Singapore: Murdochian Democracy?

Rupert says the lion city is his version of utopia

Probably the most telling statement the press baron Rupert Murdoch made during his abject mea culpa before the UK Parliament Tuesday was his praise of Singapore, saying "the most open and clear society in the world... is Singapore -- the cleanest society you can find anywhere -- as every minister is paid at least one million dollars a year and has no temptation to transgress."

What that statement betrays is that Rupert Murdoch appears to have no basic understanding of either independent journalism or democracy itself.

Transparency International’s Corruption Index ties Denmark and New Zealand with Singapore at the very top of its corruption perceptions index. Leave aside the question of what the lawmakers of Denmark and Sweden are paid to maintain their integrity – a fraction of what Singapore ministers get.

What keeps Singapore’s ministers in line is not those million-dollar paychecks but the fact that they are scared to death of Lee Kuan Yew, who has shown no compunction whatsoever in jailing the odd minister who does stick his hand in somebody else’s pockets. In 1986, Teh Cheang Wan, one of Kuan Yew’s best friends, a co-founder of the state and the head of the country’s national development ministry, committed suicide rather than face corruption charges that Kuan Yew was intent on bringing against him. Also leave aside the fact that the PAP has historically delivered a supine parliament mostly via gerrymandering and intimidating the opposition.

The leader of the world’s most powerful news organization, who presumably ought to believe in the independence and freedom of the press, was praising a country that most recently jailed the author Alan Shadrake for pointing out that Singapore’s criminal justice system is skewed towards hanging the poor and finding ways to excuse the wealthy and expatriates. Singapore has the highest per-capita rate of executions in the world.

It seems odd that Murdoch didn’t notice that Reporters Without Borders ranks Singapore at 140th of 167 countries in terms of press freedom, or that Time Magazine, Asiaweek, the Financial Times, the International Herald Tribune, The Economist, Bloomberg News Service and other publications have been cowed into submission through libel suits, contempt of court action and gazetting to limit their circulation. It is especially odd that Murdoch owned two of them – the Far Eastern Economic Review, before it closed, and the Wall Street Journal/ Asia. Those that haven’t been sued or otherwise attack have learned their lesson and simply don’t report critically on the country.

The country’s own media dare not report what happens in Singapore beyond what the leaders want to see in print. And what has happened, considering the practice of democracy and free elections, is nothing short of appalling.

According a chronology compiled by the website New Asia Republic, since 1994, in addition to suing newspapers on the thinnest of pretexts and winning all of its cases in its own courts, police have raided private homes and arrested members of churches it doesn’t like.

Former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong once threatened to turn constituencies into slums if they didn’t vote for the ruling People’s Action Party. Both opposition leaders Chee Soon Juan and the late JB Jeyaretnam have been sued, charged with perjury and defamation and hounded with a variety of other offenses in an effort to drive them out of politics. Opposition leaders’ homes and offices have been stormed by Inland Revenue officials who carted away tons of documents and articles to seek to make cases for tax evasion.

According to the US State Department’s human rights report on Singapore, it is “widely believed that the authorities routinely conduct surveillance on some opposition politicians and other critics of the government.” The same report also stated that the Internal Security Department is believed to run a network of part-time informants in the US, Australia and other countries.

Political films and videos have been banned. Foreign television stations and networks have been asked to restrict covering of small political parties and warned against critical reporting of the country. The police have been given lawful access to data and encrypted material. CD-ROMs have been added to the Undesirable publications Act.

In 1999, the Home Affairs Ministry admitted that it had secretly scanned the computers of more than 200,000 Internet users. Even women’s magazines have been warned not to get involved in partisan matters. Public rallies by the opposition have been banned repeatedly. Falun Gong members have been arrested.

In 2001, the Parliament passed a law that allows punishment of foreign news broadcasters deemed to be “engaging in the domestic politics of Singapore.” Political campaigning has been restricted on the Internet. Election time for campaigning has been as short as 17 days. Police have raided Internet critics’ homes and confiscated their computers. In 2002, the supposedly independent courts ruled that there would be no trial for defamation suits brought by Goh Chok Tong and Lee Kuan Yew against opposition leader Chee Soon Juan. He was found guilty by summary judgment.

Nor does Murdoch appear to have noticed that Singapore, this paragon of integrity, is home to vast amounts of the stolen wealth of both Burma and Indonesia. Some 18,000 Indonesians described as “rich” were living in Singapore in 2007, according to Tempo Magazine, worth a combined total of US86 billion. Some US$13.5 billion of that alone was looted from the Indonesian central bank’s recapitalization lifeline to 48 ailing banks during the 1997-1998 Asian Financial Crisis.

Burma’s generals, who have beggared their country and savagely repressed their citizenry, are believed to have transferred nearly US$5 billion into two Singapore banks from the sale of gas since 2000, according to Earth Rights International. One of their generals has even had a rose named after him in the Singapore Botanical Gardens.

Aside from whether the old lizard was crying crocodile tears in his testimony when he said he and his top executives knew nothing of the fact that his employees had hacked into hundreds of voicemails up to and including the royal family, his apparent admiration of Singapore speaks volumes about his own corporate empire.

If this is what he believes about the foundations of democracy – that mere money will bribe politicians to stay out of trouble – then there are few moral imperatives that guide his stewardship of the press. It is okay for Fox News in the United States to hire Republican presidential candidates and give them a nationwide forum while – in Fox’s famous slogan – they report, the viewers decide. It is okay for a putatively neutral news organization to virtually dictate who will be in power in the UK.

It was okay for him to make a fire-breathing speech in 1993 to London advertising executives that communications technology would allow dissidents to bypass state controlled media and that satellite broadcasting would make it possible “for information-hungry residents of many closed societies to bypass state-controlled television channels. … The Bosnian Serbs can't hide their atrocities from the probing eyes of BBC, CNN and Sky News cameras … the extraordinary living standards produced by free-enterprise capitalism cannot be kept secret.”

But it also appears to have been okay to cravenly back away from that statement when it appeared that it enraged the Chinese authorities who had direct control over his Star TV footprint in Asia, and to court them in every way possible. He dropped the BBC from programming after he heard that BBC news offended the Chinese government, then tried to claim it was a business decision. A Murdoch subsidiary purchased the rights to a book by Deng Xiaoping’s youngest daughter her father.

None of it worked. The Chinese figured that out.

It would be inimical – unthinkable -- for any government to order the divestment of any enterprise having to do with a free press, no matter how odious, and a lot of Murdoch’s various media enterprises are odious in that they have interfered with the free and fair operation of democracy in at least three countries by scandalous and biased reporting designed to further his business interests. But maybe it is time for the heretofore toothless board of directors of News International to take a look at where he has got them. That is what boards of directors are for.

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