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SINGAPORE (AP) – This small but ultramodern country is fervent in promoting the Internet and attaching an “e” to virtually all aspects of life – as in e-banking, e-commerce, e-government, e-homes.

All, that is, except “e-lections.”

With a general election expected in the coming months, Singapore’s government is strongly hinting it will tighten its already firm grip on the flow of information – specifically on the Internet – and the opposition has responded with expected outrage.

Singapore’s leaders, arguing that the Internet is vital to success in the world’s “new economy,” have urged people to do everything from grocery shopping to paying taxes online. In March, the city-state’s government even held an “e-lifestyle” festival to try get all citizens “wired,” even the poor.

But now officials of the long-governing People’s Action Party are seeing another side to the Internet – an avenue for rumors to spread like wildfire during the election campaign, leaving PAP leaders little time to correct false impressions before people vote.

With parliamentary elections required before August 2002 – and likely to be held sooner – opposition politicians have the opposite attitude. They are pushing the Internet as a campaign tool and say it would be disastrous to rein in politics online.

“We use the Internet to reach out to Singaporeans because the local media are censoring our views,” says Steve Chia, secretary general of Singapore’s National Solidarity Party, which hopes to win its first seat in Parliament.

The PAP has ruled since Singapore’s independence from Malaysia in 1965. Of the 93 seats in Parliament, only three are held by the opposition. Many adults in Singapore have never voted, because no one in their districts has ever challenged the PAP.

It’s not clear how the government plans to regulate Internet campaigning. But on June 8 – at the official launch of the ruling PAP’s new Web site – Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said “limits” are necessary because the Internet, though it has great potential, “also has its dangers.”

The Internet has become an issue as more people look online for political news, Lee said, meaning there must be “appropriate rules to guide the responsible use of the Internet by political parties during an election period.” He added new rules would be introduced soon by the government’s elections department.

Both opposition politicians and Internet advocates argue the Singapore Broadcasting Authority’s 1996 Internet Code of Practice is regulation enough. That code forbids airing of information that is against the “public interest” or “national harmony” or that “offends against good taste or decency.”

The Web site Talking Cock – run by Singaporeans in New York as an outlet for political satire – was not impressed by government officials’ comments on the Internet.

“It shows how much faith they have in people – that they honestly think people would irrationally believe or favor uncorroborated rumors over cogent political argument,” commented Talking Cock, whose name is Singaporean slang for talking nonsense.

“Come on, we’re not some Third World country anymore,” said the Web site’s editors. “Why would people with an almost guaranteed position of power prefer to tread on our constitutional right to free speech rather than debate the issues?”

Public affairs officials at the elections department did not return telephone calls from The Associated Press seeking comment on the criticism and on details of the planned controls for Internet campaigning.

Joshua Jeyaretnam, a veteran opposition leader who is battling to save his seat in Parliament and fighting bankruptcy – which he blames on defamation suits by PAP members, said he was not surprised by the ruling party’s nervousness about the Internet.

“The government blocks off anything that it thinks is undesirable,” he said.

Chia of the opposition National Solidarity Party said he hopes the elections department consults opposition parties before formulating the new rules.

It is ridiculous for the government to decide which information is good or bad for citizens, he said, adding: “Don’t treat Singaporeans like children.”

On the Net

National Solidarity Party:

People’s Action Party:

Worker’s Party:

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