If Ripley’s Believe It or Not! had an episode on the lies that politicians tell, Singapore would feature rather prominently.
In it would be the country’s paramount leader and former Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, telling his audience in a Los Angeles media conference in 1998: “Singapore has managed this relentless flood of information not by blocking the flow but by stating its point of view in competition. We defend our position in open argument and let our case stand on its own merits.”
His son, the current prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, went even further when he said during an APEC conference in 2005 in South Korea: “We are completely open.”
Here’s the truth: Every newspaper, radio station and television broadcaster in Singapore is owned by the government. No one is allowed to own and/or run a news organization without state permission. For example, heading Singapore Press Holdings, which publishes all the newspapers, is a former deputy prime minister.
The Straits Times has no competition in Singapore. It's owned wholly by a company called Singapore Press Holdings, whose stock is sold publicly but whose affairs are closely monitored by the government of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, son of Singapore's founding father, former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew. The paper is run by editors with virtually no background in journalism. For example, my direct editor was Ms Chua Lee Hoong, a woman in her mid 30s. She was an intelligence officer. Other key editors are drawn from Singapore's bureaucracies and state security services. They all retain connections to the state's intelligence services, which track everyone and everything.
Having effectively dragged the local media through obedience school fro decades, the Singapore authorities also needed to plug the remaining loophole – the foreign media, hence the latest move to ensure that the Far Eastern Economic Review (FEER) and its cousins are brought to heel through being required to deposit large sums of cash with the Singapore government. Angered by an interview in FEER with me, the government moved. The money is confiscated if the publications refuse to be house-trained. Not a very elegant way of control, admittedly, but efficacy, not chic, is what Singapore’s rulers want.
Unfortunately, it seems to be working. The late Derek Davies, former editor of FEER, long did battle with the elder PM Lee in the 1980s. He once wrote that Lee, “having failed to stop the foreign media from ‘meddling in Singapore's domestic affairs,’ told me that instead of attempting to control editors and journalists, he would target the pockets of owners and publishers. ‘I will hit you where it hurts. Then we will see your commitment to a free press.’
“Anyway, he enjoyed a confrontation with the media. ‘Don't forget, I can hurt you more than you can hurt me.’ A bill was then being prepared with the aim of giving the government powers to limit the sales of foreign publications in Singapore, thereby reducing their revenues from circulation and advertisements. That would bring direct and more effective pressure to bear on editors. Privately, I felt that foreign publications would hardly submit to such pressure, but I was wholly wrong and Lee was largely right.”
On the broadcasting front CNBC, BBC, and CNN did a couple of interviews with me a few years ago. The Minister for Information and the Arts promptly announced: “Just look at the way foreign channels have become part of the domestic politics in Malaysia and Indonesia. We should worry for ourselves.” Shortly thereafter the government amended the law to enable it to prosecute foreign broadcasting stations for “engaging in the domestic politics of Singapore.”
A former employee of CNBC told me that some senior government officials had visited its office (the station is headquartered in Singapore) and that the management was clearly rattled.
The Committee to Protect Journalists observed that: “State control of the media in Singapore is so complete that…even foreign correspondents have learned to be cautious when reporting on Singapore…”
Shawn Crispin, writing for Asia Media in Bangkok, was a less euphemistic: “The unfortunate result has been…a foreign press corps that doesn't dare report critically on the nepotism and cronyism that underpins Singapore's development model.”
Now this is a hard one. Report the truth and be financially tarred and feathered by the autocrats in Singapore, or damn journalism and make sure that profit-making remains the top priority.
The reality is that the options for the foreign media are not quite as stark. As it stands, the relationship between the Singapore government and the foreign media is one of the tail wagging the dog. When are the international media going to realize this?
If the foreign media, having tolerated abuse and humiliation for so long, should decide that enough is enough and collectively pull out of Singapore (as a couple of news organizations already have), businesses and investors would need to re-evaluate their positions in the city-state. To wit, how does Singapore become a commercial and financial center in Asia if there is a glaring absence of international newspapers and magazines to provide essential news and analysis? This would be a question the Singapore government would have to seriously ask.
The alternative is to acquiesce to the bully’s demands and maintain the status quo. Which raises the difficult question: Can journalists abide by the Singapore government’s rules and at the same time remain true to themselves and their profession? Can they concurrently serve both the Singapore government’s and their readers’ interests?
In these considerations, it may be timely to quote Joseph Goebbels, the long-dead Nazi minister of propaganda. This is not to equate Singapore’s government with the Nazi propaganda machine, but nonetheless, Goebbels once said: “Think of the press as a great keyboard on which the government can play.”
Chee Soon Juan is Secretary-General of the Singapore Democratic Party