SOON AFTER IT CAME into power in 1959, the PAP started its campaign to rid Singapore of a free media. One of the first victims was the Straits Times, the country’s only morning broadsheet. Then-editor Lesley Hoffman had been critical of the PAP and knew that his days as a journalist in Singapore were numbered when Lee Kuan Yew became the prime minister. For his own safety, Hoffman eventually left the country after which the newspaper was reconstituted. Today, the publication functions primarily to echo the government’s stance.
Through the decades, the Straits Times has become a tightly controlled operation. In 2004, a US citizen employed by the newspaper as its global affairs columnist, had this to say after he resigned from the publication:
The Straits Times has no competition in Singapore. It’s owned wholly by a company called Singapore Press Holdings, whose stock is sold publicly but whose affairs are closely monitored by the government of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, son of Singapore’s founding father, former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew. The paper is run by editors with virtually no background in journalism. For example, my direct editor was Ms Chua Lee Hoong, a woman in her mid 30s. She was an intelligence officer. Other key editors are drawn from Singapore’s bureaucracies and state security services. They all retain connections to the state’s intelligence services, which track everyone and everything.
After the Government take-over of the Straits Times another daily, the Malay-language Utusan Melayu, also ceased publication because of threats from the government. In 1971, four of the most senior staff members of the Nanyang Siang Pau, a Chinese-language newspaper, went straight to prison for ‘glamorizing Communism’ and for being involved in a “black operation”. It was closed down.
In one year, the wrecking ball swung from the communist left to the American right. The Singapore Herald, a vivacious tabloid, was also accused of being involved in a ‘black operation’, this time with the U.S. intelligence. It was also closed down. In between, another independent daily, the Eastern Sun, was just as unceremoniously and brutally shutdown, again because the newspaper was accused of being involved in some “black operation.”
Presently Singapore’s local print media is run by the Singapore Press Holdings and MediaCorp, two companies under the direct control of the state. The broadcast media’s history is less eventful—it came firmly under government control from the outset.
Having successfully dragged the local media through obedience school, the Singapore Government started work on the foreign press. One by one, regional and international publications which commented unfavourably on the PAP and its politics were taken to court in expensive defamation suits or were criminally prosecuted. Asiaweek, Far Eastern Economic Review (both now defunct), Asian Wall Street Journal, Time, International Herald Tribune, The Economist, and Newsweek all met with such fate. Other punitive actions taken against the offending publications included restricting their circulations in Singapore.
In 1999, Party Secretary-General Chee Soon Juan, did a few interviews with broadcasters such as CNBC, CNN and Reuters. Shortly after these interviews, the Government issued a warning that foreign TV stations that broadcast from Singapore had to abide by the same rules and standards that governed the Singapore station. Mr George Yeo, then Minister for Information and the Arts announced in Parliament: “Just look at the way foreign channels have become part of the domestic politics in the Malaysia and Indonesia. We should worry for ourselves.”
A backbencher then stood up and railed: “Indeed, we have witnessed many interviews on CNBC and BBC with some populist politicians in Singapore of late for frivolous causes.” This was, of course, a reference to Dr Chee’s speaking in public without government approval.
Shortly thereafter the government amended the Singapore Broadcasting Act to enable it to prosecute foreign broadcasters, as it does with the international press, for “engaging in the domestic politics of Singapore.” Since then, there have been almost no interviews with Singapore’s pro-democracy activists or reports on Singapore’s politics from foreign broadcasting stations.
The actions against the media in Singapore has resulted in international media watch groups criticizing the PAP for its continued suppression of the media. Reporters Without Borders placed Singapore 147th out of 167 countries in its annual survey measuring governments on their respect for press freedoms, which is “by far the lowest ranking of any developed country in the annual ranking – and just one notch above Iraq and 18 above Myanmar.”
In fact, Reporters Without Borders (RWB) gave the former prime minister, Goh Chok Tong, the “Predator of Press Freedom” award for his role in the government’s continued suppression of press freedom together with the likes of Muammar Gaddafi, Robert Mugabe, Kim Jong-Il, and Fidel Castro.
Another media group, the Committee to Protect Journalists, wrote:
State control of the media in Singapore is so complete that few dare to challenge the system and there is no longer much need to arrest or even harass journalists. Even foreign correspondents have learned to be cautious when reporting on Singapore, since the government has frequently hauled the international press into court to face lengthy and expensive libel suits.
The PAP also tries to regulate the Internet. In 1996, the government stipulated that political parties, religious groups, and other organisations that wanted to put up their own websites needed to first obtain a permit from the Singapore Broadcasting Authority (SBA), ostensibly because it wanted to prevent “objectionable content” from entering cyberspace. The operative term, “objectionable,” was deliberately left undefined, to allow the state to determine what is and is not fit for public consumption.
An opportunity came during the general elections at the end of 1996, during which the SDP used its website to post information and biographical data about its candidates. The Party immediately received a letter from the SBA demanding the removal of the offending Web pages. In 2001, the Government announced that it would introduce new regulations to “guide responsible use” of the Internet by political parties during elections.
The Singapore Democrats are determined to break this arm-lock on the media by the Government. A vibrant and free media will foster a dynamic and enterprising society.