counter Is Singapore a police state?

What characterizes Singapore's political system is the constant query, worry and anxiety among the majority of the citizens, foreigners and observers that individuals and groups will get into trouble with the police and the political authorities for challenging the political status quo. Such anxiety is based on repeated examples of political challengers consistently being found guilty of contravening the system of tight and restrictive laws that govern people in the city-state.

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Singapore: The Modern Police State(Think Centre)
of politics and policing in the city-state.

Always Watching The existence of "the police", a separate force designed entirely for enforcing the criminal law, is a product of modern urban society. The establishment of a metropolitan police force in London in 1829 is usually seen as the single most important event in this development. The existence of a police force, by its very nature, raises several related political issues. The oldest is summed up by the Latin question, "Quis custodiet ipsos custodies?" (Who guards the guardians?) That is, given the capacities and force of arms which the police must have to do their job, to whom are they accountable and how can they be prevented from abusing their position.

What characterizes Singapore's political system is the constant query, worry and anxiety among the majority of the citizens, foreigners and observers that individuals and groups will get into trouble with the police and the political authorities for challenging the political status quo. Such anxiety is based on repeated examples of political challengers consistently being found guilty of contravening the system of tight and restrictive laws that govern people in the city-state.

On the other hand, the Singapore policing authorities will be quick to point out that all they do is to work within the legal system. Increasingly this is coupled with good media management to project policing activity as being professional and targeted at lawbreakers. Attention will also be drawn to opportunities for recourse, where relevant, through the judicial process. But it all stops short of commentary on law making for the last four decades in a one party dominated state. Hence, the political dimension of policing is not raised for discussion.


Policing Singaporeans on the Web
There are many incidents of Internet policing in Singapore. In fact almost all movements by Singaporeans on the World Wide Web do not escape the watchful eyes of the gatekeepers and rule makers. Read on for some examples………

“A little know case involves the Socratic Circle, which was set up in 1994 as a society and one of the first political groups to experiment with the Internet. Problems began when its members posted survey questions online to solicit opinions from Internet surfers. Officials from the Registrar of Societies asked the group to discontinue reaching out to non-members through the Internet. Socratic Circle members were reminded that they were given permission to conduct political discussion only among their members and by soliciting information from surfers through the Internet they were contravening this rule. This shows the mindset of the Singapore authorities, how rigid they were about keeping a tight control over political communication by groups on the Internet and the how early into the game Singaporeans on the World Wide Web were already being monitored.”

“September 11 fallout in Singapore will also take its toll on the Internet. Just before Islam took centre stage in the national media starting late 2001, the discussion group Cyber Ummah was the main web forum for Malay and Muslim affairs. Discussions were robust and on one occasion it gave rise to threats of a civil suit initiated by a PAP politician against a poster for libel which was settled out of court. But the setting up of took the discussion of Muslim affairs to a greater debate when it accused the PAP of collaborating with the US and denying female Muslims student the right to wear their head scarves – “tudung”. The Singapore Broadcasting Authority (SBA) publicly admitted to tracking the website for some time and asked to register their site in accordance with (rules put in place in 1996) requiring websites which spread, promote and discuss political issues to be registered. SBA's Internet Code of Practice prohibits material which is "objectionable on the grounds of public interest, public morality, public order, public security, national harmony, or is otherwise prohibited by applicable Singapore laws". Failure to comply with the code can result in fines and other unspecified sanctions.”


S'pore Internet scan raises cyber-policing fears
By Dan Sloan
Reuters Report May 4, 1999

SINGAPORE - An Internet service provider's security scan of more than 200,000 subscribers' computers to check on vulnerability for break-ins has raised the spectre in wired Singapore that "Big Brother is watching.''

SingNet, a unit of Singapore Telecommunications Ltd (SingTel), halted the scans due to subscribers' complaints.

Ivan Tan, director of corporate communications for SingTel, told Reuters on Tuesday that a corporate apology had been issued for any anxiety caused and that the scan had been suspended indefinitely.

In Singapore's Internet community and local press, however, the scanning and subsequent mea culpa have not silenced critics. Tan Chong Kee, co-founder and editor of community website SInterCom, said privacy was a main issue for the public, but a desire for an explanation was another factor.

"I would like to see after the apology a full inquiry of what happened, in particular the involvement of the Ministry of Home Affairs.''

SingTel said the ministry's Information Technology Security Unit was a consultant in the operation.

The ministry was approached because it was an expert in the area, but SingTel said the scan did not delve into users' databases and only explored whether open windows existed for hackers to exploit.

The scan produced some 900 cases of virus-infected computers and SingTel said owners would be notified.

But the idea that the measures were preventive rather then invasive has not been fully accepted by the Internet-friendly nation of 3.5 million.

The pro-government Straits Times newspaper said in an editorial on Tuesday that carrying out the operation without advising subscribers beforehand was a grave oversight.

"Evidently, many feel passionately about their right to privacy and want to protect it jealously. They also demand transparency and accountability from those whose decisions and actions can affect their lives,'' the newspaper said.

SingNet has said the scans were in the public interest, and added it would call upon the National Internet Advisory Committee (NIAC) to certify that the excercises were not intrusive.
Wynthia Goh, another founder of SInterCom who now lives in New York, said the case should not be decided by the NIAC but rather by the courts.

"SingNet mentioned that it will get NIAC to confirm that the scan was 'not intrusive.' It is really appealing to the wrong body,'' Goh said in an Internet response to Reuters' questions.
"NIAC is an advisory body to the (Singapore Broadcasting Authority) and it neither has the authority nor the expertise to confirm the 'non-intrusivess.'''

Singapore has tight Internet regulations restricting pornography, hate literature and criminal activities.

Singapore leaders have recognised the impact of the Internet.
Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew said in October 1998 that technology was rapidly undermining whatever monopoly control of the media governments might have had.


Singapore secret police computer scan scare

South China Morning Post May 1, 1999

THE computers of nearly half the Internet subscribers in Singapore are reportedly being scanned without their knowledge to determine if the systems are vulnerable to hacker attacks.

The screening of more than 200,000 SingNet and SingTel Magix customers was disclosed after a law student complained to police that someone with an account in the Home Affairs Ministry had hacked into her computer.

Paul Chong, SingTel chief executive officer for multimedia, told the Straits Times the Internet Service Provider asked the ministry's information technology security unit* to conduct the scan after the March 6 arrest of two youths who had hacked into 17 SingNet accounts.

[*This Ministry is also reponsible for Singapore's secret police (members of the Internal Security Department) who "take care" of those detained without trail under the Internal Security Act.]

"We are merely protecting the interest of our customers," Mr Chong said.

He said customers were not informed of the scan so as not to alarm them. Also, "real hackers might lie low" if the scan was public knowledge.

Anne Lee, 21, the student who filed the police complaint, said an anti-intrusion programme available on the Internet uncovered the scan.

Mr Chong said the scanning so far had shown some users were vulnerable, and they would be informed.

Published in the South China Morning Post. May 1, 1999.


Singapore logs on to the Net threat

South China Morning Post. November 22, 1999

BARRY PORTER in Singapore

The Internet offers the chance for Singaporeans to avoid censorship and express theirviews anonymously.

AS Singapore's dominant People's Action Party (PAP) celebrated its 45thanniversary yesterday, its elders were pondering just how long they couldhold on to one-party rule in the face of a more demanding young electorateand the threat of the Internet.

Frustrated by a lack of hard policy debate in parliament and traditionalmedia, Singapore's younger generation are increasingly taking to the World-WideWeb to curtail state censorship and vent their views.

James Gomez, 34, an author and independent political activist, said:"When I found there was not enough space for me to express my views throughtraditional media, I decided the Net was my only opportunity." His Website ( is one of a wealth of new sites andchat-rooms that have sprung up over the past few years, reshaping the futureface of political debate.

They range from the downright provocative, like Singaporeans For Democracy to the more sober Socratic Circle (,run by small group of like-minded, free-thinking intellectuals.

Some sites are managed out of Singapore, some by Singaporeans abroad,particularly overseas university students who have tasted Western life.

Tan Lee Kiat, one Singaporeans For Democracy's (SFD) volunteer Web editor,said: "Our aims are to promote democracy in Singapore, to present an oppositionpoint of view to the propaganda churned out by the PAP, and to provideSingaporeans everywhere an avenue to express their opinion without fearof repercussion through a certain amount of Net anonymity."

SFD is run by overseas Singaporeans through a London server to avoidgovernment interference. It was launched on national day last year andclaims to get 25,000 to 30,000 hits a month, including many from the government'sInternal Security Department.

It also has a team of Singaporean volunteer editors in Sydney, Australia,who publish a print version.

After four decades of strong-arm rule, it would appear the powerfulPAP has finally come across a medium it cannot fully control.

Cutting Singaporeans off from the Internet would cause uproar and couldundermine the government's designs on transforming the republic into aworld-class electronic commerce and media hub.

Even blocking off certain offending Web sites on Singapore servers wouldinevitably cause a backlash and possibly undermine confidence.

Even then, for each site blocked, a replacement can readily be spawnedovernight.

"No government in the world is going to be able to cut itself off,"admits PAP chairman and Deputy Prime Minister Tony Tan.

"It is not possible to prevent its spread, particularly in our casebecause we are becoming a more computer-literate society by the day," saidMr Tan, who despite being from the older generation has led Singapore'stechnology drive.

Like it or not, the PAP's leaders realise the Internet is not goingto go away and have resolved they must ready themselves for a more openand plural society rather than fight it.

The first review of Singapore's censorship laws in a decade is currentlyunder way, with the principal purpose of taking into account the impactof the Internet.

The PAP and government have also taken the initiative, launching a hostof their own political and information Web sites, including even a forumfor public feedback (

In a book launched yesterday to mark the PAP's 45th anniversary, itsfounding father Lee Kuan Yew acknowledges that new technology will cause"major changes" to the nature of Singapore society.

"The party structure will have to change to adapt itself to changesin society," said Mr Lee, PAP secretary-general from 1954-1992 and primeminister for 31 years until 1991.

In the same book, For People Through Action By Party, his successorGoh Chok Tong has outlined a three-pronged approach for reforming the PAPto take into account a new generation of voters to allow it to surviveinto the new millennium.

"First, you must have younger people who can reach out to younger Singaporeansto talk to them in their language, understand the intricacies of policiesand help to mobilise people," he said.

"Two, you also need a generation of PAP members who are very savvy withthe Internet. It will be an important means of communication in the future.

"Third, you have to know how to manage the way elections are being foughtin future, and the changing demands of the electorate with this sort oftechnology."

George Yeo, Singapore's information minister for 10 years and now trademinister, said: "I knew sooner or later the Internet would become a politicalarena so I, as chairman of the youth wing of PAP, founded the first politicalWeb site in Singapore knowing full well I was going to regulate it."

While information minister, Mr Yeo thought it best that only his partybe initially allowed to launch a party Web site and chat-room to firsttest the water ( After an experimental period, otherparties were belatedly allowed to launch their own.

The National Solidarity Party, headed by Tan Chee Kien which has nomembers of parliament, was the first opposition party to fly its flag incyberspace (

Singapore's main opposition party, the socialist Workers' Party headedby Joshua Jeyaretnam with two MPs, also has a site (

The Net has also provided a forum for dissidents in exile to reach backto fellow Singaporeans back home.

Tang Liang Hong, an unsuccessful Workers' Party candidate in the 1997election, has set up his own Web site in Australia ( fleeing Singapore fearing for his life.

He was subsequently sued in his absence for millions of dollars by PAPleaders for alleging they lied when they called him a Chinese chauvinistduring the election campaign. You can read Mr Tang's libellous versionof events on-line.

"In a recent interview with the South China Morning Post, trademinister Mr Yeo gave a clear insider view as to how the PAP intends totackle 'unmerited' dissent on the Internet." Mr Yeo said: "Come the nextgeneral election, I think the elections department will have to allow somecampaigning on the Internet because you just can't avoid it, whether youlike it or not. So let's have rules which apply to everybody."

The PAP believes it can use the same successful methods it has usedto silence what it considers to be unfair criticism in the print media,television and public speaking events - the libel courts.

Mr Yeo said: "If you defame someone, you will be sued if you cannotback it up.

"So I can call you a scoundrel. That is fair comment. But if I callyou a liar and I can't prove it, then I know for sure you are going tocall me up, take me to court.

"It keeps a certain high tone to political debate in Singapore . . .which is not bad."

PAP leaders have yet to experiment with their first cyber libel case.Should the offenders be based in Singapore, serving a writ should not bea problem. But if they are abroad or cannot be identified, then this mayprove difficult.

Author Mr Gomez, who this month launched a book Self Censorship -Singapore's Shame, believes there is already an element of self-censorshipby Singaporeans permeating the Net because users think they are being watched.

"When I first announced my book through a few mailing lists on the Internet,the first order I got was from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for twohard copies," Mr Gomez said. "It shows people are watching."

In addition, the government has been exploring as many avenues as possibleto exploit the positive side to the Net.

Wynthia Goh, a 27-year-old Singaporean postgraduate student in New Yorkwho helps run the popular Singapore chat-room, SInterCom (,said: "The Singapore Government has come on to the Net in a big way. Theyare visibly making use of the Internet as a communication tool." The government'sFeedback Unit, for instance, runs a mailing list sending policy digeststhat provide answers to questions people have raised.

Net geeks can now automatically get news and transcripts of speechesof senior government officials from the mailing list of every governmentministry.

The government has also been trying to build bridges by using the Netto reach the public, like sending e-mailed invites to get people to attendfeedback sessions.

They have also conducted surveys through the Internet.

Ms Goh said: "All these are commendable developments. The governmentis obviously making an attempt to get on the Net and they deserve creditfor it."

Published in the South ChinaMorning Post November 22, 1999.

Singapore tightens grip on Internet content

July 18, 2001

SINGAPORE has tightened its grip on Internet content in the run-up to the next election by ordering a current affairs portal to register as a political website.

Sintercom -- which runs chat rooms, a speaker's platform and the "Not ST" section as an alternative to the pro-government Straits Times newspaper -- has sent in the registration forms but now faces questions of how it will comply.

"We will try to hold fast to our belief and principles as much as we can as new problems crop up," the organisers said in a statement posted on the site at

"If future problems are too numerous or too insurmountable, we could still close down Sintercom. Of course, we hope that day will never come."

Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, launching the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) website last month, said new political guidelines were needed as the last election in 1997 was run under rules that pre-dated the Internet.

"Limits are necessary because, while the Internet has great potential and utility, it also has its dangers," Lee said. "On the Internet, information and disinformation are disseminated equally quickly and are not always easy to distinguish."

Lee -- who is also a brigadier general, chairman of the central bank and son of Singapore's founding father Lee Kuan Yew -- did not specify what sort of limits might be imposed.

The PAP, which has dominated parliament since Singapore's formal secession from Malaysia in 1965, is expected to call an election this year ahead of the August 2002 deadline.


In a July 9 letter, the Singapore Broadcasting Authority (SBA), which oversees all Internet content providers, knocked back an initial Sintercom appeal against the order.

"Registration of political websites is a procedural requirement and is used to emphasise the need for content providers to be responsible and transparent when engaging in the propagation, promotion or discussion of political issues relating to Singapore," the SBA wrote to Sintercom editor Tan Chong Kee.

The watchdog gave no reason for its decision, which appeared to have no connection with the new political content rules being studied by the government.

No one at the SBA was immediately available to comment on Wednesday.

Besides Sintercom, a variety of sites host forums for political chat, including Think Centre (, the National Solidarity Party ( and Singaporeans for Democracy (

The satirical site lampoons politicians and ordinary Singaporeans without prejudice.

Organisers of Internet portals and some opposition parties have objected to the idea of new rules on political content but expressed scant surprise that the government was making the move.

"If the government is worried about the Net spreading slander faster than good things about it, it might want to do some exhaustive investigation why this is so," Sintercom said.

"Trying to prevent differing views from appearing on the Net does not fundamentally address or resolve dissent. In the long run, trying to regulate discussion of issues on the Net will do more harm than good."

Singapore typically bans or censors films, magazines and books for excessive amounts of sex, violence and drug references.

It also prevents access to a selection of Internet sites, most of them pornographic, but intent web surfers have little trouble navigating around the token roadblocks.


Singapore limits election politics on Internet
August 13, 2001
By Jacqueline Wong

SINGAPORE passed a law on today drawing the boundaries on political campaigning over the Internet and barring the publication of opinion polls during a general election.
A bill to amend the Parliamentary Elections Act ahead of the next election was passed but only after a fairly lively debate with some politicians arguing it risked curbing freedom of speech and hurting Singapore's efforts to be a regional media hub.

Singapore must hold a general election by August 2002 and the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) is expected to call for one later this year or early next year.

``Contrary to what the media have been speculating, the government has decided to allow political campaigning on the Internet in the upcoming general election,'' Minister for Information and the Arts, Lee Yock Suan, told parliament.

``However, a free-for-all Internet campaigning environment without rules is not advisable,'' he added, noting regulations were necessary to guide responsible use of the Internet.

Singapore's last general election took place in 1997 under rules that predate the rise of the Internet. The city state now has the highest penetration rate in Asia at 48 percent or some 90,000 subscribers with broadband access.


Some members of parliament suggested that existing laws on libel should be adequate to restrict errant online publications.

``Those persons responsible for those publications, make them accountable for libel or sedition or other disseminated matter which are criminal in nature... the bigger issues of allowing our citizens to mature are surely more important for nation building,'' said opposition MP Chiam See Tong.

Others asked to what extent individuals could communicate their views online without risking prosecution, and whether the legislation would affect telephone messages, emails and prove stifling for Singapore, already known for its many regulations.

``Elections in Singapore should not be too quiet,'' said nominated member of parliament Simon Tay.

``This bill, like the bill on the foreign media before, takes us a little step toward increasing the regulation that might bring down the temperature.''

Tay said it was beneficial to allow free and fair discussions during an election period, whether in person or on the Internet.

The government discourages foreign media from interfering in domestic politics and recently enacted legislation to punish foreign broadcasters deemed to be doing so.

The changes governing ``election advertising'' would apply to political party Web sites and non-party political Web sites, which must be registered with the broadcasting regulator.

Political Web sites can publish party posters and manifestos, candidate profiles, party events and positions on issues, and some moderated chats and discussion forums, Lee said.

But non-party political Web sites should not campaign for any party, such as party banners and candidate profiles.

Lee said a full list of the details of what would be allowed on Web sites would be released when the regulations were finalized but he gave no more precise details.

On barring election surveys and exit polls, the minister said these gave the illusion of reflecting public opinion but were often based on small sample sizes, bad question design and improper sampling, which led to inaccurate and slanted results.

``Opinion polls can also give rise to a 'horse-race' mentality, which can detract voters from learning the candidates' qualifications and their positions on key issues,'' he said.

The prohibition on election surveys, defined as an opinion survey of how electors would vote, applies to all media during the election period until polling day.

The penalties upon conviction are a fine not exceeding S$1000 (US$568) or imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months, or both.

An AFP report August 14 said, opposition leaders slammed the amendment, saying the new law was designed to curb their efforts to reach out to the electorate via the Internet amid widespread speculation that polls would be held well before the August 2002 deadline.

"It's another way the government is trying to crack down on the use of the Internet," Chee Soon Juan, secretary-general of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), told AFP.

"They know it is is one way the opposition (parties) can use it and be on level playing field with the ruling party," he said.

And the government's refusal to lay down the rules governing the new law, preferring instead to release them at an unspecified time before the next elections are announced, would crimp the opposition parties' campaigining efforts, Chee said.

"The one thing that is very clear is that they have not specified the rules yet," he said.

"That is the problem with the government. They are always making the rules at the last minute."

"It's something that is going to hinder our efforts at the next election even more," Chee added.

With the Internet now a popular medium of news for most Singaporeans, Chee said it has been an effective way in which the SDP has been able to present the party's platform.

"With our website, we've been using it as creatively as we can to make sure we get our views across to the people," he explained.

James Gomez, a Singapore political scientist who founded the civil rights group Think Centre, expressed similar views.

"It is not healthy because this is policing of political discussions in general," he said.

"There is a desire to control and legislate discussions," he told AFP.

The strictly governed city-state already has a ban on political advertising using films or video and singing is not allowed at political rallies.

Affluent Singapore is politically stable with the PAP sweeping every election since 1959, after the former British colony was granted statehood.


15 January 2002

In the introduction James Gomez layouts the approach for the book. Here are some of the things that he says...

"New communication technologies – especially the Internet – are sometimes seen as technically defying effective control by authoritarian regimes. Commentators base this argument on the observation that in many countries in the region various online forums, websites, newsgroups and other Internet applications have flourished as tools for use by political activists and that governments seemed unable to control these instantaneous forums." ...

"What it has done is to offer people the ability to organize themselves and communicate in groups. The advent of new communication technologies, particularly the Internet, has provided civil society with a new and powerful tool for linking people. Gone are the days of communications that were mainly hierarchical chains of command and used by centralized states to hold onto power. The use of the Internet, e-mail, mobile phones and satellite broadcasting is key to this revolution of introducing lateral communication and thereby breaking down the hierarchical control by the power elites." ...

"In Singapore, political activity on the Internet is fledgling and civil society is weak. At the heart of the problem are the actions of the ruling PAP that continuously legislates and creates cyber taskforces to regulate and control free speech on the Internet. Its aim is to prevent civil society groups from harnessing the Internet for democratic gains. Towards this end, the ruling regime has been attempting to translate its long and successful history of control over information and freedom of expression in the traditional arena by using a combination of legal, technical and social measures to shape the use of new technologies for political communication. Part of the strategy also lies in harnessing the Internet for official propaganda and ideological exercises, and e-government initiatives, as a counter-offensive against attempts to use new technologies to establish more independent political space." ...

"The Internet offered greater autonomy for people to people communication, the PAP regimes response was to define some of that communication as “political” and introduce measures to control to it. The author’s response to the government’s attempt to control the use of technology for communication and mobilisation of two kinds. First, to personalize Internet usage by setting up an individual mail list and website. Second, to also regionalize the expertise gathered through the Singapore experience and bounce it onto a global platform." ...

"I, however, will argue that as long as there is resistance and counter strategies to politicize Singapore, the fight is far from over."


Singapore prosecutes anti-government critic under new Internet curbs

Agence France Presse
November 30, 2001

See also:
Internet-based political commentator to face court
Man allegedly 'encouraged law-breaking on Web'

A CRITIC of the Singaporean government has been made to undergo psychiatric tests and post bail for his provisional liberty after allegedly posting messages on the Internet urging voters to defy the law.

In the first known case of its kind, Robert Ho Chong posted bail ofs$ 5000 (US$2778) Friday (Nov 30) after being charged with an offence punishable by up to three years in jail.

The 51-year-old former journalist is in trouble for posting articles before the November 3 general elections on an Internet newsgroup forum and a website set up by a group called Singaporeans for Democracy (SFD).

Ho alleged that ruling party stalwarts led by Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong and Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong broke the law in the 1997 elections by visiting polling places without authority.

"Thus I would encourage all good Singaporeans, who feel indignant about this breach of the law and the subsequent obstruction of justice, to break the same law," he wrote.

Police found the opinion piece on October 24, five days after Ho posted it from home, and classified it as an attempt to incite violence or disobedience to the law that was likely to lead to a breach of peace.

"He was remanded for psychiatric examinations after he was charged about two weeks ago," a police official told AFP outside the court, calling Ho a "madman".

This is the first time a person had been charged for posting unfavourable content online after the government imposed Internet campaigning rules to regulate the use of the web in the run-up to the recent elections.

The rules ban non-party political websites registered with the industry regulator Singapore Broadcast Authority from carrying items which constitute campaigning for any political party or candidate.

It also banned opinion polls and online advertising during the elections that saw the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) sweeping 82 of the 84 seats and extending its unbroken rule since 1959 by another five years.

Ho refused to enter a plea in court Friday. The case has been adjourned for another two weeks but Ho told the judge that he had no plans to engage a defence lawyer.

The arrest has prompted an outcry from Singapore political groups and Internet commentators.

An SFD press statement released in Sydney said: "This is a first case for new draconian internet laws implemented by the government recently."

"Mr Ho is a well-known web-based political commentator ... his politically lucid and poignantly brave articles have obviously made him a political target," SFD added.


Group accuses company of spying for government

Associated Press
December 2, 2001

THE arrest of a man who posted anti-government essays on the Internet has raised questions about "spying activities" by state-linked telecommunications companies, a democracy group said Sunday (Dec 2) .
Singaporeans for Democracy said in a statement that they believe Pacific Internet spied on the Internet account of Robert Ho, who was arrested for posting articles online.

Pacific Internet (PCNTF) officials weren't available to comment on Sunday. Technical support staff didn't know how to reach company spokesmen or senior executives who could comment.

Ho, 51, was arrested after posting an Internet article that allegedly attempted to incite violence during the Nov. 3 general election.

Singaporeans for Democracy spokesman Jacob Low said Sunday that Ho had anonymously posted the article to its UK.-based Web site in mid-October. Ho used the pseudonym "lawless," Low said in a statement.

"How did the Singapore government and the police know where the article originated from," Low said. "We argue that Pacific Internet had already been spying on Mr. Ho's Internet account on behalf of the government."

The group noted that Pacific Internet is part owned by government-linked company, SembCorp, and raised questions about the Internet company's links to government officials and the family of the island's powerful founding father Lee Kuan Yew.

Ho Ching, the deputy chairman of SembCorp, is Lee's daughter-in-law. She is married to Lee's eldest son, Lee Hsien Loong, who is deputy prime minister, finance minister and head of the Monetary Authority of Singapore.

Ahead of this year's election, Singapore's parliament passed new controls on the use of the Internet for political campaigning.

Singapore, a wealthy Southeast Asian city-state, is often criticized for its tight controls on public speech, assembly and political activities.

Opposition politicians accuse the long-ruling People's Action Party of using strict media controls and public security laws to stifle dissent.

The party, which has dominated Singapore politics since the country's independence from neighboring Malaysia in 1965, won a landslide victory with more than 75 percent of the vote in the country's latest general election.

Leaders say their tight policies have kept Singapore an oasis of political stability in sometimes turbulent Southeast Asia, and have helped make Singapore one of the region's richest and safest countries.


Muslim activist to risk counter-suit against politicians

Agence France Presse
July 4, 2002

A MUSLIM activist at the centre of a criminal defamation investigation in Singapore over a series of political articles said Thursday, July 4, he would challenge senior politicians with a counter-suit.

Mohamad Zulfikar Shariff, who has expressed sympathy for suspected terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden and opposed Singapore's support for the US-led war on terrorism, said he objected to politicians tagging him an "extremist".

He said he would file criminal defamation suits "in two or three days".

Police have questioned Zulfikar this week over three articles posted last month on the website of the Muslim organisation Fateha, saying they were directed to carry out the defamation investigation by the attorney general.

"I told the police I took full responsibility for the three articles," Zulfikar, a former head of Fateha, told AFP, adding they were written because he was "trying to promote more transparency" in Singapore.

One article, "Is Yaacob Ibrahim a hypocrite", referred to the Muslim affairs minister, another questioned the government's ban on young Muslim girls wearing the tudung headscarf to school, and the third, "The Ho Ching miracle", covered the appointment of Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's wife as head of the powerful state investment arm Temasek Holdings.

Singapore's ruling People's Action Party (PAP), which has held a firm grip on power since independence in 1965, has regularly used defamation suits to silence critics and never lost a case.

In the process one former opposition politician has been bankrupted (Jeyaretnam), another (Tang Liang Hong) has gone into voluntary exile and been declared bankrupt in his absence, while a third, Chee Soon Juan, faces two defamation suits among several charges.

Zulfikar, a father of four sons aged one to six, said he was aware of the risks involved when challenging the government, but felt he had no choice.

"I understand the implications. I wanted to hold back but I don't feel I can do that. I could never live with myself," he said.

The police investigation began Tuesday, a day after Zulfikar was fined S$600 (US$240) for trespassing in a police station where he had gone in support of Chee who had been arrested for organising an illegal rally.

Outside the court Zulfikar reportedly said his conviction would add "more credibility to the accusation that Singapore is a police state".

In a second criminal defamation inquiry, police have seized a computer believed to have been the source of articles on the soc.culture.singapore newsgroup site entitled: "LKY and AlbinoDad beat even best lie detectors" and "Police inspector commits perjury knowing judge is bent".

Police said it was too early to say if the two incidents were connected, but Zulfikar told AFP he was only involved in articles on

The PAP has argued its regular use of defamation suits is necessary to defend reputations and maintain integrity.

But it has run into international criticism, including a charge by Amnesty International that lawsuits placed "unacceptable restrictions on the right of Singaporeans to freely hold and peacefully express their opinions".


Probe into Web articles spooks Net community

Police investigations into five allegedly defamatory postings leave
some users wondering if they would be targeted next

By Tan Tarn How

THE police probe into allegedly defamatory articles on has
spooked the Internet community here, with some wondering if they
would be the next to come under the microscope.

Observers also said the action was a setback for cyberspace and
public debate and would force more people to become anonymous online.

Does the crackdown on online forums spook you?

After news of the probe, a user, using the pseudonym Dodi Al-Fayed,
the late Princess Diana's boyfriend, posted this question
online: 'How exposed are we?'

Fellow member Cptmiller on the online forum Sammy boy's Coffee Shop ( sammyboymod ) fears his anonymity may be
insufficient cover: 'They can track us down one by one. They have all
resources under their control.

'There is a risk if we choose to post here.'

This flurry of worried messages followed news that former Fateha
chief Zulfikar Mohamad Shariff was being investigated for possible
criminal defamation for articles on the Muslim news website.

The articles were titled Is Yaacob Ibrahim a Hypocrite?; The Real
Reason For Forcing Muslim Girls to Remove the Tudung or Islamic
Headscarves in National Schools; and The Ho Ching Miracle.

The contents may criminally defame Muslim Affairs Minister Yaacob,
Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew, and Ms Ho, Temasek Holdings' executive

Police have also interviewed Mr Robert Ho, 51, who is unemployed, for
two articles that appeared last month in the Internet newsgroup
soc.culture.singapore that may have criminally defamed government
leaders and officials.

Sources say the investigation appears to be confined, for now at
least, to the five articles by the two men.

Some online forum participants, such as Nabrayl, verged on
paranoia: 'Heard the police are doing a spot check on those who carry
laptops around.

'Their laptops will be impounded for screening for possible
defamatory articles if found to have visited Sammy boy forum.'

Others offer advice on how to erase the computer contents from prying

But a participant called Jacys believed the rest were overreacting,
saying the police had better things to do than to look into other
people's computers at random.

There are some others who appear to share his view because
soc.culture.singapore and other forums continue to receive postings
on a variety of topics, including some that call certain ministers
and public figures bad names.

Meanwhile, The Straits Times understands that one website is trawling
its material to make sure they are not potentially libellous.

Britain-based law student Dharmendra Yadav, who runs the newsgroup
called Singapore Forum at , said the probe would
make even more people use pseudonyms on the Internet.

He noted that even before this, the editors of New Sintercom and
Sammyboy forum had refused to reveal their identities.

Dr Tan Chong Kee, founder of the original but defunct Sintercom,

He said it would also discourage people from giving opinions at other
channels such as the Government's Feedback Unit.

The executive committee of political activist group Think Centre
said: 'We sense we are witnessing a downward curve on the level of
tolerance in Government despite the presence of liberals such as Dr
Vivian Balakrishnan and Mr Raymond Lim.'

But it believes the defamation laws should apply for the Net as well.

Mr Yadav agreed, but said Singapore needed to align itself to the
current English law.

'Our defamation rules are so widely defined that it is difficult to
say when you will or will not be caught by them.'


SingTel plays the spying game SBS TV
April 11, 2001

TO the world of telecommunications, and the proposed takeover bid for Optus. Last week, Defence Minister Peter Reith announced an investigation into the security implications of the deal proposed by SingTel, the majority state-owned Singapore telecommunications company.
If SingTel's bid is successful, the company will own satellites which carry sensitive Australian military information, a fact that has many in the defence establishment concerned. According to critics of the Singapore government and its human rights record, SingTel and its methods warrant close examination.

REPORTER: SARAH FERGUSON: Going online in Singapore - a routine event in one of the most wired cities in the world.

DES BALL, STRATEGIC & DEFENCE CENTRE, ANU: But those same mechanisms are also used to monitor everything that those Singaporeans citizens listen to, and SingTel plays a very central role in that.

In 1999, Ann Lee, a student at the National University of Singapore, discovered the Home Affairs Ministry had hacked into her personal computer. Unusually for a Singaporean, she complained to the police. Their investigation showed she wasn't alone - 200,000 computers, half of all Singapore's Internet subscribers, had been secretly scanned. The Singapore telecommunications company, SingTel, claimed the whole operation was to look for a virus. Without telling their customers, they`d engaged Home Affairs to do the hacking.

DES BALL: These organisations in Singapore work extremely closely together - they`re not sort of compartmentalised like they are within Australia. SingTel, the Ministry of Home Affairs, the Singapore Telecommunications Bureau, many of them are the same people. They move back and forwards, and on operations like that, they would work very, very closely together.

SARAH FERGUSON: And now that company is bidding to take over Australia`s second-largest telco. There are obvious commercial advantages for Optus. But it`s the links between SingTel and a government regarded by many as intrusive, even repressive, that have caused questions to be raised about the bid.

RICHARD ALSTON, COMMUNICATIONS MINISTER: There will obviously be discussions to explore the nature and extent of the Singapore Government`s involvement, whether it`s an active or passive player, whether it directs the company in a way that we don`t do.

SARAH FERGUSON: Last week, SingTel`s CEO, Brigadier General Lee Hsien Yang, was in Sydney to talk up the deal.

BRIGADIER GENERAL LEE HSIEN YANG, SINGTEL CEO: SingTel will be the leading regional telco. There will be no other telco with a footprint that is comparable to us.

SARAH FERGUSON: Lee is part of Singapore`s ruling dynasty. He`s the son of the country`s founder, Lee Kuan Yew, and brother of Singapore`s present deputy PM. That may sound like nepotism, but the island`s rulers have never worried too much about appearances. Also prominent on the SingTel board is the present army chief of staff.

SARAH FERGUSON: : It`s been widely reported in Singapore that SingTel is used as a surveillance tool by the Singaporean government, and particularly against opponents of the Singaporean government. Is that true?

BRIGADIER GENERAL LEE HSIEN YANG: I think you would understand in all countries, there are rules by the authorities for monitoring activities in relation to proper procedures, and clearly whether we are in Australia, whether we`re in the US or the UK or Singapore, there is due process for this and if the authorities deem that there`s a reason to do it, we have to obey the laws of the country.

REPORTER: So SingTel is used as a surveillance tool against political opponents of the Singaporean Government?

BRIGADIER GENERAL LEE HSIEN YANG: I think that in any country, we`ll comply with the laws of country.

DES BALL: They actually lay out a variety of situations in which it is quite legal for them to do this, and when you add those situations up, it basically makes anything legal for them to do.

SARAH FERGUSON: Despite the importance of the deal, there`s been little debate about it so far in Australia. By far the strongest criticism has come from dissidents who know what the Singapore government is capable of.

FRANCIS SEOW, FORMER SINGAPORE SOLICITOR-GENERAL: You will be providing SingTel and the Singapore government not only a window of opportunity, but I think the Singapore government will have a very real say, in more ways than one, in what goes on in Australia.

SARAH FERGUSON: Francis Seow may have earned the right to sound a little paranoid. He was an establishment figure, an associate of PM Lee Kuan Yew. As Singapore`s Solicitor-General in the 1980s, he was part of the system.

FRANCIS SEOW: I know that their surveillance did take place when I was solicitor-general, but I put it down to being all these official activities, you know - proper surveillance being carried out for security reasons.

SARAH FERGUSON: The scales fell from his eyes when he started criticising the government in 1986 and became a target himself.

FRANCIS SEOW: I know that my office telephones were bugged; so was my home telephone. Confirmation of the fact came about when I was arrested and detained by the internal security department people and they told me exactly what, in fact, I said.

SARAH FERGUSON: Charged with seeking US support for the opposition, Francis Seow spent the next 72 days in prison, with long periods of intense interrogation.

FRANCIS SEOW: It was an eye-opener, if you like, to find that all these years these vast powers, these arbitrary powers, had been misused by the government.

SARAH FERGUSON: His family was also targeted.

FRANCIS SEOW: My son, his wife, his home was bugged and they followed him. They knew exactly what he was doing.

SARAH FERGUSON: His son Ashleigh, also a lawyer, became active in the political opposition to the ruling party.

SINGAPOREAN NEWSCAST: Mr Ashleigh Seow spoke on town councils and how ordinary people can also run them.

ASHLEIGH SEOW: More than half of our society has got nothing to do with the government or the PAP. We ordinary Singaporeans do not need the PAP.

SARAH FERGUSON: Eventually, though, both father and son went into exile. Ashleigh moved to Perth, but even in Australia, he says, the surveillance continued.

ASHLEIGH SEOW: On one occasion, somebody put photographs of my home and my car in my letterbox, which I interpreted to be a reminder or a tip-off, if you like, that the Singapore security services still considered me a Singaporean and a subject of interest for them.

SARAH FERGUSON: Surprisingly, perhaps, he says SingTel would be unlikely to jeopardise its profits here by spying on Australians, but adds the takeover should be assessed on moral grounds.

ASHLEIGH SEOW: Morally, you might find it repugnant to deal with a company or with a government which systemically invades the privacy and human rights of its citizens.

SARAH FERGUSON: The Optus CEO, Chris Anderson - who, to declare his interest, stands to make $10 million from the deal - says he doubts SingTel was ever used against the government`s critics.

CHRIS ANDERSON, CEO OPTUS: I doubt if it's so. In fact, like all telecommunication companies - British Telecom, AT&T, Telstra in Australia, and Optus, and I`m sure SingTel - we obey the law, and if there are various government requirements or surveillance requirements imposed by government, like any carrier, SingTel would carry them out.

SARAH FERGUSON: But the Australian Defence Department has some specific security concerns. One of Optus`s most valued assets is its communications satellite. Through it passes not only international phone calls and internet traffic, but 70 percent of the Defence Department`s secret signals traffic.

DES BALL: This is of the utmost seriousness. This comes to the heart of the security of Australia`s telecommunications - not just the telephone calls of private citizens, but the most confidential, sensitive communications of Australian government authorities, which are now, potentially at least, at some risk.

BRIGADIER GENERAL LEE HSIEN YANG: I think we have said that the satellites are a sensitive issue. We recognise it, and we will satisfactory the authorities to make sure that whatever arrangements that are in place today with Cable & Wireless as a shareholder would continue to remain so.

SARAH FERGUSON: So are you currently talking to the Australian security and defence departments about those security issues?

BRIGADIER GENRAL LEE HSIEN YANG: I think that's an ongoing discussion which we'll have. We believe that any concerns that they have, we'll try and address them.

SARAH FERGUSON: But the issue is also one of protecting sensitive technology. Optus and the Defence Department are building a new-generation satellite to be launched next year. The satellite will carry secure communications between Australian military ships and aircraft, monitored from the Optus earth station at Belrose.

DES BALL: The Optus C-series of satellites really is leading-edge, global, worldwide, leading-edge technology, particularly with the KU-band and X-band transponders, and there must be a very real fear that Singapore could do reverse technology engineering - in other words, there would be technology leakage.

SARAH FERGUSON: In terms of the C-series satellite, which I understand is under construction in the US, given that that has such a large defence payload, doesn`t that offer some concerns to Australia about it coming under the management of a Singaporean government-owned company?

CHRIS ANDERSON: It won`t come under the management of anything. It comes under the management of Optus in arrangements with the Defence Department. But just as SingTel is majority-owned by the Singaporean Government, Telstra is majority-owned by the Australian Government, and they operate very well offshore. So it`s not an issue.

SARAH FERGUSON: Brigadier General Lee will want to convince the Australian government of just that, though he`ll have a harder time trying to argue that SingTel is free of government influence. Though Singapore might look like a bastion of free enterprise, the company that controls the island`s communications is 78 percent government-owned - a government which, according to Francis Seow, would have a real vested interest in the deal.

FRANCIS SEOW: Optus is actually a security industry, and it`s one of great use and benefit, advantage, to the Singapore Government.

ISARAH FERGUSON: t`s a view that puts a rather different light on SingTel's catchy jingle.

TV ADVERTISEMENT: You're ahead because you can always be reached, no matter how far. You`re ahead because you can speak straight from the heart.

SARAH FERGUSON: Just don`t say anything you wouldn`t want Big Brother to hear.


Web of intrigue

Sydney Morning Herald. April 30, 2000

The freedom of the Internet threatens Asia information-controlling authoritarian states. Yet, as Louise Williams reports, they also want to be at the forefront of the IT revolution sweeping the world.

INFORMATION is power, or so the enduring dictators of history have understood. The authoritarian, or quasi-authoritarian regimes, of the post-colonial era in Asia have understood well the relationship between control over information and political power.

In so many of Asia's capitals - from Beijing to Jakarta, from Rangoon to Hanoi, the scene was much the same. In obscure back rooms, rows of desks were lined up, their surfaces rubbed smooth by years of diligent effort, as the faceless agents of authoritarian states dutifully pored over newspapers and magazines.

Carefully, the swarms of censors cut out "subversive" articles from abroad, one by one, or bent low over "offensive" captions and photographs and blacked them out by hand.

They laboured over their own newspapers, too, erasing hints of rebellion and allusion to unpalatable truths tucked within the reams of propaganda which served as their societies' only sources of information.

When the Soeharto regime came to power in Indonesia in the mid-1960s it shipped 10,000 of its artists, writers, unionists and activists off to a barren, isolated island called Buru where it imposed total censorship. Inmates, many of whom spent more than a decade eking out a living from the poor soil, were denied reading material and access to the tools of writing - pens, pencils, paper, typewriters - so that they would be unable to transmit their ideas even among themselves.

Take a leap forward three decades to last May when the IT Security Unit of Singapore's Ministry of Home Affairs quietly wandered into the files of 200,000 private computers in what was later explained as an effort to trace a damaging virus.

The breach was detected by a private computer enthusiast, forcing the government to announced that SingNet, the Internet arm of the largely state-owned telecommunications giant, SingTel, had been "wrong" to use the state security apparatus to conduct the scan without first seeking permission from individual users. Better security was promised in the future.

But for the citizens of a nation accustomed to government intervention in almost every aspect of their daily lives, the scanning scare had already aptly demonstrated the potential for anyone of their business or home computers to be externally monitored without their knowledge.

Similarly, in 1994 an over-zealous technocrat had instructed another local Internet provider to scan 80,000 email accounts of university researchers, an unlikely group to be specifically targeted in a remote hunt for pornographic material.

Within the high-rise towers of Singapore's economic success sit hundreds of thousands of computers in one of the world's most technologically advanced nations. Recent government statistics claim 42 per cent of Singaporean households are linked to the Internet, and 59 per cent have home computers, the highest participation rate in Asia. In Australia 22 per cent of homes have Internet access (47 per cent of them with home computers) and in Japan 13 per cent (42 per cent with home computers).

Just completed is a nationwide broadband Internet system, called Singapore One, delivering bedazzling at-home services such as immediate access to traffic speeds on any street, thanks to global positioning systems set in all the nation's taxis, online schools, movies on demand and live news which the system "remembers" and can be rewound.

Conventional narrow-band Internet connections, such as the ones most of us use, are free, various government agencies, libraries and private companies offer banks of PCs to anyone who walks in off the street and regular community education programs are held to encourage Singaporeans to embrace the IT age.

For decades Singapore has fascinated political observers with its apparently contradictory mix of free-wheeling market capitalism and political controls; with information controls to match.

Tough press licensing regulations, internal security provisions and the use of punitive defamation laws have fashioned a local media which often looks and sounds like a government mouthpiece, and a society built around the smooth swoosh of escalators within expansive shopping malls, not the abrasive clamour of public debate.

At present, the Singapore government blocks 100 Internet sites, but admits this is only a token, and highly ineffective, effort to control a technology which is the equivalent of information chaos.

The Internet is clearly the most profound challenge yet for national governments which have used information control as one of the key pillars to maintaining political power.

And now, as Singapore gears up to transform its economy into one of the world's key IT hubs, it is proving a crucial test case for other like-minded regimes in the region - China, Vietnam and Malaysia, for example - as to how governments might handle the threat from cyberspace.

Has information technology - which has taken the control of communication outside national borders and thrown it into an anarchic global arena - already effectively defeated censorship?

As such, will the power of the remaining governments of the region which continue to use censorship as an important political tool inevitably be eroded?

Or will governments be able to limit the impact of the Internet by using "national security" laws, building higher and higher "firewalls" or turning the technology back on its users, employing it as a giant surveillance device?

Already one regional government has fallen, with the help of the Internet as a mobilising tool for student demonstrations and a source of daily alternative information: the Soeharto government of Indonesia in May 1998.

Everyday in Malaysia, opposition opinions speed across the Net; sites such as offer the juiciest rumours around on corrupt business deals with personal scandals to match.

From the United States, China is bombarded with anti-Beijing propaganda on the Net; senior politburo members feature prominently on the mailing lists just to demonstrate that the tables are being turned on a regime which has specialised in propaganda itself. Vietnam is busy trying to screen all incoming and outgoing email through a central censor. Hanoi has bought "firewalls" designed in the US for corporate use and installed them across the national network.

Yet in cybercafes, groups of computer geeks have discovered they can occasionally breach them by simply hitting cancel over and over again.

The hermit state of Burma has responded by banning the Internet altogether, choosing autarchy for its already impoverished citizens over the risk information technology poses to the military regime.

In Communist Party-controlled Laos, the official local newspaper recently made a serious tactical error in the battle for its readers' minds. A group of Lao dissidents in the US had "borrowed" the newpaper's masthead and set up an opposition version of the daily news, posting it on the Web. The Vientiane Times disowned the copycat with outraged announcements in its own pages, merely sending more and more curious readers off to the Internet.

While the power of information might be a grave threat to many of Asia's rulers, it is also economic growth.

Modern economies require sophisticated communication technology and the transmission of sophisticated ideas. Clumsy attempts at information control have been recorded along the way in the most authoritarian of states.

The invention of the facsimile prompted Hanoi's communist leaders to order each outgoing and incoming fax to pass physically through the hands of the censors, who sat out of sight upstairs in "fax centres" waiting for trays of letters to be sent up using pulleys. In Burma, where fax machines must be registered before use, the acting honorary consul for several European countries, Leo Nichols, is still languishing in jail, convicted of owning an unregistered machine.

But the spectacular advances in information technology have rendered the censors of the past, with their quaint armoury of scissors and thick black pens, and their "secret reading rooms", obsolete. New battle lines are being drawn for control of the Internet, but the speed and mode of transmission and the sheer volume of information flashing around the globe means this is a much more difficult line to hold.

In the evolution of information controls the Internet is not just the next incremental development in information technology.

"It is an astonishingly large, quantum leap," said Geoff Huston, one of Australia's foremost Internet experts and a member of the Internet Architecture Board.

"All the other forms of communication are simple, one-trick ponies compared with the Internet. The telephone is just for voice, TV is just for TV, but the architecture of the Internet means it is for any of these things - sound, images, video - and the network itself doesn't interfere with what is moving across it."

For national governments built on information control the challenge is immense, argued Roland Rich, co-editor of the recent book Losing Control: Freedom of the Press in Asia (Asia Pacific Press) and director of the Centre for Democratic Institutions at the Australian National University.

"The Internet allows people to bypass the political leadership of the country and to speak to each other directly. It is by definition anarchic, and of course it is often inaccurate, but nevertheless it gives people freedom of expression.

"What we are seeing in the region is a spectrum of responses from governments that fear the Internet, from outright bans in North Korea and Burma, to a range of ways of attempting to control what information is available on the Net.

"China has recently announced all sites must be registered and is using criminal laws to try to control access. Singapore has adopted a more sophisticated approach by working through the servers to enter people's individual computers."

National governments have built systems of information control around national borders and using national telecommunications systems.

The Internet is borderless, allowing groups from outside to beam message into individual nations. It is also an English-based technology dominated by Western ideas.

Most of the huge volumes of information whizzing around the world is not political, nor of any interest to governments or most Net users.

Some is of interest to censors because it exceeds the limits of moral tolerance within societies, such as pornography and violence. And some of it is of interest because it is perceived to undermine government's hold of power, either by promoting opposing ideas or by specifically seeking to mobilise opposition.

"Clearly the most comfortable situation for a one-party state is to monopolise all information. But the problem with the information-based economy is that new ideas will be lateral. You can't try to corral information flow so that you only let through ideas about food production technology, for example," said Rich.

"The problem with 20th-century ideas of information control is that the 21st-century economy is based on information flow. The same problems we had with central planning and control over the industrial economy in the 20th century will recur with the central control of the information economy in the 21st century."

Technically, said Huston, the concept of control contradicted the very structure of the Internet.

"With the telephone, the handset was just a piece of plastic and the lines in the middle were doing the work. The Internet is essentially a dumb network, it is the computers at each end that matter, the network itself just shifts data around the world without knowing what is going on.

"To control the packets of information on the Internet would be a bit like trying to find out what was inside individual cars by controlling the road system; you would have to stop each car, open it and look inside and so the efficiency and free flow of your traffic would be wrecked."

In general, private corporations use "firewalls" which screen out all Net sites, except those being used for their business, partly to stop employees wasting time and partly to protect their commercial interests. Firewall systems used by national governments usually allow access to the Web with a specific list of exclusions, which requires the IT security agents to know what they are looking for. These systems are easy to subvert with tricks as simple as renaming, then "spamming" the new site to tens of thousands of users.

"If there is one party on one side of a firewall and another party on the other side and they want to talk to each other and they try quite hard, they will probably subvert it," said Huston.

"The best solution is not necessarily deploying technology to answer a social problem. If the wall is made higher then people will build a higher ladder.

"And blocking sites attaches to them the cache of being forbidden fruit and then the game of subversion becomes even more important than the content."

James Gomez knows he is being watched. But, for the 35-year-old former student activist and political scientist from the University of Singapore, the Net is a "soap box" which wasn't available to him in the past.

His "politics21" Web site talks about vague democratic ideas for Singapore; pushing the boundaries of acceptable political challenges to the government but staying within legal limits of various internal and national security regulations.

His main beef these days is that Singapore has become such a cowed and complacent society over the years that censorship, as such, really isn't necessary any more because everyone self-censors as a matter of course.

"I recognise that when you go on the Net you are being watched. In that sense it becomes a skewed medium because it allows your opponents to read you and it makes surveillance easier for regimes which rely on monitoring individuals," he said.

"But the Net is an open space, you don't have to compete for space in a newspaper or magazine, for example, you have all the space you want."

In Singapore, he said, "everyone is playing the game", the authorities and their critics alike. Government critics believe some anti-government material is posted by the intelligence services, just to monitor who reads it. Critics, too, make sure they send their views straight to intelligence officials, just to demonstrate they know how to find them.

Singapore has always been an interesting case study in Asia.

Its founding prime minister, Lee Kwan Yew, successfully promoted the idea of "Asian values" in politics in the 1980s and early '90s by arguing that Western democracies did not understand the structure of Asian societies nor what political systems were appropriate for them.

Lee's view was essentially that developing economies could not afford the disruption that individual rights of free speech entailed. "What is the use of screaming in the slums," he was fond of saying, singling out the democratic Philippines as an example of the failure of a Western political model in Asia which had brought only dire poverty to the people.

In Singapore, as in Malaysia and Indonesia, Taiwan and South Korea, individual rights were suspended in the name of economic development; the right of an individual to housing, employment and food was greater than the right of an individual to criticise the regime in power. Communist Party-controlled regimes in China and Indo-China felt no such compunction to respond to their Western critics.

Naturally, combined with economic success came the downside of regimes who are accountable only to themselves; in varying degrees corruption, a growing gap between the rich and poor and systems of advancement based on connections not merit have marred Asia's one-party states.

Since the mid-1980s the political map of Asia has changed dramatically; with pro-democracy forces pushing out authoritarian governments in the Philippines, South Korea, Thailand, Indonesia and Taiwan, leaving Lee's neat theory of "Asian values" looking somewhat frayed or at least out of date.

Singapore in 2000, said Associate Professor Bernard Tan, chairman of the National Internet Advisory Committee, "is very concerned about what is coming across the Internet".

"But, at the same time we want to make sure that the Internet flowers as an industry and it is very important that content regulation is done in an enlightened way so that Internet usage grows."

Singapore's initial plans for heavy-handed controls on the Net so alarmed IT companies that its national ambition of becoming an IT hub - and especially a showcase of e-commerce - seemed under threat.

"We have advised the government to use a 'light touch', they don't have to look at every page every day," Tan said of why the regulations were loosened to block only 100 sites.

At Singapore's high-tech Science Park, officials are keen to explain that the Western press has exaggerated censorship on the Net. The discussion is steered towards non-political blocks on pornography and violence to protect children and gee-whiz demonstrations of the extraordinary power of Singapore One.

Surveillance, as a control tool, is not discussed. George Yeo, Singapore's Trade and Industry Minister, told a recent conference in Hong Kong: "The Internet will reduce government's ability to restrain you to a set of behaviour. We just symbolically block off a few sites to make a point."

Yeo also told the conference that Singapore had been advising teams of senior officials from China on Internet controls. Vietnam is also believed to have sent officials to Singapore.

"I was a student leader 10 years ago, but I didn't have this opportunity to embrace political issues through this medium, so now we have to milk it for what it is worth," said Gomez.

The question, though, is whether the availability of new ideas will be translated into new political challenges to the incumbent regime.

In Singapore, where rapid economic growth has turned a tiny island ringed by mangrove swamps into a modern city state in three decades, complacency is high. Singapore's citizens are relatively wealthy, the state provides housing, health care, education and a range of public services; opposition figures have a lot to lose.

"The idea that by simply availing yourself of the Internet you are availing yourself of subversive material is far from the truth. And even if you are accessing subversive material people have to decide whether or not they want use it," said Associate Professor Garry Rodan, from the Asia Research Centre at Murdoch University.

"To challenge a regime people must first be in a position to decide, that on balance, they have little to lose," said Rodan.

"I am the Web master of, a Web site which supports the process of political and social reform in Malaysia. FreeMalaysia is one of 50 such sites on the Internet," said an anonymous letter sent to the pro-government New Straits Times newpaper in Kuala Lumpur late last year.

"As a conduit of free expression, the Internet has played a pivotal role in the recent political awakening of Malaysia. One measure of the impact ... is the government's increasing aggressiveness against the 'reformasi' [reform] phenomenon and those supporting it."

Shortly before the letter was sent, freeMalaysia was labelled a "threat to national security" by the Mahathir government and the ruling UNMO party announced it had identified 48 Web sites containing "slanderous and defamatory" material which would be investigated.

FreeMalaysia promises to provide "the sort of free speech which is next to impossible to find ANYWHERE in the traditional print and broadcast media".

But Malaysia has not shut the Net down.

Malaysia, like Singapore, has big high-tech ambitions; in Mahathir's case a $US20 billion "multimedia super corridor" which is supposed to end at the Petronas Twin Towers, the world's tallest buildings in downtown Kuala Lumpur. International telecommunications companies have expressed their concerns about potential Net control and the "super corridor" is lagging well behind schedule, prompting Mahathir to announce that the Net would be free.

Instead, in December 1998, the Malaysian government ordered cybercafes to register users and provide that information to police.

And, unlike Singapore, where the political waters have been virtually becalmed for decades, Malaysia is in the throes of a bitter political tussle over jailed former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim. The Net, political observers say, now serves as the main source of news for much of the middle class; a hotch potch of scandal, opinion, rumour, innuendo and truth. As such, the staid broadsheets like the New Straits Times can simply be ignored. Mahathir has the upper hand but a significant, educated opposition has formed around Anwar and a new "uncensored" online newspaper Malaysiakini is already boasting 50,000 hits a day.

Less than two years ago, the Soeharto regime in Indonesia was suddenly confronted with the power of the Net. For years, Indonesian oppositionists in exile in the US had been cobbling together critical stories and sending them back home to a confidential list of users. In a nation with few computers, the stories were photocopied and distributed by hand. A crude anti-Soeharto home page, with a picture of the old man defaced with blood, was set up by intelligence officials to catch those on the Net.

Most ignored the warning that anyone accessing the site could be tracked by military intelligence.

In truth - with the national economy in free-fall and millions of new unemployed on the streets - the Net could not be controlled by an underpaid, impoverished Ministry of Information, itself barely equipped with typewriters. Instead, the Net and mobile phones became the mobilising instruments of student demonstrations; times and places were posted as well as appeals to business people, who could see the end coming, to show what side they were on and send food and water for the long, hot protests.

"Power grows out of the barrel of a gun," said Chairman Mao Zedong of the success of China's communist revolution.

"Yet it is equally accurate to say that power grows out of, and is sustained by, the nib of a pen," argued Hong Kong-based China commentator, Willy Wo-Lap Lam.

"Propaganda, through the heavy-handed manipulation of the media," Lam said, has been just as powerful in upholding the "mandate of heaven" of the Chinese Communist Party, as the army and the police.

By late last year there were an estimated 4 million Chinese online, a tiny percentage of the population, but enough to have attracted considerable attention from the security apparatus.

Many Chinese, for example, knew about the $US10 billion smuggling scandal that was unfolding in Xiamen because they read about it on the Web, while local newspapers were banned from reporting on it. As such, even rumour becomes a potential "accountability" tool for a regime which cannot be challenged at the polls.

From Beijing have come all kinds of bellicose statements such as claims that the Net is being used to leak "state secrets" and spread "harmful information", thus justifying the establishment of a committee which is supposed to have the ability to identify any individual Net user.

Just how that can be done, technically, is a bigger question.

Monitoring equipment has been installed on all of China's main Web sites, all Chinese portals employ staff to weed out politically critical statements from chat rooms, Shanghai's authorities recently shut down 127 unregistered Internet cafes and individuals have been jailed for crimes such as passing on email addresses.

But, while China has blocked sites put up by the US Government - Radio Free Asia and the Voice of America, for example - it has failed to shut off the thousands of sites set up by Chinese dissidents in the US and other parts of the world.

Consider the artful dodging of the US-based VIP Reference, a "subversive" Internet magazine regularly sent to at least 300,000 addresses in China, including the state security units. It includes political news censored by the mainland government, information about dissidents and exposes of factional struggles within the party leadership. To escape detection the New York-and Washington-based organisers switch providers every 24 hours and recipients are asked not to forward the files inside China where they can be monitored.

"We want to destroy the system of censorship over the Internet," VIP editor Li Hongkuan was quoted as saying by the Kyodo news service last year.

"The Internet will affect China more deeply than other societies because China is a closed society and the Internet is an open technology," said Guo Liang, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and one of China's most prominent writers on the Net, in a recent interview.

"In 1989, I was in Tiananmen Square. We failed then. The Internet won't fail."

According to Willy Wo-Lap Lam: "It seems fortress CCP [Chinese Communist Party] cannot withstand the winds of change for long. government propaganda has increasingly lost credibility ... as more urban intellectuals have access to satellite television and, in particular, dissident Web sites.

"The growing diversity and irreverence of the alternative media is paving the way for the end of one-party dictatorship."

"The face of Asia has been changed, even scarred, considerably by technology. Why then, the euphoria over the power of the Internet?" asked Phar Kim Beng, who teaches conflicts in modern history at Harvard University, in a recent essay.

"Can the Internet upstage the cumulative impacts of steam, electricity and nuclear power combined? More pointedly, can the Net change Asian politics and society?

"This appears to be a tall order. The Internet, after all, lacks the defining dimension of power called coercion. More precisely, the Internet does not possess what states otherwise have in abundance: the monopoly of violence.

"Be that as it may, it would be myopic for anyone to deny the revolutionary power of the Net."

Phar argued that the Net has both undermined the restrictions of geography by making physical travel unnecessary and enlarged the scope of political participation by offering cheap, fast communication to all sorts of disparate groups.

The Net is only a tool. But, said Rodan, it now lies at the nexus of the desire of nations to achieve economic growth in a globalised economy and at the same time maintain political control.

Rodan believes that technical controls and the use of fear of arrest or surveillance can only be partly successful unless governments can offer their citizens improving living conditions or other incentives not to rock the boat. As such, the impact of the Net will be uneven and the success of governments to control the information coming across it will be just as varied.

"Regimes that don't have coherent and efficient bureaucracies and don't have effective means of co-opting the population are at greatest risk from the Internet," he said.

"On its own, the Net is of no strategic use. Its power only comes alive when there is a band of active citizen groups to promote it. The power of the Net to change Asia - where three quarters of the population still survives on $US1 a day - should be tempered with realistic expectations," said Phar.

The power of the Net, he argues, is "corrosive" and cannot be expected to undermine authoritarian regimes instantly.

"That said, the Net is here to stay. It has already transformed the economies of the US and Europe. Given time, Asia will have to live with the power of the Internet."

Published in the SydneyMorning Herald April 30, 2000.


Speaking your mind online without fear

Computer Times
August 22, 2001

Dr Tan Chong Kee, founder of Sintercom (Singapore Internet Community), talks to ALFRED SIEW, about freedom of statement on the Net, active citizenry and the government's view of him

RELATED: New Sintercom site

TO most Singaporeans, Dr Tan Chong Kee, 38, is the Sintercom guy -- the man who created one of the first websites about Singapore which allowed the discussion of issues in an open forum.
He was an activist who put his name to his views and proved that honest opinion is alive on the Internet. Since the 80s, he has been online being connected to JANet (Joint Academic Network) in England. He obtained his first degree in computer science and later a doctorate in literature.

In 1994, when he was studying overseas, he was inspired by the soc.culture.singapore newsgroups, where people were beginning to discover the freedom offered by the Internet. But on newsgroups, messages were deleted after a couple of weeks. He wanted a place where postings could be kept permanently.

Thus Sintercom was born on the Web, hosted on multiple servers all over the world, such as at Stanford University where he studied for his doctorate.

Dr Tan has been down many corridors of trial and error.

He and the site's co-founders put their names to the project to show that it was possible to discuss issues seriously on the Net without fear of reprisal. He also wanted to show it was not a fly-by- night operation.

In 1995, top civil servant Philip Yeo messaged him to meet up while the former was in San Francisco.

The Internet advocate offered to host Sintercom for free on a Singaporean server.

After moving the content here, Dr Tan obtained the domain name. In the next five years or so, it became a hotbed for discussions ranging from government policies to where the best food places were. It was even praised by the government and was linked from the government-run Singapore InfoMap (

Recently, Dr Tan was in the news again. In July, the Singapore Broadcasting Authority (SBA) asked Sintercom to register itself as a political website despite earlier assurances that it did not have to. About a week ago, Dr Tan announced that he was shutting down Sintercom.

He shares his thoughts and experiences with Computer Times here.

The interview

Should the Internet be regulated?

At the start, there were absolutely no regulations. Regulations would form by convention, that is, what users do everyday would become the norm. The Net cannot be easily regulated by simply blocking a website. When the Singapore Broadcasting Authority first told me it could block my website, I told them I could move my content to servers at Yale and Stanford universities. SBA should continue to be a content promoter instead of being a content regulator. If young Singaporeans are to have a stake in the country, they must not fear speaking up.

Dr Tan hopes someone more resourceful will take over.

Does the Internet promote free statement?

Here in Singapore, we don't say many things because we are afraid that someone's listening. We're always looking over our shoulders when we say something sensitive. But the moment we know it's okay to do so, we speak up. The Internet gives users that freedom through anonymity. Sintercom was created to let people say "that's what I think".

What about being responsible on the Net?

There are untrue things being said on the Internet. But on Sintercom, we get a lot of sensible arguments. What you post on the Net is open to scrutiny and debate. On the Net, people are not afraid to speak up -- expect a public rebuttal if you talk nonsense.

Why do you do what you do?

I don't want political power. I don't want to play the game. I am a nobody, but I care about what is going on in society. I don't want to join a political party, and I don't believe it's a requirement if you want to be an active citizen. If the government raises the water prices, then I'm affected. Do I have to join an opposition party to question the decision? From the start, I've been very frank with the SBA during our meetings. They are frank with me as well. I did not dissent from its viewpoint just because I had to. I would praise a policy if it was good. I told them I wanted to encourage lively debate about Singapore issues and it agreed with the objective as long as debates were responsible.

What were Sintercom's proud moments?

During the last general elections of 1997, Sintercom reported rally speeches and poll results as they were announced. We demonstrated it could be done online.

Also, in 1996, when SBA was drafting guidelines for the Internet which came to be known as the Internet Class Licence Scheme and the Internet Code of Practice, we campaigned hard to tell them it was not a good draft. At first, content which would create disaffection against the government was banned on websites.

When we appealed to people to speak up against it, hundreds of Singaporeans wrote in with their real names. You can say we made a little bit of headway there -- in having free speech on the Internet. The National Internet Advisory Committee met afterwards and recommended changes for the second draft. On top of that, I'm also quite sure we had the first online Singlish dictionary in the world, back in 1995!

What now for Sintercom?

The website will be closed down. If someone takes over, it will be a new website with a new name.

Registering Sintercom with SBA means that I have to be responsible for everything posted on the website, and SBA's Code of Practice has clauses like "against the public interest, public order or national harmony" and "offends against good taste or decency. "

I feel a lot of content in Sintercom can already be interpreted as unacceptable. If I put up similar content in future, I may get into trouble. That is why I sent in already published content to SBA for clearance, so there can be some certainty to what the law says. But SBA would only say "all Internet content providers whether registered with SBA or not, are required to exercise judgment and ensure that the contents on their websites comply with the SBA Internet Code of Practice".

That means the only way to comply is to always err on the side of caution. But closing down is a personal decision. This problem can be overcome with more ingenuity, but I was too tired to go on. I used to take eight hours to design and debug the website. More recently, it was two hours to update and read the pages, as well as do the mailing list. Now, I feel relieved that I have more time to do my own things -- like earn more money!

What did you gain from your experience?

There are bound to be passionate people in every country, people who want to be active. Whether the system is ready for them is another thing. Here, I found there are lots of institutional roadblocks for people who want to be active. The government wants you to volunteer, but I feel they don't want you to be critical and try to change the system through civil society activism. It's not a tenable setup.

So you lose heart when you feel what you've done is not getting anywhere.

In a way, I feel my project has failed -- because it has become so hard to go on doing what I've been doing. Maybe someone more resourceful can step in and take over.