How Much Freedom Does the Press Have in Singapore, Explained.

A man suddenly chokes on air, becoming violently sick on board a regularly scheduled flight to the Russian capital. He rushes to the lavatory at the back of the plane, where he collapses and instantly commands the attention of the flight crew. 

Soon, the plane echoes with the grim howls of his pain. 

The man in question, Alexei Navalny, had been dubbed “the person Putin fears the most”, and is the most prominent opposition politician in Russia. His investigations into alleged corruption by high-ranking Russian officials catapulted him into the national consciousness and made him a few enemies within the Kremlin. After recovering in Germany from the incident – which has since been confirmed as a nerve agent attack – Navalny returned to Moscow, where he was swiftly arrested at the airport. 

Navaly could be considered lucky. Between 1992 and 2021 the Committee to Protect Journalists established that over 58 journalists were killed in Russia – with many alleged to have been murdered after publishing anti-establishment stories uncovering corruption and gross mismanagement. If Reporters Without Borders is to be believed, this is the sort of country that enjoys more freedom of the press than Singapore. Our city-state recently placed 160th on the 2021 World Press Freedom index published by the organisation, with countries such as Brunei (154), Rwanda (156), and Russia (150) being ranked higher in comparison.

But is this really the case? What exactly does press control look like in Singapore? These are the questions that we answer in today’s explained

Why is the press managed in Singapore?

The PAP’s old guard of leaders believed that the media did not have the right to assume the role of the “fourth estate” in Singapore as it did in other democratic states. This was due to two reasons.

The ‘Baptism of Fire’ argument

Contrary to popular belief, there isn’t a government assigned censor sitting at the Straits Times or Channel NewsAsia newsroom dictating the scope of editorial publications, and neither are sensitive articles sent to government officials for approval.
Mr. Lee had made versions of this argument in speeches he gave around the world. (Source)

Lee Kuan Yew argued that the press in Singapore shouldn’t assume the role of the “fourth estate”. To him it was an ill-conceived Western concept which granted the press the right to be a power centre on par with the executive, judiciary, and legislative arms of the government. The reason for this was simple: the government of the day had been elected by the people, and as such had the mandate to determine the direction of the country. On the other hand, Singaporean journalists did not undergo the “baptism of fire” that is contesting in the general elections and hence could not lay claim to the same privileges that political leaders had. As a result, it was generally understood that journalists who do not have ‘skin in the game’ should not be given the same right to dictate national discourse. Cheong Yip Seng, a former chief editor of the Straits Times, said that he had seen Lee make the argument on numerous occasions, with few people being able to effectively rebut it. 

The ‘Development Journalism’ argument

In the days after Singapore’s independence, the Straits Times enshrined its role in nation-building in formal editorial policy. In other words, the newspaper was committed to getting behind policies that it deemed necessary for the development of the country. Scholars in the twentieth century called this collaboration between governments and the press “development journalism” – although the meaning of the term has been the subject of much debate in recent years. As Cheong put it, “discordant voices (would) not be suppressed, but they would not be allowed to cripple often tough but necessary policies”. Many PAP leaders have subsequently maintained this principle, rejecting the role of the press as a government watchdog or anti-establishment iconoclast because of the greater need for safeguarding social harmony and nation-building.

How is the press managed in Singapore?

Contrary to popular belief, there isn’t a government assigned censor sitting at the Straits Times or Channel NewsAsia newsroom dictating the scope of editorial publications, and neither are sensitive articles sent to government officials for approval. Yet, newspapers might not the true freedom to publish whatever they want. The reality of censorship in Singapore is more nuanced and maybe even a bit hard to grasp. Cherian George describes this unique atmosphere as being engineered by the state’s carrot-and-stick method of press management. 

On the first level, the government has a set of legal tools that comes with leverage over the mainstream newspaper companies. In particular, the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act (NPPA) of 1974 does three things:

  1. Firstly, it forces newspaper companies to apply for licences on a yearly basis. The Ministry of Communications and Information is vested with the legal power to grant this licence and also reserve the right to revoke it at any point.
  2. Secondly, the act essentially gives ministers veto powers on editors and directors, and serves a regulatory function in keeping the press in check without having to incorporate the press as a direct arm of the government.
  3. Lastly, the act forces all newspaper companies to be privately listed – with shares being divided into ordinary and management shares. Management shares can only be issued by the government and have 200 times the voting power when it comes to issues of appointment or dismissal of a director, or any other staff of the company. The idea here was to have investors who could safeguard national interests – banks and large companies favour stable and free markets. Things that the government too wants to ensure. 

One could argue that such legal mechanisms have not frequently been deployed in force to suppress journalistic freedoms. But while the law isn’t usually used directly to enforce conformity, it creates a carrot and stick incentive for the press to collaborate with the government. By implementing a licencing system, there is a possibility of companies losing their license if they stray too far away from what the government deems acceptable (stick). This has happened in the past with papers such as the Singapore Herald. While deprivation might be coercive, possession is a reward. Licencing increases the barriers to entry into an industry that is already hard to break into. Cherian George describes it as “a license is a ticket to monopoly profits, and includes cooperation with the licensing authority” because “even in a free market, media industries show a strong tendency towards monopoly”.

What is not allowed?

Mr. Cheong Yip Seng, former editor of the Straits Times. (Source)

Beyond the absolute restrictions on speech that produces ill-will between different races and religious groups and those that affect foreign relations, what is deemed politically acceptable, and what is not, is defined by what minister George Yeo famously called OB markers (or out of bounds markers).  It is helpful to understand OB markers as being ultimately contextual, meaning that what is acceptable in the past might not be acceptable in the future and vice versa – it largely depends on the political climate of the country. Editors may also find themselves being more acutely aware of OB markers during periods of heightened political sensitivity, such as during general elections. 

Interestingly, the veteran journalist Cheong Yip Seng also found OB markers “bewildering” at times, stating that topics deemed off-limits included stories about  stamp collecting and auctioning, , monosodium glutamate, feng shui and unflattering pictures of politicians. Even a seemingly innocuous piece that featured a photograph of a large family was construed as a suggestion that happiness was found in having many children, and by extension, an affront to the newly-launched ‘Stop At Two’ campaign to encourage smaller families. As a result, there was always a challenge to tread carefully when covering social issues to avoid “provoking the PM into putting on his knuckledusters”.

Overall, OB markers do not have clearly demarcated lines that sets clear boundaries. They often require an instinctive understanding of the social zeitgeist at the prevailing time along with a prudent sense of judgement.

Is there room for the press to dissent?

It might be important to note that the government’s aim here isn’t to have a completely tame and subservient press operate as its mouthpiece. In order for the government messaging through the Straits Times and the mainstream press to work, the newspaper first has to build a certain degree of credibility. One way that the press can cultivate public trust is to articulate and represent their interests. This means that to some extent, the Straits Times needs to reflect the views on the ground. Such an approach also allows the state leadership to obtain a better sensing of the political atmosphere, and it was none other than Lee Kuan Yew himself who read the Straits Times Forum pages as his way of having ‘ears on the ground’.

Cheong Yip Seng also says that there are increasing incentives for the newspapers to write relatively fairly—mainly due to pressures from consumers who now have access to the internet. The emergence of new media and the internet represented a paradigm shift in the media space which emboldened the voices of everyday readers. For example, after the start of conscription in the 1960s, recruits called their parents from their camps with complaints about the harsh conditions there. The Straits Times minimised reporting on this, as it deemed that National Service was an important policy for development. This would no longer be possible in today’s day and age, considering the free flow of information through Social Media networks.

Furthermore, considering that the press has ‘two masters’ pulling them in different directions, struggle between the government and the press will naturally happen at times. Particularly, there have been times when the Straits Times doesn’t tow the official government line or have even gone against instructions from the top. These include the 2004 publication of the NKF editorial which prompted a libel lawsuit, as well as newspaper coverage of the SBS bus-fare hike that dealt a blow to the PAP’s legitimacy in the wake of the 1981 Anson by-election. In all, while the Straits Times ruffles some feathers in the government from time to time, it is still careful not to undermine any of the baseline interests of the state. 

Looking ahead

Singapore’s media scene has undergone significant change over the years, perhaps for the better in some ways, and maybe less so in other ways. The advent of free newspapers changed the industry and forced newspaper as well as TV broadcasters to innovate in order to keep their ad revenues. 

The latest announcement of Singapore Press Holdings undergoing a restructuring meant that the newspaper model would now be converted into a non-profit entity. This led to questions being raised, and rightly so, over editorial independence in view of direct government funding. Will this be another step backwards in our press freedom? Or since the government has clarified that the NPPA still applies to newspapers, does it mean more of the same? 

Only time will tell.


Jonathan Lin


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