Media: Don’t mess with Singapore

The Nation
9 Aug 06

City state’s overreaction to a critical FEER article illustrates how far freedom of the press there has to go

The message to the Western media is loud and clear: don’t mess with Singapore. If you do, you’ll have to pay dearly. The latest edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review called Chee Soon Juan, leader of the Democratic Party, a martyr. The island-state’s overactive self-defence mechanism kicked into gear with all guns blazing. The magazine ran a profile of Chee in which he expressed his views on former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew and his son, the current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Chee’s remarks were not flattering, and (he) did (not) censor himself. Singapore’s powers-that-be promptly went ballistic. The portion of the article that ridiculed comments the younger Lee had made about Chee in New Zealand must have upset the island’s super-sensitive bureaucrats, or those higher up.

The article came at a delicate time, as Lee is trying to prove he is a worthy prime minister.

It was decided that action must be taken swiftly in order to demonstrate to the magazine and Western media outlets in general that when it comes to opinions, particularly those critical of the country, only Singaporean leaders are entitled to provide them.

Singapore’s citizens can express their views at their own peril. Chee’s case serves as a dark reminder of the victimisation of the island’s population under the iron-fisted rule of its government. Dissenting views are not tolerated, unless they come from internal discussions within the top echelon of the government and the ruling People’s Action Party.

Outsiders should applaud Chee for having managed to survive against all odds, including being forced into bankruptcy. This only underscores the courage and determination he has shown in fighting against his country’s repressive government.

Last week, as part of a policy review, Singapore said that foreign publications – particularly the Financial Times, International Herald Tribune, Newsweek and Time magazine – must now put down a deposit, equivalent to Bt5 million, as well as hire a legal representative. This requirement sends an unambiguous message to foreign media.

For Singapore, this is not about money – the island has plenty. It is about providing Western media outlets with a lesson in “discipline”.

In an age of globalisation and online news, these measures will force media establishments to think hard about their methods of news gathering, editorial policies and the distribution of their publications. After all, the island nation is still considered one of the region’s largest markets for foreign publications due to its large English-speaking population and the presence of foreign investors. These publications have so far tolerated the strict rules concerning media control imposed by the island.

The Singaporean government would apparently prefer not to be in the news at all, unless it is portrayed in a glowing, positive light. Indeed, this will allow the younger Lee to consolidate power without having to worry about the prying foreign press. Since he came to power last August, and after having won the recent election, Lee still needs to win the backing of average Singaporeans. Print and electronic media outlets “spin” their news. Sometimes this has disastrous results, because when spin gets out of control, there tends to be too much hyperbole, which is occasionally contradictory and thus jeopardises the credibility of news outlets.

Singaporean leaders love to give interviews to the press, especially to well-established media outlets such as CNN and the BBC – outlets which also know the importance of “toeing the line”. That is how Singapore’s leaders shape international opinion about their country and its “first-world” efficiency – rather than focusing on the repressive tactics of those in power there.

From the very beginning, Singapore’s established media outlets were designed to support and justify Singapore’s efforts towards nation building. However, Singapore has come a long way in terms of economic and social achievements and younger generations of Singaporeans will demand greater openness and genuine democracy, which their nanny state has thus far failed to provide.

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