Singapore—In a country where the mainstream media is under the control and regulation of the Government, opposition parties have at least had online spaces to give them a more level playing field in reaching a broad audience with their message.

However, the recent Google ban on political advertising has caused the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) to ask the company how voters in Singapore will have the complete information that would help them decide whom to vote for in the upcoming General Election (GE).

In a media release dated December 3, SDP said that it had sought to buy advertisements on Google’s platforms. However, last month, Google announced that it would restrict political ads all over the world, saying it would be “limiting election ads audience targeting to the following general categories: age, gender, and general location.”

In an email to Google CEO Sundar Pichai, Dr Paul Tambyah, the chairman of SDP, said that the ads they had intended to put up on Google’s platforms ensure that “Singaporean voters are not deprived of information as they make their choices in the coming election,” deeming this significant since “print and broadcast media are controlled by the ruling party.” 

The media release from SDP said that Dr Tambyah had written Google “to enquire about its shocking policy.”

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After Google announced its new policy last month, Dr Tambyah wrote to the company on November 22, particularly about its implementation in Singapore, which bans all political advertisements including anything that “influences or seeks to influence public opinion on a matter which in Singapore is a matter of public interest or public controversy with key examples being those related to race, religion.”

Dr Tambyah wrote to Google, This is particularly problematic for Singapore as the Prime Minister has made the controversial racially based selection of our elected President (a largely ceremonial post with some constitutional powers) a key campaign issue.  Any criticism of the selective application of racial quotas in an advertisement would potentially be classified as a political ad and banned under the proposed policy.

Furthermore, in an election with the media totally dominated by the state, alternative parties would have no ability to educate and inform the voters of Singapore in the run up to the elections if we are not able to use Google’s advertising platforms in the first place.”

Ted Osius, Google’s Vice President answered Dr Tambyah, writing that while the company supports “political advertising consistent with our policies” for Singapore, “we decided we will not accept advertising regulated by the Code of Practice for Transparency of Online Political Advertisements.

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Mr Osius added that this had not been an easy decision for Google, reiterating that the company “is committed to delivering useful and relevant election-related information to users around the world,” and saying that it had made similar choices in other locations, such as Taiwan and Canada.

Dr Tambyah wrote Google back, expressing disappointment with Mr Osius’ answers. He asked, “What legislation in Singapore bans online political advertising?”

He also asked what kind of political advertising is consistent with the company’s policies, and whether or not Google had already seen previews of SDP’s advertisements.

Dr Tambyah also called Google out for what he perceives to be a reversal of its core beliefs and mission, which are “Democracy on the web works” and “To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful,” respectively.

He asked, “How does democracy work on the web when you ban freedom of speech through curtailing online political advertisements?”

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And, “How is this possible if bona fide information about and from an opposition party in Singapore is banned by Google?”

The media also said that in June, Google Singapore had invited SDP to pay a visit to its office for the chance to explain the company’s services in election campaigns, prompting Dr Tamyah to write to the company, “Google’s actions are even more incomprehensible considering that it was your Singapore office that invited the SDP to its office to explain your company’s services. It was shortly thereafter that we received information that Google had banned political advertisements in Singapore. What happened in between?”   -/TISG

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