Suspicious Singapore Watches New Internet News Launch

On August 9, five Singaporeans will launch The Independent, which they describe as a new commercial Internet news operation intended to provide professional independent news, comment and analysis for the island republic.

Even before the publication goes live officially, however, it has attracted the attention of a suspicious government, whose Media Development Authority on July 29 posted a statement on the authority's website saying it had "notified the promoters of The Independent…to register under the Broadcasting (Class License) Notification… As part of the registration, they will be required to undertake not to receive foreign funding for its provision, management and/or operation. The promoters of The Independent have agreed to register and to undertake not to accept foreign funding."

The government, the statement said, "has received specific information which gives it cause for concern over foreign interest to fund The Independent. The registration and undertaking will not in any way affect what The Independent can publish on its website. However, it will prevent The Independent from being controlled by, or coming under the influence of, foreign entities or funding, and ensure that Singapore politics remain a matter for Singaporeans alone.

"We have been called up," said Kumaran Pillai, the fledgling publication's managing editor. "But we are locally funded by local shareholders, there are five of us, we are bootstrapping it." The website hopes to earn income through advertising and subscriptions and will pay its contributors, Pillai said, unlike volunteer publications such as The Online Citizen and TR Emeritus.

Although the news site is independent, its chief editorial voice should allay government suspicions. He is PN Balji, former editor in chief of the TODAY newspaper, a unit of the Straits Times family of newspapers and a veteran of editorial positions with the Straits Times, all of which have been squarely under the government's thumb.

"Singapore's media scene is crying out for an independent organization that can entrench itself in a space that is left vacant by both the mainstream media and the online world," the news site announced on its Facebook page. "These two groups occupy two extremes in the media space - the MSM that is seen to be too pro-government, the online world that, generally speaking, shoots from the hip with the government as the main target."

That is an understatement. Despite being publicly owned, Singapore's newspapers have famously toed the government line after having been cowed by former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, and growing legions of bloggers have greeted every government action with a barrage of criticism.

Pillai himself is the former editor in chief of The Online Citizen, a website that has had its share of problems with the government. The others in the leadership team are lawyer Alfred Dodwell of Dodwell & Co and an alumnus of Drew & Napier, which has long represented the family of former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew in a series of defamation suits against political enemies and international news organizations. The other directors are Leon Perera, CEO of Spire Research and Consulting, and Edmund Wee, managing and creative director of Epigram, a Singaporean design agency.

The launch of the Independent comes about two months after the Media Development Authority on June 1 issued strict guidelines requiring online news sites that report regularly on issues relating to Singapore and have more than 50.000 unique readers over two months to obtain an individual license from the MDA if they report an average of at least one article per week on Singapore's news and current affairs. The license requires the sites to remove content within 24 hours that the government deems to be "in breach of content standards." They are also required to put up a performance bond of S$50,000.

The regulations drew immediate protest from the existing news sites such as the Online Citizen and TR Emeritus as being unusually restrictive. The blogging community has organized protests against the regulations, which so far haven't been used against any publications.

Singapore's Communications and Information Minister, Yaakob Ibrahim, denied in parliament that the government had any intention of stifling bloggers from commenting on government policies. The licensing policies, according to the MDA, were aimed at 10 sites, including Asiaone.com, businesstimes.com.sg, channelnewsasia.com, omy.sg, sg.news.yahoo.com, stomp.com.sg, straitstimes.com, tnp.sg, todayonline.com, and zaobao.com. Nine of the 10 are under the unofficial control of the Singapore government.

Only Yahoo, the giant news aggregator that claims nearly 700 million internet readers across the planet, is not under strict government control, raising suspicions that the government's patience was tried by reporting by Yahoo News's carrying stories on the arrest and deportations of striking Chinese bus drivers last December and the aftermath, and the arrest of a Singapore cartoonist who has been charged with contempt of court.

Both TR Emeritus and The Online Citizen have occasionally dared the government's wrath. The Online Citizen was forced to register as a political party, bringing it under a series of restrictions, despite the fact that the website denied it has ever had anything to do with political activity. TR Emeritus has been forced to take down comments on its site or face the potent threat of libel suits.

The Singapore government and the Lee family have long been criticized by international press protection organizations and international bar associations for being unnecessarily restrictive on press freedom. Reporters Without Borders ranks Singapore 149th of 179 countries, or did before the Internet crackdown. The Washington, DC-based Freedom House ranks it lower, at 153rd globally.