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Minister Yeo on OB markers and Internet

Straits Times May 26, 1999
Extracts from a Staits Times report

Internet having profound effect on Asian societies

Information and the Arts Minister George Yeo discussed a varierty of topics including the Internet and out-of-bound markers for public debate in an interview with Karyawan, the publication of the Association of Muslim Professionals. Here are extracts.

Karyawan: There has been a lot of debate in the 90s particularly, that there has been a lack of definition of the out-of-bound (OB) markers. It seems that the OB markers seem to shift according to who pushes the limit and what the limits may be. They are unclear.

Can you enlighten us on these OB markers -- what are these and will the state loosen these OB markers to encourage more individuals and groups to take part in the political process outside partisan politics?

BG Yeo: Let me answer this question generally first. It is not possible to define everything by law.

It is a little like what constitutes pornography? We cannot simply define it on the basis of nakedness. There are many ways to be obscene and, very often, you need human beings sitting in committees to decide whether something is obscene or offensive.

You cannot define pornography precisely. In fact, if you try to define it precisely, then others will play around that definition and say that they are in the clear.

There are many ways to achieve an obscene effect. On matters of censorship, we have committees of private citizens, representatives from a cross-section of the population, who sit down in judgment and there are mechanisms for appeal against the judgments.

For matters concerning religious freedom, it is also difficult to define exactly what the limits are.

We have now legislated laws which allow the Minister for Home Affairs to make certain judgments and for a committee of religious leaders to express their views on these judgments.

If they disagree with the Minister, then certain other processes could be activated.

This explains why OB markers cannot all be defined in advance. I remember once, we had the famous or infamous case of someone snipping off his pubic hair at a public event.

After that, we planted an OB marker. Before that who would have been imaginative enough to say that you must not snip pubic hair in public?

There are many things you do think about before they happen and there are new things which the human mind is capable of inventing which you have got to respond to from time to time.

One area which has concerned a number of civic organisations is political involvement.

Here we have got to ask ourselves whether it is in our interest for religious groups, civic organisations and women's magazines to get involved in political activism.

If you look at our political history, United Front tactics, using seemingly innocuous activities to achieve political ends, are in the soil.

Invisible dalangs pull strings and make things happen on the wayang stage. If this is the way politics is conducted in Singapore, we will never achieve democracy because the real protagonists do not show their hands or identify themselves. The people who are used are willing or unwilling puppets. What we have done over many years now is to make it clear that if you wish to involve yourself in political activism, declare it, come forward and appear on the stage, for everyone to see, such as in a political party.

We have had occasions to tell women's magazines not to get involved in partisan matters. If we did not do this, every political party will use women's magazines to get their views across. I do not think that is healthy for Singapore.

So, over a period of time, we have taken the view that if you are a civic organisation, whether you are an organisation, like AMP or whatever, if you want to get yourself involved politically, please get into the political arena and not hide behind a religious group, a tuition class, or a theatre troupe.

Karyawan: How do you then get yourself in the political arena without registering yourself or declaring yourself as a political party? How do you do that?

BG Yeo: You can register yourself like The Roundtable. There is always some ambiguity. When the law on political videos was enacted, we could not confine it to political parties, because then the obvious way to get around it was to get a friendly non-party organisation to produce the video.

Therefore, we had to extend the law to include those whose purposes are obviously political even though they are not political parties. At the same time, it was obviously not in our interest to disallow all videos which covered political topics.

This then created an ambiguity in the position which is left to the Films Appeal Committee to settle. There was much debate in Parliament about whether this ambiguity could not be better defined. Well, we should if we could.

Karyawan: Let us take an example of an organisation that goes public and launches a campaign against the development of more golf courses in Singapore. Their reason is purely environmental. How would you react to this? Would you blow the whistle if they become increasingly activists in their posturing on environmental issues?

BG Yeo: It would be absurd and stifling to say that nature societies are not allowed to comment on the environmental impact of golf courses.

But if a pattern of behaviour emerges that makes it clear that the issue is being politicised, then I think it is better for all of us if the people involved declare that they are lobbying politically for a change in the law governing land use for golf courses.

Singaporeans may well support them. How do we know when an environmental issue is being politicised? It may be a subjective judgment but a committee of fair-minded citizens could sit down to decide. In this way, those who are in fact playing political games in the shadows will be brought to the sunlight.

In many societies, you are allowed to play such games. People accept it as a way of life -- the wayang . You are left wondering all the time what is really going on.

Whose shadow is that? Where do the strings lead to? Do we want to be that kind of society? I think not. That is why our laws, regulations and standards have evolved in a particular way. It is necessary to set parameters.

Some lines are hard to draw in advance but, over a period of time, we can establish certain conventions. Sometimes we have a controversy, a big incident that sparks a public debate. After a while the dust settles and a common understanding emerges. This is a "common law" way to establish the standards for our society.

Karyawan: In the light of the conventions as well as the mechanisms that are in place and the government's encouragement for more civic/civil groups to grow and take an active interest in Singaporean life, it may be inevitable that these groups could develop into lobbies or interest groups to represent certain sections of Singaporeans in finding solutions which are important for their respective groups. Can we have your reaction?

BG Yeo: In the first place, there is freedom to form such organisations. If they are in receipt of public funding, there will be some form of public scrutiny of the activities they undertake.

If they are not in receipt of public monies, monitoring whether or not these are political parties or political activities in disguise should be the responsibility of the Ministry of Home Affairs.

Someone has got to make sure that the politics of Singapore conform to certain rules and norms. If you refuse public money but, mysteriously, you have a lot of resources to lobby certain causes, then it is important that someone worries whether foreigners are pulling strings behind the scene.

The Internal Security Department (ISD) must worry. We had cases in the past of such foreign manipulation. Action had to be taken so that the politics of Singapore are for Singaporeans to determine, not foreigners to influence in hidden ways.

It is for this reason that we make sure our local newspapers are not subject to foreign control or manipulation.

There were cases in the past when foreign monies subsidised newspapers to influence Singaporeans.

We are a small country, politically and religiously linked to different parts of the world. This social mix makes it particularly crucial for us to worry about foreign subversion.

We do not mind if foreigners try to influence us openly. Then their intentions are clear.

Indeed, some of them think they are influencing us for our own good. And if they give us good advice, why should we not listen?

Karyawan: How do you see discussions on public issues developing through the Internet?

BG Yeo: In new and wonderful ways, but for both good and ill.

Karyawan: But it is unhindered, it can be a free-for-all.

BG Yeo: This is technology. This is like the fax machine or the telephone. We cannot stop it. This is something which has come down upon us. There are some things we can control. There are many things we cannot.

Also, the government cannot be responsible for everything. In fact, in some matters, the government has no competence at all.

Take the example of the Al Qadiani Movement. The local Muslim community has always been against the movement's activities in Singapore and their members' declaration that they are Muslims. As a secular government, we cannot be involved in this debate. Muslims have complained to me and asked the Ministry of Information and the Arts (Mita) to ban Al Qadiani literature.

But I am not a theologian. I have no competence in this area. I ask them to complain to the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis). I believe Muis has come up with a fatwa so that Singapore Muslims are clear what the correct position is.

Muis exercises some control over what is allowed in the mosque. However, once you are in the Web world, you can bypass Muis, you can bypass the ulama, you can bypass your parents, that is the reality.

Even if you are a Middle Eastern sheikhdom, you cannot control in the old way anymore.

Karyawan: The Internet will also allow for direct dialogue between, not only groups but also individuals with the government. If I have your e-mail address, I can e-mail to you directly.

BG Yeo: It does not mean that you will get a reply all the time.

Karyawan: You will hear my point of view, if you read it, but that allows a unique and direct way of having a discussion with the government. We do not need intermediaries, we do not need our members of parliament to speak on our behalf or any other middleman.

BG Yeo: I don't think it is so simple.

Karyawan: It allows for something which is quite new.

BG Yeo: Internet communication may allow you a direct link but it matters a lot who is communicating, what position he holds in society and whether the views are expressed by a respected person or by a mad man. At the end of the day, these views are weighed.

Some views are weightier than others and you have to make decisions. Assume that I receive a thousand e-mail a day. Should I read them all? Many of them may be junk. I must be selective.

Although the technology offers these possibilities and has the effect of flattening hierarchical organisations, this does not lead to a complete loss of hierarchy. You still need hierarchy, you still need parents, teachers, imams, political leaders, CEOs, gatekeepers and so on.

Karyawan: So you do not see a breaking down of barriers?

BG Yeo: I see some breaking down of barriers, not a total removal. New barriers may be needed. We have to adjust ourselves to this new environment.

For example, you may decide to create different e-mail accounts. I may have a public e-mail account which my secretary or a junior officer goes through. Then I would have a private e-mail account whose address is known to a few people who deal with me directly.

We also have an internal network in the civil service, with security features and firewalls, to discuss confidential matters.

After a while, we learn to use the technology to regulate our work. Otherwise, we get bogged down. I will be spending my whole day on the computer screen.

Published in the Straits Times. May 26, 1999

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