A PRIMER ON SINGAPORE GOVERNMENT AND MEDIA
Last updated in August 2016 *
The Republic of Singapore is a city-state of 5.47 million people, 3.34 million of whom are citizens. It is strategically located at the Southeastern tip of the Asian landmass, on the main maritime route between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Its closest neighbours are Malaysia and Indonesia. Controlled by the British Empire from 1819, it was occupied from 1942-5 by the Empire of Japan. It was granted internal self-government by the British in 1959 and chose to join the Federation of Malaysia in 1963. Singapore separated from Malaysia to become an independent republic in 1965. In most respects, it is a First World city; it has one of the world’s busiest ports and financial markets.
Singapore has been governed by the People’s Action Party (PAP) continuously since 1959. General Elections decide seats in Singapore’s unicameral Parliament, which has a maximum term of five years. The Westminster-style first-past-the-post system means that the margin of victory in each constituency has no bearing on the allocation of seats. As a result, although the PAP’s share of the popular vote ranged from 60 to 75 percent in GEs since the 1990s, its share of seats has never slipped below 93 percent, giving it virtually unchecked law-making power. The PAP currently holds 83 out of 89 elected seats, with the opposition Workers’ Party holding the remaining six. Lee Hsien Loong has been prime minister since 2004. He was preceded by Goh Chok Tong and, before that, Lee Kuan Yew, who was prime minister from 1959 to 1990 and dominated Singapore politics and shaped media policy for half a century.
Singapore is a culturally diverse immigrant society. The majority is Chinese (74% of the resident population) and the main minority groups are Malays (13%) and Indians (9%). There is no dominant religious group. Most Chinese are Buddhists and Taoists; Almost all Malays and some Indians are Muslims. There is a growing population of Christians. Singapore has four official languages: English (the main working language and the medium of instruction in schools); Malay (designated as the “national language” and the language of the national anthem); Chinese (with official promotion of Mandarin over dialects); and Tamil (the language of the majority of Indian Singaporeans). The media market is similarly divided on linguistic lines.
Singapore’s news industry is dominated by Singapore Press Holdings (SPH), a corporation created by the merger of two newspaper groups. While not government-owned, it is closely supervised by the political leadership. Its flagship title and de facto national paper is the English-language Straits Times, founded in 1845. In 2015, SPH reported an average daily circulation of 304,300 copies for the print edition of the Straits Times and its Sunday edition, the Sunday Times. It had 177,400 paid digital subscribers. Other English-language dailies are the crime-sex-and-sports tabloid, The New Paper (average daily print circulation of 70,200), and the Business Times (29,200 print circulation plus 18,500 digital subscribers). SPH’s Chinese-language dailies are Lianhe Zaobao (148,600 + 39,300) and its more downmarket sister papers, Shin Min Daily News (120,200) and Lianhe Wanbao (82,500 + 9,100). Minority language markets are served by the Malay daily, Berita Harian (44,600 + 2,500) and the Tamil daily, Tamil Murasu (12,800). SPH also publishes My Paper, in English and Chinese, mainly to challenge MediaCorp’s Today in the freesheet market. Print newspapers have been steadily losing readers. However, the industry remains financially robust. SPH reported operating profits of S$353.5 million in 2015, with its media business continuing to enjoy profit margins (before tax) of almost 30%. (Its property business is profitable and accounts for 20% of operating revenues.)
Broadcasting is dominated by MediaCorp, the sole provider of free-to-air television channels (including Channel NewsAsia) and the main radio station operator. Descended from the government’s propaganda department and corporatised in stages, MediaCorp is government-owned but also highly commercial in orientation. Its news and current affairs programming, as well as most of its Malay and Tamil language content, depends on state subsidies. MediaCorp publishes the only non-SPH Singaporean daily newspaper, Today. The free-sheet claims to be the second most read paper, behind the Straits Times, with an average daily distribution of 300,000 copies (Monday to Saturday). In return for retreating from its short-lived foray into television, SPH was given a 20% stake in MediaCorp’s television business and a 40% stake in its newspaper business. Operationally, however, the two companies remain bitter rivals. Subscription television is provided by Starhub, a public-listed company in which the government-linked Singapore Technologies is the largest shareholder. The second provider of subscription television is government-linked Singapore Telecom’s SingtelTV service. While Starhub and mioTV carry international news channels such as BBC and CNN, neither has domestic news programming to compete with Mediacorp’s news output. Due mainly to Singapore’s status as a major business and financial hub, several international news organisations have significant operations in the country. For example, Singapore is the Asia base of Thomson Reuters and the headquarters of CNBC Asia.
Commercial news organisations such as SPH and MediaCorp are major providers of online news. Yahoo! News is one of the most popular news sites. In addition, there are numerous independent current affairs websites such as The Online Citizen and Mothership, while Facebook and Twitter is extensively used to share news and views. Leading online forums include HardwareZone. Singapore’s independent socio-political sites are mostly volunteer-run. Even those with paid staff lack the capacity for daily news reporting. Newspapers, and to a lesser extent broadcast stations, remain the main employers of full-time professional journalists. Journalists tend to be university graduates from a range of academic disciplines, with an increasing number coming from communication schools in Singapore and overseas. While media professionals are highly qualified and well paid compared with even other developed countries, they are poorly organised. The Singapore Press Club is a social club with no advocacy or professional development role. Singapore has no press council.
The PAP believes that Singapore needs a strong government with the ability to act decisively against threats and to seize opportunities. To that end, freedom of the press must be “subordinate to the primacy of purpose of an elected government”, in the words of Lee Kuan Yew. The main piece of press legislation is the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act (NPPA) of 1974. Under the NPPA, newspapers need annual permits. Newspaper companies must also issue management shares to government nominees, opening the door to government intervention over editorial direction and senior editorial appointments. The Broadcasting Act imposes a licensing requirement on radio and television as well, protecting the state-owned MediaCorp from unwanted competition. Internet regulations under the Act require internet service providers to block any content on the regulator’s instruction. In practice, however, no political websites have been blocked. From mid-2013, the government started subjecting large online news providers to individual licensing as part of a long-term effort to harmonise online and offline media regulation. The main regulator is the Media Development Authority under the Ministry of Communications and Information. The Prime Minister’s Office and the Ministry of Home Affairs are also closely involved in the political supervision of news media.
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