The Singapore Shame

Asean’s Press Freedom
Irwan Shah Bin Abdullah and Wolfgang Holzem, Jakarta

In 1989, the ASEAN countries came together, in Jakarta, Indonesia and created an agreement or a pact, called the “Programme For the Enhancement of Press Cooperation Among ASEAN Countries” to address issues relating to the cooperation amongst the various ASEAN press networks.

It is often said, that the “Pen is mightier than the sword”. While this may be true in many countries due to press freedom and laws that allow freedom of speech, in some countries within ASEAN the “Sword” still rules the “Pen”.

While freedom of the press is one of the main pillars of many developed countries-such as Hong Kong, the US, Germany, UK or even Australia, the same thing cannot be said about some of the member nations of the Assocation of Southeast Asian Nations.

In 1989, ASEAN countries created a “Programme For the Enhancement of Press Cooperation Among ASEAN Countries” to address issues relating to the
cooperation amongst the various ASEAN press and news networks. It was believed that General Suharto of Indonesia, Mr. Lee Kwan Yew of Singapore and Dr. Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia called for the Programme.

The ASEAN countries unanimously agreed on several issues that were put forward in that program.

Amongst other things, there was the issue of foreign media. It was agreed that ASEAN countries would:

a.) “seek ways to ensure that press reports on ASEAN countries in the foreign media are more balanced and objective” and

b.) “that the foreign media take into consideration the values and sensitivities of ASEAN peoples before writing reports on ASEAN members countries.”

These two clauses perhaps were the final death knells for the freedom of press in ASEAN because they gave authority to the governments of ASEAN countries the green light to manipulate the local and foreign media (or more specifically, Western media) that are
impartial in their reporting compared to the local media.

The pact would have given the governments of the ASEAN members nations the right to “edit”, “delete”, “manipulate” news that they feel are inappropriate to their regime.

Freedom of the press is not a favorable phrase with some ASEAN countries and this pact, instead of encouraging press freedom ended up supporting censorship of the press!

A few ASEAN countries, even though are part of this program, are however, more open to the idea of press freedom. The Philippines (111), Thailand (59) and Indonesia (117) practice a high degree of press freedom and are on the right track.

However, the other ASEAN member countries such as Singapore (147), Malaysia (122), Vietnam (161), Myanmar (165) and Laos (153), press freedom is non-existent.

Reporters without Borders reports that out of 167 countries, Laos ranks 153 while Singapore ranks 147 in it’s “Freedom of Press Ranking Report 2004”.

While it may not sound to be shocking in the case of communist Laos and Vietnam, but it surely would shock any one to know that Singapore’s ranking is so low, considering it is a developed and industrialized nation.

I understand that Singapore is a small country but Hong Kong too is a small country and ranked 34 in the annual index.

For some reason or the other, we tend to associate the freedom of press with the economic status of a country such as Hong Kong. Singapore’s situation proves us how
wrong we can be with our thinking at times.

But what could be the reason for such a poor ranking for Singapore? The governments of Indonesia or Philippines surely monitor their local media and also the foreign media. Then how come they are ahead of Singapore when it comes to press freedom?

The reason is that Singapore’s media are directly run by the government’s intelligence services, better known within Singapore as the “ISD” and those editor’s are not journalists by any stretch of imagination but purely function for making sure what get’s published
in the country and what not.

They may be good in their respective fields but theysurely lack the skills and competence of real journalism.

Considering the status of the Straits Times and its seniority as a newspaper within ASEAN, it is quite surprising that intelligence officers from Singapore’s ISD, calling the shots from the editor desk’s of this modern city state.

From a journalist’s point of view or even from those who appreciate press freedom such practices do a lot of harm to Singapore’s image and ranks Singapore on level with North Korea, Iran, Syria, China and of course Laos and Vietnam, but Singapore doesn’t seem to
care and has shown no signs to liberalize its press.

So does this mean that the “Programme for the Enhancement of Press Cooperation among ASEAN Countries” failed to achieve what it had set to do? With due respect to the member countries of ASEAN, the answer is yes. It is now outdated and needs serious
changes or should be cancelled.

If that is not feasible, then a new agreement should be made by ASEAN countries, headed by countries such as Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand which represent around 60% of the current population of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations that value press freedom.

Why should those democracies be left behind at the expense of communist regimes in Vietnam and Laos, a military regime in Myanmar and an authoritarian regime in Singapore, that still behaves as if the Cold War hasn’t ended yet in Southeast Asia.

If Singapore prefers to be ranked on par with countries such as Myanmar, Laos or Vietnam, then the Republic should sign close cooperation agreements with Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam and let the other ASEAN member countries go ahead and further develop fair journalism and press freedom within Southeast Asia.

Freedom of press is essential for any democratic and vibrant society and possible within ASEAN, even if governments in Myanmar, Singapore, Laos and Vietnam disagree.

News is our window to the world and it would be a pity if governments force us to shut those windows with their power and let us live back in the “Dark Ages of ASEAN’s founding fathers such as General Suharto of Indonesia, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, Mr. Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines and General Thanom of Thailand” when cold war tactics were used to silence political oppositions.

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