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Singapore Races for Spot on Information Highway : Technology: It is boosting TV and communications facilities but won't relax strict local censorship policies.

November 15, 1994|From Reuters

SINGAPORE — Singapore's push to be Asia's hub on the information superhighway is led by a 40-year-old air force reserve brigadier-general who believes new technology and conservative Asian values can thrive together.

George Yong-Boon Yeo, minister for information and the arts, says Singapore could become Asia's broadcast and program production center despite the city-state's tough censorship laws.

"We want to be everyone's favorite oasis on the information superhighway," Yeo told Reuters in an interview.

"You may not want to live there (Singapore) forever, but you still want to stop there and refresh yourself before you go into the desert again," said Yeo, who studied engineering at Cambridge and has an MBA from Harvard.

But he warned that Singapore would not tolerate erosion of its conservative values.

"We don't want to create a small Hollywood. We don't want the environment, the social mores, the scandal, the loose life, of a Hollywood."

What Singapore does want is high-technology media companies, and the ancillary services that go with them.

"The whole idea is to develop a pool of expertise in Singapore. Editors, pre-production people, post-production, graphics and software people. We encourage the setting up of film studios. If someone needs to shoot a scene and coordinate traffic, the authorities will accommodate their needs," he said.

As well as export-oriented services, Yeo is overseeing the opening up of Singapore's internal market. The whole island is being wired with a fiber-optic network so cable television can begin transmitting next year.

Yeo expects that the cable TV service, run by a conglomerate called Singapore CableVision, will eventually offer more than the 30 channels now planned.

"We will increase the number of channels from 30 channels. How can it be enough? We intend to let in French television, Japanese TV, Chinese TV, German TV, Australian TV and so on."

The Singapore government also plans to allow Singapore Telecom to provide services over the fiber-optic system.

"We are allowing Singapore Telecom to go in with a network, and there is the SCV network," Yeo said.

The minister believes the cable will turn Singapore's tight restrictions on ownership of satellite dishes into a meaningless issue. "If it (cable TV) is readily available with as many channels as you have time for, why go through the hassle of installing a home satellite dish?" Yeo said.

So-called "free-to-air" television is also being transformed. The government-owned broadcasting monopoly was recently restructured, hived off from Yeo's ministry and put under control of a new Broadcasting Authority.

The monopoly was broken up into five new units with their own corporate structures to foster a private sector spirit ahead of actual privatization, which Yeo said would come eventually.

"We have a timetable for privatization, but it is a very rough timetable," he said.

Yeo said it was possible in the future that there could be more channels to add to the current three broadcast stations.

"In principle I've got nothing against it," he said. "Free-to-air television will have to be limited in numbers so that it is a commercial market, so that we have not diluted it so that they are all forced to go down market."

This concern with the moral content of broadcast media permeates everything the minister does and reflects the conservatism of the government.

"Parents with their children become uncomfortable if they see jarring scenes, whether this be violence or pornography or swear words or social situations which should only be reserved for very mature audiences.

"The intention is to keep local television at least wholesome, and very reflective of the conservative values of Singaporeans," the minister said.

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