Chapter 1. Introduction: Beyond the Singapore Paradox
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Introduction: Beyond the Singapore Paradox 1 1 1 C H A P T E R Introduction: Beyond the Singapore Paradox The Newseum in the heart of Washington, D.C. is an inspiring tribute to journalism. Situated on historic Pennsylvania Avenue, close to Capitol Hill, the museum celebrates the role of a free press in building democracy. Its exhibits include a graffiti-strewn section of the Berlin Wall, that 20th-century symbol of the state’s instinct to control its people as well as of the people’s irrepressible desire for freedom. On a higher floor is a corner reminding visitors of liberty’s unfinished business: a “Press Freedom Map” covers a wall, with the nations of the world colour-coded according to how much freedom of expression they enjoy. North America, Europe, Oceania, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea are all coloured a healthy green, illustrating the nexus between political freedom and economic development. There is, however, one small exception. First-World Singapore is coloured the same as most of Africa and the poorer half of Asia: red, for unfree. The Newseum’s Press Freedom Map is based on the annual surveys of Freedom House, a watchdog organisation based in the American capital.1 Another tabulation that has received much publicity is the Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontieres’ Press Freedom Index. Its assessment of Singapore is similar. In 2010, RSF ranked Singapore among the bottom 25 per cent of nations.2 RSF’s methodology is dubious, resulting in the Republic being grouped with regimes where journalists lose not just their liberty but even their lives.3 Such doubts notwithstanding , nobody denies that Singapore lacks the kind of media freedom found in liberal societies. Indeed, one way in which the government has tried to defend the Republic’s honour is to suggest that, if Chap1 (1-22) 1 Chap1 (1-22) 1 4/2/12 2:52:22 PM 4/2/12 2:52:22 PM 2 Freedom from the Press Singapore ranks so low in such rankings, it only goes to show that press freedom cannot be as important as the West makes it out to be. “Should we be embarrassed because we are near the bottom of the ladder in the ranking?” said former prime minister Goh Chok Tong of the RSF survey. “Should we be worried that investors may be put off? Not at all. What then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew said in 1959 is still our position today. He told a foreign correspondent then: ‘You are not going to teach us how we should run the country. We are not so stupid. We know what our interests are and we try to preserve them.’”4 The ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) argues that elected leaders must be empowered to make decisions in the national interest — including those that may be unpopular in the short term. They must not be hindered by media with no mandate to represent the people. The state’s freedom from the press has therefore been entrenched as a key pillar of good government. Singapore’s political system has been categorised as everything from a semi-democracy5 and an illiberal democracy,6 to a hegemonic electoral authoritarian regime7 and a dictatorship.8 The PAP itself has referred to its system as a kind of democratic trusteeship in which citizens freely elect a government to which they entrust full powers to rule decisively.9 Despite the differences in labels, there is no serious disagreement over the key features of the system. Nobody, not even the PAP, quarrels with Singapore’s classification as a non-liberal political system. But, that system deserves closer scrutiny and more nuanced analysis than it is usually given. Although there may be consensus about how to colour-code Singapore on a press freedom map, there is much less agreement about the mechanisms and processes that have produced and sustained the system. Myths, assumptions and the occasional fact swirl around the subject of the media. For example, otherwise authoritative sources refer to the news publishing behemoth Singapore Press Holdings as “government-owned” when it is not. And, even individuals within the press or the government may not be able to ascertain which stories in an issue of The Straits Times were influenced by pressure from officials and which were determined by the independent professional judgment of editors. Pinpointing causes and processes may be unimportant to the polemicist who seeks an aesthetically pleasing argument. However, sound...


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