Singapore: Buying Good Press

Rupert Murdoch bought the Wall Street Journal. Is Singapore Inc quietly buying the Financial Times?

It may seem that way judging from the 44-page insert that FT subscribers got with their morning edition on April 11 as the vaunted paper threw principles to the wind in what will surely be a boost to owner Pearson Plc.'s bottom line.

The impressive-looking, perfect-bound 44-page insert entitled "Fuelling a Smart Energy Economy" was not your usual advertising supplement, clearly delineated as such and not associated with normal editorial content.

This one crossed what journalistic ethics generally considers a strict "firewall" separating advertising and editorial. Leading the various contributions espousing the merits of Singapore as both a leader in green and smart energy use and a hub for the advanced energy industry was a lead article by the FT's own environment correspondent, Fiona Harvey. Her article followed directly on from an introduction by the head of the Energy Market Authority of Singapore, Lawrence Wong. FT writer Peter Shadbolt also contributed.

Although neither Harvey's nor Shadbolt's piece specifically boosted Singapore, their inclusion in the supplement surely helped lend credibility and generate income from the sponsoring Energy Market Authority, a government body, and from the energy industry.

The FT has thus wittingly or unwittingly underlined the truth of what Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew claimed back in the 1980s — that he would hit the foreign media "in their pockets" if they stepped out of line while trying to sell their products in Singapore. Since then a whole series of cases has showed many media entities would kowtow to the Singapore system rather than lose sales, small though the market may be. The FT itself famously groveled not long ago apologizing profusely for reporting a simple truth about a government-controlled company.

Singapore knows very well that carrots work just as well as sticks and that the easiest way to keep the media in line is to offer them cheap communications, cheap printing, cheap office rent, cheap distribution, tax breaks etc. etc. to move to Singapore. Once there and enjoying these goodies they will not dare risk their revenues or convenience by offending the city's masters.

The British have been most easily seduced by these tactics. Indeed, the BBC was probably the original offender, trading editorial independence for transmission facilities enabling it to offer Asian listeners independent radio news about Asia – except for Singapore, where coverage was limited to soft stories or regurgitating the semi-official Straits Times. Reuters followed later, moving much of its operations to Singapore from Hong Kong.

Not that US publications have shone much backbone. Dow Jones put up a brief fight but surrendered. Bloomberg loves Singapore, which offers lots of benefits as well as a large financial sector market. The New York Times/International Herald Tribune bowed last year with an apology that earned a rebuke from its own ombudsman — it largely confines its coverage to effusive praise for Singapore's famous food and efforts to be a cultural hub.

For all media who behave themselves, there is always the prospect, also, of rewards such as advertising by state-owned enterprises like Singapore Airlines.

Singapore has also been successful in adding to its own appearance of respectability by coopting hard-up but prestigious British outfits like the International Institute for Strategic Studies into Singapore-based offshoots.

The susceptibility of both media and academia to monetary lures is understandable. But going easy on Singapore in exchange for favors only weakens any claims media outlets or academics may make to care about press freedom and civil liberties, especially in countries that offer little in the way of either revenue or commercial opportunity.