Attacks on the Press 2000: Singapore

STATE CONTROL OF THE MEDIA IN SINGAPORE IS SO COMPLETE that few dare challenge the system and there is no longer much need for the ruling party to arrest or harass journalists. Even foreign correspondents have learned to be cautious when reporting on Singapore, since the government has frequently hauled the international press into court to face lengthy and expensive libel suits.

The ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) controls most local media, through its close ties with Singapore Press Holdings, whose newspaper monopoly ended only in 2000, and through state ownership of most broadcast media. Strict press licensing requirements make it impossible for independent newspapers to emerge, and journalists have been taught to think of themselves not as critics but as partners of the state in “nation-building.”

Satellite television dishes are banned for all but a handful of users, and cable television is a state monopoly. While the Internet has been censored only half-heartedly, the government has been aggressive in promoting its own sites to disseminate information about state policies and procedures.

In response to calls for more diverse media voices in the country, a handful of new free tabloid newspapers were launched during the year. These publications, which look but do not read like free alternative newspapers in the United States, were also controlled by corporations affiliated with the government.

In an apparent effort to create the illusion of free competition, Singapore Press Holdings received permission to run TV and radio stations. This was hardly a risky move for the government, since the company’s chief executive used to head the Singapore internal security agency, and its board chairman is an ex-cabinet minister and close confidant of former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew. Meanwhile, the state-owned broadcasting giant Media Corporation of Singapore, was awarded a license to publish one of the free newspapers, Today. In August, The Straits Times, Singapore’s leading daily, described this shuffling of a stacked deck as a “newspaper war.”

Previously, public speaking without a license was banned everywhere in the country. In September, authorities allowed a Hyde Park-style Speaker’s Corner to open in a local park. There seemed to be little public interest in the handful of eager speakers at the new venue, however.

Lee Kuan Yew, the architect of what many critics have called Singapore’s “nanny state,” remained the object of fawning praise in local media. In a volume of memoirs published in October, Lee argued that the authoritarian system he created, which closed independent newspapers and jailed some journalists after independence in 1959, was more responsive to the needs of his people than the flawed democracies in other Asian countries.

“I said I did not accept that a newspaper owner had the right to print whatever he liked,” Lee wrote of a 1971 appearance at the International Press Institute’s annual assembly in Helsinki. “Unlike Singapore’s ministers, he and his journalists were not elected. My final words to the conference were: ‘Freedom of the press, freedom of the news media, must be subordinated to the overriding needs of Singapore, and to the primacy of purpose of an elected government.'” In 2000, this unfortunate view continued to guide Singapore’s media policy.