Singapore loosens up but media controls remain

May 27, 2002
Singapore Democrats

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SINGAPORE (Reuters) – Now playing on stage in Singapore is “Autumn Tom Yam”, the tale of an American diplomat who falls in love with a Thai massage boy after a bruising divorce from his wife of more than 25 years.

The man’s awkward encounters with his ex-wife and new male lover under the same roof have unleashed so much laughter that the play is into its second season.

But “Autumn Tom Yam” is the sort of play that would never have hit the stage in Singapore not so long ago.

The strait-laced island has started loosening up and plans to ease censorship laws as it struggles to reinvent itself and clamber out of its worst recession in four decades.

Several films and at least one other play with homosexual themes have already hit Singapore, along with shops selling sex toys.

“It’s not so much a loosening as an updating,” said David Lim, acting minister for information, communications and the arts. “Singapore needs to be more playful, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to be naughty.”

But the city state’s more relaxed face is likely to be kept for the arts and entertainment world. Don’t hold your breath for easier rules for the tightly controlled media, politicians and analysts say.

Any easing of censorship — whether in arts or the political realm — won’t come quickly.

“Our response will be measured as we look for a balance between creating space for personal views and the need to ensure that wrong impressions about government policies or intent are not perpetuated and become fact,” Lim said.

DOLLAR-DRIVEN

The city state’s aim to loosen up a little is driven by the dollar to a certain extent.

Besides the recession, foreign direct investment from big multinationals is going to its neighbours and China and India loom large as competitors.

Singapore needs to keep its own talent, draw fresh blood from overseas and light the entrepreneurial fire of its citizens, its leaders say.

“Artistic creativity is an important element of a knowledge-based economy,” Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong said.

The city state has set up a top-level committee to look into its remodelling across all sectors.

The focus on the artistic realm has been largely driven by the need for more creative workers as Singapore tries to shift away from its reliance on manufacturing to become a services hub.

“Everything that happens in Singapore, the government always takes a leadership role,” said Lee Weng Choy, artistic co-director of independent arts centre The Substation.

“No one should be surprised that the government is embracing the arts and embracing creativity and…that when people talk about creativity they really are talking about a bottom-line, economic thing.”

The government announced last month it will review its stringent censorship laws for the first time in 10 years as part of efforts to boost creativity and stay competitive.

A government-appointed team will study the existing rules and submit recommendations on censorship policies next year.

“It’s very timely to think very thoroughly and radically about what we’ve been doing and try to articulate a very serious vision of change,” The Substation’s Lee said.

Singapore has also pumped S$600 million into a sprawling Esplanade Theatres on the Bay, which open in October, in the hope of creating a cultural icon for the fledgling arts scene and bringing the city state onto the world stage for the performing arts.

“Artistic development…is very hard to jumpstart. It’s not just money,” Lee said. “Infrastructure alone in the physical sense is inadequate.” An increasingly wealthy and cosmopolitan younger generation has also been clamouring for more space to stretch. The state seems to be slowly heeding that call.

“We must have little bohemians in Singapore where you can do your own thing but not disturb the heartlands,” Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew has said.

SMOKE AND MIRRORS

The local arts scene seems set to grow but local media, in contrast, will be restrained by its obligations to the state.

“Local media have a unique nation-building role in our multi-racial and multi-religious society,” the government has said. “They need to have a deep sense of responsibility and commitment to Singapore.”

Nearly 70 international news agencies, newspapers and broadcasters were based in the tiny island nation in 2000. There are 5,500 foreign papers and journals in circulation and cable television subscribers had access to four dozen channels.

But reports about Singapore are scrutinised heavily and local media continues to be monopolised by two firms — state-owned broadcaster Media Corporation of Singapore and the pro-government newspaper group Singapore Press Holdings.

“What the government wants is you come over here, do any kind of reporting you want but make sure that you report on everybody else except Singapore,” opposition politician Chee Soon Juan told Reuters.

The government loosened up a little in June 2000, allowing broadcaster Media Corp and publishing group Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) to tread in each others territories.

The two firms wasted no time in setting up new papers and television stations but more competition between the state-linked companies does not translate into a freer press.

The group president of SPH — which publishes the two main English-language dailies, The Straits Times and Business Times — used to work for Singapore’s Internal Security Department.

It’s current executive chairman, Lim Kim San, was a trusted old guard of the People’s Action Party, which has ruled Singapore for decades. For the rest of the media, the need for a publishing permit which is renewed annually is the “ultimate media control”, said Cyril Pereira, president of the Society of Publishers in Asia.

“Until that is yanked, everything else is smoke and mirrors,” said Pereira, who represents 52 publishing firms and more than 100 media titles.

But analysts say the popularity of the Internet has put more control in the hands of citizens, regardless of regulations.

Singapore has one of the highest Internet penetration rates in Asia, at 45 percent of all households.

“More and more information will be available, the control will become more and more difficult,” said Eddie Kuo, Nanyang Technological University’s dean for the School of Communication and Information, told Reuters.

“Really it will be the population,” he added. “They’ll be the ones to decide what’s good or bad.”