Governments can help or hinder innovation. In Silicon Valley, startups and investors would rather that the government meddle less and stick to what they do best: Provide basic infrastructure.
Here in Singapore, things are a little different. Government agencies have their signature on almost every startup investment through co-funding schemes like TIS, and ACE Startups. For the most part, government agencies like SPRING Singapore and IDA, as well as universities like NUS and SUTD have been progressive in their efforts to create an oasis of innovation.
Their approach has drawn praise, and I admire how they’re collecting feedback from startups and investors every step of the way, iterating on their policies as the years went by.
Then it started doing something stupid.
In May this year, the Media Development Authority, a government agency that also happens to have its own startup funding scheme in iJAM, made what appeared to be a unilateral move that bypassed the Singapore Parliament.
It issued a new licensing requirement stating that news websites exceeding 50,000 unique visitors in Singapore will be required to put up a performance bond of SGD 50,000, following the practice by broadcasters here. Ten online news sites, mostly government-related, were ordered to apply for licenses, with sg.news.yahoo.com being the only non-state-sanctioned site.
The license stipulates that online news sites are expected to comply within 24 hours to MDA’s directions to remove content that is found to be in breach of content standards.
As expected, the online community exploded in a fit of anger. The country’s rag-tag group of socio-political bloggers, often united in disunity, coalesced under the #FreeMyInternet movement which culminated in a public protest that drew thousands.
Even mainstream newspapers, under tight regulation, have given the fracas a strong public airing.
But while the arguments against licensing have mostly been confined to civil rights and free speech, the business community has mostly been silent. Until now.
Local Chinese daily Zaobao reported that five of the world’s largest tech companies – Facebook, Google, Yahoo!, Salesforce and eBay — have expressed their unhappiness at the new licensing regime through the Asia Internet Coalition. These companies have a strong presence in Singapore. Here are some choice quotes from the missive (full letter at the bottom):
This new regulation – and the regulatory trend that this may be indicative of – could unintentionally hamper Singapore’s ability to continue to drive innovation, develop key industries in the technology space and attract investment in this key sector.
We view that it is unwarranted and excessive for the government to extend the classlicensing framework to individually license (identified) online news sites in order to ensure regulatory parity.
The current vague and broad terms in the regulation and implementation will hamper innovation and deter industry growth: While ten sites have been identified and the government has clarified that personal blogs and websites will not fall under the purview of this licensing framework, it remains unclear which specific additional websites will eventually be required to have an individual license.
While I doubt that the Singapore government truly cares about the perceived breaching of free speech, I suspect its pragmatic ministers are more concerned about economic impact of its actions.
The letter highlights something I have believed in all along: To build a truly innovative economy driven by creativity and technological advancement, a siloed and inconsistent approach won’t work.
Targeted government policies that pour money into the startup ecosystem is great, but in order for Singapore to rise to the ranks of San Francisco, New York City, or London, the government needs to facilitate wholesale transformation not just within one subset of society.
Culture, education, and politics come as an inseparable package, and I’m sure Banyan Tree Holdings Chairman Ho Kwon Ping agrees.
While the government is laudably trying to reform the education system, increase productivity, and reduce excessive reliance on cheap foreign labor, it has been rather frightened of the civil rights implications that come with opening up.
The state’s response to the letter indicates business as usual, saying that the “scheme did not represent a fundamental change in its policy approach.”
But that’s the problem: The government needs to adapt right now. Sooner or later, it has to let go.
How ironic is it that Facebook, Google, and Yahoo!, three companies accused of violating human rights by spying on behalf of the US government, are the ones that might nudge Singapore towards the right path.