The Exotic World of Singaporean Journalism

Repression of the media in Singapore is nothing new, but recent clumsy interventions by the government have thrust the issue back into the spotlight. New licensing rules for news websites prompted a rare protest last month (June) that galvanized around 2,000 people, led by a coalition of bloggers and activists.

In the tightly controlled city-state, blogs and websites that are critical of the government have become increasingly popular as an alternative to the timid, state-influenced national press. Those sites have sparked a growing awareness among Singaporeans that the traditional media's uncritical pro-government bias has done them a public disservice.

"Many Singaporeans feel that we deserve more than we get in our national press," media studies academic Cherian George told the Singapore Writers' Festival last November - a view that is echoed by many. He is the author of Freedom From The Press, which examines how the People's Action Party (PAP), which has ruled the country since 1959, has imposed strict controls over the media.

George was himself the subject of controversy earlier this year when, despite a distinguished career in academia and journalism, he was denied tenure for a second time by Nanyang Technological University, where he has been teaching.

Outraged students, colleagues and activists backed George, alleging government interference in the decision. "That the rejections of his tenure applications were due to interference from outside the university is beyond serious rebuttal," wrote Mark Featherstone, a Canadian academic at NTU, in a letter to its management.

The episode highlighted the government's enduring determination to suppress criticism, even as it seeks to project the image of a dynamic, first-world center of finance and enterprise. Former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew - the architect of modern Singapore and father of the current prime minister - spelled out his views back in 1971, when he stressed that "freedom of the press, freedom of the news media, must be subordinated to the overriding needs of the integrity of Singapore, and to the primacy of purpose of an elected government."

Even at 89 and officially retired from government, Lee remains a dominant figure, and his PAP shows little sign of relaxing its tight grip. However, in recent years feisty blogs and independent news websites have stepped in to fill the gap left by the mainstream media, and helped fuel growing discontent with the PAP. Web-savvy Singaporeans have increasingly turned to websites like TR Emeritus, The Online Citizen and Yahoo! Singapore for more independent reporting and critical news and views.

Yahoo! Singapore is one of 10 websites to be immediately affected by the new licensing regulations, with the others all run by mainstream local media groups. But critics fear the move is merely the first step towards a broader clampdown on independent online commentary and dissent.

"It is obvious that the new rules are to set and control the tone of discourse online, a concern which the Government has had for a while now," wrote Andrew Loh, editor of the socio-political website "The rise of social media, as an increasing number of Singaporeans get their news online, has now prompted the government to let go of its promised 'light touch' on the Internet."

Global press freedom advocacy group Reporters without Borders already ranks Singapore a lowly 149th of 179 countries on its Press Freedom Index. The US-based Freedom House ranks it tied for 153rd, along with Afghanistan, Iraq and Qatar. According to a 2012 Freedom House report, "ruling party members are quick to use harsh civil and criminal defamation laws to silence and bankrupt political opponents and critical media outlets. The vast majority of print and broadcast journalists practice self-censorship to avoid defamation charges." The latest clampdown will probably see Singapore slide even further in both organizations' rankings.

I recently finished a three-year stint as a sub-editor at The Straits Times, Singapore's flagship daily newspaper. There I witnessed first-hand the close relationship between media and government, and the impact those ties have on the presentation of local news.

Control at the paper is exercised both overtly and through more subtle means. Self-censorship, meanwhile, is ubiquitous. I've worked for newspapers in five different countries and, like most foreign staff at The Straits Times, found the working practices in the newsroom there incredibly frustrating.

So-called "standard operating procedures" must be adhered to at all times, meaning that even minor changes to a story must be approved and made by a senior editor. This naturally leads to a lot of to-ing and fro-ing during the editing process, resulting in an enormous amount of wasted time and inefficiency.

Colleagues who wrote op-eds that were even mildly or humorously critical of the government saw their pieces spiked without discussion, although sometimes a senior editor would ask them to alter or omit the offending parts.

Journalistic standards were generally sloppy and compounded by poor English language abilities among many reporters. One reporter freely admitted to this writer that quotes used in stories were sometimes made up, which should not be surprising to anyone who reads the paper carefully.

However, this is not to criticize individual Straits Times' reporters, as there are some fine journalists at the paper who often voice their frustrations in private. Rather, these problems can be attributed to an institutional culture that encourages self-censorship and strongly discourages initiative, creativity and investigation.

The Straits Times' editors "live in dread of offending the government", wrote another former employee at the paper, Australian journalist Rodney King, in his 2006 book The Singapore Miracle: Myth and Reality.

One of the paper's "most fundamental editorial principles" is that "reporters must be closely supervised to ensure that they write only what the paper and the government want. To this end, layer after layer of copy checkers, sub-editors, check subs and finally senior editorial staff are constantly supervising, overseeing, chastising, checking and re-checking everything that the paper's reporters do and write. Moreover, sensitive issues must first be cleared with government ministries."

This was still true when I worked at the paper, and it was not uncommon for reporters to alter their stories at a very late stage because the "newsmaker" or a government department wanted to alter the wording of a quote or headline. For example, the Prime Minister's Office let senior editors know that politically sensitive statistics - such as those on immigration - may be carried in the story but not highlighted in headlines.

King also writes of a culture of bullying in the newsroom, a "punitive atmosphere that has bred risk-averse attitudes that inhibit innovative reporting." I found this, too, to be true.

Time and again Singaporean reporters at the paper failed to ask the right questions of interviewees or include all the information a reader would expect in a well-reported news story. This can be explained by reporters' excessive deference to authority, or a fear of appearing anti-government or being punished by for making minor mistakes.

Contrary to popular belief, The Straits Times' parent company, Singapore Press Holdings (SPH), is not government-owned. However, by law newspapers need annual permits and newspaper companies must issue management shares to government nominees - thus giving the PAP enormous influence over appointments and editorial direction at The Straits Times.

A confidential cable from the US embassy in Singapore to the US State Department released by WikiLeaks in 2011 highlighted these issues and revealed a growing rift between younger reporters and the paper's editors.

"Political leaders put pressure on the Straits Times (ST) staff to ensure that the paper's domestic coverage follows the government line. Reporters say they are eager to produce more investigative and critical reporting, but they are stifled by editors who have been groomed to tow [sic] the line," it said, quoting two Straits Times journalists in a conversation with a US diplomat.

Indeed, the close links between senior editors and the government are apparent. The current editor, managing editor and an executive editor all collaborated on a 1998 book entitled Lee Kuan Yew: The Man And His Ideas, a gushing portrait based on interviews with the former prime minister, whose personality still towers over Singapore. Other editors are said to have close links with the Internal Security Department, the country's feared intelligence agency.

The US embassy cable also quotes reporter Chua Chin Hon as saying that the government "exerts significant pressure" on editors and "has an established track record of using the press, the ST in particular, to shape public opinion… Chua admitted that domestically focused ST articles often read like Public Service Announcements."

This can sometimes lead to some odd news sense in a paper that considers itself an "authoritative provider of news and views." For example, the day after Pope Benedict resigned in February, making front-page headlines around the world, the story was tucked away on an inside page while the front page was devoted to stories about a G-30 report the deputy prime minister was involved in and a review of private ambulance services.

"Singapore's official media really are abysmal - tedious, irrelevant, smug, prurient, prudish," says Andrew MacGregor Marshall, a former senior Reuters editor who is based in Singapore and now blogs about regional media issues. "They are slickly produced, of course, and plenty of money is spent on them to give them the appearance of being high quality and of being genuine newspapers and genuine TV news broadcasts. But money can't buy authenticity and it can't buy independence. The Singaporean state media can never be credible because they are not free. They are mouthpieces of the state, their loyalty is not to their readers but to the state, so they will always be hollow and uninspiring."

It is not only The Straits Times that comes under government pressure. So far this year, several websites have been forced to apologize and remove posts under the threat of legal action for defamation or contempt of court. And In April, cartoonist Leslie Chew was arrested under the colonial-era Sedition Act for a cartoon on his Facebook page which suggested there was discrimination against the country's Malay minority.

In June, a freelance film-maker was given an official warning for contempt of court after posting on her blog two video interviews in which Chinese bus drivers who had been involved in an illegal strike made allegations of police brutality. The film-maker, Lynn Lee, had earlier been questioned by police and had her mobile phone and laptop seized, leading to complaints by supporters that she was being harassed and intimidated.

Foreigners are not exempt either. British journalist Alan Shadrake, then aged 76, spent five weeks in prison in 2011 after being found guilty of contempt of court for "scandalizing the judiciary". His crime: writing a book, Once A Jolly Hangman: Singapore Justice In The Dock, which dared to suggest that the judicial system was open to political interference. Amnesty International described his sentence as "a sharp blow to freedom of expression". The book is unavailable in Singapore bookstores.

US crime fiction writer Jake Needham also experienced the vindictiveness of local authorities following the publication of his novel The Ambassador's Wife, which features a Singaporean detective determined to solve a murder even if it puts him in conflict with his superiors.

"The Ambassador's Wife, although it was a novel, made its own waves in Singapore because it did not portray every single member of the Singaporean police force as absolutely dedicated to tracking down the killer," he wrote on his website earlier this year. "Politics can apparently have nothing to do with crime in Singapore, although that would make the police force there pretty much unique in all the world. Then there's another problem, too. In Singapore, the absence of unreserved praise for local institutions is generally viewed as unfair criticism."

Before publication, he said, "the press in Singapore gave it a huge amount of publicity", as there isn't much popular fiction set in the city-state. Afterwards, "not a single mention of The Ambassador's Wife ever appeared again in the Singapore press, not a single review of it was ever printed there, and orders from bookstores and book distributors in Singapore promptly dried up."

The latest move to regulate news websites has sparked a significant backlash. The country's Media Development Authority now requires sites "that report regularly on issues relating to Singapore and have significant reach" among local readers to apply for licenses that must be renewed annually.

They most also post a bond of S$50,000 and remove any objectionable content within 24 hours of receiving a warning. The MDA defines prohibited content as "material that is objectionable on the grounds of public interest, public morality, public order, public security, national harmony, or is otherwise prohibited by applicable Singapore laws."

Two days before the protest on June 8, more than 150 local websites blacked out their content for 24 hours in protest at the new rules. Most replaced their home pages with a black screen saying "Free My Internet."

"Fortunately the internet means it is now possible to be well informed about Singapore without ever having to go near The Straits Times and other official media, and that is why the new licensing restrictions are such a concern," says MacGregor Marshall, the former Reuters editor. "The state appears to want to suck all the life out of online coverage of Singapore and make it as dull as the official media… Singapore is a grown-up country now, and this is 2013, and it is about time [the authorities] realize they need to have a genuinely free media."