New target:
Web harassment
Another law to tame the Internet beast before the next election. By Seah Chiang Nee
Mar 29, 2914

(Synopsis: What the father did with print media in the early years, PM Lee Hsien Loong now tries it on the new media.)

A TEENAGE girl gets a series of e-mail propositions from a stranger: have sex or else! She panics.

Her worried parents report it to the police but the harassments continue. Elsewhere a girl finds her topless photo circulated over the Internet.

Such cases of web abuse are on the rise in modern Singapore.

Then there are instances of online bullying of students by classmates – threats, insults and name-callings are frequently used. Mental health suffers.

Such cyber-bullying or harassments by anonymous persons are now the target of the new Protection from Harassment Act passed recently by Parliament.

Singapore has the second highest rate of cyber-bullying among 25 countries, according to a survey by Microsoft in 2012.

After 10 years in office, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is trying to tame the untameable, cyberspace – or at least part of it.

He has shown that his leadership is less authoritarian than his father’s, except possibly in one area – the media.

Nearly 80% of Singaporeans surf the Net.

(A Straits Times survey showed 36.3% of people here between 21-34 cited the Internet as their top source of local political news, compared with 35.3% who preferred newspapers.)

For PM Lee – just as it was for Lee Senior – controlling this slippery creature is a strategy for political survival.

During the past few elections, new media is said to have been a major cause for the People’s Action Party’s drop in popular votes.

The father started history by turning Singapore’s newspapers and TV into a mouthpiece for his government.

And now the son is trying to pull out some of the sting from the Internet through legislation.

current anti-harassment law is less controversial than last year’s salvo to control reporting of online local news.

Last year, the government forced 10 big websites to register to continue reporting local current affairs and politics.

The licence is renewable every year and requires a performance bond of S$50,000, which could be forfeited if they break regulations.

Offenders will be ordered to remove portions assessed to be “in breach of content standards” within 24 hours.

(It includes critical public comments, believed to be important targets.)

That created a public furore with widespread charges that the ruling party was try­­ing to stifle Internet freedom.

The anti-harassment law last week covers online (and offline) abuses, including sexual harassment, cyber-bullying and stalking.

They are declared illegal acts with some subjected to heavier punishments, replacing fines with prison terms.

The strong arm of the law could stretch out to acts outside Singapore – if they could catch the perpetrators.

Some government critics are concerned they may be accused of being online harassers or abusers.

It is a matter of balancing the need to protect individuals with the important principle of free speech, said a prominent blogger.

Any public member who criticises a political leader or MP or civil servant in future could technically be charged for harassment – given the word’s wide interpretation.

The anti-harassment law is generally applauded, especially where it protects the young, but some Singaporeans question the intention behind it.

“There’s declining trust by the young on what the government says,” said a law student. “We should always be careful of its promises.”

The two laws have put Lee’s name into the history books as Singapore’s first leader to move to control the widely popular social media.

Lee once said: “Satisfied people don’t have time to go onto the Internet. Unhappy people often go there.”

For him, winning the fight over the Internet is crucial to political survival.

The social media has begun to erase a generation of news control and political apathy, gradually creating a new Singapore.

For a long time, cynical Singaporeans who disliked government-controlled news have been forming themselves into a sort of digital sub-community.

They often ignore what the government says about policies, preferring instead to talk to each other about them online, a sad development for the ruling party.

Large numbers of the better-educated Singaporeans have long lived within this sub-culture where the government plays little or no part.

Many turn away from government press releases or Singapore newspaper reports they consider as “propaganda”.

So far, the authorities have not found a way to engage the community, let alone win it over. The media struggle is tougher for him than it was for his father.

Singapore’s Internet penetration is more than 80% – and rising. With the 2016 election coming up, this sub-culture has evolved further.

The two laws are believed by some analysts to be part of Lee’s centrepiece. So far, he has had mixed results.

There is already a decline in the amount of fiery anti-government postings in some cautious websites that worry about losing their bonds.

Several popular forums which had attracted a large following have closed their doors – for good.

Others have reduced the number of controversial subjects inviting public opinions.

But for Lee, his actions – whether for political survival or for social necessity – carry political risks.

Instead of silencing dissent, it may increase it. Internet-savvy Singaporeans now make up the growing force of new voters,

Two years separate the next scheduled election when the new media will be important to decide if the People’s Action Party can win back lost votes or increase them.

More than 75% of people who post comments online are critical of it or its policies, as admitted by a backbencher.

The authorities know the new legislation will not end the trend, but they hope it will dampen the more vociferous voices from operating.

(This article was first published in The Star, Malaysia).