ST Global Outlook Forum

Government not limiting debate online, seeks responsible discourse: Shanmugam

Straits Times Editor Warren Fernandez speaks at the ST Global Forum on Nov 29, 2013.  -- ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM
Straits Times Editor Warren Fernandez speaks at the ST Global Forum on Nov 29, 2013.  -- ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM
The audience at the ST Global Forum on Nov 29, 2013. -- ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM
The audience at the ST Global Forum on Nov 29, 2013. -- ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM
Straits Times Editor Warren Fernandez (left) with Law and Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam at the ST Global Forum on Nov 29, 2013. The minister said that the Government is not out to curtail freedom of expression but it believes people should be he
Straits Times Editor Warren Fernandez (left) with Law and Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam at the ST Global Forum on Nov 29, 2013. The minister said that the Government is not out to curtail freedom of expression but it believes people should be held accountable for what they say online. -- ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM
Law and Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam (left) with Straits Times Editor Warren Fernandez at the ST Global Forum on Nov 29, 2013. The minister said that the Government is not out to curtail freedom of expression but it believes people should be held ac
Law and Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam (left) with Straits Times Editor Warren Fernandez at the ST Global Forum on Nov 29, 2013. The minister said that the Government is not out to curtail freedom of expression but it believes people should be held accountable for what they say online. -- ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM
Law and Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam (left) with Straits Times Editor Warren Fernandez at the ST Global Forum on Nov 29, 2013. The minister said that the Government is not out to curtail freedom of expression but it believes people should be held ac
Law and Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam (left) with Straits Times Editor Warren Fernandez at the ST Global Forum on Nov 29, 2013. The minister said that the Government is not out to curtail freedom of expression but it believes people should be held accountable for what they say online. -- ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM
Law and Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam (left) with Straits Times Editor Warren Fernandez at the ST Global Forum on Nov 29, 2013. The minister said that the Government is not out to curtail freedom of expression but it believes people should be held ac
Law and Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam (left) with Straits Times Editor Warren Fernandez at the ST Global Forum on Nov 29, 2013. The minister said that the Government is not out to curtail freedom of expression but it believes people should be held accountable for what they say online. -- ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM

The Government is not out to curtail freedom of expression but it believes people should be held accountable for what they say online, Law and Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam said on Friday.

Speaking at the ST Global Outlook Forum, he pushed back at charges that the Government is clamping down on socio-political blogs and websites, emphasising that its only desire is to encourage responsible and accountable debate online.

Last week, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that the Government would require registration by commenters on its Reach feedback website and encouraged other sites to do the same.

"Put down your name," said Mr Shanmugam on Friday. "Nobody is talking about freedom of speech. Express what you want but identify yourself."

When Straits Times editor Warren Fernandez, who was moderating the session, said that this demand could be taken as an attempt to constrain debate online, Mr Shanmugam asked why people should be unwilling to identify themselves. "They would be uncomfortable (identifying) themselves only if they want to distort the truth or bully."

He also dismissed the description of recent moves as "new rules" to control the Internet. In June, the Government enacted regulations that require news websites to take down undesirable content within 24 hours and post a $50,000 bond.

The Government has always had the power, in legislation, to demand the removal of posts - the only "new" part is the 24-hour timeframe, which was decided on due to the speed of online discourse, he said.

In the last 20 years, Mr Shanmugam noted, this power was used 24 times: 22 times on pornography-related matters and twice on posts offensive to other religions.

"That is how it has been used. There is very vibrant social and political commentary in Singapore," he said. "The power has never been used to order a takedown (of that)."

In the 90-minute dialogue that focused mostly on foreign affairs, Mr Shanmugam noted that the rising religiosity which has led to conflict in many Asian countries is also manifesting in Singapore.

The "culture wars" in the United States over issues like gay rights and abortion is beginning here too, he noted. Ten years ago, every Singaporean would support women's right to abortion, he said. Now, this is no longer the case - not just among older people who might be more conservative, but young religious people as well.

He cited a female law undergraduate who had sent him a paper arguing that Singapore's abortion laws are too lax, noting that he would not be surprised if her legislative position was influenced by her religious views.

" Don't mistake me, there is a place for these debates," he said. "But in my own view, a secular view, what the laws on gay rights and abortion should be - there is a framework to discuss this from a secular perspective. But it's inevitable that arguments in the secular space will be informed by people's religious beliefs, and those are becoming stronger."