Why blocking extra-marital affair site Ashley Madison in Singapore makes sense

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Ashley Madison

Singaporeans are agitated by the fact that Ashley Madison, a site for married folks to hook-up, has intentions to “launch” in Singapore — whatever that means. A controversy magnet, the Canadian company has met objections when it opened in Hong Kong as part of an Asian expansion that also saw it enter Japan and India.

On one hand, the opposition in Singapore has grown vociferous, with a Facebook group attracting over 20,000 likes for a petition that calls on the government to block the website because it could undermine marriages, promote social disharmony, and ultimately “corrupt” Singapore.

On the other hand, certain individuals say that the government should not play nanny. It should trust individuals to make informed choices about their personal lives.

Both arguments, however, oversimplify reality.

Without using the absolutist language of the moral crusaders, we can at least acknowledge that a website like Ashley Madison is morally dubious. It certainly has potential to cause harm by making the act of cheating easier.

Yet even though Singapore is predominantly monogamous, not everyone subscribes to the same values. For these people, Ashley Madison could be a positive outlet to express their sexuality.

The situation is further complicated by the fact that news of the site’s impending Singapore launch has spread far and wide, helped along by the original article’s sensationalist reporting.

This has left the government in an awkward position. The state has set a precedent for petitioners by blocking a small number of sites — largely pornography — for objectionable content. Unlike China, Singapore largely keeps the Internet unfiltered, only banning certain sites for the “symbolic” reason of demarcating what its society’s values are. What the petitioners are asking for then is that the government simply add Ashley Madison to the existing list.

Given the high profile nature of this particular case, the conservative segment of society expects the state to act in order to make a stand. From the government’s perspective, the cost is minuscule since it is merely symbolic, and anyone with a VPN can still access the site if they choose to. The petitioners will be satisfied too, because it fulfills their fantasy that marriage has been upheld by the cocoon of Internet censorship.

The government may have more to lose if it doesn’t act, since the moral conservatives, which form a significant voting bloc, will perceive it as weak. The state doesn’t lack motivation either, since marriage is an institution that it has been trying fervently to preserve.

So a ban makes sense, although in reality, the impact of the decision either way may be insignificant.

If the state decides to ban the site, it’ll be a token measure at most. Singapore will by no means shift away from its light-touch approach towards the Internet. There is so much “objectionable” content on the Internet that to block them all would be impractical and costly. China’s Great Firewall was estimated to cost US$800 million to set up, and that excludes upgrades and the hiring of two million employees to monitor Internet activity.

Furthermore, folks who want to escape the drudgery of their moribund married lives will still find a means to get their fix online or offline. In fact, many single-oriented dating websites operating in Singapore, like OkCupid.com, let users indicate that they’re married.

It goes without saying that married folk have been sleeping around way before Ashley Madison came onto the scene. The root causes of adultery lies within the marriage environment itself and the social construct of our times. Historically and realistically, monogamy is an ideal that has been poorly followed.

To exaggerate the potential of Ashley Madison for ruining marriages is to shift the focus away from the nub of the issue. Worse, by spotlighting the website, petitioners are doing themselves a disfavor by exposing more potential users to the existence of similar services and the potential of the Internet as a fishing pond for discreet lovers.

(Editing by Willis Wee)

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