The illusion of a free media

Mellanie Hewlitt
SG Review
26 May 2003

The latest article in 26 May 2003 issue of the Business Times “SPH stands by Streats’ 800,000 readership figure” refers to rivalry between local tabloids, “Streats” and “Today”.

The uninitiated casual observer may deem the existence of different print journals as evidence of a perfectly competitive and healthy environment for the print media. But there is more to this then meets the eye.

In response to calls for more diverse media voices in the country, a handful of new free tabloid newspapers were launched. These publications, which look but do not read like free alternative newspapers in the United States, were also controlled by corporations affiliated with the government.

In an apparent effort to create the illusion of free competition, Singapore Press Holdings received permission to run TV and radio stations. This was hardly a risky move for the government, since the company’s chief executive used to head the Singapore internal security agency, and its board chairman is an ex-cabinet minister and close confidant of former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew.

Meanwhile, the state-owned broadcasting giant Media Corporation of Singapore, was awarded a license to publish one of the free newspapers, Today. The Business Times described players in this shuffling of a stacked deck as “newspaper rivals”. Perhaps this is better described as sibling rivalry.

All 12 newspapers in Singapore are owned by Singapore Press Holdings (SPH), one of the largest media corporations in Asia. The Straits Times is the largest circulation newspaper in Singapore, followed by a Chinese-language newspaper, Lianhe Zaobao.

Who heads SPH? Incumbent SPH executive chairman is Lim Kim San while the first chairman of the group was Lien Ying Chow. Both the Singapore government and SPH decline to provide public service records of Lim and Lien.

Lim Kim San, was the Minister of the Interior and Defence in 1967. He is also the Chairman of the Council of Presidential Advisers, a top advisor to Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong. The close linkage between the government and the press can also be seen from the appointment of Group General Manager of Singapore News and Press Limited, Mah Bow Tan, to be the Minister of State, Ministry of Communications and Information and Ministry of Trade and Industry in 1988.

The concentration of media ownership and the monopoly of SPH have wide impacts on freedom of speech and free flow of information. Both the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) and the Workers’ Party feel they have difficulties in putting their messages across through the mass media.SDP’s Dr Chee Soon Juan, who was jailed for seven days for “speaking in public without a licence” in late Dec 1988, is having difficulty in marketing his book. Up till now, none of bookstores in Singapore is willing to sell his book, “To be Free”.

In a nutshell, media ownership determines not only the management of the newspapers but also the contents of newspapers. SPH is partially owned by Temasek Holdings, the Singapore government’s wholly owned investment arm. But both the SPH and the Singapore government declined to explain clearly the government’s indirect ownership of SPH.

The slanted reporting of events and facts by local media groups has emphasized the need for a free press to cover policy issues in an objective, unbiased manner.

The defensive posture of local papers concerning ministerial salaries has provoked a spate of e-mails and letters from the general public, to various independent non-politically aligned internet news-groups, expressing public indignation and disgust. Public discussions on ministerial salaries have been passionate and take center stage in many internet political forums and chat groups. These discussions are usually conducted behind pen-names, handles (nicknames) and aliases which reflects the underlying fear of persecution and terror permeating this virtual police state.

The Singapore press is subject to strict controls by the government and has been cited by western media and Malaysian media as the mouthpiece of the government.

There is a hefty cost to the Singapore Matrix and government efforts to maintain the illusion of a Free Press. Like other GLCs who do not compete on level playing fields, local print tabloids “Streats” and “Today” enjoy free circulation in Singapore, raising the issue whether these publications which are at the expense of tax dollars, represent an efficient and transparent use of public revenues.

Source or Research: The University of Hong Kong (Journalism and Media Studies)

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