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[Speech by Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports and Second Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts, at the Foreign Correspondents Association Lunch Time Talk on 22 March 2007.]

Ms Sonia Kolesnikov-Jessop, President FCA
Members of FCA
Ladies and gentlemen,
Good afternoon.

1 I would like to thank the FCA for giving this opportunity to share my views on the new media with foreign journalists based in Singapore.

2 Let me start by saying that all of you, journalists, owe your jobs to the invention of the printing press. It was first invented in China almost a thousand years ago, and subsequently in Europe some four hundred years thereafter. It enabled the creation, storage and dissemination of exponential volumes of new knowledge; laid the foundations for scientific inquiry; built new economies (including new jobs); and catalysed enormous political changes by dispersing the power that comes with information more widely than ever before.

3 The invention of the internet, and the new media that flows along its highways at the speed of light puts us at the cusp of another revolution.

4 I would like to very briefly sketch my views on the impact of new media, and discuss the operating principles guiding the Singapore government’s response to these new opportunities and challenges.

Impact of the new media

5 The first point I want to make is that we are witnessing an explosive growth in the sheer volume of digital information globally. A recent study by IT research house, IDC revealed that in 2006, 161 billion gigabytes of digital information, or about three million times the information in all the books ever printed, was created, captured or replicated. The IDC report goes on to predict that by 2010, the digital universe will expand more than six-fold to 988 billion gigabytes.

6 The second observation I want to make is that nearly 70% of this digital universe will be user created. In other words, what this means is that, in theory, every one of us will all possess printing presses. And it will not just be words, but sounds, music, speeches, games and movies created by users.

7 Third, this digital universe will be flat, with content having a global reach. Everyone, everywhere, is able to interact and transact in real time through pervasive, always on, always connected networks.

8 I don’t believe a flat digital universe will lead to a convergent global village. On the contrary, I expect greater fragmentation of societies due to the centrifugal forces of multiple identities, multiple allegiances and post-modern tribalism. Confronted by the sometimes alienating effect of globalisation, many of us will search to define our unique identities and values systems. Unfortunately, some people will be drawn to the simplistic appeal of extremism and fundamentalism. Radical and inflammatory views will always be able to find a receptive niche minority audience somewhere. These minorities will interconnect and resonate using the internet. Broadcasting will become narrow-casting, because we can now pick and choose the perspectives and media we subscribe to.

9 Fourth, most people have not fully appreciated that everything you do or publish will be recorded permanently – our sins, especially, will be indelible. We will have to grapple with the trade-off between security, convenience and privacy. Society, politicians and lawmakers have to come to terms with achieving the right balance, so that economic growth could be achieved without sacrificing the security of society and the sanctity of personal privacy.

10 Fifth, we are concerned with the impact of the new media on young children. The jury is still out on both the positive and negative effects of new media on children, particularly in terms of their mental development, reflexes, attitudes and communication skills.

11 This list could go on and we will run out of time, so allow me to move on to how the Singapore government intends to respond.

Government’s strategic response

12 I would like to outline some strategic objectives of the Government in our approach to new media.

13 First, we intend to exploit the economic opportunities that the new media revolution presents. That’s why we are investing large sums of money rolling out infrastructure, promoting new e-services, decreasing the cost of access and overcoming the digital divide. You would have heard of our “Wireless@SG” initiative which provides free wireless access for everyone and the implementation of a high-speed Next Generation National Broadband Network which will vastly increase access speeds for homes and businesses. We will continue to invest in education to ensure that all Singaporeans have the soft tools and skill sets to exploit the opportunities that will come our way.

14 Second, we intend to use new media for greater social interaction and public outreach. There are new avenues for public discourse and interactive exchange of views, both within and beyond Singapore. Singaporeans enjoy blogging and podcasting, and many use that as a way to socialise and reach out to each other. According to the latest 2006 survey [1] by IDA, seven in 10 households in Singapore have access to the Internet and the majority of Singaporeans use it for communicating and information gathering. The online survey by Microsoft’s MSN and Windows Live Online Services Business [2] released in November 2006 said that it was no surprise that almost 7 out of 10 of those online in Singapore are bloggers given that Singapore is an extremely wired nation. The report also noted that 81% of online Singaporeans blog to express themselves while 47% write about their thoughts on the world.

15 We are experimenting with the use of the new media to reach out to the public. Government agencies such as the National Heritage Board, National Library Board and Health Promotion Board have set up blogs. We have also recently initiated post-Budget real time web chats called e-Townhall meeting which was conducted via the REACH website. Our engagement online must, however, be seen as complementary to other existing channels such as face-to-face discussions in the community centres, house visits, school fora etc. I would be the first to admit that we have only taken baby steps so far in the use of the internet for government public communications, but I will also want to leave you no doubt that we will do more to exploit these new channels.

16 Third, the Government has a duty to manage the risks. Singapore’s key vulnerabilities – the fault lines of race, language and religion remain, and in fact, are even more exposed to foreign influence in the form of religious extremism and terrorism reaching us through new media.

17 Generally, we adopt a “light touch” approach. Although there is much offensive and untrue material in cyberspace, there is no need, and in fact it is impossible, to pursue each and every transgression. We only need to selectively target those who pose a clear and present risk to the real world. Consequently, we see no need to suppress new media unless specific laws are broken because people have posted seditious or racially offensive content which have come to our notice, and which have gained traction in our society. Race and religion continue to be sensitive and volatile issues that tug at the visceral feelings of people. We had a few such cases in the previous years, and we have not hesitated to prosecute them in court.

18 As far as sex, nudity and alternative lifestyles is concerned, the Singapore government’s approach is to lag behind what the general population is prepared to accept. We are a liberalising society but we are one that still acts with a strong conservative core. And therefore our regulatory policies will therefore have to balance the interests of these diverse groups in our society. For example, we only block 100 pornographic internet sites, although there must be hundreds of thousands of such sites. This is what we call “ceremonial censorship”. We are merely drawing a line in cyberspace. But these will move over time, taking into account the evolution of social norms and mores of ordinary Singaporeans.

19 Fourth, the Government will continue to set the political agenda and rules of engagement. That does not mean the government will have a monopoly of views or wisdom. On the contrary, Singapore society is opening up. We encourage frank rational debate and greater participation. Nevertheless, at the end of the day, government has the mandate and responsibility to decide, and we will do so in the best long term interests of the country.

20 I must say that we have never governed by taking straw polls. And we will not govern by online petitions or polls either.

21 The most potent impact that the new media will have on politics is that, politicians will find it impossible to lie in the future. The truth will always be out there, because somewhere, someone has the facts, or has seen something, and will publish it. Fortunately for us in Singapore, we have run a clean system, and hence have nothing to hide. That is the key reason we do not fear the new media.

22 My final point is that there will always be a need for accurate, rational, balanced and credible sources of information in the midst of the cacophony of the new media. Hence, there will always be a need for journalists and editors to inform, educate and entertain the public. The new media will take its place in the ecosystem, where the written word, the printed book, newspapers, radio, TV, films and theatre continue to co exist in our lifetime. Your jobs are therefore secure.

23 I remain optimistic that well educated, well organised, hard working, open, well led societies with the right balance of flexibility and discipline will be best able to reap the benefits of globalisation and the media revolution – and Singapore intends to be such a society.

Thank you.