Yun-Ching Chang

Traditional Media and Internet Control in Singapore


Abstract: Censorship has been practised in Singapore for several years. Though the authorities are unable to execute water-tight censorship, the political hegemony has still successfully eliminated what the authorities deem “undesirable” from the society. The following essay examines how Singapore censors traditional media as well as the internet, and evaluates the effectiveness of such censorship. As we will see, explicit censorship is effective in Singapore by arousing implicit censorship; and both kinds of censorship intertwine.

Social and political background

Singapore is a small country with some 240 square miles. It is a multi-ethnic nation situated in Southeast Asia and is unique in having a Chinese majority (76% of the population) in the very middle of the Malaya-Indonesian world. This geographically and ethnically vulnerable situation is an important factor for the hegemony of Singapore’s government.

The political system of the nation was never a western-style democracy, except in terms of a wide definition. Essentially, the only ruling party of the nation is the People’s Action Party (PAP), which severely emphasizes law, rules and order. Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew and his successor Lee Hsien Loong (both are members of the PAP) place emphasis on deference and discipline, claiming that Singaporean traditions and conditions deter Western individualism, which they equate with decadence. 1 Confucian values are preached by Singapore leaders, which consider “individualism” to be selfishness. Under Confucian principles, every single person in the society should sacrifice or compromise in favour of the society.

Despite the modicum of civil liberties, most of the Singaporeans find that the nation and its leader have established an agreeable society, because the citizens’ needs are being met. Most of the Singaporeans are not interested in politics and are content with it, as long as they do not feel any repression and are able to maintain a better living standard than in the surrounding countries. 2 In fact, the economic miracle has made Singaporeans believe that, without the pre-eminence of PAP, Singapore could never achieve its economic success.

Singapore’s government has emphasized racial harmony and political stability. Any behaviour which defies these principles is deemed to be an attempt to jeopardise the society. Thus, in terms of media censorship, as with the Confucian values and the idea of maintaining a peaceful society, the authorities of Singapore have fully utilised their powers to control the media. The government understands the main role of media to consist in informing the people of government policies, rather than in questioning the authorities. Publications which give rise to chaos, instability and undermining the public morality are strongly discouraged by the authorities.

“Singapore, then, has been forthright about admitting that it lacks a f ree and unrestricted press. But government leaders argue that an unfettered press can lead to civil commotion, an especially unacceptable state of affairs in a small, vulnerable island state.” 3

It is obvious that, for Singapore ’s government, discipline is more important than democracy. Media Censorship is justified by Confucian principles, the well-being of the whole society and, of course, political stability – though i n view of the structure of Singapore’s political system, “political stability of Singapore” should equate “the stability of PAP regime” .

Regulating the Press

The authorities of Singapore strictly control its small media industry. There are 15 licensed local newspapers in Singapore. Aside from the newspaper Today, the remaining 14 newspapers are published by the leading media organisation Singapore Press Holdings (SPH), which is a government sponsored company. The political party PAP has always utilised the power of media for political communication and government propaganda, especially during general elections. The monopoly of media ownership limits alternative representations of politics and makes opposing voices rarely heard, therefore giving the leading party PAP a great advantage of maintaining their regime for the last few decades. 4 Senior minister Lee once remarked that journalism should only act as a passive record of statistics and announcements from the government. 5 There is no doubt that PAP still keeps the same stan ce and consistently strengthens the regulation of the press.

The appointment of directors of SPH has to be approved by the PAP; this is to ensure their selection of editorial groups to fulfil the expectation of the authorities. 6 As such, the editors or journalists are already mentally fettered. They comply with the guidelines and self-censor their articles, sometimes even beyond the expectation of the authorities. 7 Self-censorship develops steadily in conjunction with explicit censorship, and constrains journalists so that no articles will offend the government.

Besides the news, most newspapers publish forum sections, giving the readers chances to voice their opinions. Nevertheless, the editors often censor or alter the content regarding controversial issues. Opinions which are considered to “endanger the national security” or “embarrass the government” are taboos in newspaper forums and usually declined by editors. 8 Since 1989, the English flagship daily of SPH, Straits Times, has been publishing letters from readers only if the writers provide their personal information, including real name, address, home and office telephone numbers. 9

The MDA (Media Development Authority) regulates publication by specifying the duties and obligations of all those employed in the media industry through the Code of Practice. 10 Any person who produces objectionable publications is to be charged and liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding S$5,000 (approx. US$7,700), to imprisonment for a term not exceeding one year. 11 Although there is no clear definition of objectionable publications, they could be generally categorised in three parts: 1. a publication that deals with race or religion in a manner that is likely to cause feelings of hatred or enmity between different racial or religious groups; 2. a publication that deals with political issues found inappropriate or offensive by the authority; 3. a publication on violence or obscenity.

Singapore’s government sees press censorship as a necessity to maintain social order. Any undesirable news articles which are deemed as defamation against the authorities would result in a penalty for the publishers. Under the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act, author and editor can be prosecuted for undesirable articles. 12 This does not only apply to the local media: The government also takes a firm stand to restrain the foreign press from publishing unfavourable comments about Singapore.


Regulating Foreign Media

Singapore ’s government is extremely sensitive to foreign media comments on domestic politics. The local press of Singapore seldom discuss sensitive political issues. Therefore, Singaporeans read foreign publication s not only to acquire more information about the world, but also to know what is really happening in Singapore, especially on political issues.

In consideration of the difficulty to control foreign publications as well as the possibility of international repercussions, Singapore ’s government has worked intensively to make the foreign press exercise self-censorship. In 1986, the authorities made amendments to the existing Newspaper and Press Act to restrict the publication and distribution of any “declared foreign newspaper”. By the definition in Chapter 206 of the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act, a “declared foreign newspaper” refers to “newspapers published outside Singapore which has been declared by the Minister to be engaging in the domestic politics of Singapore” [sic]. 13 Only newspapers approved by the minister may be distributed in Singapore; any illegal distribution, reproduction or subscription would incur a heavy fine or imprisonment.

A few months after the amendment of the Presses Act, the American Time magazine became the first victim. Its Singapore sales were forced to reduce to 1/9 of the copies within one year due to a sensitive article dissenting from the government. 14 Many other foreign publishers faced the same situation while “engaging” with the domestic politics. The authorities do not merely curtail circulation, foreign correspondents are even expelled from Singapore or sued under libel law if the stories are considered to be negative coverage of internal politics.

In 1990, the Newspaperand Presses Act was further amended, this time extending to “offshore” newspapers that include news coverage in South-East Asia. 15 The new Act empowers the minister to specify the maximum number of copies of each issue of approved offshore newspapers. Every offshore newspaper has to appoint a representative “to accept service of any notice or legal process on his behalf and on behalf of the publisher”. 16 The officials claim that this new amendment is to ensure “fair, responsible and objective” reporting. 17

It’s contradictory that Singapore’s government does not want to lose the foreign investments, including foreign media companies, but meanwhile restricts the circulation of media and forces them to engage in some extent of self-censorship. As former solicitor general Francis T. Seow remarks,

“The Singapore government cannot hope to accomplish its objective without loosening up its own rigid media command and relaxing its attitudinal aggression towards foreign publications if it wants to lure them over to set up or indeed even remain in Singapore. Competition may yet define and smooth the sharp and ugly features of Singapore authoritarianism.” 18

The authorities dislike news articles which blemish Singapore’s image, and the authoritarianism against the foreign media has induced international criticism.

T V & Radio

Singapore ’s government manipulates the media (television and press) to inform and educate the public and reaffirm their policies. For instance, to promote Standard English, the creole ungrammatical local English – Singlish – should be avoided on TV programs under the guidelines of the Media Development Authority. As there is only one local government-owned company MediaCorp which produces TV programs, to regulate the TV content is easier and simpler. MediaCorp adjusts their strategies and direction following the policies and guidance of the PAP government and serves as the PAP’s medium of propaganda. 19

The Media Development Authority (MDA) of Singapore has specified undesirable and forbidden contents in the Free-to-Air Television Program Code . P rograms which are against national interest, ethnic harmony, or offend decency are prohibited. Programs containing crime, violence, nudity or any undesirable scenes are to be censored according to the standard of the “Code”, and pornography on TV is totally illegal. On the other hand, foreign channels are available on cable TV, but all their content is also required to accord with the broadcast guidelines before broadcasting. The Free-to-Air Program Radio Code is very similar to the TV Code.

There is one special incident of self-censorship concerning local radio station 93.8FM. A report which serves as a commemoration of the International Human Rights Day 2000 was aired by the radio station. The program was aired at 8:30 a.m. in 3 parts: a letter to the Prime Minister of Singapore, an International Human Rights Day message read by Kofi Annan, and an interview with a Think Centre member. 20 The radio station 93.8FM had initially planned to air the program again at 9:20 a.m., together with an additional interview, but in the end the presenter began the program by announcing that the management was unhappy with the earlier program and editing had been required. This was marked as the first time in Singapore’s media history that a working journalist exposed the self-censorship in a broadcast.

Generally speaking, Singaporeans seem to find the standard of censorship acceptable. Although the TV and Radio regulations still attract some political consideration, the regulations are presented as serving national harmony, and most of the Singaporeans have no rejection or complaints towards these regulations. According to the Censorship Review Committee2003 survey, more than 70% of the respondents were satisfied with the censorship standard. 21 The MDA openly defines censorship in Singapore as follows:

“ In Singapore, censorship exists to protect the young from unsuitable content as well as to maintain stability and harmony in our multi-racial and multi-religious society, while allowing more choice for adults.” 22

It is partially true that the purpose of censorship is as the MDA state s . Singaporeans desire a well-organized society with great economic development, and the dominant role of the government has strived for de-politicization of the citizens, which ultimately renders a society strongly influenced by the government. 23 Whether the individual’s mindset and perception really are his original intention is already difficult to differentiate; some elements must be due to the government’s propaganda. Hence, the censorship is a composition of the PAP’s political interests and the pragmatic acquiescence of the individuals.

Internet: Class License Scheme

Singapore is one of the earliest countries in the world to implement internet regulation. T echnology could serve as a new means of civil surveillance; it could also become uncontrollable and its advancement could ultimately counteract censorship. Singapore has created its own unique measures to regulate the internet, but whether those measures c an last is still in question.

Singapore is one of the most wired-up societies in the world. Its government aims to orient the economy towards information technologies. The goal is to attract foreign investors and push science and technology innovations. In the national IT development project, government legislation focuses on technology policies.

The government proclaims that its internet regulation follows a “light touch” approach, which means user self-regulation based on the given Internet Code of Practice and the relevant guidelines; theoretically, this would be the essence of the whole regulation. 24 But in practice, the authorities manage specific groups of internet content providers in a hegemonic way. Singaporeans are hence caught in implicit censorship to make the appropriate choices.

In 1996, new internet regulations were introduced which empowered the Singapore Broadcasting Authority (SBA) to regulate internet content. The regulations were then revised and amended several times and promulgated with detailed guidelines. In 2003, the SBA was replaced by the Media Development Authority (MDA). The MDA carries on the duty of SBA by exercising jurisdiction under the new act. 25

Local internet service providers and content providers whose web pages are set up to promote political or religious causes are required to be licensed. 26 Websites which resell access to the public, such as schools, public libraries, cyber cafés and services providers of private companies, are asked to register with the MDA and install software to restrict objectionable content. In submission to these regulations, the internet service providers have to route traffic through proxy servers so the objectionable sites are filtered out. To ensure that content providers take full responsibilit y of every activity on a website for which they possess editorial control, the content providers have to provide detailed personal information to the MDA to complete the registration.

From the key principles and guidelines of the MDA, it is obvious that the two main target groups of MDA’s Internet regulation are 1) pornographic websites and 2) websites dealing with political or religious contents .

Internet: Pornography

As an offence to decency and social morality, pornography is strongly discouraged by the MDA. Any material which depicts nudity or genitalia, promotes sexual violence, contains explicit sexual activity or advocates homosexuality is prohibited in Singapore. 27 The MDA’s main concern is the ease of access to pornography on the internet. All internet service providers are encouraged to take their own initiative against offensive content through their own policies, and they are required to limit or restrict access to some high-impact websites. 28 Content providers have to take full responsibility for their service wherever they possess editorial control. Anyone who provides undesirable content is liable to a fine or imprisonment and forced to cease his service under the Undesirable Publications Act. 29 The police may arrest without warrant if any person is found or “reasonably suspected” of violating the Act.

Beside the self-regulation of registered internet services, and the aid of proxy servers which filter out undesired web contents, the MDA has short-listed 100 pornographic websites with mass impact, including Playboy in 1997, and blocked access to these websites via local proxy servers. Although the substantial function is feeble, as it is easy to connect to foreign proxy servers and defeat the block, the MDA did not withdraw the ban. This ban is considered to be merely a symbolic gesture which responds to Asian values. According to the instructions of the Censorship Review Committee, this symbolic ban shall remain until there is a better alternative. 30

Internet: Politics

Politics and religious issues are largely intertwined with each other as a result of government policies in Singapore. One recent example is, which is a site purporting to be the genuine voice of Singapore’s Muslim community. In 2002, one of its founder s , Zulfikar Mohamad Shariff, was investigated by the police for his articles on, one of which concern ed a protest against the government’s religious policy. 31

Given that Singapore ’s government is very much concerned about the stability of the nation, politics and religion are extremely sensitive topics for discussion, especially if a group or an individual make s critical comments that may “undermine Singapore’s racial and religious harmony.” 32 Based on the internet regulations as amended in 1996, all websites dealing with political and religious issues have to register with the MDA.

To restrict the funding of political organization s , the authorities enacted a new law in 2001: The Political Donations Act prevents listed political organizations from receiving fund s from overseas and required local funding in ex cess of S$ 5,000 to be declared.

Before the general election in 2001, the government announced the new Parliamentary Elections Act, banning non-party political sites from giving comments, posting articles supporting specific candidates or reporting on the election. The editors of every website are accountable for every posting online, even if it is anonymous. Under the new Act, non-party political websites are effectively hindered from covering the election or voicing criticism. Hence, during the general election, discourse about politics is highly rigid and restrictive. In addition, on account of the increase of bloggers who post their opinions about politics in their blogs, the authorities are considering amending the internet regulation yet again for the forthcoming general election.

Supposedly the internet should be an aid for the progress of democracy, but in Singapore, the reality is different. The political monopoly of the PAP results in a great advantage in suppressing political opponents by all sorts of means, including online surveillance. By consequence, some political parties, civil groups or individuals choose not to use the internet as a communication medium. Nevertheless, despite strict surveillance and occasional police investigations, there are still political websites, like Think Centre, which remain in high profile and actively organiz e activities for their members.

Case Study: Think Centre

Think Centre was registered in 1999 as an events and publishing company, so it could bypass the restriction on organizing public events. 33 Eventually it registered as a political society in 2001. Once listed as a political organization, its funding was then restricted.

The Centre launched its first book, Self-Censorship: Singapore’s Shame, in 2000. This book criticized self-censorship as practised in the society even without direct intervention of the ruling party. Because of its sensitive content, most of the bookshops refused to shelve this book. Thereupon Think Centre advertised the book on websites such as Singaporeans for Democracy and received orders online. It is noteworthy that one of the first batch of orders was from authorities, which points out the government’s close surveillance of activities of political organizations. 34

Gradually, Think Centre established its own website and designed different sections to discuss issues including policy, media, human rights and elections. It also set up an online registration URL which requires members and forum participants to key in their name and contact details. The web editors could then access the web statistics section and track the hits . N ot surprisingly, officers from the Singapore Broadcasting Authority were frequent visitors of the website. To increase the efficiency of information and announcement dissemination, a mailing list service is provided. This list includes members of international and national civil society and media groups. Naturally, the mailing list was under the scrutiny of the government as well. In one incident, Think Centre announced a private meeting only by e-mail and was contacted by the authorities asking them to apply for a permit. 35

Owing to strict authority surveillance, Think Centre developed its own style of reporting. It chooses to post all the details of their activities online, especially when encountering police investigation, thus making their operation transparent. There are many occasions where Think Centre believes it has successfully countered government surveillance. In one case, a man in his mid-thirties attended Think Centre’s events regularly and recorded members’ speeches on tape. The Centre took a series of pictures of his recording activity and published it on its alongside an article, that asked members to identify the man. An e-mail alert was also sent out to inform members about the situation, seeking information on the person in question. Although Think Centre did not receive any detail of this person, he never showed up for any later events. 36

Another counter-surveillance case took place o n March 31, 2001, after the authorities had listed Think Centre as a political organization under the Political Donations Act. Knowing that the media and authorities would check their latest updates closely, Think Centre had posted an announcement saying that they intended to field a slate of candidates to co mpete in the forthcoming General Election. It was reported immediately by the media and evoked a barrage of comments from the PAP. By midnight on April 1, Think Centre sent out a press release, declaring the previous announcement an April ’s fool joke and stunning media and authorities alike. Think Centre explained they wanted to “kindle interest and excitement in a political landscape”, yet bemoaning that “the outcomes are unerringly predictable and so patently banal”. 37

The founder of Think Centre, James Gomez, believes that intimidating the authorities by exposing their surveillance is an overwhelmingly effective way to circumvent scrutiny; and that the internet is an excellent counter-surveillance tool. Many think that he has overstated its efficiency, because the authorities would not retreat from intimidation. However, it is undoubtedly true that the internet is not merely the government’s unilateral surveillance tool, and that Think Centre has found its own way to combat internet censorship.

Media Freedom : Foreign Press

As government-owned or government-sponsored media companies monopolize the local media industry, commentaries or articles criticizing the government are rarely seen. Stories from the local press are normally bland when talking about political issues, and most of them are in favor of the establishment.

Though foreign media report with some scruples under the regulation of Singapore authorities, their reports and critiques are much bolder. The government knows human nature well, such that restricting the circulation simply generates the readers’ interest in the restricted materials. So the expulsion of foreign correspondents becomes another mean s of foreign media control. It is known that during the time of Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew, foreign agencies and publications media sometimes sent sensitive articles to Lee for prior approval. 38 But unlike local press, foreign media is never truly a servant to Singapore’s government.

In short, the monopoly of local media under the hegemonic control of PAP forms an unbreakable web of censorship, but this does not work very well for the control of foreign media. The foreign media might make a concession to exercise self-censorship to a certain extent as explicit control, but they w ill not be tamed like local media. Many believe that the authorities should give the foreign press more freedom if Singapore wants to keep succeeding in its economy growth, but Singapore ’s government does not want to compromise.

Media Freedom: Pornography

Blocking pornographic websites via proxy server s is only a stopgap measure , a s pornographic content could be easily shifted to another website or disseminated via emails. Moreover, there are some anti-censorship websites such as How to defeat Singapore’s Internet censorship, which provide detailed procedures on how to connect to foreign proxy servers 39 Technology is not only a possible aid of surveillance, but also has immeasurable potential in countering surveillance. In this case, explicit censorship itself is insufficient to quell the undesired websites, yet in certain respect s censorship could be considered effective.

The MDA has published “1001 Questions” on its website to resolve doubts and myths about the MDA. The most frequently asked question, ranking at the top, is “whether accessing pornography on the Internet illegal”. But no matter whether the answer is positive or not, there is no doubt that the “light touch” regulation and the “symbolic” blockage of pornographic websites of the government should be deemed successful. Citing Foucault’s interpretation of the Panopticon in Helen Freshwater’s essay that in a panoptic society “internal codes of control displace external methods of punishment and surveillance”, one could also observe the same situation in Singapore. 40 Singaporeans are likewise trapped imperceptibly in the panoptic situation. The constitutive power of censorship is so overwhelming that Singaporeans self-censor and safeguard themselves subconsciously by standing back far behind the critical point. Even though the MDA has clarified its stand on the issue that it does not “monitor or track user’s access to any sites on the Internet and does not interfere with what individuals access in the privacy of their home”, many Singaporeans still believe the government is capable of online surveillance or file scanning. 41

Technologically speaking, the government could not have absolute control over the internet. No perfect control exists. Notwithstanding this fact, the panoptic effect penetrate s the society . I t is the mindset of Singaporeans which makes censorship inexorable.

Media Freedom: Internet Politics and Religion

To minimize the potential of political campaigns on the internet, the PAP has introduced new legislation and implemented rules for the general election in 2001, strictly holding editors and owners accountable for all comments and postings on their websites, even if they hail from anonymous sources. Think Centre knew clearly that most of the postings were anonymous and could not be controlled, hence it decided to close its online forum “Speakers’ Corner Online” in protest. But no matter whether Think Centre closed its forum out of self-censorship or protest, the authorities have succeeded again in obstructing the discourse of political organization s .

Despite the fact that the authorities could not possibly filter every single internet user, and only those specific targeted groups are under regular surveillance, many Singaporeans are still suspicious and resort to complete avoidance of political or religious discourse. The PAP has built an enclosed political environment and created an impenetrable atmosphere of self-censorship, though the internet and other advanced technologies have the potential to develop their own ways to counter surveillance. Yet as long as self-censorship is practised by many Singaporeans, even if online political organizations resort to technology, their effort is futile. The founder of Think Centre, James Gomez, said:

“The political potential of the Internet has yet to be fully harnessed. In effect, Internet users are intimidated into self-censorship, neutralizing the potential use of the Internet to correct the existing political imbalance.” 42

The explicit censorship of the government is so effective that it not only cripples online political or religious discourse by many restrictions, but encourages Singaporeans to practice self-censorship to avoid unnecessary troubles, even on issues that are only vaguely political.


Singapore is gradually turn ing itself into a panoptic society: Its citizens live in an imaginary panopticon, believing that they are under scrutiny, and thus motivated to be discreet in word and deed. Even if self-censorship is implicit and ambiguous, in reality, the efficacy of self-censorship is even more powerful than that of explicit control.

Many Asian countries are trying to adapt the “Singapore Model”, but as a matter of fact, the social and political background of Singapore is so unique that an imitation is almost impossible and meaningless. It is conceivable that while the PAP has made use of all their political advantages to harness the media regulation, most Singaporeans have no objection. The development of the economy and the well-organized and disciplined society have displayed the PAP’s ability to manage the country, and many Singaporeans are not willing to see any changes of the present situation. According to David Held’s scale of compliance and coercion of people under a political institution, the situation in Singapore is likely to fall into the category “instrumental acceptance or conditional agreement”, which means that people are “dissatisfied with things as they are but nevertheless go along with them in order to secure an end”. By complying with legislation, mutual advantage exists not only for the authorities, but the people could also benefit in the long-run. 43 This mindset is deep-rooted among Singaporeans . P articularly after the 9/11 incident, national stability and social harmony are highly valued.

Although “censorship” may come with a bad reputation, it is not totally undesirable. One could argue that Singaporeans are citizens of a Panopticon, but living in this Panopticon does not only lead to being scrutinized, it also protects every individual from possible dangers. The government, or more specifically the PAP, has well reconfigured economy and infrastructure in line with the globalization and capitalism; Singaporeans are reared in a well-planned society. Explicit censorship, ranging from pornography to political and religious issues, intertwines perfectly with self-censorship. Self-censorship may be seen as a by-product of explicit control, but if one examines the situation in Singapore closely, it is indeed the essence of constitutive censorship.

In conclusion, the social and political background as well as the rapid econom ic growth of Singapore has already pre-censored Singaporeans’ willingness towards change. If most of the Singaporeans could benefit in the long-run, censorship itself, in Singapore ’s perspective, is the decisive key point leading to what most of the Singaporeans long for – the freedom of living a good life.


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Verfasserin: Yun-Ching Chang; Datum der Veröffentlichung: 24.07.2007

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