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While many Americans have been focused lately on online censorship in China, few have noticed a similar practice in other countries such as Singapore. That island state is a parliamentary republic in theory, but has really been run by one dominant party in its history of independence since 1965 (see a Singapore historical timeline here).

The mainstream media is strictly controlled by the government, and one political party — the People’s Action Party (PAP) — has had complete control of all centers of government. The country infamously practices caning of citizens who break certain laws, and executes drug smugglers. (Amnesty International reports Singapore has the highest execution rate per capita in the world.) And recently, its Minister of Communication and Arts, Balaji Sadasiva, announced that blogs and podcasts would be shut down if they ran overt political content in the runup to the May 6 election.

Immediately, the move was denounced by the free expression rights group Reporters Without Borders. “Once again the Singapore authorities are showing their determination to prevent the holding of a genuinely democratic debate on the Internet,” the group said in a statement. And the Internet crackdown was aimed squarely at two new media platforms — blogs and podcasts — that have been embraced by opposition parties such as the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) to get around censorship in other media.

The Singaporean government has won over residents with a powerful economic engine that rivals Western European powers. And in recent years Singapore has relaxed its ban on chewing gum — in order to win a free trade agreement with the U.S — and it has allowed the showing of the movie “Brokeback Mountain” despite laws against homosexuality. So just how serious is this new regulation, and will political speech by bloggers and podcasters be chilled now that elections have been set for May 6?

One Singaporean blogger, Soci, who writes for the very political group blog, Singabloodypore, was defiant in a comment on a related story
on ZDNet:

This blog — Singabloodypore — is not registered with the Singaporean government, has never been asked to register, and if invited to register would NOT register. I Soci also intend to post material of an “explicitly political nature” during the elections and will gladly show videocasting and podcasting of election rallies, speeches etc. of opposition candidates.

And indeed they have been showcasing just that on the group blog. But in many cases, these bloggers and the dozens of others that write about Singapore are anonymous or operate from outside the country. Chris Myrick, who pens the Asia Pundit blog, lived in Singapore until February 2005. He was unsure how much the new regulation would chill speech online.

“Most Singapore bloggers stay pretty much within limits – there are only a small handful of political blogs and even those will stay away from certain issues (nepotism) or the authors will remain anonymous,” Myrick told me via email. “I have no doubt that the Singapore government would prosecute an individual for breaking the ban. It tends to be the methodology of the state to make an example of people (i.e., the three bloggers who were last year sentenced for sedition).”

Government explains the crackdown

I queried Singapore’s Ministry of Communication and the Arts (MICA) to get more insight into the new rules for blogs and podcasts and they directed me to a detailed Q&A between government minister Lee Boon Yang and the Straits Times. Here’s one telling exchange:

Q. Why is streaming of explicit political content through podcasts or videocasts not allowed but posting of party manifestos and texts of rally speeches allowed for political parties? What is the worry?

Podcasts and videocasts…have a greater impact because of the nature of the medium. They have the greater power to influence. Hence, we do not allow podcasts and videocasts for election advertising, just as we do not allow party political films and videos. The Internet has its own unique characteristics which require special attention. The Internet is ubiquitous, fast and anonymous. Once a false story or rumour is started on the Internet, it is almost impossible to put it right. Despite its usefulness, the Internet is chaotic and disorganised, with many half-truths and untruths masquerading as facts…

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 Media Development Authority (MDA). This promotes accountability and also ensures personal responsibility for comments made on the Internet.

Soci at Singabloodypore was quick to read between the lines of this Q&A, analyzing the underlying meaning of each passage. Soci’s take on the comment above from the minister: “The Internet is a threat to our domination of the national mind set.”

While the minister makes a strong case about the way misinformation spreads online, there are more transparent ways of countering that than blocking off speech completely. For instance, the government could make its own case online, or try to open up a debate with oppositional views.

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Alex Au (pictured here), who blogs about gay rights in Singapore at Yawning Bread, told me that freedom of speech in Singapore exists to a certain point.

“The freedom available to Singaporeans is quite wide,” Au told me via email. “However, there is a climate of fear that the government can clamp down anytime. There have actually been very few instances of arbitrary clamping down, but the fear persists, and thus a lot of people in Singapore, including bloggers, self-censor to some extent. With the passage of time, there is increasing confidence that freedom of speech on the Internet is pretty wide. The more years that pass without incident, the more confidence people gain.”

Au says that in the sedition cases last year, the language used online by the three people who were prosecuted was “extremely gross, full of expletives and deliberately provocative,” rather than an intelligent discussion. So Au feels that the government was drawing the line between measured discussion of issues and inflammatory speech.

In the recent crackdown of blogs and podcasts, Au thinks the government’s ban is very narrow in covering blogs that “persistently promote a political line” — leaving broad political discussions alone. I asked him if he thought the government might act against bloggers in the next couple weeks.

“No I don’t,” he said. “I think the government may want to create the impression that they will clamp down, in order to get people to tremble in their socks and self-censor anything critical that they may have to say about the government. But the government probably knows that the Internet is not (yet) a mass medium that can move large numbers of voters, so to really take action would be overkill. In any case, the junior minister did say in Parliament that politics can be discussed, just that unless one is identified as a political party, one shouldn’t go around promoting any particular party or candidate.”

As Singapore is a trade partner to the West, how the Western media portrays the Singaporean government is important to them. So that means that bloggers and journalists who bring attention to the recent crackdown could help the PAP reconsider taking action.

“Bringing the world’s attention to authoritarian instincts of this government, making them a little of a pariah on account of their policies, embarrasses them greatly,” Au said.

If you want to read more about the upcoming Singaporean elections, you’ll want to check out these sites:

AsiaOne election coverage

Official Singapore Government Site on Elections

Singapore Election Watch

Singabloodypore

Chemical Generation Singapore

What do you think? Is the Singaporean government going too far in threatening bloggers and podcasters? Is there something that we as outsiders can do to support the bloggers and podcasters who are worried about being arrested or blocked from speaking their minds?

UPDATE: The Singapore Elections Department has ordered the Singapore Democratic Party to remove its podcasts in accordance with the election restrictions, according to Channel NewsAsia. As of today, April 26, there is now a message on the SDP’s website saying: “The SDP’s podcasts are suspended due to an order by the Election Department. We apologize for the termination.”

However, the text of a recent podcast remains posted on the site. In the podcast, SDP’s Dr. Chee Soon Juan rails against the government’s methods of crushing the SDP’s campaign for the elections. “[The PAP] bans podcasting knowing full well that we had set up our podcast last year specifically so that we can better reach out to voters in this election…Everywhere that we go for our walkabouts, undercover police agents are on hand to harass us and issue us warnings.”

This is not shaping up to be a truly free election in Singapore. The Singabloodypore blog continues to give timely updates on happenings there.

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