New press restrictions put Singapore in reverse

Asia Sentinel
10 Aug 06

So much for progress toward a kinder, gentler Singapore. On August 4, the tiny island nation took a giant step backwards in its relations with the international media and its commitment to press freedom when the Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts (MICA) slapped controls on foreign media companies publishing there, apparently in retaliation for an article published in the monthly Far Eastern Economic Review.

The five companies involved—the others being the International Herald Tribune, the Financial Times, Newsweek and Time Magazine—are to be required to post a security deposit of S$200,000 and appoint an agent   in Singapore authorized to accept service of any notice or legal process on behalf of the publisher in the event that the government, as it routinely does in the face of imagined slights, decides to sue.

The move brings back memories of twenty years earlier when then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, was bashing FEER and many another foreign publication trying to report independently on the island republic.

This time it is Lee’s son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, going after the current FEER, now a monthly opinion digest run by the Dow Jones News Corporation. What Lee is doing has turned the international press into collateral damage and embarrassed Singapore globally eve of the September meetings of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank in Singapore, when 16,000 officials and dignitaries will be in town.

“The announcement of revised rules for the foreign media further restricts the flow of information in an already constricted environment,” said the Southeast Asian Press Alliance in a prepared statement.  “Singapore is ranked by the Committee to Protect Journalists, Freedom House, and Reporters San Frontiers as one of the worst nations in terms of press freedom.”

Singapore’s overall media environment, the statement said, “is dominated and virtually monopolized by the state and independent bloggers have been warned against political postings.”

Unfortunately, some of those affected by the ruling seem prepared to go along quietly and not take up the cudgels for press freedom. “We are looking at (the reclassification), we intend to cooperate with the Singaporean authorities,” said Leonard Apcar, deputy managing editor and newly named chief editor for Asia for the International Herald Tribune, which is owned by the New York Times.

“We are obviously disappointed by the prospect that these regulations are being applied to us,” said Victor Mallet, Asia editor of the Financial Times. “We are a bit surprised given that Singapore is seen as one of Asia’s main financial centers and will be hosting the IMF-World Bank meetings in September.  We don’t see any need for introduction of these regulations on us.”

The offense? FEER, in its July-August edition, ran an interview by editor Hugo Restall with Chee Soon Juan, the much-jailed opposition leader of the nearly moribund Singapore Democratic Party. Chee is the latest in a long line of punching bags for the Lee family that began decades ago when Joshua B. Jeyaratnam actually won a constituency seat away from the ruling People’s Action Party of Singapore. Lee Kuan Yew threatened on the floor of Singapore’s parliament to destroy Jeyaratnam, who was subsequently hounded from office, sued, disgraced, bankrupted and harassed, as were opposition politicians who followed him.

It was a gutsy move by Restall and certainly the interview contained some stinging observations, including one that the elder Lee, 82 and currently serving as Minister Mentor in the cabinet, at some point has to die.

In an instant, the 20-odd years of Singapore’s long slog towards intellectual respectability vanished. The more open Singapore fostered by the younger Lee’s predecessor, Goh Chok Tong, disappeared.  The Cheshire smiles of Lee Hsien Loong were replaced by a grim determination to get everybody back in line.

“We are rectifying an anomaly for FEER which has been a declared foreign newspaper since December 1987,” the ministry said in a prepared release. ”It was an administrative oversight not to have subjected FEER to the conditions which are required for declared foreign newspapers to circulate in Singapore.”

Right. It didn’t have anything to do with statements such as one in the Restall article that said: “Former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, the man many believe still runs Singapore and who is the current prime minister’s father…” and “While many Singaporeans don’t particularly like the PAP’s arrogant style of government, the ruling party has succeeded in depoliticizing the population to the extent that anybody who presses them with an action to make change is regarded with resentment.”

The article baldly stated the well-known notion that Chee lost his job as a psychology lecturer at the national university “in a climate of fear” for entering opposition politics.  It went on to question whether the government deserves its reputation for “squeaky-clean government” in the wake of a scandal that veered uncomfortably close to the wife of former Prime Minister Goh and asked whether libel suits are used by the government as a tool for suppressing questioning voices.

And, after describing a series of rising tensions in Singaporean society, Restall wrote that “All these tensions will erupt when strongman Lee Kuan Yew dies.”

The row harks back to the mid 1980s when Singapore took on the Asian Wall Street Journal, the now-defunct Asiaweek, Time Magazine and FEER, passing laws that allowed officials to slash circulation. In FEER’s case, a tame labor union printed the publication itself without any advertisements. Correspondents were denied visas. Both FEER and the Asian Wall Street Journal’s offices were shut for several years. Publications were repeatedly sued for defamation by the Lee family and other officials, both big and small.  The actions raised a largely ineffective storm of international criticism against the government, which the government ignored, and appears to be ignoring again.

Earlier curbs on foreign press reporting on Singapore were largely successful. It became an open secret among journalists that aggressive reporting on the country was just not worth it. Either reporters were bodily tossed out or their companies risked lengthy litigation if they offended the country. Frequently both happened – expulsion and lawsuits. The result was that Singapore got a free pass and was seldom subject to the kind of aggressive criticism that was served up to other countries.

The scene is tightening for locals also, who generally have only the Internet to turn to for free expression in a country where all other local media are under government control.  In July, according to Reporters Sans Frontiers, a popular blogger named Lee Kin Mun, writing under the name Mr Brown, had his weekly column in the state-owned Mediacorp Press Group publication Today killed after he wrote a satirical piece in the newspaper about the cost of living. The remarks were characterized by a government official as “over politicized and unconstructive.”

Krishnasamy Bhavani, a press secretary to MICA, wrote on July 3 in Today about Lee’s blogging: “It is not the role of journalists or newspapers in Singapore to champion issues, or campaign for or against the government. If a columnist presents himself as a non-political observer, while exploiting his access to the mass media to undermine the government’s standing with the electorate, then he is no longer a constructive critic, but a partisan player in politics.”

The country represents a fairly large cache of English-language readers so it is not surprising, one supposes, that some of the affected foreign publications seem prepared to go along with he government’s latest order. The press has to be very leery, for instance, of the government-run 2006 Singapore Organising Committee for the IMF and World Bank meetings. It would not take much to freeze out correspondents from offending media. It was done routinely by Singapore in the past when hold orders at the airport barred many journalists from entry even if they were just on vacation.

Singapore, the committee says on its website, will “Greet the World With Four Million Smiles.”

Right. For everybody but the Far Eastern Economic Review and anyone one else who shows some teeth of their own.

FEER’s interview with Chee Soon Juan is available online at

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