FREEDOM FROM THE PRESS. WHY THE MEDIA ARE THE WAY THEY ARE.
(From "Singapore: The Air-conditioned Nation")
In some countries, when newspapers cannot say what needs to be said, they publish blank editorials in silent protest. Editors lobby for greater freedom of information. Press organisations rally behind journalists who are obstructed or harrassed.
In Singapore, the most distinctive feature on the press scene is not the existence of political controls, for these exist elsewhere, but the newspapers’seeming acceptance of their lot. Journalists’ responses range from stoic silence, as when The Business Times and its sister papers ran no editorials protesting its editor’s prosecution under the Official Secrets Act, to a masochistic turning of the other cheek, as when columnists join politicians in decrying Western-style press freedoms. What accounts for this unique state of affairs? The answer lies in a system of press management combining watertight legal controls with a compelling political ideology that encourages not just obedience, but also active support.
The controls operate at two levels. The first, which is the older and more common, is made up of various licencing and national security laws. Press laws inherited from the British require all newspapers to be licenced; licences can be revoked at any time, effectively killing a publication. Journalists must also beware the Internal Security Act, under which they can be detained without trial. They can be fined or jailed if they are judged to have breached contempt of court or of contempt of parliament laws. The Official Secrets Act deters reporters from being on the receiving end of leaks, while libel laws compel them to take extreme care with any information that could hurt officials’ reputations.
The government wielded these powers most aggressively in the 1970s, when the licence of The Singapore Herald was withdrawn and four Nanyang Siang Pau pressmen were jailed under the I. S. A. The 1990s were less traumatic. The O. S. A. prosecution of Business Times editor Patrick Daniel, together with four other individuals, was apparently not intended to crush either him or the paper but to signal to civil servants that leaks would not be tolerated. Daniel returned to work after being found guilty and paying a fine. One magazine was suspended: Woman’s Affair ran a feature on the PAP’s female MPs that included a few critical comments, and was judged to have strayed into political commentary in contravention of the aims stated in its licence.
This first level of laws provides the government sweeping powers to punish journalists and their publications when they cross the line of acceptability, including the power to silence them completely. One problem with using these powers, however, is that the public is bound to notice, and levy some political cost. Besides, the PAP has never been content to have national institutions that are merely cowed into submission: it wants them to support positively its policies and programmes. The government’s second level of control addresses precisely this point. More than 20 years old, it has been so effective in fulfilling its objective of behind-the-scenes control that most Singaporeans are not even aware of it, even though it is the main instrument shaping how the press operates.
The law in question is the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act, which – in an amendment passed in 1977, after the Herald was closed down – empowers the government to determine the composition of a newspaper company’s board of directors. Newspaper companies must be publicly listed, and their shares divided into ordinary and management shares. The government can select who holds management shares. Through the chairman and directors, the government can also ensure that the senior editors who serve as the main gatekeepers of the press are trustworthy. With this mechanism in place, the government needs neither to post its officials directly into top newsroom positions, nor to nationalise the press. In that respect, its control of the press differs from the way it has managed, say, the trade union movement, or the universities. The Straits Times remains a newspaper edited by professional journalists and published by businessmen, as it has been for more than 150 years.
Contrary to popular folklore, the newsroom does not receive daily instructions about what to publish, and sensitive articles are not submitted to government officials for vetting. Like all big newsmakers, government officials try to influence coverage of their particular portfolios through a mix of persuasive tactics, from offering the inducement of greater access, to dangling the veiled threat of legal action. Of course, the government is not just any newsmaker: it has more power than most to affect the livelihoods of editors and journalists. But, for the same reason that it amended the press laws in 1977, it has not been trigger-happy in the use of its almost limitless firepower: the seniormost figures in the leadership prefer to have editors who independently come to the right conclusions – even if they occasionally do not – than to replace them with mere functionaries. As members of the establishment, newspaper editors are expected to have an instinctive grasp of Singapore’s national interests and how to protect them. They interact regularly with cabinet ministers to keep these instincts honed. Most of the time, they get it right; but not always – which is why the press is the single establishment institution that is regularly chastised by government leaders for not being supportive enough of national goals.
Singapore’s press system is sustained not just by coercion, but also by consent. At the corporate level, publishers can hardly complain about the PAP’s press model. Lee Kuan Yew has understood perfectly that the media business is, first and foremost, a business: that a press allowed to make money out of a system will support that system; and that publishers value their bottomline more highly than they do their editorial freedom. The news media industry’s regulatory barriers to entry may frustrate consumers and would-be competitors, but you will not hear Singapore Press Holdings complaining. SPH, partly as a result of its monopoly, is one of the most profitable newspaper companies in the world. Its stable includes not just its cash-cow, The Straits Times, but also the once-wobbly Chinese press. The government put the Chinese dailies on a secure financial footing through a forced merger with the profitable English press. In the 1960s, the Chinese press was a headstrong and unpredictable institution; in the 1990s, the Chinese division of SPH dreamt up a best-selling book and compact disk on Lee Kuan Yew.
Support for the ruling party and its programmes may not be as strong in the newsrooms as it is in the boardrooms, but it is significant and genuine. Editors see the press as having both a contributing role and a vested interest in Singapore’s success. In keeping with the national ideology, success is defined primarily in economic terms. The link to economic growth is tangible and personal. With attractive pay and bonuses, and one of the earliest stock option schemes in the country, journalists in the national press have little incentive to jump ship to an anti-government vehicle, even if one existed.
The editorial positions of the national press have been described variously as prostitution and self-censorship, but editors believe they are practicing responsible and intellectually-honest journalism. They point to the PAP’s record of good government, and say that it does not warrant the kind of negativity and cynicism that is second nature to journalists in many other countries. Indeed, one has to recognise that the PAP did not just deliver on its threats; it also delivered on its promises. It did not stop at silencing dissent; it went on to persuade the public of its ability to govern. It achieved decades of high economic growth with social equity. Unlike most other authoritarian regimes, the PAP does not suppress the press in order to cover up corruption or hide its mistakes. It does so out of a conviction that the press has a narrow and short-term view of the public interest, and that this can obstruct good government.
Unfortunately for more independent-minded journalists, Singapore’s history supports the PAP’s view. The press has had a record of being out of step with the historic nationalist project that saw Singapore emerge from colonialism, through messy merger, to independence. The Chinese and Malay media were slow to adjust to the new realities of a sovereign, multi-racial republic; they sometimes acted with immigrant, diaspora instincts, instead of media with a national vision. As for the English press, The Straits Times made the strategic error of, first, treating the opposition PAP as communist-leaning troublemakers, and then, transferring its headquarters to Kuala Lumpur in preparation for the union with Malaysia. The newspaper’s initial anti-PAP stand and its 13 years in KL, from 1959 to 1972, meant that it could not draw on the prestige of having played a leading role in the country’s early nationalism. The Straits Times is remembered by Lee and the Old Guard as colonially hung-over “birds of passage” who quit when the going got tough. The assessment is unfair, given that even Lee worked hard for merger and shed tears when it did not last. But the paper’s failure to Singaporeanise itself promptly in 1965 shows that it, like the Chinese and Malay press, grossly underestimated the resolve and ability of the PAP to wrest Singapore out of the past and establish it as a modern, developed, multi-racial society. The PAP view of journalists in Singapore is, not unreasonably, that it succeeded in spite of them. Lee said in his memoirs: "My early experience in Singapore and Malaya shaped my views about the claim of the press to be the defender of truth and freedom of speech. The freedom of the press was the freedom of its owners to advance their personal and class interests."
This history explains the PAP’s twist on the principle of press freedom. In the classic liberal formulation, the press is seen as a pure expression of democracy. Thus, in the United States, the Constitution protects the press from the government, which, despite having been elected democratically, is assumed by American political culture to harbour undemocratic tendencies. In the Singapore model, the formula is reversed. The elected government is the embodiment of democratic expression. Government, which expresses the will of the people, must be protected from the unelected press, which is prone to being swayed by private commercial interests, narrow ideological missions, or, at the very least, the hubris of journalists’ inflated egos. In liberal democracies, it is all about freedom of the press from government; in Singapore, it is about the government’s freedom from the press.
The PAP therefore maintains that the press should be independent, but subordinate to an elected government. In practice, this means that the tone of stories is crucially important. Stories can be critical, but must be respectful towards the country’s leaders. They cannot ridicule or lampoon, or erode public respect for those in office. If disagreement persists, it is the government’s duty to make a final decision, and journalists should not use their access to the public to continue plugging their contrary point of view. If they do, they would be judged to be engaging in politics, the proper place for which is in the electoral battlefield. Lately, the government has professed that there are few or no “sacred cows”: it is in the mood for “creative destruction” of old ways, and finding new solutions for success in the new economy. Thus, the out-of-bound markers are being progressively widened.
However, it would be foolish for any journalist to assume that the PAP is diluting its core position, that the press must remain subordinate. The government continues to assert that only it can be in charge of the national agenda; and that the press must never confuse Singaporeans or the world outside as to what that national agenda is. Thus, for example, The Straits Times could not possibly campaign against the government’s foreign talent policy and get away with it, even if it publishes the occasional critical column or letter. Nor can its overall coverage be sympathetic towards, say, gay rights.
The national media are not part of the avant garde, and will not become so. Political controls aside, and for purely commercial reasons, the press is not likely to stray from its safe, middle-of-the-road position. That, after all, is where the maximum market share lies. The national press is thus an establishment institution, along with the universities, the labour movement and other organisations that in most countries are crucibles for democratic change. But within Singapore’s corporatist context, the press is in fact probably the most plural of all national institutions. It is in the pages of The Straits Times, more than anywhere else, that Singaporeans read alternative views and participate in public debate. Longtime readers detect a steadily more serious attempt to reflect various shades of public opinion.
This courtesy, however, is not extended to opposition politicians. The press does not seem to subscribe to the theory that the opposition is an indispensable pillar of democracy, and therefore inherently newsworthy regardless of its quality. Instead, opposition politicians must satisfy editors that they are offering serious and credible ideas, before they are deemed worthy of more than minimal coverage. Also at work is the very Singaporean bias in favour of pragmatic ideas of immediate functional value, and an impatience with political ideals such as democracy and human rights. Since opposition politicians deal mainly in the latter, they are easily dismissed as saying nothing new or of substance.
The press has also suggested that its unsympathetic treatment of the opposition is a fair reflection of public opinion, as expressed during general elections. This claim carries some weight between elections, but is somewhat suspect during the campaign. The point of an election being to determine the people’s wishes, media bias in election coverage cannot be justified by an as-yet-unknown popular will, and indeed can be criticised as undermining the freedom and fairness of the poll. Editors’ defend their pro-PAP bias by pointing out that even newspapers in the West take sides during elections. Readers’ complaints that SPH, as a monopoly, has a moral obligation to be fair in its election coverage have not succeeded in changing editors’ minds.
Singapore’s newspapers did not help the PAP much in the party’s early years. They have since made up for it. The New Guard leaders have been able to count on a press that, in keeping with Lee’s vision, is pro-establishment enough to serve as a reliable partner, and professional enough to remain profitable. The editor of The Straits Times, Leslie Fong, has acknowledged, and tried to address, the obvious concern: “Of course, the danger for the ST is that working with rather than against the establishment can become such a habit of mind that it would not recognise the need to break ranks even when that stares it in the face. And, yes, the status quo can become so comfortable that there would always be the temptation to rationalise itself out of doing anything which might upset it. It may or may not happen this way. But I would like to think that should the establishment turn rogue, the ST will not be found wanting. It will do its duty.”
There is a certain pathos in this promise, for it assumes that editors who choose to “break ranks” can get away with it long enough to make a difference. It ignores the fact that the largely consensual character of government-press relations in the 1990s continues to be undergirded by massively one-sided legal powers. When consensus fails, the government can, if it wishes, instantly switch to the two levels of coercive control described above. It can remove editors overnight, and replace them with individuals possessing the proper understanding of their “duty”, detain offending writers without trial, and close down the entire newspaper – all with complete legality. The government has much latitude, in a system that upholds its freedom from the press.