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Thursday, June 08, 2006

Singapore Bloggers cautiously test the limits of free speech

Spread out over a nightclub dance floor, Singapore's blogger community officially gathered offline for the first time to put faces to the popular online pseudonyms and discuss blogger issues - including how to avoid ruinous government lawsuits.

For more than five hours on Saturday about 200 people - some hunkered over laptops - listened to Singapore's most famous Web writers in person as a big-screen television showed a chat room taking questions and comments from cyberspace.

The runaway popularity of blogs has turned thousands of the city state's citizens into online news outlets, where people can find comment on topics ranging from free speech to abortion.
One blog-hosting site, livejournal, has more than 22,000 members from Singapore. "The younger generation here grew up with this kind of technology," said popular blogger Lee Kin Mun, better known as "mrbrown".

But in Singapore, writing online political commentary can be like walking through a minefield.
"Citizens are scared. No one wants to find trouble," said Wendy Cheng, better known as "xiaxue". "Singaporeans tend to be afraid to speak up." Cheng, 21, has become so popular - with 10,000 hits daily - blogging is now her career. She relies on company advertisements on her website for income.

But she avoids political expression. "I wouldn't mention anything about the government. It's in quite close proximity," she said.

Singapore often draws international criticism for its tight regulation of political activity and the media. The country's leaders have a history of successfully suing opposition politicians and foreign journalists for defamation.

In May, international media rights groups expressed concern over a threatened lawsuit by a government agency against a Singaporean student studying at the University of Illinois in the United States.

Chen Jiahao criticised the scholarship policies of the Agency of Science, Technology and Research and its leader, Philip Yeo. Mr Chen later apologised for his remarks, but said in another blog he found nothing defamatory in his comments. His "acidflask" blog no longer exists.
The mood at the first blogger conference was quiet on Saturday despite the nightclub setting. "No one is asking any questions because bloggers are mostly introverted types," said a chat room member identified as "Ketsugi".

"I guess we're all still geeks at heart."

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