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Cybercensor in Singapore

NY Times, November 8, 1995, Editorial

Cyberspace in Singapore. The Internet Threat to Official

"The Internet is like fire," Mr. Yeo said. "If you don't 
learn how to control it, it will burn you." In Singapore, 
a little democracy can be a dangerous thing.

Singapore. From his 37th-floor office overlooking
Singapore Strait, George Yeo can survey the oil
refineries and bustling dockyards that helped make
Singapore the trade and financial center of Southeast
Asia. But the view that interests the Minister of
Information and the Arts these days is not the vista
beyond his window. It is the image on the computer
terminal at his desk. Mr. Yeo, like the rest of
Singapore's top politicians, wants his country to be a
leader in the manufacture and use of computer technology
without relinquishing the Government's chokehold on the
dissemination of information in Singapore.

Singapore's effort to find a balance point will be
closely watched by other Asian countries that mix
capitalist economics with authoritarian politics. The
difficulty was underlined last week. Even as Mr. Yeo
worried about the perils of the Internet, the Government
announced it was relocating 500 industrial enterprises to
make room for the development of advanced electronics
manufacturing plants.

Contradictions like that abound in Singapore, a country
that eludes simple classification. With its gleaming
skyscrapers and shopping arcades, it can seem like Dallas
transplanted to the South China Sea. Conversely, the
dominance of one political party and the presence of a
paternalistic Government can make it feel like a remnant
of the Soviet bloc. Salman Rushdie's "Satanic Verses" and
Cosmopolitan magazine are banned, yet the city's largest
bookstore stocks a selection of contemporary literature
and the works of Chee Soon Juan, Singapore's opposition

Singapore's gaudy prosperity challenges the American
faith that individual liberty is essential for a vital
marketplace. George Yeo is the personification of that
challenge. Born in Singapore in 1954, educated at
Cambridge University and Harvard Business School, he is
disdainful of the cacophony and untidiness of American
democracy. Like Lee Kuan Yew, the architect and ruler of
modern Singapore, he believes the vulnerabilities of his
ethnically divcrse city-state can be best handled by a
strong government that encourages a sense of community
and limits individual rights.

But controlling semiconductors is not the same as
controlling newspapers, television networks or political
opponents. With the aggressive use of libel and slander
statutes Singapore's leaders have intimidated the
newspapers that publish here, including The International
Herald Tribune. To control television broadcasting, the
Government has banned household use of satellite dishes.
Some political pluralism is permitted, but no one doubts
the primacy of Mr. Lee's People's Action Party.

Recognizing the risk of bottling up public demand for
foreign television broadcasts, Singapore's leaders are
wiring the country for cable television. That way viewers
will receive many more channels, including MTV, while the
Government will still be able to screen out programming
it finds objectionable. It is the quintessential
Singapore solution.

Singapore's approach to controlling cyberspace is equally
ingenious, but harder to enforce. Mr. Yeo, essentially,
hopes to control the Internet by embracing it. He is
encouraging use of the Internet by equipping schools with
computers, and establishing systems that allow
Singaporeans to link up with the computer network by
dialing a local phone number.

The catch is that the Government will be able to monitor
use of the Internet that goes through local servers, and
is already intervening to block material it considers
pornographic. The Government has blunted an uncensored
Internet forum on Singapore political life by assembling
a group of users who make sure the Government's views are

Mr. Yeo concedes that more sophisticated and affluent
users can outflank many of his defenses by dialing into
the Internet through foreign phone systems. His purpose,
he says, is to lay down markers for citizens, expecting
that most will abide by them. "The Internet is like
fire," he said. "If you don't learn how to control it, it
will burn you." In Singapore, a little democracy can be
a dangerous thing.

Philip Taubman