SDP’s Dr Paul Tambyah voices disappointment towards Google’s “shocking” ban of political ads in Singapore; demands explanation for the decision

Photo: Terry Xu

On 3 December (Tuesday), the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) revealed in a statement that it demands an explanation from Google over its “shocking” ban of political advertising in Singapore, after the Party attempted to purchase ads on its platform.

It stated that its Chairman Dr Tambyah wrote to Google CEO Sundar Pichai to enquire about this new policy, and noted that these ads ensure that “Singaporean voters are not deprived of information as they make their choices in the coming election.”

He added that it is “particularly salient as the print and broadcast media controlled by the ruling party”.

In his initial letter to Mr Pichai dated 22 November 2019, Dr Tambyah said that the Party is very much dependent on social media and the internet to get their “message across to the people of Singapore”.

“As such, we were very disturbed to hear from one of our partners that Google was introducing a new ‘political content policy’ for Singapore which would take effect from 2 Dec 2019,” he wrote.

He added, “The policy is particularly alarming as it apparently blocks all political advertisements which include anything that ‘influences or seeks to influence public opinion on a matter which in Singapore is a matter of public interest or public controversy with key examples being those related to race, religion’.”

Additionally, Dr Tambyah also mentioned that the media is totally dominated by the state in an election, and opposition parties have “no ability to educate and inform the voters of Singapore in the run up to the elections if we are not able to use Google’s advertising platforms in the first place”.

If that’s not all, the Chairman also pointed out that the new policy is “alarming and disturbing” following the Party’s constructive discussion with Google in their Singapore office in June this year.

“All political donations and advertising in Singapore are already strictly regulated by the state and all alternative parties provide detailed lists of expenditures to the elections department every election,” he noted.

He continued, “These are open to be scrutinized by the mainstream media and thus there is a very low risk of foreign interference or any other malevolent manipulation of online political advertising given Singapore’s tightly controlled environment.”

As such, Dr Tambyah hoped that the search engine company could “help eliminate this draconian policy” so the people of Singapore are not receiving limited information before they make their choices in the upcoming election.

Google’s reply

In response to Dr Tambyah’s letter, Ted Osius, Google’s Vice President of Government Affairs and Public Policy, APAC, said that company supports advertising that is consistent with their policies and follows the legal requirement around online political advertisements.

But, he asserted the Singapore Government’s Code of Practice related to the recently passed Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) was the reason to apply the ban.

“Where applicable, we support political advertising consistent with our policies. However, in the case of Singapore, we decided we will not accept advertising regulated by the Code of Practice for Transparency of Online Political Advertisements,” said Mr Osius.

He said that this was a difficult decision to make as Google is “committed to delivering useful and relevant election-related information to users around the world”, highlighting that the company had made similar decisions in Canada and Taiwan before.

“We will continue to look into how we can support democratic processes around the world, including in Singapore. We have been focused on supporting Singaporeans through media literacy and connecting people to useful information.”

Decision is a “great disappointment”

Responding to Mr Osius, Dr Tambyah said in a another letter dated 3 December 2019 that Mr Osius’ reply was not “very helpful” and a “great disappointment”.

He also raised a number of questions, in which he hopes Google will be able to answer.

  1. “Each country has its own legislation when it comes to political advertising.” What legislation in Singapore bans online political advertising?
  2. “Where applicable, we support political advertising consistent with our policies. However, in the case of Singapore, we decided we will not accept advertising…” What sort of political advertising is inconsistent with Google’s policies? Has Google seen a preview of the SDP’s ads?
  3. “We had made similar decisions elsewhere, such as in Canada and Taiwan.”  Canada and Taiwan are very different societies to Singapore and their relevance to Singapore is not clear.

He also added that he wants Google to provide a more transparent account of its position as the Internet giant’s Singapore office was the one who first invited the SDP to its office to explain the company’s services.

“When we subsequently tried to follow up with Google on the matter, we were suddenly told that the office was reviewing its policy. Shortly thereafter, we received information that Google had banned political advertising in Singapore.”

“What happened in between?” Dr Tambyah asked.

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