Speaking your mind online without fear
Computer Times
August 22, 2001

Dr Tan Chong Kee, founder of Sintercom (Singapore Internet Community), talks to ALFRED SIEW, about freedom of statement on the Net, active citizenry and the government's view of him

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TO most Singaporeans, Dr Tan Chong Kee, 38, is the Sintercom guy -- the man who created one of the first websites about Singapore which allowed the discussion of issues in an open forum.

He was an activist who put his name to his views and proved that honest opinion is alive on the Internet. Since the 80s, he has been online being connected to JANet (Joint Academic Network) in England. He obtained his first degree in computer science and later a doctorate in literature.

In 1994, when he was studying overseas, he was inspired by the soc.culture.singapore newsgroups, where people were beginning to discover the freedom offered by the Internet. But on newsgroups, messages were deleted after a couple of weeks. He wanted a place where postings could be kept permanently.

Thus Sintercom was born on the Web, hosted on multiple servers all over the world, such as at Stanford University where he studied for his doctorate.

Dr Tan has been down many corridors of trial and error.

He and the site's co-founders put their names to the project to show that it was possible to discuss issues seriously on the Net without fear of reprisal. He also wanted to show it was not a fly-by- night operation.

In 1995, top civil servant Philip Yeo messaged him to meet up while the former was in San Francisco.

The Internet advocate offered to host Sintercom for free on a Singaporean server.

After moving the content here, Dr Tan obtained the Sintercom.org domain name. In the next five years or so, it became a hotbed for discussions ranging from government policies to where the best food places were. It was even praised by the government and was linked from the government-run Singapore InfoMap (www.sg).

Recently, Dr Tan was in the news again. In July, the Singapore Broadcasting Authority (SBA) asked Sintercom to register itself as a political website despite earlier assurances that it did not have to. About a week ago, Dr Tan announced that he was shutting down Sintercom.

He shares his thoughts and experiences with Computer Times here.

The interview

Should the Internet be regulated?

At the start, there were absolutely no regulations. Regulations would form by convention, that is, what users do everyday would become the norm. The Net cannot be easily regulated by simply blocking a website. When the Singapore Broadcasting Authority first told me it could block my website, I told them I could move my content to servers at Yale and Stanford universities. SBA should continue to be a content promoter instead of being a content regulator. If young Singaporeans are to have a stake in the country, they must not fear speaking up.

Dr Tan hopes someone more resourceful will take over.

Does the Internet promote free statement?

Here in Singapore, we don't say many things because we are afraid that someone's listening. We're always looking over our shoulders when we say something sensitive. But the moment we know it's okay to do so, we speak up. The Internet gives users that freedom through anonymity. Sintercom was created to let people say "that's what I think".

What about being responsible on the Net?

There are untrue things being said on the Internet. But on Sintercom, we get a lot of sensible arguments. What you post on the Net is open to scrutiny and debate. On the Net, people are not afraid to speak up -- expect a public rebuttal if you talk nonsense.

Why do you do what you do?

I don't want political power. I don't want to play the game. I am a nobody, but I care about what is going on in society. I don't want to join a political party, and I don't believe it's a requirement if you want to be an active citizen. If the government raises the water prices, then I'm affected. Do I have to join an opposition party to question the decision? From the start, I've been very frank with the SBA during our meetings. They are frank with me as well. I did not dissent from its viewpoint just because I had to. I would praise a policy if it was good. I told them I wanted to encourage lively debate about Singapore issues and it agreed with the objective as long as debates were responsible.

What were Sintercom's proud moments?

During the last general elections of 1997, Sintercom reported rally speeches and poll results as they were announced. We demonstrated it could be done online.

Also, in 1996, when SBA was drafting guidelines for the Internet which came to be known as the Internet Class Licence Scheme and the Internet Code of Practice, we campaigned hard to tell them it was not a good draft. At first, content which would create disaffection against the government was banned on websites.

When we appealed to people to speak up against it, hundreds of Singaporeans wrote in with their real names. You can say we made a little bit of headway there -- in having free speech on the Internet. The National Internet Advisory Committee met afterwards and recommended changes for the second draft. On top of that, I'm also quite sure we had the first online Singlish dictionary in the world, back in 1995!

What now for Sintercom?

The Sintercom.org website will be closed down. If someone takes over, it will be a new website with a new name.

Registering Sintercom with SBA means that I have to be responsible for everything posted on the website, and SBA's Code of Practice has clauses like "against the public interest, public order or national harmony" and "offends against good taste or decency. "

I feel a lot of content in Sintercom can already be interpreted as unacceptable. If I put up similar content in future, I may get into trouble. That is why I sent in already published content to SBA for clearance, so there can be some certainty to what the law says. But SBA would only say "all Internet content providers whether registered with SBA or not, are required to exercise judgment and ensure that the contents on their websites comply with the SBA Internet Code of Practice".

That means the only way to comply is to always err on the side of caution. But closing down is a personal decision. This problem can be overcome with more ingenuity, but I was too tired to go on. I used to take eight hours to design and debug the website. More recently, it was two hours to update and read the pages, as well as do the mailing list. Now, I feel relieved that I have more time to do my own things -- like earn more money!

What did you gain from your experience?

There are bound to be passionate people in every country, people who want to be active. Whether the system is ready for them is another thing. Here, I found there are lots of institutional roadblocks for people who want to be active. The government wants you to volunteer, but I feel they don't want you to be critical and try to change the system through civil society activism. It's not a tenable setup.

So you lose heart when you feel what you've done is not getting anywhere.

In a way, I feel my project has failed -- because it has become so hard to go on doing what I've been doing. Maybe someone more resourceful can step in and take over.