Why is Singapore a Hub of Online Piracy?

Historically, one thinks of piracy and Singapore in the context of the high seas — both in legend and in reality.  Geography shapes history, and the the Malacca Strait has always been a valuable sea line of communication, thus good hunting ground for centuries of armed robbers right up to the present.  And although the various regimes in Singapore have a long history of dealing with piracy in the traditional sense, the current government appears to have a new problem on its hands with piracy in the online media sense.  The small, relatively affluent city-state of 5.5 million people ranks the worst out of 15 Asia-Pacific countries in per capita infringement according to research by MarkMonitor, a division of Thompson-Reuters.  Additionally, a handful of articles appeared recently citing research done by Asia-Pacific firms Sycamore and InsightAsia indicating that 70% of 16-24 year-olds are chronic users of pirate sites. This is consistent with the study released last September by London-based NetNames, demonstrating that Asia leads Europe and the U.S. for explicit use of pirate sites, with those three regions accounting for over 90% of of pirate traffic worldwide.  In my podcast interview with the author of that study, Dr. David Price did affirm that wider availability of legal, broadband-based services likely accounts for the U.S. being in third place, but his study also shows that pirate traffic continued to increase in all three regions concurrent with the expansion of legal alternatives.

The Sycamore/InsightAsia study also provides some interesting data regarding Singaporean attitudes toward piracy, revealing a willingness among those polled to examine their own behaviors — an awareness we don’t always see in the American market — that reminds one to try to understand each culture and market on its own terms rather than view data through our provincial lenses.  66% of those polled believe that their own use of pirate sites is form of theft, and 85% responded that the reason they access media through pirate sites is “Because it’s free.”  Other responses suggest an interesting contrast to many Americans’ more militant attitudes that media piracy represents some sort of civil right, despite the fact that Americans have affordable access to everything.  Singaporeans, who have have far less ready access to media, seemed to respond to the hypothetical loss of pirate sites with something of a shrug.  Those polled tended to say that if XYZ site were gone or blocked, that they’d probably move to the next, cheapest alternative.  The fact that Singaporeans didn’t raise ideological objections might partly be explained by the fact that civil rights in Singapore are not what they are in the United States, but I think there are more shades of gray here that actually make Singapore an interesting case study to watch.

I did some work-for-hire filming in Singapore in 2007, and I chatted with my friend over there who works in filmed entertainment production about some of these issues.  Granted, it’s one woman’s view from the ground, but I found her comments insightful.  For one thing, it seems we can understand the Singapore market in three broad demographics that each consume media very differently, keeping in mind that nearly 75% of the population is ethnic Chinese, descendant of immigrants who came to work for the colonial British.  The official language of Singapore is English, and school is modeled on a British system, although native English speaking is a post-independence (1963) phenomenon, which is why many people over 60, like my friend’s father, speak only Chinese and generally watch Chinese television programs.

At the other end of the market are those teens to early twenties, who are voracious users of pirate sites and are presently most interested in music and filmed entertainment coming out of Japan and Korea.  This demographic represents the hungriest consumers of media in Singapore for the same reason it does everywhere else — the young have more free time.  While iTunes is available in Singapore, broadband services akin to Netflix for filmed entertainment are not legally available, making DVD purchase the primary legal means to watch films and programs on demand.  Youth being youth, they want to consume high volumes at a high rate and feel they can’t afford enough DVD consumption.

In the middle demographic (late 20s to about 60), we find people with jobs and responsibilities and who have a broad range of media tastes, including US and UK productions.  This group buys CDs and DVDs, but they will also use pirate sites to sample programming before purchase. From this anecdotal evidence, we can predict the technorati to assert that Singapore’s piracy problem is one Neflix-type enterprise away from a solution, and while this would probably have a mitigating effect, it’s not necessarily as simple as that.

For one thing, delivering a rich library of on-demand, digital video into a particular country is complicated by trade arrangements between the producing and consuming nations, licensing agreements written into contracts before films and TV shows are even produced, and the socio-political nature of the consuming nation. With Singapore’s present piracy numbers, investors would likely write off the market as a legitimate importer/exporter of entertainment media.  This is one of the obstacles tech-utopians tend to overlook in every market when they write oversimple editorials about “switching models” to technological solutions, as though installing an app is all that’s required.  In order for their to be actual trade involved, someone has to invest considerable resources to navigate the financial, legal, and cultural seas, as it were; but if the piracy numbers are too high, that’s what will prevent a quality, Netflix-like model from manifesting in a market like Singapore.

Moreover, Singapore’s piracy trend risks cannibalizing their own burgeoning filmed-entertainment industry.  For a small nation, they produce an impressive amount of cinema and television programming out of a couple of fairly big studios and several modest production houses. It has also recently become home to satellite facilities for some major animation and effects studios like Lucasfilm and Double Negative. With the growth of this industry, it is not unreasonable to think that some of today’s teenage K-Pop fans are going to want to be tomorrow’s film and TV producers; and a message that says “Don’t pirate away your own future” may actually resonate with young Singaporeans.

It would be a shame if investors did abandon the region as a legitimate market, particularly because Singapore could become a pivotal location for media production and commerce in Asia-Pacific, just as it is a financial services hub and presides over one of the busiest shipping ports in the world.  Additionally, I think it might be interesting to watch how those 16-24 year-olds emerge as a creative class, considering they’re still part of the first generation of natives born to an independent Singapore.  Thus, they are at the early stages of defining what it means to be Singaporean, which might explain why my friend describes a love/hate relationship with China.  As that culture evolves, it will be reflected in the films and TV Singaporeans will produce, thus opening the proverbial sea lines of communication for fair trade in media will be essential to foster that expression in a manner that’s sustainable.

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