INTERVIEW: Brigadier-General George Yeo, Singapore minister
By Salil Tripathi
Wired, But Not Wild
Brigadier General George Yeo, Singapore's Minister of Information and the
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
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
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.