A closed door to a free press

Philip Bowring
Asia Sentinel
20 Sep 06

Welcome to Singapore, the state ranked 140th out of 167 in the press freedom standings league of Reporters Without Borders.

It is a well-earned honor. For example, just six weeks before the IMF/World bank meetings beginning this week, Singapore demanded that several publications circulating in Singapore, including the Financial Times, Time, the Far Eastern Economic Review and the International Herald Tribune, put up a S$200,000 (US$129,000) bond and appoint an agent to represent the publisher in accepting writs should they be sued.

This was just the latest move in a long-running and very successful effort to keep the foreign media under Singapore control. The new requirements are just an extension of an existing policy but the timing was clearly designed as threat to ensure that the western press not use the occasion of the meetings to write “negative” stories about Singapore, in particular its political structure, social tensions, relations with Burma, or the role, positions, wealth, etc., of the family of founding father Lee Kuan Yew.

Anxious to use the big event to promote the island republic, the government would not want too many unpleasant facts to emerge to sully the impressions of visitors. Singapore is supposed to be only and forever a clean, green, modern, well-behaved, uncorrupt, multi-ethnic nation with a liberal and open economy that attracts those concerned more by the city’s reputation as a haven attraction for foreign capital than its treatment of locals.

A brief glance at the Singapore media might suggest to a visiting foreigner that it has, for a small country, a diverse multi-lingual press. The international coverage of The Straits Times (circulation 386,000) and its sister paper the Business Times (circulation 31,000) looks quite impressive, drawing from a wide network of correspondents, especially in Asia, even if its coverage of Indonesia and Malaysia at times reflects Singaporean stereotypes of their Malay neighbors.

However, when it comes to the main task of national journalism, to analyze and comment on local events and politics freely and fairly, the Singapore media is more easily compared with that of Burma than with more open Asian societies such as Thailand, Korea, Hong Kong and Indonesia.

Singapore is ranked by the Committee to Protect Journalists, Freedom House, and Reporters Without Borders as one of the worst nations in terms of press freedom, according to the Southeast Asian Press Alliance. “Singapore’s overall media environment,” SEAPA said in a statement, “is dominated and virtually monopolized by the state and independent bloggers have been warned against political postings.”

This is nothing new. The state has long made no pretense of liberalism, which it insists is dangerous in a developing, multi-ethnic society in a region once threatened by communism and which must now face Islamic fundamentalism. The media is essentially an arm of government, reflecting the will of the people who elected it.

Although the dominant media company, Singapore Press Holdings (SPH), is technically a private company listed on the stock exchange, it is firmly under the control of government. Indeed, there have been many exchanges of senior personnel between it and the state security apparatus.

SPH has been quite successful in using its near monopoly to entertain as well as propagandize. In 1988 it started an afternoon tabloid, The New Paper, which keeps its readers (circulation now 131,000) entertained with a brash and, by local standards, daring tabloid diet. Here and in other papers, citizens are allowed to let off steam about local issues from bus services to rubbish collection. But don’t look for open debate on political issues, the role of the ruling Lee family or any issues which go to the heart of the system.

The destruction of independent media in Singapore goes back a long way. Most notable, perhaps, was the closure of the Singapore Herald in 1971. Its publishing license was suspended after being accused of “black operations” being funded by questionable foreign money and “taking on the government”.

The paper could hardly be accused of either communism or Chinese chauvinism (the two main “evils” of the time). It was owned by the long-established Aw family, which also owned the Hong Kong Standard and Sing Tao, and had backing from an American bank. But it declined to kowtow to Lee Kwan Yew and offered competition to The Straits Times, already little more than an official mouthpiece. Its closure marked the end of an era when relatively liberal journalism had survived the communist insurgency of the 1950s and played a role in the Malaya and Singapore independence movements. In 1974 the noose was tightened by the Publishing and Printing Presses Act, which gave the government sweeping powers over the press.

Thereafter those wanting a more diverse news diet turned to foreign publications, particularly the weekly Far Eastern Economic Review and later the Asian Wall Street Journal. Several foreign correspondents were thrown out and two Singaporean ones jailed without charge under the Internal Security Act.

Around 1987 however, Lee decided on a new tactic to rein in the foreign media.

Lee said that if foreigners “interfered” in Singapore politics and sold their products there he would “hit them where it hurts, in their pockets.” He was as good as his word. Lawsuits and restraints on circulation followed. The libel actions that Lee used to cripple political opponents such as J.B. Jeyaretnam were extended to the media.

At first the foreign media put up some resistance. The Asian Wall Street Journal became embroiled in legal actions with the government and the Far Eastern Economic Review famously defended itself in a libel case brought by Lee over a story about arrests of Catholic activists. Lee was awarded extra damages by his court on account of the grilling he received from the Review’s counsel, the well-known London-based human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson. The Review continued to write about Singapore even though it, like the Journal, was restricted to a very small circulation and was the subject of a government policy that claimed it was not against a free press but only against foreigners making money out of sales in Singapore.

However, in the early 1990s, and following the sale of the Review to Dow Jones and the installation of Karen House, wife of Dow Jones chairman Peter Kann, heading up the group’s foreign publications, the position of the two publications shifted. Peace talks were held with Singapore, litigation ended and the two publications were allowed increased circulation in Singapore. They largely ceased to cover controversial issues and as a result never regained their earlier levels of subscription sales.

Other publications followed suit, also warned by two actions, one for libel one for contempt, against the International Herald Tribune in 1994. The libel was for using the phrase “dynastic politics” in reference to Singapore, the contempt case for implying the obvious – that the courts are not independent of the government. A stream of threats or suits filed against others such as Business Week and The Economist and Bloomberg have ensured that all international media tread very gently.

LKY was being proved correct. He had hit the foreign press in their pockets and they were shown to be more interested in revenues than in the free-press principles which they proclaimed.

Mainstream print, wire and broadcast media alike decided that Singapore was too convenient a location and too important for revenue from advertising and financial wire services to risk expensive law suits and circulation restrictions. Quite the opposite in fact. Tax breaks, access to attractively priced telecommunications, printing and distribution systems, not to mention advertising by state-owned enterprises, were on offer for those who understood the rules.

There was no need to put this on paper. “Understanding” came naturally to media more concerned with profit than principle. And to keep the media up to the mark, the occasional threat of a libel suit was usually enough to elicit groveling apologies or at least publication of endless tendentious letters from Singapore officials. Media which needed the Singapore foreign exchange and other financial markets as clients were particularly keen not to jeopardize business by being subject to official restriction. Self-censorship was the order of the day.

There is nothing really new in the latest restrictions, ironically brought on once again by a negative article in the Far Eastern Economic Review, now made into a monthly regional analysis publication by Dow Jones, are the reiteration of a threat backed by commercial sanctions against media that dare to practice the belief that Singapore politics is a topic fit for public discussion.

As ever, LKY looks the winner as the media looks to guard its pocket, and to hell with the interests of IMF/World Bank delegates to have informed discussions about the country they have honored with their annual meeting.

Philip Bowring was editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review during some of the most tumultuous exchanges between the magazine and the Singapore government.

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