Before breakfast, how the regulators made a meal of Sintercom


December 20th, 2013

The closure of Breakfast Network brings to mind the death of Sintercom 12 years ago. Sintercom, a collective started by Stanford student Tan Chong Kee, was the Singapore’s first online magazine. The following article describes Sintercom’s ill-fated dance with the regulators. It refused to register when first asked to in 1996 – and got away with it for five years. But in 2001, the government again instructed it to register. Its owner did so, but then decided to close the site because of the added risk. This account is extracted from my book, Contentious Journalism and the Internet, published in 2006.

The Regulators Strike

The internet free-for-all ended one and a half years after Sintercom’s launch, when the Singapore Broadcasting Authority instituted new rules for the medium. The July 1996 announcement stated that websites that sought public attention and dealt with more sensitive areas, principally religion and politics, would have to register with the SBA. Sintercom was named as one of those affected.

Among other things, registration required the editors and publishers of a political or religious website to sign a declaration accepting “full responsibility for the contents of [the] website, including contents of discussion groups carried on it.” Holding those in charge of websites accountable for comments other people posted on it would make it impossible for sites such as Sintercom to carry on as before.

The reaction to the SBA announcement was revealing. It showed, first, the power of the internet as a mobilizing tool; and, second, the strong feeling among users at the time that the internet should remain free. Harish Pillay, a Sintercom editor, chronicled the episode on his own home page, starting with this entry:

July 12th 1996: I am pissed off at the SBA and send an e-mail to the morning rag, Straits Times.

July 13th 1996: I am very surprised that the morning rag did print my letter and verbatim at that — they did introduce a typo though.

Pillay’s letter to The Straits Times was less colorful, but no less clear:

As a Singaporean, I cannot understand why there has to be this high level of distrust that the Government has of its people… We do not need such draconian guidelines, even if the SBA says that they will be interpreted gently.

This was only the opening salvo in a long and vociferous campaign against the regulations mounted by individuals associated with Sintercom. Tan Chong Kee discussed the matter with his fellow editors, but — not surprisingly for a committee of some 20 individuals — they could not agree about what should be done. “I thought it was urgent, so instead of trying to forge any consensus internally, I started campaigning in my personal capacity,” Tan says.

He wrote a detailed critique of the regulations and posted it on the site. Tan’s analysis quoted the SBA’s reassurances that it wanted to be “light-handed,” and the generally positive responses carried in The Straits Times and Business Times. He proceeded to show how the regulations were not as innocuous as they had been made to sound:

If the SBA thinks you should be banned, even if the public disagree [sic], you will still be banned. They have not mentioned any avenue of appeal. Does this set up sound ‘light-handed’? Would a disciplinarian who promises to be light-handed request for an iron rod?

Additionally, Tan wrote e-mail “to everyone I had ever talked to on the net” — about 2,000 people — to raise awareness about the situation. Wynthia Goh, meanwhile, launched a page for feedback, which drew mainly adverse comments from day one. “Many people signed with their real names, which was very encouraging,” Tan recalls.

Some were spooked by the regulations, seeing in them the specter of government surveillance and censorship. Others were confident that the internet’s resilient architecture would render futile any attempt to control it. A Gerard Lim wrote: “The vagueness and carte-blanche nature of these criteria run counter to the clarity, fairness and transparency that the rule of law is supposed to provide.”

One Francis Chong called the regulations “just so much legalese to cover what is essentially an exercise of unchecked power.” Those who spoke up even included a junior official from the Ministry of Information and the Arts, the SBA’s parent ministry. The civil servant, Stephanie Sim, wrote:

laws which cannot be enforced are not relevant or intelligent laws which are arbitrarily enforced are repressive laws which assume that people will never be mature and responsible will create societies which are selfish, childish and petty. yes, we want RESPECT, *NOT* REGULATION.

Despite such protests, the government was never likely to withdraw the regulations. The most the campaigners could hope for was to embarrass the government, such that it would exercise self-restraint in interpreting and applying its powers. Sintercom’s narrower mission — to evade the registration requirement — was pursued primarily through private negotiations with the authorities. Its ally in the public sector, Philip Yeo of Sembawang Corp, again proved to be a friend in need. He brokered meetings between Sintercom editors and the SBA chief, the chairman of the National Internet Advisory Committee, and the Minister for Information and the Arts.

The editors told the officials that theirs was not primarily a political site, since it carried everything from jokes to recipes. Its political content was mainly the Singapore Electronic Forum component, which was merely an edited version of the bulletin board soc.culture.singapore. They pointed out that since bulletin boards were not covered by SBA regulations, it was inconsistent to demand that a website carrying one should register.

However, what clinched the argument may have been Sintercom’s preparedness to pack up and leave Singapore. “I said if SBA finds us too intolerable, we can move overseas again and host it on the servers of Stanford, Yale, Oxford, etc as before. They would look very silly if they blocked these sites,” Tan says. A week after the editors met SBA officials, the regulator wrote to Sintercom, saying:

Based on our discussion and SBA’s assessment of SInterCom’s current webpage, and your assurance that your editorial group will exercise responsibility, intelligence and maturity in its selection of postings, we wish to confirm that SInterCom will not be required to register with SBA under the Class Licence Scheme.

Tan suspects that the SBA was under instructions to try to persuade Sintercom to register, but not to insist: the government could live with the website being treated as a special case. Thus, Sintercom survived the new regulations unscathed. Of course, had the site gone beyond the limits of government tolerance, things may have turned out differently. It carried independent and critical commentary, but was not rabidly anti-government.

Comfort with Sintercom grew. A hotlink to the site was even incorporated on the front page of “Singapore Infomap,” a web window to Singapore maintained by the information ministry. In a speech on civil society in May 1998, the minister, George Yeo, named Sintercom as one of the civic organizations that “encourage us to be more socially conscious.” “Singapore is a heterogeneous society and differences of opinion are natural,” he acknowledged.

Sintercom carried more critical views than the mainstream media did, but it was not considered extreme. To Stephanie Sim, the young ministry official who had opposed the SBA regulations, Sintercom was little more than a “talk fest,” and not a website that attempted to organize dissent. At the same time, it allowed the government to tell its critics abroad that Singapore respected alternative views. “I think it has become a very safe place which will never be shut down because it’s great PR for the government,” she says.

The Regulators Strike, Again

In 2001, the authorities revisited the issue of registration, resulting in the closure of the original site. This turn of events illustrates the fluid nature of political opportunities. Governments’ calculations change with changing circumstances, in turn altering the environment for contention.

In this case, the Singapore government appeared to be acting in advance of general elections due in late 2001. Although the ruling party does not flagrantly undermine the electoral process by, for example, stuffing ballots or buying votes, it is not above curtailing freedom of speech in order to limit citizens’ access to alternative sources of information and their knowledge of the choices available to them. The mainstream news media are accustomed to feeling the leash get shorter in the run-up to elections.

This time, Sintercom would feel it too. Whether or not the coming elections were the motivating factor, the SBA wrote to Sintercom in July 2001 asking it to register. Asked to explain its reasons, it reiterated its stand that registration “is used to emphasize the need for content providers to be responsible and transparent when engaging in the propagation, promotion or discussion of political issues relating to Singapore.”

Sensing that the SBA did not wish to engage Sintercom in further dialogue, Tan filled out and submitted the registration forms, making him formally accountable for the site’s content. In one small act of resistance, however, he modified the registration form, deleting a section that he believed violated his rights.

Even with this amendment, however, registration placed Sintercom in a dilemma. “I do not want to be in a situation where I could be hauled into court anytime, depending on how someone in power has decided to interpret content in Sintercom,” he wrote in an editorial. At the same time, he did not want to err on the side of caution. “To self-censor now defeats the purpose of our existence,” he said.

As a compromise, he decided to send all published material on the site to SBA for clearance. This, he felt, should satisfy the broadcasting law, which states that a licensee would be deemed to have used its best efforts to comply with the conditions of the license if it had taken “all reasonable steps in the circumstances.”

“In this way, we will not self-censor, but we let SBA censor us whenever they like,” Tan said. Using the electronic feedback form on the SBA website, Tan submitted links to all of Sintercom’s existing content, and requested an e-mail address to which he could continue to send published content for clearance.

SBA replied two days later, saying that it did not pre-censor material. Internet content providers were required to exercise their own judgment and take responsibility for their content, it added. With the affair beginning to receive mainstream media attention, SBA also issued a general news release stating that “registration is a simple administrative procedure” and that there was “no cause for Sintercom to over react over such a simple request.”

Tan e-mailed SBA again, asking whether its characterization of Sintercom’s response as an overreaction meant that the site’s contents were clearly well within SBA’s limits. The authority again refused to be pinned down, reiterating that it was “unnecessary for Sintercom to seek advice from SBA on its posting.” Feeling that he had run out of options, Tan closed down the Sintercom site, seven years after its launch.

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