Saturday, June 27, 2020

"Singapore Is Failing at Digital Sovereignty"

From Palladium Magazine:
The intensifying geopolitical competition between China and the United States has sounded the death knell for liberal hopes of a transparent and unified internet. These aspirations have warped and disintegrated beneath the shadow of the “Splinternet”—a fragmentation of the global internet into autonomous American, Chinese, Russian, and other spheres. Though the West has grown resigned to the prospect of a hegemonic and heavily censored Chinese internet within China’s own national territory, the internet’s global “marketplace of ideas” remains the object of maudlin lamentation as a casualty of the spiraling U.S.-China cold war.

The erection of this Iron Curtain in cyberspace, we are told, has diminished opportunities for transnational collaboration in a variety of productive spheres, ranging from cultural exchange to scientific research, excluding both the American and Chinese sides from the win-win dynamics of a free and open internet. Left unquestioned in this is the premise that the uncensored Western internet has served as a neutral platform for the unmitigated intercourse of ideas and networks.

Influential American geopolitical strategists such as Joseph Nye have frequently observed that the U.S. dominance of the internet constitutes a key pillar of American cultural hegemony abroad. This appears validated by Western Europe, which, above all, has fallen ever more under the sway of American political discourse. Even in countries culturally positioned outside the West such as India, prolonged exposure to the Western internet is increasingly eroding traditional cultural norms. Although this has not yet extended to influencing Indian politics, international familiarity with the distinctly American brand of liberal politics underscores the Internet’s instrumental role in exporting its publicity—putting in question the internet’s intrinsic neutrality.

The active role of the American-dominated internet in radiating this particular form of liberal politics across the world bears profound implications for the global future of governance. It raises fundamental questions as to whether a country should find it desirable to remain open to the Western internet today.

The trade-off involved is best illustrated in a comparative examination of Singapore and China. Both countries are highly technocratic states with formidable capacities for mobilization and, from the perspective of many Westerners, enviably functional governance structures. Singapore’s cyberspace is practically constituted and engulfed by the American internet, while China has retained and consolidated “cybersovereignty” over a distinctive internet culture.
The West is undoubtedly the dominant cultural influence in virtually all aspects of Singaporean life across social classes, especially for the governing elite—a trend that shows no signs of abating. The most conspicuous instance is linguistic hegemony; proficiency in English is viewed as the principal arbiter of social status and English continues to cannibalize other local languages in spoken frequency among youth, like Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil. This also means Singaporeans rarely browse the Chinese internet, excluding mainland China from Singapore’s cultural relevance. Among the elites, this manifests itself in the constant use of Western countries as benchmarks or referential comparisons for justifying new policy frameworks. Collectively, this enshrines a Singapore plugged firmly into the American internet, but not the Chinese one.

Although Singapore does censor the internet, it does so in light-touch fashion. Almost all dissident political websites are permitted, and access to foreign media sites is unrestricted. To the extent online political restrictions exist, they take two forms. First, the government imposes heavy, one-off registration fees for the mandatory licensing of online political sites. These licensing terms commit political sites to remove content flagged by the state as subverting political stability within 24 hours.
Though this appears as a potential pretext for heavy restrictions on online content, the Singaporean state in practice limits its use to explicit racial or religious hate speech. The one-off nature of the fee has also not deterred the emergence of multiple alternative news sites, such as Mothership and the Online Citizen. Second, originators of online statements that are flagged as factually untrue must accompany the post with a government notice clarifying why the statement was factually untrue. However, this falls short of removing the post and applies to transparently false claims, rather than statements of opinion.

This combination of openness to the West and retention of illiberal technocratic management is widely seen as a major advantage of Singapore’s governing model. The former allows Singapore to access the West’s scientific and cultural know-how, while the latter ensures policy can be implemented efficiently without partisan obstruction and in a long-term manner. Indeed, in light of America’s catastrophic governmental response to the coronavirus, Singapore is increasingly cited approvingly as an example of a competent state that still tolerates Western institutional norms—thus proof the West need not emulate China in designing a credible alternative governance model.....