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Zakaria Abdul Wahab
Some Americans have wrongly perceived Singapore as a repressive state after reading only unfair reports by American newspapers, according to a Singapore minister.
Law Minister and Second Minister for Home Affairs K. Shanmugam said the American readers were not getting the right picture of prosperous Singapore and its strong adherence to the rule of law if they read about Singapore in some American journals.
Speaking at a reception for the New York State Bar Association International Section here last night, he said these journals portrayed the republic as a repressive state “that controlled the people’s thoughts as if that was possible in a modern, successful, wired and internationally connected city like Singapore, and that it unfairly targets the press.”
Shanmugam said Singapore’s stand on press reporting was simple in that the press could criticise the government and its policies but it demanded the right of response to be published in the journal that published the original article.
“We do not accept that they can decide whether to publish our response,” he said, adding that if the press crossed the line from attacking its policies and making allegations of fact against someone then there would be a libel suit and the factual accusation must be proven.
“If allegation is proven, the plaintiff will lose the case and pay legal costs. Otherwise the accuser pays damages and legal costs,” he added.
The minister said the government allowed tough debate and criticism of policies in the political arena but it believed that such debate should avoid untrue and scurrilous personal attacks.
“Personal reputation is no less valuable than personal property,” Shanmugam said, adding that public discourse did not have to descend into the gutter.
He said if untrue statements were made that a person was corrupt or that he lied, or that he tried to help his family or friends, there would be a suit.
“Let the accuser prove it. But if it is said that someone is stupid or that policies make no sense and the policies are attacked vigorously, then you can’t sue. There is public prerogative, to comment on policies,” the minister said.
Shanmugam said that over the years this had resulted in the government and ministers having several tussles with newspapers such as the Wall Street Journal, Far Eastern Economic Review and others.
He said the press were not used to this anywhere else in the world, and it would be no surprise they did not like it one bit.
“So every law suit is met with the same reaction, we are out to silence the press,” the minister said, adding that the feeling had been pervasive and had coloured the general reporting on Singapore.
Shanmugam also questioned the objectivity of assessments made by some organisations such as Reporters Without Borders which ranked Singapore 144 out of 173 countries on press freedom, somewhat below Ethiopia, Sudan, Kazakhstan, Venezuela, Guinea, Haiti, and others.
The Freedom House rankings for 2009 placed Singapore together with Iraq at 151 out of 195, below Haiti, Colombia, Kenya, Moldova, Guinea, Pakistan and others, he added.
The minister said the government approach to such rankings was to ignore the criticisms which made no sense, and it continued to do what was better for the city-state, and Singaporeans also knew better.