Singapore, a country of myths

January 20, 2004
Singapore Democrats

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Charles Tan

Myth 1: Singapore has an open media

Foreigners, including some Singaporeans, believe we have a free and open media. Our media industry is basically a duopoly gridlock, both of which are mouth pieces of the government.

The Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) which prints the countrys only spreadsheet, The Straits Times, prints other language newspapers as well such as Lianhe Zaobao (Mandarin) and Berita Harian (Malay).

It started SPH Mediaworks, providing two free to air TV channels (English and Mandarin) when the government wanted to portray itself as liberalizing the media a few years ago. Its other subsidiaries include the internet arm, AsiaOne, which was recently delisted.

SPH posted a loss this year. It also acquired property along Singapores famous Orchard Road, Paragon and Promenade shopping malls and has a stake in M1, Singapores second largest mobile provider and Starhub, Singapores pay TV provider.

The other player is Media Corporation of Singapore. It started off as the countrys largest broadcaster and crossed over to print publication with TODAY, a free paper, to allegedly provide competition against SPHs newspapers during the liberalization phase. MediaCorp is part of Temasek Holdings.

Singapores media used to be governed by the Singapore Broadcasting Authority (SBA) which has now been subsumed under Media Development Authority; a merger of SBA, the Films and Publications Department, and the Singapore Film Commission (SFC), on 1 January this year.

MDA hosts various committees and panels. Among them is The Drama Review Committee responsible for evaluating the artistic and literary merit of controversial scripts before recommending their suitability for public performance.

Others are the Films Consultative Panel, National Internet Advisory Committee; Publications Consultative Committee. These feedback committees are in one way or another, gatekeepers to what kind of information Singaporeans are exposed to.

The mother of all these committees is the adhoc Censorship Review Committee. It was reformed this year but has yet to recommend any guidelines. Judging from its report and research findings last year, we should not hold our breath for any major changes.

Late last year, efforts were made to silence dissension. DBS sued Business Week for allegedly making defamatory statements on the relationship between Temasek, DBS Group and DBS Bank. It revolves around an alleged offer of loan financing to NatSteel’s management for the buyout bid from the banking group.

This echoes an earlier similar case when Bloomberg paid libel damages and costs totalling S$595,000 (US$340,000) to Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew and Deputy Prime Minister Lee over comments on the appointment of Mdm Ho Ching as executive of Temasek Holdings.

Early this year, The Singapore Democratic Party website was hacked into. On October 6, local alternative news group, SG Review was hacked into after Straits Times published an article displaying its address.

A Straits Times Journalist recently conducted an email interview with Singapore dissident in exile, Mr Francis Seow but the article published turned out, to be, in Francis Seows words, a travesty of the answers to the questionnaire.”

Myth 2: We have an Opposition

Some dissidents in exile who has opposed the government and system includes Mr Francis Seow, former solicitor-general who fled during the 1998 general election after being convicted of tax evasion. He continues to write about Singapore politics. To Catch A Tartar recalls his experiences under the detention of the Internal Security Act.

Ms Tang Fong Har, who is one of the 22 people held in 1987 for allegedly harbouring a communist conspiracy to overthrow the government is another exile.

Other notable exiles include Mr Tan Wah Piow, a student activist. He left Singapore in 1976 after serving a one-year jail term. He was stripped of his Singapore citizenship in 1987.

Mr Tang Liang Hong left the country after the 1997 General Election in which he was accused by the government of being a Chinese chauvinist.

Mr Zulfikar Mohamad Shariff who is former webmaster of Fateha.com departed Singapore July last year when the police investigated him for having allegedly criminally defaming Mr Lee Kuan Yew.

In Singapore, the two most prominent opposition figures are Secretary Party General of Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), Dr Chee Soon Juan and Mr J.B. Jeyaretnam, fierce defender of democracy in Singapore.

Mr Jeyaretnam is selling his book, The Hatchet Man of Singapore to pay defamation costs awarded to the incumbent PAP. He still cares about Singapore politics and his latest article published on Think Centre calls for the importance of having a fair trial with regards to a recent execution case.

Dr Chee received the 2003 Defender of Democracy Award on 16 September 2003. He was honoured by the Parliamentarians for Global Action, an international network of over 1350 members of Parliament from 105 elected national legislatures promoting democracy, peace, justice and development in the world. This award has been given to former South Korean President Kim Dae Jung and former Palestine spokeswoman Dr Hanan Miklail Ashrawi.

At home, Dr Chee is constantly and unfairly belittled by the national press. The local media conveniently neglects to publish a report by The Lawyers Committee for Human Rights (LCHR) who sent international observers to watch over the defamation appeal case in which Mr Lee and PM Goh took umbrage over remarks Dr Chee made during the general election last year. The observers concluded that the case failed to meet international standards guaranteeing the right to a fair trial.

It seems the government is keen on using defamation suits to silence opposition.

Mr Chia Tye Poh was jailed 22 years, 6 months, 2 weeks and 4 days without trial for being an activist while Singapore was achieving independence. He is the world’s second longest serving prisoner-of-conscience after South Africa’s Nelson Mandela.

Myth 3: Singaporeans are doing well materially

Even the national papers and the government agree that the economy is suffering. Graduates are finding it harder to secure their first job while many middle-aged employees are being retrenched for their younger counterparts.

During such bad times, the government continues to impose harsh conditions on its citizens. Our goods and services tax has been raised to 5%. Employers contribution to our Central Provident Fund (CPF) which is like a pension scheme will be reduced (between 10 to 16%). As of 1 October 2003, the employers CPF contribution rate was cut by 3 percentage points. The new total contribution rate is 33%.

This is a government initiative to reduce employers costs and attract foreign investments. Unfortunately, it also means lower retirement benefits. Among the other new changes, increase in the minimum sum of one’s CPF for those reaching 55, making it more difficult for people to use the money that is originally theirs.

All this time, our cabinet ministers continue to chide people who complain about the high cost of living and unemployment for not lowering job expectations. Singapore’s ministers are one of the worlds most well-paid. Our PM holds a monthly salary of $155,000 while George Bush is paid only $58,000.

Myth 4: Singaporeans are happy

Dr Chees keynote address during the International Conference for Democracy in July 2003 highlighted something which has been elucidating residents, activists and foreigners alike. I quote, The control in Singapore is extremely sophisticated but the effects of the repression are no less effective.

If this quote seems unsubstantiated to you, because a lot of us find it hard to fathom whats so sophisticated about the governing party, its because we rarely read beyond what is in front of us. He gave the example of how the government tried ways and means to prevent the conference from happening; and when it didnt succeed, they tried to make “life difficult for the organizers.

A few years earlier, James Gomez who wrote Self-Censorship: Singapore’s Shame and Internet Politics: Surveillance & Intimidation reiterated similar thoughts on Singaporeans’ inborn fear, bred by cultural conditioning and a pervasive policing society.

On the artistic front, Singaporean poet, Alfian Saat mentioned the illusionary facade of the make-up of our country. He sums up what Dr Chee and Mr Gomez were saying: If I am paranoid/ I have learnt it from you.

It all leads to this: “That the so called system of fear which leads to oppression and repression of thoughts and hence successively action is the result of years in which people are molded to mistrust anyone; that because of this fear; we in turn created a vicious cycle continuing to trap us into preserving and upholding this fallacious system.

Myth 5: Singapore is a democracy

The following 3 quotes will set you thinking:

“The experience of democracy is like the experience of life itselfalways changing, infinite in its variety, sometimes turbulent and all the more valuable for having been tested by adversity.”
– Jimmy Carter, 39th U.S. President, To Indian Parliament, 2 January 78

“Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority.”
– Lord Acton, letter to Mandell Creighton, April 5, 1887.Acton, Essays on Freedom and Power, ed. Gertrude Himmelfarb, pp. 33536 (1972).

“People like to say that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The PAP was in absolute power from 1968 to 1980 when it had all the seats in Parliament. Even after we lost Anson in 1981, our Party remains dominant in Parliament. But so many years in power have not corrupted us. The Party has remained honest. It has eschewed money politics. It does not go into any sort of business. We run a meritocratic system, not a patronage system. We are comrades, not cronies.”
– Goh Chok Tong at Senior Ministers 80TH birthday dinner on Sunday, 21 September 2003, Swissotel, The Stamford.

Mr Charles Tan is a Singaporean who contributed these observations at a recent youth conference he attended.