Singapore Wakes Up And Smells The Internet

In cybercafes all over town, strong computer mania is brewing

At one cafe in Singapore, young men are huddled around a personal computer and excitedly taking turns at the keyboard. On the monitor, the "chat" topics include salacious invitations for a wide variety of carnal unions. The young men, like many other Singaporeans, are discovering the wonders of cybercafes--places that offer both food and access to the Internet.

Bringing cybersmut to the masses is hardly what Singapore's authorities have in mind as they move into the wired world. Yet Singapore must allow access to the Internet if it is to meet its goal of being the communications hub for Southeast Asia. The city-state is grappling with how to overcome the technological and cultural hurdles met along the way. On Mar. 6, the government issued tough rules to control the Net by making providers and publishers responsible for content.

PRICE WARS. While cybercafes are becoming commonplace in the U.S. and Europe, they are new to Asia. Singapore has jumped ahead, with five such cafes opened since last August and more planned. As price wars break out, the cafes are starting to differentiate themselves. Online Oasis caters to family users, even offering advice on children's use of the Net. The CafeBoatQuay, located on a trendy restaurant strip, attracts the elite and chic with music and art. And CyberHeart features electronic games and digital cameras that appeal to students.

The cafes are typically started by former professionals in information industries who were inspired by U.S. and British models. "We're trying to bring cyberculture to the masses," says James Yong, managing director of Online Oasis.

Other groups are logging on. The government has opened 10 Internet clubs at state-run community centers. The public library has called for tenders to operate a cafe at one branch, a plan that will be duplicated elsewhere if successful. And businesses are setting up Web sites to display products, find overseas partners, and reach new clients. Since last May, the number of Singaporean Internet users has doubled, to an estimated 100,000.

But providers will have to learn to play by Singapore's rules. All Internet service providers and content publishers are required to register with the Singapore Broadcasting Authority and to remove all content it does not like, such as pornography. Political parties and religious groups with Web sites will also have to register. Libel laws covering print media will be extended to the Net.

To please an increasingly Net-savvy population, the government will have to take into account Net culture, which tends to be open-minded. Some members of one Web site, the Singapore Internet Community, which oversees a chat group about culture and politics, have protested the new regulations. Its site recently displayed a black ribbon, mimicking the blue badge of U.S. sites objecting to Federal regulations to curb Net content.

DELAYS. Political and cultural questions aside, Singapore's providers must also expand their infrastructure and lower costs. Singapore relies on U.S. "servers"--computer hubs--for transferring Internet information. This means all international messages from Singapore now go through one or more American servers before being redirected to their destination. A message from Singapore to Hong Kong should take just seconds--the time needed to make a phone call--but in practice can take 24 hours.

A new Internet line connecting Singapore, Hong Kong, and Japan is expected to be completed next month. The new fiber-optic cable, which will nearly double Singapore's international Internet capacity, is expected to lower costs and improve traffic flow.

Meantime, Internet cafe managers are trying to woo customers with good food, warm decor, and user-friendly training courses for the technologically challenged. For now, cybercafe owners are still getting most of their revenue from food sales--a typical breakdown is 60% food and 40% Internet service. Yong of Online Oasis recalls his childhood in rural Singapore, when people would queue up to use a single village telephone. As with the phone, Yong imagines a near future when the Internet will be available at every restaurant and street corner.

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