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One correspondent ponders why his working visa was not renewed by the city-state
Unfriendly reporters are jailed, assaulted or assassinated by the governments of Burma, Iran and Sri Lanka. Singapore, with pretensions to being a global “media hub”, prefers tools of repression that are more subtle, yet have the same chilling effect on free speech. After a year as an accredited correspondent in the southeast Asian city-state, I was unexpectedly told last month that my employment visa would not be renewed.
The government refused to disclose its reasons despite repeated requests and an appeal from the British High Commission. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a New York-based press freedom group, condemned the decision, saying that it “shows the Singapore government’s intolerance of independent and critical reporting”. CPJ added that I was merely “the latest on a long list of foreign journalists who have been targeted by the government for their news coverage”.
Although I reported on some sensitive issues such as rising crime, the ageing population and business links with Burma, I did not break any of the taboos that normally lead to a government reprisal – namely criticising Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding father, or his son, the prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong. International publications that dare to hold Singapore’s ruling caste to account tend to find themselves on the wrong side of a costly libel suit. In recent years, the Economist, the International Herald Tribune, the Wall Street Journal and, most recently, the soon-to-close Far Eastern Economic Review have all been forced to pay out hundreds of thousands of pounds in damages to the Lee family.
While the international press is silenced through the courts, Singaporean journalists are cowed by the government’s ownership of key stakes in all the country’s daily newspapers and news broadcasters. The insidious practice of self-censorship is all-pervasive. One senior editor at a major international newspaper in Asia admitted that he line-edits every single story about Singapore for fear of upsetting the powers-that-be.
A veteran foreign correspondent in Singapore insisted that it was possible to criticise the government “if one takes a subtle rather than confrontational approach and focuses on policy issues rather than personalities”. But, fearful of jeopardising his employment visa, he was not prepared to speak on the record.