Singapore censors try to keep up with cutting edge BY JERRY NORTON SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Keeping up with proliferating multi-media technology is tough for anyone, including censors, but Singapore is trying its best. In recent weeks, the government has taken steps to help the censors keep pace with the fast-changing world of media technology, including widening its definition of ``publication'' and streamlining its various censorship bodies. Singapore's government has never made any bones about its view that censorship in such areas as pornography and certain political material is necessary to protect moral values and maintain internal security. On that basis it has long banned some foreign books, magazines and films, censored videos imported for personal use, and imposed restrictions on domestic publications. And Singapore's leadership has said it does not want to exempt the media of the IT (information technology) age. In the past few weeks, it has: -- Announced it was pulling various media censorship and licensing bodies into one unit to make life easier for importers and others, partly ``in response to the advances in technology.'' -- Expanded provisions of its act regulating obscene films to include new technologies like CDs, digital video discs (DVDs), and electronic mail, and stiffened penalties. -- Made similar changes in its publication act, expanding the definition of ``publication'' to CD-ROMs, sound recordings, pictures and drawings generated by computer graphics. -- Put into law a ban on political parties making films or videos. While regulation should not be overdone, controls on information were needed in the IT age because ``just as cars can knock down people, ideas can also be dangerous,'' Teo Chee Hean, now education minister, said in 1995. ``Ideas can kill,'' he was quoted as saying. While it was critical for Singapore's progress to be open to IT, he said: ``As with many things in this world, a sense of balance is required, and some control is required to ensure that we can reap the benefits and shut out or minimise the dangers.'' As Teo's remarks suggested, Singapore wants to be open to IT. With few natural resources and a well-paid labor force, Singapore looks to being a multi-media center on the cutting edge of technology as one way of staying prosperous. A multi-billion-dollar drive aims to hook every home into a state-of-the-art multi-media fibre optics web by the year 2000. In addition to its IT program, the government wants to encourage more independent thinking. Singaporean students perform at or near the top in international academic testing, but critics say in the work force Singaporeans often lack the entrepreneurial, innovative talents seen in places like the United States. Some say the efforts to be an innovative multi-media center while maintaining censorship and limits on political activity are a bit like trying to square the circle. Asked how the recent shift in rules meshes with the ``intelligent island'' idea, veteran opposition leader Joshua Jeyaretnam said: ``It doesn't, does it? The answer is obvious.'' ``I know they talk about wanting to think creatively. The only way one can think creatively is to ... have access to different philosophies, different ideas, and if you don't allow that how can you expect someone to think creatively?,'' Jeyaretnam told Reuters on Sunday. Discussing the bill to ban political films and videos, which the government said was necessary to keep debate from turning into an advertising contest, one appointed member of parliament said the law was trying to ``shield Singaporeans like children.'' But government defenders say rhetoric on censorship's dangers often exaggerates the reality -- and pragmatism -- of practice. For example, although Singapore blocks access to certain Internet Websites, it is a tiny handful of what is available and Websurfers looking for prurience or politics still have much to choose from. Moreover, business user access is not blocked. Nor is the government seeking to snoop through electronic mail, said Information and the Arts Minister George Yeo on Friday, discussing the inclusion of e-mail in film act revisions. The move was to enable police to act when people complain of receiving obscene films via e-mail, and Singapore had ``no intention to intrude into private communications,'' he said. ``It is not our objective to increase the level of censorship in Singapore. Just maintaining the existing level of censorship is difficult enough,'' Yeo said.
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