Efforts of pro-democracy forces to overcome dictatorships have rarely been successful without pressure from the international community. Even US President John Kennedy supported the Civil Rights Movement partly due to pressure, directly or otherwise, from the international community.
For others to know about what is happening in a country, reporting by the international media is essential. The Singapore Government knows this all too well which is why it has through the years punished the foreign print media for what it sees as “errant” reporting and commentary. The AWSJ, Newsweek, Time, Economist, IHT, FEER, Asiaweek, Bloomberg have all been prosecuted, sued for defamation and/or had their circulation curtailed.
In every instance, the publications capitulated, some with a protracted fight, others in swift surrender. Some even grovelled for forgiveness.
Having intimidated the foreign press, the Government turned its cross-hairs on the foreign broadcast media.
In 2001 George Yeo: ‘Just look at the way foreign channels have become part of the domestic politics in Malaysia and Indonesia. We should worry for ourselves.’
The rumbling was not lost on the stations. I subsequently learned from journalists who had previously worked for CNBC that, for a time, the station was clearly rattled by the threats and worried that the Singapore government would pull its broadcast license and send its investments down the pipe.
Little more was said about this matter until March 1, 2001, when I gave a second interview on CNN’s Q&A with Riz Khan. Nine days later, the government said that it would introduce an amendment to the Singapore Broadcasting Authority Act. The new law extends the same principles to foreign television channels which are re-broadcast in Singapore by Singapore Cable Vision. If you have seen the coverage of MediaCorp on the opposition, you will understand that “same principles” is code for absolutely no coverage on the opposition.
But these developments are not the most aggravating concerns because one expects the PAP, as with all dictatorships, to ensure that the world doesn’t get to learn of its ways. What rankles is that despite the PAP’s bullying, the foreign media continue to choose to base themselves in this country.
And because they are based here, they stay away from critical and hard-nosed reporting on Singapore. And if they do report, there is often heavy self-censorship.
The late Derek Davies of FEER wrote: ‘Coverage of Singapore affairs has been such as to keep Singapore’s feathers relatively unruffled.’
Political economist Dr Garry Rodan writes that ‘government strategies for constraining critical reporting have resulted in the widespread adoption of self-censorship within all forms of the international media.’
But perhaps the gravest indictment comes from Derek Davies:
Lee [Kuan Yew], having failed to stop the foreign media from ‘meddling in Singapore’s domestic affairs,’ told me that instead of attempting to control editors and journalists, he would target the pockets of owners and publishers. ‘I will hit you where it hurts. Then we will see your commitment to a free press.’ Anyway, he enjoyed a confrontation with the media. ‘Don’t forget, I can hurt you more than you can hurt me.’ A bill was being prepared with the aim of giving the government powers to limit the sales of foreign publications in Singapore, thereby reducing their revenues from circulation and advertisements. That would bring direct and more effective pressure to bear on editors. Privately, I felt that foreign publications would hardly submit to such pressure, but I was wholly wrong and Lee was largely right.
Of course, not all journalists stayed away from reporting on Singapore’s politics. The BBC had aired a 25-minute documentary on the Speakers’ Corner in Singapore with its presenter, John Simpson, gushing that ‘Singapore is leading, finding its way into the future when the rest of us are still sort of stumbling along.’ The story was, of course, prominently featured on the Prime News section in the Straits Times.
And to rub red-hot chilli padi to the injury, the Singapore Government uses the fact that these companies’ presence to show how open Singapore is. Lee Hsien Loong said last week in Pusan, South Korea: “We are completely open” and supported this claim by citing that organisations such as CNBC, Dow Jones, Bloomberg and Reuters have a presence here in Singapore.
Can there be greater indignity for news organisations to be, first, bullied into submission and then used by the bully to make itself look good?
The bigger worry is that what the PAP does in Singapore has been and will be picked up by other governments. For example, Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and associates have started a campaign of suing newspapers. Shawn Crispin recently wrote in the Bangkok Post:
“The trend towards less press freedom and more government restriction [in Thailand] is unmistakable. Thaksin Shinawatra’s government has launched what many media members describe as a well-coordinated assault against their ability to freely gather and present the news…But if, as recent events suggest, Mr Thaksin’s fawning references to the two neighbouring authoritarian regimes [Singapore and Malaysia] extends to his government’s policy towards the press, then without a doubt the Thai media is in crisis and could be for some time to come.”
If Mr Thaksin succeeds, will other young democracies like Indonesia or the Philippines or South Korea perform a monkey-see, monkey-do act? Will we then see a roll back of the gains democracy has made through all these years of pain and sacrifice?
Please do not misunderstand me. I am not asking you to support the opposition in Singapore. I am acutely aware of the need for foreign news organizations to maintain a measure of neutrality. But this is exactly why I am so vexed. By self-censoring or completely staying away from reporting on Singapore’s politics, are you being neutral? My only hope is that you will do your work as you were trained to do – without fear or favour.
I know it is not good form to criticize one’s host. But I also know that I would not be respectful of you if I did not speak the truth, about what has been in my heart for the longest of time. I am confident that you did not invite me here today to make platitudinous drivel.
If my impudence can help bring about change for the common, democratic good, then I gladly ask for your understanding, if not forgiveness. I can only hope that at the end of the day you and I can say, without reservation, that we all kept faith with our respective vocations and, more importantly, with ourselves.