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Deleted Scenes #05: Contradictions of Internet diffusion in Singapore

Posted on Wed, Sep 06, 2006 at 9:57 PM by Andrew Chadwick

This passage on Singapore didn't make it into Chapter 11 for reasons to do with flow.

If matters appear relatively clear cut in China, they are less so in nearby Singapore, where the contradictions of a state-driven high-tech economic development strategy and authoritarian rule may soon begin to intensify. Given an economic context of declining manufacturing growth rates in the 1980s, Singapore implemented a national information technology plan, aimed at developing a modern communication infrastructure based on fibre optic backbones, and the development of an entrepreneurial culture of innovation in the high-tech sector. Economic development in this area was also spurred by the early and widespread adoption of new ICTs in government as well as a new agenda for the teaching of IT skills in universities. All of these initiatives were designed with economic development in mind, and they have proved successful in these terms (Ho et al, 2002: 127, 143).

Singapore is best described as semi-authoritarian, and is widely regarded as one of the most surveilled societies in the world (Kalathil and Boas, 2003: 74). Since its founding as an independent republic in 1965, the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) has dominated most aspects of its political life. Opposition parties are permitted, but a range of restrictions mean that they are effectively excluded from power. Historically, the PAP's success in producing high levels of economic growth and rising living standards for Singaporeans has underpinned its legitimacy. However, the PAP regime continues to censor the media. The government effectively controls all of Singapore's major newspapers and their related websites and portals through its control over the Board of Directors of Singapore Press Holdings (Kalathil and Boas, 203: 77). The counterpart to the state-led knowledge economy in the Singapore model has been a relatively undeveloped civil society, and state restriction of citizen activity aimed at criticising its economic rationale (Ho et al, 2002: 133). Thus, the new economy was officially encouraged for allowing the rapid pace of industrialization to continue, but the potential for the Internet to loosen existing social, cultural, moral and political values was not considered part of the plan.

Much like China, Singapore has an internal 'walled garden' approach to the Internet. The Singapore Broadcasting Authority grants licenes to online content providers and ISPs, but all ISPs must send their traffic through state proxy servers. The state uses these to filter unacceptable content, especially pornography and political criticism, before it appears. In 2001, the PAP announced stricter regulation of political websites, forcing them to register with the authorities. These and other regulations have had a 'chilling effect', and have promoted a culture of self-censorship online. (Kalathil and Boas, 2003: 78).

Yet according to research by K. C. Ho and colleagues, one fascinating aspect of the Singapore case has been the tendency for the economic-developmental aspects of technology to leak into other areas of social, cultural and political life, creating in the process a number of public spheres of communication which were previously impossible to imagine in a state with relatively disciplinary moral traditions. As cyberspace developed in Singapore during the 1990s, relatively unhindered by state restriction apart from a few high profile cases of state blocking of pornography, it has created an alternative public sphere of religious groups, political opposition and sexual minorities. Singapore's cyber civil society contains groups ranging from those making civil and constitutional claims, through to anti-censorship campaigners, unofficial opposition parties, and groups promoting alternative lifestyles and sexual freedoms. Religious movements from other countries have found Singapore a relatively easy place to host their sites. Falun Gong, outlawed in China, has bases in Singapore, and channels much of its Asia-Pacific web activity through sites hosted there (Ho et al, 2002: 141). The flourishing of Singapore's civil society, partly facilitated by the Internet, is only in its early stages. In comparative terms, liberal democratic freedoms are still relatively weak in Singapore and are likely to remain so for some time. The state continues to enforce strict controls on Internet communication. But harnessing the knowledge economy in the national interest has had some unintended consequences.


Ho, K. C., Baber, Z. and Khondker, H. (2002) '"Sites" of Resistance: Alternative Websites and State-Society Relations', British Journal of Sociology 53 (1) pp. 127-148.

Kalathil, S. and Boas, T. C. (2003) Open Networks, Closed Regimes: The Impact of the Internet on Authoritarian Rule (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington DC).

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