Bloggers beware. Big Brother is watching.
The recent arrest of three Singaporeans accused of making racial slurs on Internet message boards has sparked concerns of a cyberspace crackdown by authorities in Singapore and neighboring Malaysia, where strict laws suppress outspokenness.
Web logs, or blogs, a global online phenomenon, are seen as the high-tech equivalent of personal diaries, but they've also become a public forum for free speech in Singapore and Malaysia, where the media are tightly controlled and provocative views are rarely heard.
Now, bloggers in both countries fear they'll have to watch their words, following the arrest of Benjamin Koh Song Huat (許松發), 27, and Nicholas Lim Yew (林友和), 25, in Singapore on Monday last week for allegedly posting comments insulting the country's Muslim Malay minority. A third Singaporean, a 17-year-old, was charged separately last Friday, the Straits Times reported, but it did not identify him.
Charged with sedition, all three face prison terms of up to three years if convicted.
While some bloggers say they deserve little sympathy because their remarks were repugnant, the case has triggered concern that Singapore's government might be tightening social controls.
Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (李顯龍) said his government will act against anyone who threatens racial and religious harmony, whether on the Internet or in any other forum, a newspaper reported yesterday.
"Whether you do it on the Internet, whether you do it in the newspapers, whether you go and say it in public or even at the Speakers' Corner, it doesn't matter where you say it. This is a message which is not acceptable," the Straits Times quoted Lee as saying.
Speakers' Corner is a state-approved site where people can express their views, but opposition figures dismiss it as an attempt to show that the government tolerates outspokenness.
Lee said racist remarks cannot be tolerated as they send wrong signals to people who might want to say "something foolish" and also because they send a "very wrong signal to all minorities in Singapore," the newspaper said.
"It is against the law, and the Sedition Act specifically puts it down that it is creating disaffection and distrust and enmity between the races, and we will act according to the law," Lee said.
Koh and Lim are the first bloggers to be arrested and charged in Singapore.
In May, Chen Jiahao (陳家豪), a Singaporean studying in the US, was threatened with a lawsuit for allegedly defamatory criticism about Singapore's scholarship policies. Chen was spared after he apologized and closed down his personal Web site.
International press freedom group Reporters Without Borders decried the lawsuit as "intimidation" that "could make the country's blogs as timid and obedient as the traditional media."
The racial element was bound to raise hackles in Singapore, where ethnic Chinese comprise 80 percent of the city-state's 4.2 million populace, with Malays making up around 15 percent and ethnic Indians some 5 percent.
Neighboring Malaysia has a similarly delicate ethnic mix among its 25 million people, with nearly 60 percent Malays, 25 percent Chinese, 10 percent Indians and a number of other groups.
Both nations pride themselves on racial harmony and rank among Southeast Asia's most peaceful places, but critics say the apparent racial order is forced by their governments, using tough laws such as the one that hit the bloggers.
In Malaysia, laws provide for one-year prison sentences for Web users who post false, indecent or offensive material.
"The online environment is not a legal vacuum," warns the Communications and Multimedia Content Code. "In general, if something is illegal off-line, it will also be illegal online."
Malaysian bloggers have faced no legal repercussions so far, but many have been worried since the government threatened one popular Web writer with jail after a racially provocative comment was posted on his Web site.
Jeff Ooi (黃泉安) was warned he could be jailed under a law that allows imprisonment without trial if one `encourages' debate on contentious issues after a reader published a comment that offended Muslims.
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