Last modified: April 13, 1996 7:00 AM PDT
Asian countries face Net paradox
While acknowledging that the Internet is essential to the growth of his nation, the acting minister of environment views the new horizon as a foreign land, a place where unsuspecting visitors can contract any number of dangerous illnesses. And in his part of the world, forbidden knowledge can be defined as a disease.
"Singaporeans, or visitors to Singapore, may bring in some of these virulent diseases if we are not careful," said Teo, who is also chairman of the National Information and Technology Committee, during a seminar on technology that was covered by the Singapore press. "Ideas can kill."
Therein lies the paradox facing several Asian nations standing on the threshold of the Information Age. The same technology that is driving much of the economic renaissance sweeping the region is also widening the channels to information that some regimes consider as offensive to cultural sensibilities or threatening to national security.
The consequences of that quandary touch all shores of the Pacific Rim. Companies in Silicon Valley and elsewhere, facing declining domestic computer sales, are turning increasingly to booming overseas markets in such places as Singapore, China, Malaysia, and Indonesia--all of which have recently expressed grave concerns about much of what can be found online.
The issue has spread to the diplomatic arena as well. Emboldened by their newly found economic strength, these nations have updated a decades-old nationalistic refrain against Western imperialism with a modern dimension: the espousal of "Asian values," under which American-style free speech is denigrated as the cause of moral and societal decay.
"Singapore has spoken publicly about the 'darker veins' of the Internet, things of that nature. There are obviously significant concerns for a multiethnic society such as theirs," said a U.S. government official in Washington. "At the same time, they believe that this is going to be a vital technology for the future, and they want to have access to that technology."
Most of the official discussion about the Internet within these countries has yet to address the more basic question of human rights. Amnesty International and other organizations say the Internet has proven remarkably effective in disseminating information and organizing campaigns to combat alleged governmental abuses worldwide. And, as Lori Fena says, oppressive governments should note that censorship is as bad for business as it is for politics.