Science & Tech

Our Own Private Singapore

A passer-by looks at her mobile phone as people take a selfie in front of Singapore’s central business district skyline, May 10, 2019. (Kevin Lam/Reuters)
Facebook and that island nation both insist that their censorship serves the safety of the public.

The rap on Singapore is that it has fertile capital but a sterile culture — a great place to do business, but a stultifying place to live.

It is the Facebook of countries.

The authorities there are sensitive to that kind of criticism. In a 2017 interview with the Straits Times, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong emphasized the diversity of the country and the distinctiveness of its individual cultural components. Singapore, he said, is oriented not toward assimilation but integration.

“The result has been distinctive Singaporean variants of Chinese, Malay, Indian, and Eurasian cultures, and a growing Singaporean identity that we all share, suffusing and linking up our distinct individual identities and ethnic cultures,” Lee said. “We certainly don’t wish Singapore to be a first-world economy but a third-rate society, with a people who are well off but uncouth. We want to be a society rich in spirit, a gracious society where people are considerate and kind to one another, and as Mencius said, where we treat all elders as we treat our own parents, and other children as our own.”

That is a very nice vision, which the government of Singapore pursues energetically through authoritarianism, bullying, and intimidation. Singapore is an innovator in many fields, and one of the activities toward which it has turned a great deal of attention is one that is of increasing global and domestic significance: censorship.

Singapore has just passed a law that would require Facebook, Twitter, and other social-media companies to publish corrections on their sites in response to content that is ruled untrue by the government of Singapore. Facebook executives say they have been looking to governments for guidance in their attempt to suppress certain kinds of speech on their platforms — and here it is, from the world-beating experts.

The government of Singapore is, in fact, not so different in its thinking from Facebook. It is just a little ahead of the curve. Facebook insists (sometimes laughably) that its speech restrictions are not directed at unpopular political ideas but exist to serve the “safety” of the public. Singapore, too, cites safety as it prohibits certain unwelcome political activism and cultural innovation. “Public safety” is, like “national security,” an almost infinitely plastic criterion in the hands of an entrepreneurial politician: In March, President Donald Trump blocked the acquisition of Qualcomm by Singapore-based Broadcom, offering only the vague explanation that the company “might take action that threatens to impair the national security of the United States.” Senator Marco Rubio has argued that corporate welfare for Florida sugar barons is a matter of national security, while others make the same argument for their favorite commodities; Democratic party officials have suggested that Second Amendment activists be investigated or suppressed as terrorists; the sniveling cowards who run the University of California at Berkeley cited “public safety” when they forbade conservative polemicist Ann Coulter to speak on campus. Et cetera ad nauseam.

In Singapore, “public safety” is the rationale for a remarkably thorough program of official censorship, much of which is directed at the worthy goal of keeping the peace among the city-state’s unamalgamated ethnic and religious groups. For example, if a crime has a potentially inflammatory ethnic or religious component, that fact generally will be omitted from media coverage as part of an unspoken agreement between the state and the newspapers. Films or books that are deemed to denigrate an ethnic or religious group are prohibited. The sale of Malaysian newspapers is prohibited. And in the same way that U.S. progressives seek to suppress political speech as a matter of “campaign finance,” the authorities in Singapore have prohibited the unlicensed showing of “party political films,” which may be the of “any person and directed towards any political end in Singapore.” Such films are permitted only if the government considers them objective; the irony of demanding a subjective ruling about objectivity seems to have been lost on Singapore’s rulers, who are not famous for their sense of humor.

Singapore’s censors make the same argument as do Facebook’s: that the suppression of certain kinds of unwelcome political speech is necessary for “public safety.” Singapore’s is a genuinely multiethnic and multireligious society — and, as it turns out, such societies do not have a very good record for long-term stability and domestic tranquility. If anything, Singapore has a more convincing argument that fanning the flames of communal politics in such a country is likely to actually endanger people than Facebook does that Milo Yiannapoulos is whatever kind of danger it is that he is supposed to be. Singapore’s position is more convincing than the jactitations of those ignorant little twerps at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts who protested that the presence of Professor Camille Paglia on their campus left them “unsafe.” (They should feel grateful. I wonder who is the second-most distinguished intellectual associated with that school.) You will not be surprised to learn that the burdens here fall more heavily on dissidents and critics of the government.

But let us give Singapore and Facebook the benefit of the doubt and assume that they are motivated by concerns that are in the main to be admired. The end results are no less risible: If American society is really so fragile that Alex Jones presents an existential threat to the republic, then we should send our British cousins a letter of apology and ask to be readmitted as a colony, if they’ll have us. Likewise, if Singapore truly is going to be rocked, and not in a good way, by a Katy Perry song (“I Kissed a Girl” was prohibited as homosexual propaganda) then it is a pitiable little island indeed, to quaver at such a colossus as that.

But, of course, almost no one takes seriously these claims, just as no one seriously thinks that Ann Coulter is a “danger” to anybody or that the NRA shares a genre with the Islamic State. These are pretexts, and flimsy ones. They are fig leaves for ochlocracy.

But once censorship has been established in principle and accepted in practice, then officiousness, triviality, and vindictiveness are the inevitable outcomes. Bureaucracies — Singapore’s government, Facebook’s management — have interests of their own, and agendas of their own, and tastes of their own, and to take seriously the proposition that Facebook’s speech-policing or U.S. “campaign finance” restrictions will be managed with any more objectivity or neutrality than Singapore’s official state censorship is to ignore almost everything we know about how bureaucracies actually work. The powers that be at Facebook and Twitter may or may not be acting in good faith, but the more important fact is that they could not be fair and neutral even if they sincerely wished to be. This is a fact of organizational life, one that must be dealt with seriously. The bland little caudillos down in Human Resources are creatures of an insipid little culture all their own.

And that is the one that Facebook et al. propose we live under.

Facebook is a private company, and it may of course as a legal matter do whatever it pleases with its own platform, and Singapore’s censorship is perfectly legal, too, for what that’s worth — which is not very much: Some of the worst crimes against humanity in modern history were carried out under the color of law. The question of what may be done is distinct from the question of what should be done.

Singapore’s censorship is quite defensible in principle — if you accept censorship in principle — and the consequences of its policies have been perfectly predictable. When the prime minister feels himself obliged to go public with his insistence that local cultural conditions are not “third rate,” it is an excellent indicator that they are obviously third-rate. Some lies are accidental advertisements for the truth. There is much that is admirable about Singapore, but at its worst it is a kind of splendidly air-conditioned fascist shopping mall. Public safety is one of those good things it is possible to have too much of, and “graciousness” enforced at the point of a bayonet is not graciousness at all.

Facebook, Twitter, et al. are houses divided: As businesses they are one thing, as institutions they are another. Facebook cofounder Chris Hughes argued in the pages of the New York Times on Thursday that Facebook should be broken up, in part because of its failure to contain “violent rhetoric and fake news.” Facebook and other “gargantuan companies,” he argued, are a threat to democracy. That is hysteria, but it contains a measure of truth. Democracy relies on discourse, and healthy discourse relies on a culture of open exchange, which in turn requires a measure of confidence that Facebook’s executives lack. Ironically, the problems of Facebook and, especially, of Twitter are not so much threats to democracy but useful illustrations of the shortcomings of unmediated democracy, in which the mob bullies the institutions into submission. In a healthy democratic system, things work in roughly the opposite way, with institutions helping to contain and redirect the excesses of democratic passion. And that is where Facebook and Singapore differ: The government of Singapore — which, whatever its shortcomings, seems to be run by men who genuinely believe in their own precepts — serves no mob, but Facebook, lacking the real conviction that can be rooted only in the permanent things, is abject and quickly prone before whatever mob happens to show up at its door.

The American settlement under the First Amendment is unusual to the point of being nearly unique. Censorship of different kinds is the norm in civilized countries from Singapore to Germany, where certain political parties, symbols, and ideas are strictly prohibited. The American arrangement is different because it is the product of men who as individuals and as a civilization believed in something, which gave them the confidence to live in a world in which they are likely to hear and read things they did not like from time to time, things that might even be wicked, scurrilous, or wrong. Some men endure winter at Valley Forge, and some tremble at the menace of Katy Perry or poor daft Laura Loomer.

There is a wonderful scene in Serenity, a science-fiction film that is something of a libertarian manifesto, in which a fragile, psychologically damaged girl is taken along on what amounts to an Old West–style bank robbery, after which she and her friends are chased and nearly captured by mutant space cannibals who mean to eat them raw on the spot. At the end of a wild ride dodging fire in an open-air conveyance while speeding across a Sergio Leone landscape, she returns to her overprotective older brother, who asks if she is injured. She looks at him, wide-eyed, and says: “I swallowed a bug.” Freedom tastes like that, sometimes.