Global Media and Singapore's Bureaucrats

Will the media moguls of the United States fight for their open-market principles against the Singapore government's arbitrary demands? Or will they, after a brief skirmish, surrender like their counterparts in the print media to Singapore authoritarianism at the unspoken behest of a US government anxious to keep its Singapore facilities and executives desperate to keep their cushy Singapore expatriate living standards?

If they fight, Singapore's reputation as offering a free and fair playing field for foreign business will suffer. If not, the way is open for governments all over Asia to act in a similar fashion to determine not just what their citizens can view on TV but how much they pay.

The issue is not about the right to censorship but the right to normal commercial bargaining.

Until March this year Singapore was like most countries with competitive pay-TV channels. Content providers such as Disney, Discovery etc would sell their products to the highest bidder. In Singapore there are two such channels, SingTel, the lumbering state behemoth formerly headed by Lee Kuan Yew's younger son Lee Hsieng Yang, and the more sprightly StarHub.

Then, apparently in response to complaints in letters to the press that Singaporeans were paying too much to watch English Premier League football, the rules were suddenly changed. Out went commercial bargaining and in came an arm of Singapore's bureaucracy, the Media Development Authority, to determine to whom and at what price the content providers could sell their products. It not only flies in the face of open markets for the foreign providers but makes nonsense of the supposed competition between SingTel and StarHub because the officials at the MDA can order that what they regard as key content has to be carried on both channels at the price they decree.

On July 8 the providers, represented by the Cable and Satellite Broadcasting Association of Asia (CASBAA), which represents some 130 providers and other industry operators around Asia, launched a formal appeal against the MDA decision with the Minister of Communications. However it is thought unlikely that one part of the Singapore bureaucracy will undo what has been done by a related arm. Some tinkering is possible but a major retreat is unlikely unless the providers put their money where their mouth is, withdraw content and start shifting their operations elsewhere.

The providers are naturally squealing that the MDA's rules violate Singapore's undertakings under World Trade Organization regulation and are a flagrant breach of World Intellectual Property Rights copyright agreements.

They are of course quite correct but they face two problems. The first is that though many of the major providers are US-based companies, US government bodies like the office of the US Trade Representative are reluctant to push hard against a Singapore which offers so many facilities to the US military and so many tax breaks to US companies using it as a regional headquarters. Those with long memories will recall that the US did nothing to help the Dow Jones-owned Far Eastern Economic Review which was the subject of officially inspired pirating in the early 1990s.

The TV content providers have another problem. They were lured to set up regional operations in Singapore via the usual collection of tax breaks and favorable pricing for offices, international satellite links, etc. Of course all these companies could locate, for example to Hong Kong or even Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur. But their executives are unlikely to want to surrender their lifestyles and cheap Indonesian maids, and Singapore's clean air (compared with Hong Kong) in an all-out war with the Singapore government on this issue.

Like their counterparts in the print media such as the Financial Times and some wire services, they can be expected to surrender their principles and honest news reporting for the assumed commercial benefits of being beholden to the Singapore government.