Censorship and Freedom of Expression

September 20, 2008

Singapore has been heavily criticised by the global community for having a ‘restrictive’ or ‘suffocated’ local media scene. The term ‘OB Markers’ largely come into play in the debates that centre around this issue; it is a Singaporean political jargon- they draw the line where “sensitive” ends and “insensitive” begins. Such markers are issues or topics considered taboo for public debate. They are, however invisible, and there is no official stand as to where these OB markers are at any given point in time.

Michael Backman from Asia Online (2004) once noted: “What is Singapore? A country or a child-care centre?”; OB Markers are unwritten and vague, he quipped, in his article Singapore must drop Out of Bounds Censorship. He argues that they are nebulous, not transparent and are applied in a discretionary manner- this results in a highly cautious Singaporean society prone to self-censorship. This is accompanied by other numerous repercussions, like the lessening of creativity, breeding the culture of fear, and the cultivation of narrow-minded Singaporeans. Michael was, in fact, one of those who fell foul of these mysterious markers. Information Minster Lee Boon Yang said in a speech that he had ‘crossed the line’ and sought to intervene in Singapore’s domestic politics. Michael then proceeded to conclude that he had only crossed the line because what he said was contrary to the stance of the government, to his displeasure of course.

Censorship has been defined as the restriction of the freedom of expression by an established authority for the perceived good of the situation. The Singaporean government are clear on the issues of race and religion- saying that issues like these which have potential to disrupt unity in a country are clearly out of bounds.  They go on to state that allegation of corruption and failings without proof and evidence to people holding high office (in the government), are also out of bounds.

So then, how is censorship relevant in the internet?  Many bloggers are still reeling over the Wee Shu Min scandal as reported in the Straits Times (2006), and the prosecution of racist bloggers under the Sedition Act.  Many enjoy the blogosphere as an avenue for free expression of personal views.  It was argued, at that time, whether it was right to force an apology from someone who was only expressing her honest viewpoint.  The social backlash as a result of her blog post may have been a strong signal to many bloggers out there that extremist remarks or comments are unwelcome.  To many, this may seem a blatant invasion of private space.  After all, it is their private space, they have a right to say whatever they want and Singapore is a democratic country.

Over in Malaysia, the government has instilled a ‘climate of fear’ when it invoked the Internal Security Acto to detain blogger and webmaster of news portal, Malaysia Today, Raja Petra Kamaruddin, Sin Chew journalist Tan Hoon Cheng and Opposition MP Teresa Kok.  Charges ranged from tarnishing the leadership of the country, insulting the sanctity of Islam and racist remarks.  The latest on this issue is that Raja Petra has had his detention extended for a further two years without trial.  How safe then is freedom of speech?

For those of us living in this part of the world especially in Singapore where we pledge ourselves as one united people, regardless of race, language or religion, must exercise sensitivity towards our fellow citizens and residents who live among us.  To me this means that we have to accept that we may not see eye to eye on such matters but accept the differences as unique and be tolerant.

Should bloggers be accountable?

The internet, by virtue of its size (the size of the web is more than 800 million pages, and the biggest search engine only covers about 20% of it) is said by many to be impossible to regulate.  Pseudonymity and data havens (such as freenet) allow unconditional free speech, as the technology almost guarantees that material canot be removed and the author of any information is impossible to link to a physical identity or organisation.  Yet, racist bloggers in Singapore were so quickly caught and prosecuted; a country as ‘liberal’ as the United Kingdom also successfully censor internet content via a service called Cleanfeed.  British Telecommunications passes internet traffic through the service which uses data provided by the Internet Watch Foundation to identify pages believed to contain indecent photographs of children and other objectionable content.  When such a page is found, the system creates a ‘URL not found page’ error rather than deliver the actual page.

Freedom of speech and expression then, even with the advent of the internet and the proliferation of personal blogs, is arguably not as free as it is perceived to be, although, it does give users a tad lot more free reign that it ever was imaginable. 



Image sources:





Backman, M 2004, ‘Singapore must drop ‘out of bounds’ censorship’ Asia Online, 13 August 2004, viewed 20 September 2008, http://www.singapore-window.org/sw04/040813ao.htm

Kwek, K 2006, ‘Singapore: Teen blogger counselled for her ‘elitist’ remarks, Straits Times, 24 October 2004, viewed on 20 September 2008 on Asia Media, http://www.asiamedia.ucla.edu/article.asp?parentid=56059

Low, ST 2008, Malaysia: Changing the climate of fear, Malaysia Today, 25 September 2008, viewed 25 September 2008, http://mt.m2day.org/2008/content/view/13094/84/


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