When word got out last week that the Singapore government's was planning to block internet access for public servants on their work computers, residents of the city-state lashed out against the move on the very medium that the government was seeking to curtail – the internet.

Social media became the platform for citizens, bloggers and satirists to air their ire at the government’s decision that was reported last week by the Straits Times, Singapore’s leading English newspaper.

The move to restrict web access, ostensibly to tighten cybersecurity, is especially surprising because the Singapore government has been aggressively pushing its Smart Nation Initiative, under which the city-state seeks to harness technology to improve lifestyles and create more economic opportunities.

The country boasts the world’s fastest peak connection speeds.

The outbreak

Prominent Singaporean blogger Lee Kin Mun (who goes by @mrbrown) pointed to the irony of this on Twitter, as did Chee Soon Juan, leader of the opposition Singapore Democratic Party, on Facebook.

Satire website SGAG.sg questioned the logic behind the move through a tongue-in-cheek article titled: “Changi Airport to be shut down because no perfect solution against terror threats."

Netizen Dare Chia, whose post has now been shared more than a 1,500 times, pointed to the Obama Administration’s more rational Cross Agency Priority Goals to improve cybersecurity and also brought up the age-old criticism of Singapore’s ministers being overpaid. Ministerial salaries in Singapore are among the highest in the world.

Damage control

The government also used its social media channels to clarify and justify the move.

The uproar prompted Vivian Balakrishnan, minister in-charge of the Smart Nation initiative, and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to comment on the issue even though they were overseas.

“You can’t afford a breach of privacy, said Balakrishnan, who is also Singapore’s foreign affairs minister, while on a three-day visit Washington. “So, the way I look at it, cybersecurity is the flipside of the coin of being a smart nation.”

“What we’re doing is segregating secure email systems from other activities which you conduct on the Internet, like browsing and transacting,” he elaborated. “So it is about separation of sensitive, secure systems, from systems which are in a sense interacting on a daily basis.”

The Straits Times reported that Prime Minister Lee, during his official visit to Myanmar, told reporters that he was “volunteer number one” in trying out the system. He said the move was “absolutely necessary”.

“It’s a nuisance, it takes some getting used to, but you can do it,” he added. As further justification, he said the following doomsday scenario could arise in the absence of such a move: “Otherwise one day you [will] find all your NRIC [National Registration Identity Card] numbers, addresses and income tax returns for sale on the Internet, one package 10 gigabytes. How will the government explain?”

National Registration Identity Card numbers are the identity documents compulsory for all Singapore residents.

A rare step

The Straits Times report said that a memo had been circulated to all the government departments, agencies and ministries stating that public servants in Singapore will be prohibited from accessing the internet on their work computers. The move, which would cover 1,00,000 terminals used by the public service employees, is aimed at preventing data leaks and strengthening cyber security.

Later, it was clarified that internet would be de-linked only on computers connected to the Government Enterprise Network and the large numbers of teachers employed by the government in its primary schools, secondary schools, junior colleges and other educational institutions would be able to access the internet, as the Ministry of Education uses a separate platform.

Cybersecurity has been a concern in Singapore since November 2013, when there were a series of hack attacks, including on the websites of the Prime Minister’s Office and Straits Times, by a hackers' collective called Anonymous. The government had set up a Cyber Security Agency in April to boost resilience to such attacks.