July 1996
Asia Inc

INTERVIEW: Brigadier-General George Yeo, Singapore minister

By Salil Tripathi

july 1996

Wired, But Not Wild
Brigadier General George Yeo, Singapore's Minister of Information and the Arts

Few cities in the world are as wired as Singapore. Personal computers are found in one-third of households. More than 100,000 Singaporeans are hooked up to the Internet, which also is being introduced to schools and public libraries. Yet few governments are as keen as Singapore’s to regulate Internet use. Senders of electronic messages can be prosecuted for defamation; the Singapore

Broadcasting Authority can deny public access to any World Wide Web site it deems morally offensive or a threat to public order; and local residents need a license to create religious and political home pages on the Web. Singapore’s minister of information and the arts, Brig. Gen. George Yeo, 41, talked recently with Asia Inc.’s Salil Tripathi about how the city-state intends to become the region’s information hub while keeping its cyberspace clean of what it regards as undesirable material:

We are promoting Internet technology in a big way in Singapore. We are wiring the island and soon we will offer the Internet on cable, which will give users access that is a thousand times faster than that available through traditional telephone networks. Some statistics show that Singapore already has the largest number of Web sites on a per capita basis.

Our goal is to position ourselves as a hub city. So we have to be at the center of the exchange of information. Everything we do has to promote that. But when we promote the Internet it does not mean that we subscribe to the idea that it has to be anarchic.

The new frontier has opened, and it is a little like the Wild West. There are open spaces and people want to do their own thing. But once you settle the frontier, you’ve got to have law and order for contracts, for a legal framework, and to protect your property. In any society, a good balance must be found between order and disorder, between tradition and creativity.

Cyberspace will always be like an oriental bazaar. There will be big shops, small shops; good products, bad products. There will be cheats and thieves. But cyberspace should allow legitimate businessmen trading honestly to contribute to society and add to human well-being. Hence regulations are necessary.

We are not interested in regulating communications between individuals, but we are interested in transmissions that could have a mass social impact. Mad people will always be around. Their ravings and rantings do not matter. It is when serious people rave and rant in a serious context that we have to take notice because their behavior can be destructive to society and can cause the breakdown of law and order.

That’s the thinking behind our regulations covering political and religious issues. If you are an international religious group pouring scorn on other religious groups out of, say, the Cayman Islands, we don’t care much. But if you are based in Singapore, and are talking about other religious groups in Singapore, and giving a local flavor and immediacy that excites people, then we may have to act. Our key test will be: Will this have a mass social impact?

If people discuss domestic politics and if those discussions could have a mass impact, then those people will have to be accountable for the views they express. You can’t have responsible discussion under the cloak of anonymity. Otherwise, all you have are graffiti walls!

Our approach to regulating the Internet is commonsensical. We will regulate only what can be regulated. So we will not have a big staff [in fact, only eight officials surfing the Net two or three hours a day]. What we do will be in cooperation with the people of Singapore. In the same way that small parts of America do not allow the Playboy channel, it is the community of Singapore that will decide.

I must emphasize that if only the Singapore Broadcasting Authority is interested in this issue, then we will fail. If parents, teachers and others in Singapore are against us, then we must fail. The community as a whole must agree that the standards that we uphold are the right ones.