associations and news organizations operating in free societies. Their own industry is ethically untrained because they traditionally outsource moral judgments to the government.

Government dogma has divorced Singapore from a rich international current of discussion about free speech, its role in society and its limits. Singapore positions itself as an exceptional case that can learn nothing from this wider debate, yet none of Singapore’s concerns – about racial harmony, for example – are unique to Singapore, and all feature in the on-going global discussion. In the rhetoric that passes for debate in Singapore, the choices are polarised as “individual versus collective” or “freedom versus responsibility”, implying that free speech is inherently selfish and irresponsible. The danger now is that this may become a self-fulfilling prophecy. By failing to enshrine free speech has a fundamentally social good, young Singaporeans are growing up seizing that freedom on their own terms, impervious to being lectured about their social obligations.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007


Social networking platforms such as Facebook and MySpace are emerging as the next big thing on the internet. They are already used extensively by politicians elsewhere. Candidates in Singapore would presumably be allowed to use these to put up information about themselves and their positions, as such use would fall within the "positive list" of permitted uses of websites under the Parliamentary Elections (Election Advertising) Regulations (PER).

More intriguing is whether social networking platforms would get around the PER's current restrictions on using e-mail to spread campaign messages. The regulations allow parties to mail to their own mailing lists, but parties can't encourage chain letters: an e-mail is not supposed to invite readers to pass it on to all their friends. This prohibition limits the powerful viral potential of e-mail communication.

The interesting thing about Facebook and the like is that the viral quality is built in. These platforms introduce you to friends of friends in a way that doesn't seem to be captured by the PER, which was formulated back in 2001. Furthermore, what is technically being passed around is not a campaign message but the electronic version of a business card, which again falls outside the scope of the PER. However this particular type of business card can of course be linked to substantive content, including campaign ads.

Of course, everyone, including the regulators, knew that the 2001 regulations would rendered redundant by evolving technologies. Social networking services are just one more step towards the inevitable. The question now is whether the government will try to cover social networking in the next round of regulatory innovation, or if it will retreat.

Friday, August 31, 2007


A close look at 10 years of internet content regulation shows that the authorities have generally kept their promise of applying the law with a “light touch”. Also as promised, the light touch policy has not meant a totally hands-off approach. The government has occasionally felt compelled to use strong measures where subtler controls may have sufficed in the pre-internet age. This suggests that the entry of new kinds of insurgents into Singapore's media space is straining the government's calibrated approach to coercion. Read the full report here.

Friday, July 13, 2007


The Li Hongyi controversy is another case of Net-induced disclosure of government information. Pre-internet, such an incident would have been confined to coffeeshop talk; mainstream media may have been pressured to suppress it. Nowadays, it’s much harder for the authorities to sidestep the gossip; the pressure is on them to engage it openly. However, it would be a mistake for bloggers to get carried away by a misplaced sense of power. Post-internet, Singapore still has the SAF Act and the Official Secrets Act, under which the circulation of Li’s email could quite possibly constitute an offence. Full posting at JOURNALISM.SG - click the title above to go there.

Friday, July 06, 2007


JOURNALISM.SG is my new website dedicated to press issues in Singapore. Do visit.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007


At the New Media @ Arts House forum today, Charles Lim of the Law Reform and Revision Division, Attorney General's Chambers, shared certain guiding principles that he believes to be important in internet regulation.

1. The practicability/workability of laws. However, even if it is not practicable to enforce a law, it may have symbolic value to signal society's disapproval, or what the Europeans call "signposting".

2. Regulation should not stifle innovation. Hence, Singapore's "light touch" approach.

3. Protection of intermediaries. If content merely passes through them, they need not be considered content providers, and they can therefore be insulated from certain legal risks like being sued for defamation.

4. Risk-based and principle-based approaches. Instead of heavy handed prohibitions, attention can focus on sites that are the pose the greatest risk to society. A principle-based approach would set out certain broad-brush principles (such as honesty); the regulator would need to cite these principles to justify its interventions transparently (presumably allowing them to challenged in court).

Wednesday, May 09, 2007


At a Young PAP dialogue*, Lee Kuan Yew expressed his skepticism about censorship.

He recounted his input to the Cabinet discussion on the Crazy Horse topless revue: "I said, Look, once upon a time, Singaporeans watched peep shows. You know, you pay 10 cents and you turn an old film in a box at Chinese wayangs. Today, they are going to Paris, they go to the Folies Bergere. I mean it doesn’t make sense any more. I said, ‘Let it go’. So they said, ‘No, we must stop this, stop that’. I said, ‘You either go with the world and be part of the world, or you will find that we become a quaint, a quixotic, esoteric appendage of the world’.”

On the balance that Government has to strike: "We have to decide on behalf of society what is the long-term effect of this, and if you prohibit it, will it work? And if it doesn’t work and it is flouted, does it do harm? Which is better – to let it run freely or say, ‘No, have it surreptitiously flouted at the margins’? You’ve got to weigh the two odds."

Later in the dialogue, he said that internet censorship is impractical: "We have created a society which is totally educated. You are all able to go on the Internet. So all this censorship and so on makes no sense to me. You are on the Internet 24 hours, broadband. We’re going to have Wi-Fi throughout the whole city. We cannot stop this. If we stop this, we stop the progress. We are marginalised.”

My take on these comments:

Mr Lee's words were quite remarkable, suggesting that the days of censorship are over. However, one shouldn't overstate their significance. We shouldn't look at what he said as a statement of immediate media policy, but rather as a broad, long-term principle. Anyone who takes his comment too literally would no doubt be struck by the contradiction between words and actions. Within a few weeks of his speech, we saw the government ban Martyn See's film on Said Zahari. There was no evidence there of the kind of thinking Mr Lee was advocating.

So, it is more realistic to consider Mr Lee's words as referring to a long-term trajectory. In the short term, the government can be expected to continue applying censorship powers in old fashioned ways. This gradual and controlled pace of liberalisation, with occasional reversals, will continue to be the pattern, because in Singapore it's the government that sets the agenda. It's unlike other countries where people can, for example, invoke strong constitutional guarantees to achieve quantum leaps in freedom of communication.

Even in the long term, though, it is not the case that a censorship-free system is either possible or desirable. Any society will still want to be able to protect its interests in certain broadly agreed areas. Whether it's tobacco advertising, hate speech or child pornography, there may continue to be a strong justification for censorship. In some areas, I would favour more, not less, censorship. For example, Singapore protects children against advertisers less than some developed countries. And our radio deejays on some stations sometimes cross the bounds of what others would consider good taste.

So we should not think that no-censorship is some communication nirvana we should be heading for. We should be aiming instead for a regulatory regime that more accurately reflects the interests of society. In some areas we should be loosening up, in other areas there is a case for tightening.

* Reported in "Adjusting to the realities of a globalising world" by Peh Shing Huei,
The Straits Times, 23 April 2007, p. H5