Attacks on the Press 2004: Singapore


Sworn in as prime minister in August, Lee Hsien Loong announced that he would relax Singapore’s strict regulations on expression and invited critical observers to “plant 100 flowers and let the flowers bloom.”

But this seemingly encouraging message from Lee, the third prime minister in 39 years and the eldest son of Singapore’s first leader, Lee Kwan Yew, had unfortunate connotations. His turn of phrase recalled the Chinese government’s 1956 movement to encourage criticism of Communist leadership. Mao Zedong later regretted the sentiment, and the “Hundred Flowers” campaign instead led to the persecution of the very intellectuals who spoke their minds.

No imprisonment or violence against the media followed Lee’s statement, but neither did it immediately spawn a new era of independent reporting. Singapore’s government, one of the world’s most efficient engines of media control, continued to exert its political, legal, and financial influence on the local and foreign press.

Lee’s policy changes allow indoor lectures without a police license and waive permit requirements for speakers and performers at Speakers’ Corner—Singapore’s only, and sparsely attended, forum for public debate. Registration is still required for the forum, and discussion of controversial topics, such as race and religion, is forbidden on the grounds that it could incite rioting. Singapore’s Straits Times daily lauded the August policy reforms as “a powerful signal that space for civic and political expression is further widening,” but others were skeptical about prospects for substantive change given the continuing constraints.

A merger of Singapore Press Holdings (SPH), which publishes The Straits Times, and MediaCorp, which owns the daily newspaper Today, spelled the end of what had been a modest competition between the country’s two largest media conglomerates. MediaCorp, which is state-owned, and SPH, which has close management ties to the ruling People’s Action Party, practice journalism in partnership with the government and adhere to stringent codes regulating content.

Strict libel laws continue to bolster authorities’ political and financial control over the media. The London-based Economist magazine paid US$230,000 in damages to Lee and his father in September and apologized “unreservedly” for an August article that noted “a whiff of nepotism” in the appointment of Lee’s wife, Ho Ching, as chief executive of a government investment company. The elder Lee has won libel actions in the past against The International Herald Tribune, Far Eastern Economic Review, and the Bloomberg business news wire; each paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages or out-of-court settlements.

Singapore has high Internet penetration, but all Web sites with religious or political content must register with the Media Development Authority (MDA). The MDA requires Internet service providers to filter prohibited content, including “material that is objectionable on the grounds of public interest, public morality, public order, public security, national harmony, or is otherwise prohibited by applicable Singapore laws,” according to the MDA’s Internet Code of Practice.

Some news bloggers have skirted the law by setting up Web sites from undisclosed locations, making the Internet a viable source of alternative views. Talk radio, though mostly state-owned, also provides a limited forum for political criticism expressed by anonymous callers. Still, stations are responsible for monitoring their compliance with the restrictive Radio Programme Code. In September, the MDA fined MediaCorp Radio around US$18,000 for airing sexually suggestive material. The code also prohibits programming deemed to “undermine public interest or public confidence in the law and its enforcement in Singapore.”

“We have a different media model in Singapore,” Information Minister Lee Boon Yang said in a statement in November. “This model has evolved out of our special circumstances and has enabled our media to contribute to nation building.”