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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 great 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 coloured a healthy green, demonstrating the clear nexus between 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. Another tabulation that has received much publicity is the Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontieres’ Press Freedom Index. Its assessment of Singapore is similar. In 2009, RSF ranked Singapore among the bottom 25 percent of nations. RSF’s methodology is dubious, resulting in the Republic being grouped with regimes where journalists lose not just their liberty but even their lives. Nevertheless, nobody denies that Singapore lacks the degree 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 Singapore ranks so low in such rankings, it only goes to show that the liberal definition of 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.’” Lee retired from cabinet in 2011, but there has been no sign that the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) has wavered in his principles of media management. The 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 that have 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 described as a semi-democracy, a limited democracy, an illiberal democracy, a hegemonic electoral authoritarian regime and a dictatorship. The PAP itself has referred to its system as a kind of democratic trusteeship. 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 regime. 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 such an outcome. Myths, assumptions and the occasional fact swirl around the subject of the media. For example, otherwise authoritative sources refer to the country’s newspaper behemoth Singapore Press Holdings as “government-owned” when it is not. And, even individuals within the press or the government can only guess at which stories in an issue of The Straits Times were influenced by phonecalls 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, good explanations are what help us to understand, predict and control the things around us. Whether one wants to reform or consolidate Singapore’s system, explanatory precision and nuance matter. The reader turned off by what he perceives as propaganda in The Straits Times may feel that he is getting no better service than Soviet citizens did from Pravda, but insisting that they are no different makes it hard to explain why one is the most profitable media property in the region while the other could not survive market reforms. Conversely, conservatives who are wary of knocking the system off balance would make errors of judgment that could themselves be destabilising if they do not understand the bases of that stability – a delicate equilibrium of coercion and consent. Similarly, assumptions that the condition of journalism in Singapore, ranked 133 in RSF’s Press Freedom Index, is akin to the state of the press in Chad and Madagascar (ranked 132 and 134 respectively) would be hopelessly misleading. Malaysia, ranked 131, is indeed similar to Singapore in terms of history, culture and legal tradition. But even between these two neighbours are deep differences that help account for why a journalist is more likely to be detained without trial in Malaysia than in Singapore, for example, and why alternative media are more vibrant north of the Causeway than in the city-state.
This book tries to fill a gap by offering a detailed account of Singapore’s media controls, going beyond rankings and colour codes. It is written primarily for readers who are interested in the relationship between media and power in Singapore, including fellow Singaporeans who research, produce or consume journalism, and non-Singaporeans who are deeply curious about this anomalous system and what is says about the relationship between media and power more generally.
I am under no illusions, however, that the book will meet with the approval of all such readers. Singapore’s political system and its media have been debated for decades, resulting in sharply polarised views. At one end of the political spectrum, most PAP politicians are unshakeable in their conviction that their press system needs no reform. Although priding itself in being open and pragmatic, the PAP has grown increasingly certain that key governance principles – including the subordination of news media – are critical to Singapore’s survival and success. It has a reflexive response to critical questioning of the press system (as this book engages in): it automatically assumes that any criticism is aimed at mindlessly mimicking the West and that this betrays ignorance of Singapore’s special circumstances. Such views are dismissed as “stooging for the Western media and their Human Rights groups”, as Lee Kuan Yew has put it.
Equally dogmatic are those at the opposite end of the political spectrum, in whose eyes the PAP and its instruments are corrupt usurpers of the people’s freedom and dignity. This group includes foreign critics with a barely concealed contempt for Singapore and its people. It also includes some Singaporeans with a libertarian streak, who believe that the country’s vitality is sapped by arrogant, self-serving politicians and their spineless propagandists in the press. The voices of these critics dominate the discussions on some popular internet forums. In their eyes, any attempt to analyse the press system in anything longer than a single, colourful, expletive-deleted (or not) sentence is a waste of time and a distraction, since the simple truth is already so obvious. To this group, only a PAP lackey or an apologist for its press would claim (as this book does) that Singapore isn’t as closed or repressive as many other authoritarian regimes, that there is some intellectual justification for its political system, or that its stability is maintained partly by genuine support from many Singaporeans as well as tacit buy-in from liberals who fancy themselves as untainted by the regime.
Many of the arguments in this book have been rehearsed in previous writing, in journal articles, book chapters, newspaper and magazine features and my blogs. They have received exactly the kind of resistance I’ve described above. Where negative reactions have resulted from my own lack of clarity or balance, I have tried to refine my arguments. But I must realistically and regretfully acknowledge that in political debate no amount of logic and reason can settle contentious issues. Fortunately, most readers whom I have encountered have been intellectually curious about media and power in Singapore. While they may not be fully persuaded by my work, they have engaged it with open minds, challenging me to develop and clarify my ideas. The mental image of such skeptical interlocutors – including scholars, journalists, media activists, my students at the Wee Kim Wee School and other questioning minds in Singapore and abroad – has kept me company through the long and lonely writing process. It is for them and others like them that I have worked on this book.
The impulse of the powerful few to shape the minds of the many for good or ill is timeless and universal. What is remarkable about Singapore is the manner in which such power has been exercised. It is less crude and more refined than what is commonly found in restricted media systems. There is no shortage of critiques of Singapore’s political and media systems, mostly coming from a liberal democratic perspective. If the only point of this book were to amplify these critiques and restate the obvious – that Singapore has less press freedom than many other countries – it would not have been worth my writing or your reading. What I aim to do here is to go beyond description and offer explanations of the mechanisms and processes that have sustained Singapore’s media system for the past four decades. I approach this subject from different angles, borrowing lenses that have been developed by different fields, such as the sociology of media, political sociology and comparative politics. Together, these pictures reveal a form of media control that is more sophisticated and possibly more resilient than what most critics assume. Overt censorship has been largely replaced by self-censorship, achieved through economic disincentives against non-cooperation with the state. Chapter 2 examines how the PAP has harnessed the dominant global trend of media commercialisation to tame journalism’s democratic purpose. This “political economy” perspective is central to the book, but cannot fully illuminate the dynamics of press and politics. Chapter 6 borrows from other sociological perspectives to look more closely at the inner workings of Singapore newsrooms. It argues that while political pressure has been internalised in the form of what is colloquially called “out of bounds” or “O.B.” markers, the way the media works is also heavily influenced by the organisational habits that the Singapore press shares with professional journalism around the globe. These routines include selecting stories through the filter of “news judgment” and the ritualistic application of “objectivity”, which has turned journalists into scribes for the status quo, shedding their historic role as campaigners for causes.
The Singapore media system is sustained through hegemonic processes. Social theorists understand hegemony to be a kind of political domination in which coercion is masked by consent that has been manufactured through ideological work. Chapter 3 analyses PAP ideology, which has justified state control of media as an integral part of Singapore’s success formula and a necessary response to the country’s exceptional vulnerability. After forty years of repetition and reinforcement, elements of this ideology appear to have reached supremely powerful status in the Singaporean mind – that of unquestioned common sense – despite demonstrable flaws in reasoning. But hegemonic domination requires more than a compelling ideology: states also need occasional recourse to coercion. Authoritarian regimes often overdo their use of force, provoking a political backlash that ultimately weakens them. In Chapter 4, I argue that the Singapore government’s strategic moderation in the use of force – what I call “calibrated coercion” – is one key reason why its media controls have not unleashed significant moral outrage.
PAP hegemony has not been totalising enough to wipe out all resistance. In recent decades, the most obvious challenge has come mainly from liberal values promoted by Western media. What is largely forgotten in contemporary discourse is the radical history of the Asian-language press. Chapter 5 traces these contentious roots. Singapore’s press history contradicts the official narrative, which portrays media controls as being in line with the “Asian values” of harmony and consensus. Contemporary politics provide evidence that the PAP’s hegemonic project remains incomplete. Although the press is strikingly bereft of any reform movement, other practitioners in Singapore’s creative industries have pushed publicly for more space. Chapter 7 examines the interventions of artists, dramatists, filmmakers and internet producers in censorship debates.
It hardly needs to be said that the internet has enabled the most radical and unpredictable challenges to the PAP system of media control. It is the only medium for public communication for which producers are not required to apply for a government permit. This has opened a regulatory loophole for alternative media, notwithstanding the fact that they must still contend with laws such as defamation and contempt of court. Chapter 8 looks at the resulting rise of citizen journalism, which has challenged the PAP’s authority in setting the national agenda. Citizen journalism projects have not been able to transcend the structural limits on democratisation, such as Singapore’s weak civil society and its demobilised public. Some activists have attempted to awaken the public through their campaign of civil disobedience. Chapter 9 describes how they have used the internet to amplify their modest experiments in non-violent protest.
Online dissent has frayed the edges of PAP dominance without yet compromising its core. Therefore, I end this book on a similar note as it started with. While the conventional critique of the Singapore model claims that it is patently unsustainable, I take seriously the possibility that the PAP may have found a viable formula for combining high economic capacity with low democratic performance. In Chapter 10, I suggest that the regime has attempted to keep itself open to the flow of ideas and responsive to change even as it forecloses political competition. This approach, which I term “networked hegemony”, has so far spared Singapore the kind of rigidity and decline usually associated with authoritarian regimes. Networked hegemony challenges conventional wisdom about the kind of openness required of a high-functioning modern state. It is unclear whether the PAP has fully resolved the contradictions of being simultaneously open and closed, or that its formula is indefinitely sustainable. The 2011 general election punctured the PAP’s aura of invulnerability. By insulating itself from public opinion, it had allowed simmering discontent with its policies to boil over, resulting in historic losses at the polls. What remained uncertain was whether this represented the beginning of the end for the PAP’s longstanding formula, or whether it would be able to respond adequately to public demands without discarding its fundamentals.
Most critics assume that Singapore’s system is unsustainable because it is undemocratic. This book is less bullish about the inevitability of a quantum leap in democratisation. I start with the premise that the PAP model may not be merely transitional or destined to converge with liberal democracies. This is not a unique point of view. There is growing recognition that the historical path of the West may not be trajectory of the rest. The scholar and journalist Martin Jacques, for example, has written of “multiple modernities”. And George Soros – perhaps the only political philosopher able and willing to put millions of dollars where his mouth is – has in recent years moderated his stand on open society by acknowledging that theorists cannot simply ignore the good work done by non-democratic governments such as China and Singapore. Perhaps, therefore, the “Singapore Paradox” is not so paradoxical. The contradiction could be an artifact of the widely held but erroneous belief that market-driven economic growth always goes hand in hand with democratisation – the so-called modernisation hypothesis. Viewed from different perspective, which scholars call “political economy”, Singapore is not an anomaly but an archetype of a large and growing group of states marked by having ruling elites that promote capitalism precisely by dampening democracy and vice versa. Careful readers will realise that, when Singapore is viewed through such lenses, awkward questions surface about liberal democratic systems as well. To argue, as I do, that capitalism has aided and abetted authoritarian rule in Singapore is to challenge the liberal democratic faith in the supposed bond between free markets and free media. This, in turn, compels us to look askance at the democratic credentials of the commercial news media that dominate liberal societies and the global news agenda.
The geographer and social theorist David Harvey is one of the few Western scholars who have been prepared to see past the clichés to spot similarities between Singapore and the liberal West. In his powerful monograph A Brief History of Neoliberalism, Harvey treats Singapore as part of a growing family of neoliberal regimes. Spearheaded in the West by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, neoliberalism spoke the language of freedom but, in reality, was “profoundly suspicious of democracy”, preferring “governance by experts and elites” and requiring the state to discipline labour and other radical threats to the power of the elite – all ideas that have taken root in Singapore. Harvey identifies Singapore as a prime example of an Asian “developmental state”, a key variant of the neoliberal state that relies heavily on the public sector and state planning. Harvey suggests that “neoliberalization in authoritarian states such as China and Singapore seems to be converging with the increasing authoritarianism evident in neoliberal states such as the US and Britain”.
Let’s return for a moment to the Newseum in Washington D.C. One of the most impressive permanent exhibits is the News History Gallery. It contains fascinating artifacts from the history of the American press, including the pamphlets that campaigned for independence from England and a notebook used by the Watergate reporters who brought down President Richard Nixon. There is also a telephone set once used by Rupert Murdoch, the late 20th century’s most powerful news media mogul. It has an array of more than 20 speed-dial buttons labeled with the surnames of top executives in his media empire, ensuring that each was just a button-push away from their master’s voice. The names you can spot on that phone include that of Roger Ailes, head of Fox News. Murdoch’s use of his media organisations to promote politicians who were friendly to big business is well documented. Fox News, in particular, has bastardised the best principles of journalism in order to further a neoconservative agenda, routinely misleading the public on key issues such as healthcare reform. Across the Atlantic, long before Murdoch’s tabloids were discovered to have systemmatically engaged in criminal acts, it was public knowledge that they were at the very least grossly unethical, using shameful newsgathering tactics to satisfy prurient interests. Journalists working in higher-quality media may have admired Murdoch’s business acumen and the creativity and craft skills of his popular media, but few regarded Fox News, News of the World and The Sun as paragons of professionalism in the public interest. None of this was mentioned in the write-up next to Murdoch’s telephone at the Newseum. This could be because of American political culture’s liberal blindspot, which makes it less sensitive to the dangers of corporate power over media. Or, perhaps the omission is simply due to the fact that the Newseum’s News History Gallery is sponsored by Murdoch’s News Corporation. Either way, it’s a reminder of how the liberal perspective has tended to downplay capitalism as a threat to the values that a free press is meant to embody.
The concept of calibrated coercion raises equally unsettling questions for democracies. It suggests that although state violence and overt censorship are the most salient symptoms of authoritarianism, regimes can act in subtler ways to subvert freedom of expression and to entrench their power. It recalls the century-old notion of hegemony, which the communist theorist Antonio Gramsci used to explain why unjust capitalist orders in the West managed to endure. Freedom from government control does not guarantee that journalism will always play its role effectively. Other impediments – such as market pressures and ideological blindspots – can get in the way of truthful reporting. The single most consequential failure of world journalism in the 21st century was the American media’s uncritical acceptance of President George W. Bush’s baseless case for going to war against Iraq in the crucial months before the invasion when public opinion was being shaped. This was not because the press was not free enough to probe White House claims but because – as the editors of reputable publications later admitted – journalists had slipped into the lazy habit of relying on establishment sources, rendering themselves unprepared for the neoconservatives’ propaganda machine.
I don’t want to suggest that there is no meaningful difference between Singapore and freer societies. One favourite retort of defenders of authoritarian press system is that there is, after all, no country with absolute freedom. Singapore, one could claim, lies on a continuum of political systems, each with its own way of resolving the eternal tension between rights and responsibilities according to its particular history and context. True, media freedom is everywhere faces constrained, both justified as well as unjustified. The difference between the Singapore system and liberal democracy cannot be expressed in absolutes: unfree versus free, or falsehood versus truth. The differences are instead probabilistic: the probability that government failures will be investigated, exposed and put on the agenda for public discussion in liberal democracies is not 100 percent, but it is significantly higher than in Singapore. These differences in degree are not trivial. In Singapore, a publisher must obtain government permission every year to continue putting out a newspaper; the information minister can refuse or revoke permission at any time. In liberal democratic systems, governments are typically banned from exercising such “prior” censorship – the equivalent of gagging someone even before he has had the chance to speak. In Singapore, the courts concur with the executive’s belief that the reputation of political leaders requires special protection, even if it means that defamation suits create a culture of fear. Defamation law exists in liberal democracies as well, but courts there are more sensitive to the law’s potential chilling effect. To protect the public’s need for robust political debate, courts allow critics the leeway to stray into technically defamatory attacks on politicians. To argue that Singapore’s media restrictions are a non-issue since even the Western press is not completely free is akin to saying that Third World poverty is overblown given that even rich countries have beggars.
An insider view
This book is not a disinterested analysis. Journalism, for me, is not some activity separate from my own identity as a researcher. I have been consumed by journalism most of my life. When I was nine, I spent my holidays producing a newspaper for my family members, handwritten on paper extracted from my exercise books. Named after the street where we lived, Woodsville News had headlines like “Mother goes to the market” and “Sooty taken to the vet”. I was hooked on the high of playing with words, and also discovered the social value of holding a mirror up to my community (though I’d find out later that not all audiences were as indulgent as a doting family). I would go on to spend 10 years in the national press, starting out as an intern during breaks from college. When I embarked on my second career as an academic, I knew I would not be able to suppress the journalist within me, so I created an outlet in the form of an independent newspaper for schoolchildren, which I continue to publish.
Being a media insider offers invaluable insights to a researcher, but also complicates his position. It creates a dog-eat-dog situation, notes Nick Davies, a journalist who penned the devastating critique of Britain’s quality journalism, Flat Earth News. The unwritten rule of journalism, he says, is that journalists are supposed to dig everywhere – except in their own back yard. Davies goes ahead and breaches this protocol in order to investigate what he calls a corrupted profession, but even he draws the line at betraying confidences. He does not draw on personal knowledge of journalists’ foibles, gleaned from his former insider status. Similarly, for ethical reasons, I have avoided directly using information that has drifted my way via fellow journalists, unless it is already in the public domain or with their express permission. This is not to say that I have disregarded my own professional experience and that of other journalists in writing this book. I have tried to ensure that my analysis is not inconsistent with my lived experience, even if the latter is not explicitly cited.
My approach means that any reader hoping for a kiss-and-tell exposé will be disappointed: I’ve tried to avoid finger pointing. This is not mainly because of a sense of professional solidarity, including with friends who have similarly poured their lives into the profession, nor because I am reluctant to embarrass individual newsmakers. The main reason is that the blame game is too easy. It goes without saying that in any institution, including government and the press, bad things happen when actors are irresponsible, unethical or negligent. Indeed, most people automatically assume that poor media performance is caused by individual misdeeds, even when it is not – thus falling into the trap that social scientists call the fundamental attribution error.
What I find far more intriguing is the proposition that good people who are trying their best can produce bad outcomes, due to systemic flaws that are larger than any one person or institution. Sustaining a profoundly undemocratic media system does not require corrupt politicians and dishonest journalists. Indeed, this is a key reason why the Singapore system has proven so resilient: it attracts its share of talented, sincere and loyal Singaporeans who believe that working within the national press allows them to serve their society. Many government officials, similarly, sincerely believe they are doing their best for Singapore. The system’s inadequacies are more structural. Explaining this deeper structure has been, for me, a much more intellectually stimulating challenge than nitpicking at day-to-day media performance.
There is another sense in which this book is an insider perspective. I was born Singaporean and have lived outside of the country only for my university education. My criticism is tempered by the sense – shared by most Singaporeans – that one has, overall, benefitted from the system. I tried explaining this to a visiting journalist who was preparing for an interview with Lee Kuan Yew. We were at a restaurant at the Botanic Gardens, one of my favourite places in Singapore, with its perfect blend of priceless natural heritage and meticulous human planning. I told him that I probably enjoyed a higher standard of living and more life choices than my peers in journalism or academia in many other countries. The gap was certainly not because I was more deserving. I neither worked harder or nor possessed more talent. It was entirely due to my good fortune of being in Singapore. The city-state has benefited from a strategic location, which turned into one of the world’s great ports and commercial hubs by the early 20th century. And then – probably less than state propaganda claims but more than critics acknowledge – the PAP wrested Singapore from a number of wretched possibilities futures and thrust it towards a more promising future.
Singapore is not for everyone. Compared with countries at a similar income level, it is backward in the inclusiveness it offers to people with disabilities. It is a relatively safe country for families – but an innocent person who is wrongly suspected of a crime has more reason to fear in Singapore than in countries that treat more seriously the rights of the accused. And those who care enough for their society to stand up and criticise it have to be prepared to be treated as an opponent by an all-powerful government, enduring harassment and threats to their livelihoods. Being a writer immersed in Singapore has not blinded me to the system’s faults. But, one common form of critique in which I find myself unable to indulge is caricature, reducing Singapore to a society ruled by a monolithic elite, served by a uniformly pliant media, and populated by lobotomised automatons. Such essentialised accounts of government, media and people may satisfy the unengaged, but they generate too much cognitive dissonance for me. The Singapore I know – like any human society – is diverse and complex, and I have tried to reflect that reality in the following account of its media system.