Sunday, May 21, 2006

Singapore Censorship

Samuel Huntington is an American political scientist whose most famous book is the Clash of Civilisations. This book was written in 1993 just after communism had been defeated and the West was triumphantly setting out its new world order. Francis Fukuyama had just written The End of History and the Last Man where he argued that the end of the Cold War had signified the end of the progression of human history. Huntington disagreed with Fukuyama and argued in the Clash of Civilisations that the temporary conflict between ideologies is being replaced by the ancient conflict between civilizations. The dominant civilization decides the form of human government, and these will not be constant.

Huntington admired Singapore for what he saw as the one exception to the rule that the least corrupt countries in the world are Nordic, Scandinavian, or English-speaking. He attributed this to the long-term political leadership of Lee Kuan Yew who was determined to create a non-corrupt society. Huntington quoted Senator Daniel P Moynihan "The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself."

But this uncorruptible society came at a cost: rigorous and total censorship across all areas of society. Singapore ranks a poor 140th out of 167 in the Reporters Sans Frontieres worldwide Press Freedom Index 2005. Movie censorship is governed by the Film Act of 1981. The Act proscribes racial or religion vilification, "party political films", anything that threatens the national interest, or depictions of hardcore pornographic, offensive or deviant sexual activities.

Singapore has been ruled by a single party since 1959, the People’s Action Party. Their initial victory was greeted with dismay by the western world due to its links with the Communist Party. However the Communist wing split over the proposed merger with Malaya which happened in 1963. But that only lasted two years. Malaysians rioted in the streets fearing Singapore’s economic dominance would shift power away from Kuala Lumpur. Chinese dominated Singapore was expelled from the union in 1965.

Singapore embarked on an economic growth program to allow it compete successfully as an independent nation. The price was an authoritarian government.

Its press, including the flagship Straits Times is mostly run by the government. Malaysian newspapers are banned and foreign publications are strictly vetted for anti-government articles. TV is also run by the government and high profile programs such as Sex and the City have been banned in the past for their licentious conduct.

But it is in the area of Internet where Singapore is most vulnerable and therefore has made the most efforts to control it. Singapore’s policy makers want to turn the island’s economy into an information hub but they have no intention of surrendering political control in the process. Singapore is a world leader (after China) in attempts to restrict freedom of expression of thought on the Internet. The ISPs are forced block websites containing material that may be a threat to public security, national defence, racial and religious harmony and so called “public morality.” Police have wideranging powers to intercept messages online. Government agencies have used threats and ligitation against bloggers and other Internet content providers.

Singapore’s principles of censorship are: First, materials for homes are more heavily censored than those for businesses. Second, materials for the young are more heavily censored. Third, materials considered artistic are less heavily censored. Finally, materials consumed by fewer people are less heavily censored. Some of these principles come into conflict in the practice of censorship, especially censorship of the Internet.

Guerilla groups have provided advice to users on how to defeat these censorship provisions. These include getting a proxy address outside the country and changing the browser’s proxy setup.

The Singapore model has been influential among authoritarian states in Asia. In 1996, ASEAN concluded an agreement to collaborate on devising restrictions on Internet communication. Although the agreement did not include a regulatory framework, only the Philippines rejected the idea of political control. The Singapore model is not foolproof, and there is criticism from within the country on its censorship model. However Singapore has shown that technology can and will be harnessed to consolidate a climate of government controlled propaganda, fear and intimidation.

Huntington’s clash of civilisation is valid for this scenario: The fault lines between civilizations will be the battlezone for the the control of information.

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