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. 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. RSF’s methodology is dubious, resulting in the Republic being grouped with regimes where journalists lose not just their liberty but even their lives. 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 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.’” 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.
This book tries to fill a gap by offering a detailed account of Singapore’s media controls, going beyond rankings and colour codes. 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. If the only point of this book was to restate the obvious — that Singapore has less press freedom than liberal democracies — 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 various 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 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 3 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 “OB” 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 historical 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 4 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 40 years of repetition and reinforcement, elements of this ideology appear to have reached a 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. The Singapore government has been particularly skilled at applying the right doses of force — just enough to contain competition, but not enough to provoke widespread moral outrage. It has also understood that public support is a moving target. In response to Singaporeans’ rising expectations, the government has not only ratcheted down its use of force, but also adopted incrementally more open and transparent approaches to governance. These aspects of its hegemony, which I call “calibrated coercion”, are explored in Chapter 5.
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. Th e PAP has enjoyed framing its enterprise as a nationalistic battle with the West. Its official narrative portrays media controls as being in line with “Asian values” of harmony and consensus. Yet, as related in Chapter 6, the PAP once had to face opposition from a radical, Asian-language press as well. Today’s media system has been shaped partly by the PAP’s run-ins with the Chinese press, in particular. Although these historical roots of contentious journalism have since been snipped off, the PAP’s hegemonic project remains incomplete. The press may be strikingly bereft of any reform movement, but 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. The contrast with professional journalists helps to clarify the factors that keep the press conservative.
The internet has enabled the most radical and unpredictable challenges to the PAP system of media control. It is the only medium of public communication for which producers are not required to obtain 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, however, 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. So far, online dissent has frayed the edges of PAP dominance without compromising its core. Therefore, this book ends on a similar note as it starts 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. Th is 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.