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Interpreting the "Light Touch"

In this essay written in Singapore Angle many years back, I explained how one can interpret the government's light touch principle when it comes to speech.

Recently, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, the Second Minister For Information, Communications And The Arts gave a speech entitled “Navigating the Age of the Internet, Singapore and the New Media” in the Foreign Correspondents Association lunch time talk. In his speech, he discussed the difficulty in regulating cyberspace and reiterated the “light touch” approach that the government has been using to engage issues pertaining to the new media. Here is an excerpt from his speech:

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.

I want to sketch out why the touch from the government is not really “light”. Examining past cases showed that the current legislation is not just over-reaching but also can be interpreted broadly such that the offender can be shown (in the legal context) to have broken the law. The best example is the use of the sedition act against the racist bloggers. If you have invoked their wrath without crossing the definite OB markers such as race and religion, you can infer that “light touch” as a tool which the establishment can issue a stern rebuke on issues relating to governance or economy, for e.g., the cases pertaining to Mr Brown and Catherine Lim.

The last interpretation of “light touch” is the government’s choice to exercise the option of ceremonial censorship rather than direct enforcement of the legislation. Recently, the establishment acknowledges that it is difficult to regulate the internet even with the help of technology. For example, through Vivian’s speech, we know that the government only ban 100 pornographic internet sites even though there are millions out there. In that example, the light touch is employed to shift a “harmless” OB marker which is dependent on the evolution of social norms and attitudes of Singaporeans over time.

Despite the call to clarify the OB markers from the civil society to the government, the current status quo is likely to remain. The establishment will possess the advantage to set the political agenda and rules of engagement. Hence it is important for bloggers (particularly younger ones) out there to be clear on the government’s “light touch” approach on both old and new media.

Related Links:
Cherian George, Looking for patterns in 10 years of ‘light touch’ regulation