By Singapore Armchair Critic
It seems that Internet censorship in Singapore (described by the government as a “light-touch” regulatory framework) mostly depends on a combination of access controls (such as requiring political websites to register for a license) and legal pressures (such as defamation lawsuits and the threat of imprisonment). The intention is to prevent people from posting objectionable content (source, p. 81).
Singapore’s prominent bloggers and alternative news websites have concertedly launched a petition to urge the Media Development Authority (MDA) to rescind the licensing requirement for “online news sites”; a protest is also slated to take place this Saturday, 8 June at Hong Lim Park.
However, if we go by past experience, I daresay the likelihood of our government revoking this new licensing framework is close to nil.
Just look at its response to the opposition to the controversial Population White Paper.
Despite the strong backlash from the society and reservations expressed by people in the PAP camp, our leaders did not succumb to public pressure. There was only a symbolic concession in re-pitching the 6.9 million population “target” as but a “worst case scenario,” after which paper was bulldozed ahead in the PAP-dominant parliament, resoundingly endorsed by all except 13.
So in all likelihood that the government will not backpedal on the new ruling, what else can we do besides petitioning and protesting?
Bearing in mind that this is a government that is experienced, adept and ruthless at clamping down on dissidents and critics, are we, ordinary Singaporeans who have just found our voices on the Internet, fighting a losing battle?
Internet Censorship vs. Self-Censorship
When it comes to censoring online political content, there is a fundamental difference between our government’s approach and that of other states, say China.
According to a Harvard expert, China uses three key technical means to curb online content it deems politically-incorrect: (1) IP blocking; (2) DNS hijacking; and (3) keyword content inspection/filtering. All these methods work by blocking access to websites (details here).
In contrast to China’s formidable firewall, Singapore shies away from using technology to curb online content. Some may recall that MDA has blocked access to 100 websites, but this is chiefly a symbolic move targeted at content such as pornography that offends our “core societal values.” As this source points out,
The Singapore government implements a limited filtering regime, relying mainly on nontechnological measures to curb online commentary and content relating to political, religious, and ethnic issues. The purported purpose of these measures is “to promote and facilitate the growth of the Internet while at the same time safeguarding social values and racial and religious harmony.”
The truth is, as a regional financial hub and an aspiring IT hub, Singapore simply cannot afford to put up a Great Firewall like China and risks throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
Instead, it adopts a far more efficacious and target-specific means to weed out unwanted political content: the instilling of fear.
Our government hits directly at the source/content provider, instilling fear through the threat of fines, lawsuits and criminal prosecution.
This is highly effective and efficient because it root out “problematic” content altogether, inculcating in us an insidious and deep-seated practice of self-censorship that we may not even be conscious of.
And this self-censorship is most conspicuous in the Singapore academia. Academics writing about government policies often mince their words; typically they adopt a servile tone that goes like this: oh you (the government) have already done very well, but you could do better…
I find this couching of objective criticism in subservient language utterly ludicrous. Our political leaders have already paid themselves millions for “serving” the people. Why do we still need to stroke their ego when we point out their shortfalls in governance?!!
You are Your Worst Enemy
Once we are aware of this problem, we can actively remind ourselves not to self-censor when criticizing the government and/or its policies.
By this I do not mean expressing ourselves on the internet with no-holds barred. Making baseless attacks and ranting do not help our cause. What the government fears and is trying to suppress are intelligent socio-political critiques that provoke readers to think, and alternative perspectives that enlighten the general populace.
So push the limits. Fear not, or fear less. Speak up. Start blogging. Make informed arguments as far as possible. Let political debate blossom on the internet. To reverse the trend of self-censorship, we must unfetter our minds from years of brainwashing and scare-mongering under the PAP regime.
Going back to my earlier question: are we fighting a losing battle? Not necessarily, I believe, but it is definitely an uphill task.
Having said this, we should be heartened that times are changing and even our mainstream media journalists are increasingly frustrated by the limits imposed on their reporting. Internet censorship and getting around it, moreover, are an ever-evolving cat and mouse game. As of now, some tech-savvy netizens have already suggested ways to circumvent the MDA regulation.
Singapore Armchair Critic for The Online Citizen
The author blogs at http://singaporearmchaircritic.wordpress.com/.