Attacks on the Press 1999: Singapore

Singapore continues to proclaim itself a futuristic, high-tech information society, while clinging to heavy-handed authoritarianism in its regulation of the media. There is little free debate; without a government permit, even speaking in public is illegal.

All of the tiny island state’s newspapers are controlled by one pro-government company. A similar entity dominates the broadcast sector. Foreign publications must receive official clearance before being allowed into the country. Singapore’s three Internet service providers are all controlled by the government and subject to censorship and screening. In May, computer users with Internet access were astounded to learn from news reports that the local phone company had asked the police to secretly invade thousands of private computers to see if they were vulnerable to hackers. The program, which was administered by the intelligence branch of the police, was supposedly dropped due to adverse publicity.

Internet censorship may have little future in Singapore, though. The country has one of Asia’s wealthiest and best educated populations, as well as a high rate of computer access. Opposition Web sites have proliferated in recent years, and it is relatively easy to bypass the government’s half-hearted attempts to screen out banned sites, such as that of Playboy magazine. Even Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who served as prime minister for 31 years until 1991, told the South China Morning Post in November that new technologies would force “major changes” on Singapore and the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP).

Singapore’s Trade Minister, George Yeo, who held the PAP’s information portfolio for ten years and was known for his hard-line attitudes, told the same newspaper that the government will use the courts to control speech on the Internet, as it has done repeatedly against the traditional media. “If you defame someone, you will be sued if you cannot back it up,” Yeo told the Post.

New technology aside, Singapore’s leaders still respond in authoritarian fashion when the issue of free speech is raised. In one well-publicized case, opposition politician Chee Soon Juan was fined US$347 in March for selling his book To Be Free without a permit. Chee, who was also briefly jailed on two occasions for speaking in public without a permit, claimed local book stores refused to distribute the book, which focuses on Asian opposition leaders.

In June, the Business Times suggested in an editorial that the prime minister of neighboring Malaysia might want to consider grooming new leadership to ease the political crisis in that country. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad then denounced Singapore media for making a “habit of passing nasty comments” about his country, and the heavily-controlled Malaysian press quickly echoed his denunciations. The controversy died down when the office of Singapore’s Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong issued a statement calling the Business Times editorial “rash, unwise and inappropriate.”