It is "unproductive and unrealistic" to have the same set of rules apply to every country when regulating the digital economy, said Communications and Information Minister S. Iswaran yesterday.
He told a panel discussion at Shangri-La Hotel, Singapore: "There is a diversity of regimes and we need to find the common thread so we can continue to transact."
This means nations need multilateral, regional and bilateral efforts to reinforce their stand on issues such as data protection and regulating e-commerce, in much the same way free trade deals govern international trade relations, he added.
Mr Iswaran was part of a panel on regulating the digital economy, one of the topics at the annual Singapore Summit, which examines global trends.
At the same time, governments should resist over-regulation and take a "cautious, circumspect stance but not be in a hurry to draw very hard lines... because we really do not know how this is evolving", he said.
"Even the private sector - I think if you ask someone today and you ask them again in a year's time, perceptions do change."
He cited the Personal Data Protection Act, adding that the authorities conducted extensive consultation with stakeholders. There are "workable rules for companies" on how to handle data in a manner that strikes a balance between consumers' desire for privacy and the legitimate use of data by businesses.
But he said some firms, such as Facebook and Google, have evolved to the point where they are almost a public utility, not just a company providing a service.
"A rule of thumb is that when your name becomes a verb, you should start looking at it seriously," he said, adding that it is likely regulation would result in some pushback but overall, it would create a more constructive environment for social media.
Panellist Jean-Francois Gagne, chief executive of software firm Element AI, said such firms can continue to make a profit but "there needs to be a certain degree of oversight so it's properly managed".
Another panellist, Professor Xue Jun of Peking University Law School, said the Chinese government is adopting a wait-and-see approach when it comes to regulating e-commerce.