9 Mar 2007

To Blog or Not to Blog in Singapore

By Alex Au at Asia Times Online

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 (xiaxue.blogspot.com). But others, such as "Mr Wang Says So" (mrwangsaysso.blogspot.com) and independent filmmaker Martyn See's "No Political Films Please, We're Singaporeans" (www.singaporerebel.com), 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."

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