December 2nd, 2008
When I joined a group of bloggers lobbying for internet freedom, I abstained from one of my peers’ proposals: that the government end its symbolic ban on 100 pornographic and religious-extremist websites. I had no quarrel with my fellow bloggers’ logic. However, I feared that our proposal to un-ban the 100 sites would be exploited by our ideological opponents. They might paint our group as a decadent pro-pornography lobby, thus reducing whatever little chance that our other important proposals would receive fair hearing. Political prudence demanded that rationality and reason be suppressed, or so I thought.
You can imagine my pleasant surprise when the government-appointed AIMS panel suggested in its consultation paper, and now recommends in its final report today, that the government do away with the Banned 100. Sure, the proposal is packed with caveats: AIMS wants the ban lifted only after its proposed new Coordinating Agency for the Protection of Minors is satisfied that other measures, such as voluntary filtering by households, are working. Nevertheless, given my own discomfort with the bloggers’ unbanning proposal, I can hardly deny that the AIMS report is bolder on this point than I dared to expect.
AIMS is chaired by my former big boss at Singapore Press Holdings, Cheong Yip Seng. Although hardly a household name, he holds something of a national record. As editor in chief of SPH’s English and Malay newspapers from 1987 to 2006, he is the only person in Singapore who has headed a major establishment institution over a period that straddled the governments of all three of our prime ministers. Neither craven yes-men nor hot-headed reformers in the Singapore system can boast such a record. Somehow, he kept himself and his newspapers relevant enough to the changing environment. There are many more vocal commentators than Cheong, but few more astute readers of the political landscape and what is possible within it.
To me, this is a key reason why the AIMS report is, on the whole, an important milestone. In addition to reviewing the need for the Banned 100, Cheong’s panel recommends: doing away with the registration requirement for political and religious websites; eventually repealing the Films Act’s ban on party political films; and liberalizing the use online tools during elections. In the details and justifications, these moves fall short of the proposals of Bloggers 13, as our group of bloggers came to be known. (See, for example, Ng E-Jay’s thorough critique in his SGPolitics blog.) But, they are much, much more than what we would have dared to predict a year ago.
More significant than the nitty-gritty of the recommendations are some of their underlying principles.
First, there is a welcome move towards rational, research-based responses, rather than knee-jerk reactions to one lobby group or another. This is most evident in AIMS’ discussion of the Banned 100. AIMS clearly shares the concerns of those who want to protect moral values. However, it counter-intuitively – but correctly, in my view – argues that the Banned 100 gives parents and teachers a false sense of security that government can take care of the problem, and may actually retard the development of media literacy and community responses such as the use of filtering software in homes.
Second, it makes clear that the old because-we-say-so justification for political censorship is no longer acceptable in Singapore. AIMS does not suggest that the state give up its regulatory role. But, it wants the government to justify any action in a transparent manner. Furthermore, following international best practices, it wants the government to be answerable for its regulatory decisions. If party political films are going to be banned, AIMS wants the Minister to consult an independent advisory panel first, and to explain his decision. In addition, MDA should be more transparent about its actions under the Class Licence Scheme, AIMS says.
Third, AIMS tackles the fear factor that many Singaporeans complain about. Past official statements on this point have been dismissive, claiming that Singaporeans have no reason to fear – but never mentioning guarantees of civil and political rights that are ultimately the only meaningful antidote to fear. Such non-replies lead one to assume that the government is not unhappy with the self-censorship and apathy that fear engenders. AIMS, in contrast, has taken the fear factor seriously, probably as a result of its intense public consultation. No, AIMS has not demanded a strengthening of Constitutional rights. But, it has asked for reforms to certain over-broad government powers – laws and regulations so vague and sweeping that they could in theory be used against all manner of innocent online speech. For example, AIMS argues that the ban on party political films inhibits legitimate use of the medium to tackle serious political issues. It also wants more legal immunity for online content intermediaries that carry someone else’s defamatory postings.
It is too early to tell how aggressively or sincerely these recommendations will be pursued. It is possible that they will be implemented in such a watered-down form that we are basically back to square one, which would be quite disastrous for Singapore’s desire to be a Renaissance City, Our Best Home, and all that. However, coming from Cheong Yip Seng – a master of the art of the possible – the AIMS report gives me more reason for optimism than pessimism.
The AIMS report is about fostering greater maturity and personal responsibility in Singaporeans’ use of the internet, and less arbitrary and unaccountable regulation by government. At the very least, AIMS has done Singapore a favour by setting the public discussion of internet regulation on a sounder foundation than before.