Internet Regulation—A myth in Singapore?

by Yip Yee Hui Josephine

As with all other freedoms, freedom of speech is not without its limits, a principle deeply enshrined in article 14 of the Singapore Constitution. Racial and political issues remain particularly sensitive, and are thus the key targets of censorship here. However, the rise of the Internet has dramatically narrowed the boundaries of state regulation. While countries such as China and Iran have illustrated that extensive Internet regulation is not impossible with the use of technological measures to filter out undesirable content1, Singapore has shied away from such an approach, preferring instead to adopt mostly non-technological ones. The question thus remains: with the ineffectiveness of technological measures, and the government’s purported commitment to a light-touch approach, is Internet regulation now little more than a mere myth in Singapore? This article argues that this seems unlikely given the government’s continued attempts to regulate the Internet through new legislation, and the self-regulation by both individual Internet users and the virtual community.

The government’s role in regulating the Internet is largely moderated due to two main reasons. The first is Singapore’s use of mostly non-technological measures. These include both laws specific to online content such as the Internet Code of Practice and the Class License Conditions, and more general ones such as the Films Act and the Sedition Act. Such regulations restrict online content with certain repercussions such as fines should they be contravened. Yet, they are unlikely to have much effect in practical application. Without the heavy use of technological measures, the rapid propagation of information and the sheer volume of content on the Internet have made regulating objectionable content a mind-boggling challenge2 for Singapore. When MICA opted to retain its ban of 100 websites in 2010, it was ‘not so much for its functional usefulness, [but] rather as a symbolic statement of our society’s values’. Indeed, Mr Lui Tuck Yew, then Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts, acknowledged at that time that the ban was likely to be largely ineffective as ‘the technologically savvy among us will be able to circumvent this ban, and that there are many more than 100 such websites out there’3. Additionally, the extensive online circulation of the political film Singapore Rebel even before its ban was lifted in 2009 illustrates yet another instance of how state regulation of the Internet is highly limited. By then, the film had already garnered a few hundred thousand views4.

Moreover, Singapore’s commitment to a light-touch approach5 towards Internet regulation right from the outset has also played a role in limiting state regulation of online content. Since 1996, the Internet Code of Practice has required Internet Content Providers to remove any content that were objectionable on grounds of public morality, order or security, and has called for certain content providers displaying political and religious content to register with MDA. However, the apparent harshness of these regulations was mitigated by the government’s reassurance that it would not attempt to remove all objectionable content but only censor 100 websites as a symbolic move6, and that such registration was nothing more than an administrative exercise aimed at improving accountability7. Despite these assurances, the regulations were still viewed as an attempt to ‘cover what is essentially an exercise of unchecked power’, and regarded as ‘the spectre of government surveillance and censorship’, according to several adverse comments made on a feedback page set up by the then popular Sintercom8. Yet these fears were proven to be largely unfounded. In fact, in the decade after the regulations were first announced, fewer than thirty cases of state action against online content were reported9. On hindsight, the government’s continued adherence to the light touch approach hardly seems surprising, given the need to protect Singapore’s reputation as a technological hub10. Also, this could possibly be the government’s attempt at distancing itself from the label of an authoritarian regime11, a label that is politically costly both locally and internationally.

Even so, Internet regulation remains a reality in Singapore. Despite the limitations of non-technological regulations and the government’s commitment to a light touch approach, it continues to play a key role in monitoring online content. A most apt example to illustrate this point would be the recently enacted legislation governing online news sites which first came into effect on 1st June this year12. Under these new rules, online news sites must be individually licensed if, over a period of two months, they report an average of at least one article per week on Singapore’s news and current affairs and are visited by at least 50,000 unique IP addresses from Singapore each month.13 Such sites will be required to remove objectionable content within 24 hours of being notified by MDA. At first glance, it seems that the new regulations are unlikely to have as much impact on the online community as the 2,500-strong demonstration at Hong Lim Park, or the 24-hour blackout of more than 130 Singapore-based websites14, would suggest. Despite the fact that MDA’s broad definition of ‘news’ could potentially subject countless websites to the new regulations15, it is doubtful that the government will take a proactive approach towards enforcing them. After all, the aforementioned motivations for maintaining a light touch approach on Internet regulation seem all the more relevant today, as citizens become increasingly educated and politically aware16. Indeed, in response to criticisms of the new regulations, Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim stated that “MDA will be ‘judicious’ with Internet regulation”. However, it may well be that having identified 10 websites such as channelnewsasia.com, todayonline.com and sg.news.yahoo.com that fall within the ambit of the new licensing scheme, the government could potentially have a real influence on what is produced on these few sites. The narrow focus on a very small number of websites would significantly reduce the volume of online content to be sieved through, helping the government to overcome one of the main obstacles facing state regulation.

In addition, self-regulation by both individual Internet users and the virtual community also play a role in regulating the Internet. A main driving force behind self-regulation would be auto-regulation17. In Singapore, terms in legislation pertaining to online content are usually ambiguously or broadly defined such that a vast number of online users could fall under its regulatory jurisdiction18. For instance, under the Internet Code of Practice, Internet Content Providers must remove any prohibited material if directed to do so by MDA. An Internet Content Provider, as defined under the Class License Conditions,19 is:

(a) any individual in Singapore who provides any programme, for business, political or religious purposes, on the World Wide Web through the Internet; or (b) any corporation or group of individuals (including any association, business, club, company, society, organisation or partnership, whether registrable or incorporated under the laws of Singapore or not) who provides any programme on the World Wide Web through the Internet, and includes any web publisher and any web server administrator;

With such broadly defined rules, the authorities possess expansive discretionary powers to bring offenders to task20. While the Government has unstintingly reiterated its stance of adhering to a light-touch approach, the deterrent effect of such regulations remain as online users have to be constantly wary of infringing upon these rules as they might fall under their jurisdiction. In fact, many online users have likened the recently enacted legislation governing online news sites to the proverbial Sword of Damocles21, where a climate of fear is created despite assurances from the Government. Thus, auto-regulation seems to play a significant role in Internet regulation.

Quite apart from auto-regulation, online communities have on several occasions demonstrated an intrinsic propensity to self-regulate. Online comments that undermine Singapore’s social fabric are often lambasted by other users, prompting those who made the comments to remove them even before they are brought to the attention of the authorities. This was evident in the case of Amy Cheong, who made expletive-filled derogatory comments about Malays in a Facebook post22. Her comments were rapidly circulated around cyberspace and incited a flurry of disapproving comments on numerous social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter23, causing her to delete her comment shortly after. Similarly, polytechnic student Lai Shimun promptly deleted her Facebook and Twitter accounts after her racist post on Indians was drew flak from the online community24. Such incidents illustrate how even without government intervention, the Internet may still be regulated through self-regulation.

In conclusion, it is apparent that Internet regulation, whether in the form of state intervention or self-regulation, is here to stay. While a balance must be struck between the two, it is unclear if the right balance has indeed been achieved under the status quo. Adverse reactions to the recently enacted licensing framework for news sites seem to suggest otherwise, and cases such as that of Amy Cheong appear to point to an online citizenry that is increasingly mature25, thus paving the way for greater self-regulation. Although the government’s recent enactment of licensing framework indicates that it is not likely to relax its stance in the near future, perhaps there is room for the hope that Singapore will witness a gradual change in the time to come.


[1] “Iran’s Internet Censorship Most Sophisticated in the World” CircleID (19 Jun 2009), online: CircleID < http://www.circleid.com/posts/20090619_iran_internet_censorship_sophisticated/ >

[2] Peng Hwa Ang & Berlinda Nadarajan, “Censorship and the Internet: a Singapore perspective”, Communications of the ACM, 39:6 (June 1996) 72.

[3] “MICA to retain 100-website ban”, AsiaOne (29 September 2010) online: AsiaOne < http://www.digitalone.com.sg/news/article/13408 >

[4] Teo Xuanwei, “Ban on film lifted” Today (12 September 2009)

[5] Media Development Authority, Internet, online: Media Development Authority < http://www.mda.gov.sg/PUBLIC/MEDIACLASSIFICATION/Pages/Internet.aspx> (accessed 10 October 2013)

[6] Chua Hian Hou, “MDA bans two video-sharing porn sites”, The Straits Times (23 May 2008)

[7] Cherian George, Looking for patterns in 10 years of ‘light touch’ regulation, online: Journalism.sg < http://journalism.sg/2007/08/23/looking-for-patterns-in-10-years-of-light-touch-regulation/>

[8] Cherian George, “Postings on New SBA Rules Flood the Net”, The Straits Times (17 July 1996)

[9]  Supra note 11.

[10] Supra note 11.

[11] Garry Rodan, Transparency and Authoritarian Rule in Southeast Asia: Singapore and Malaysia, (New York, US: Routledge, 2004) at 48

[12] Media Development Authority of Singapore, Press Release, “Fact Sheet- Online news sites to be placed on a more consistent licensing framework” (28 May 2013) online: Media Development Authority of Singapore < http://www.mda.gov.sg/NewsAndEvents/PressRelease/2013/Pages/28052013.aspx >

[13] Ibid.

[14] Jeanette Tan, “Singapore bloggers black out sites in protest of MDA licensing scheme”, Yahoo News (6 June 2013) online: Yahoo News <http://sg.news.yahoo.com/singapore-bloggers-black-out-sites-in-protest-of-mda-licensing-scheme-042044959.html>

[15] Andrew Loh, “New MDA licensing rules: Finding a way forward”, Yahoo News (17 June 2013) online: Yahoo News <http://sg.news.yahoo.com/blogs/singaporescene/mda-licensing-rules-finding-way-forward-062335198.html>

[16] Pravin Prakash, “Keeping it civil: How now for political engagement” Commentary, Today (1 June 2013) online: Today < http://www.todayonline.com/commentary/keeping-it-civil-how-now-political-engagement >

[17] Terence Lee, “Internet Control and Auto-regulation in Singapore”, online: (2005) 3:1 Surveillance and Society at 80 <http://www.surveillance-and-society.org/Articles3(1)/singapore.pdf>

[18] Supra note 21 at 81.

[19] Broadcasting (Class License) Notification (Cap 28, N 1, 2004 Rev Ed Sing), n 2.

[20] Supra note 21 at 81.

[21] Supra note 19.

[22] Joyce Lim, “Racist rant: Amy Cheong gets stern warning from police”, The Straits Times (25 March 2013) online: The Straits Times <http://www.straitstimes.com/breaking-news/singapore/story/racist-rant-amy-cheong-gets-stern-warning-police-20130325>.

[23] Jeffrey Oon, “The Amy Cheong saga…fast, furious, unbridled”, Yahoo News (8 October 2012) online: Yahoo News <http://sg.news.yahoo.com/blogs/what-is-buzzing/amy-cheong-vacant-job-posted-career-094026501.html>

[24] Kai Fong, “Expletive online post about Indians hurtful, wrong and uncalled for”, Yahoo News (28 March 2012) online: Yahoo News <http://sg.news.yahoo.com/%E2%80%98expletive-fb-post-about-indians-particularly-hurtful–wrong-and-completely-uncalled-for%E2%80%99.html>

[25] Phua Mei Pin, “A step forward for self-regulation online”, The Straits Times (13 October 2012)