World Press Freedom Day is traditionally a time to remember journalists who have suffered or died in the line of duty. By that measure, journalists and other writers in Singapore have it lucky, for they do not face risks anywhere comparable to what their peers have to endure in some other countries. On the contrary, this is an environment that is comfortable and convenient for media, both at the corporate and individual level.
But while restrictions are not life-threatening, they are stifling enough to result in muted and shallow public debates of important issues. Let me just highlight three of the most damaging of these restrictions.
First, we are the only developed country, and among a minority of countries in Asia, where you need the permission of the executive branch of government to publish a newspaper. Such paternalistic instincts are inching into internet regulation, and may colour the expected amendments to the Broadcasting Act this year.
Second, after reducing its political risk by restricting media pluralism through licensing, the government takes out extra insurance by having a say in the appointment of chief editors – an open secret that was confirmed in recent biographies of former newspaper industry chiefs. The result is an institutionalised system of self-censorship.
Third, Singapore’s insult laws are too punitive. Yes, extreme speech can be downright dangerous, like when it directly incites violence and hatred. But it is disproportionately harsh to imprison someone for insulting public officials and institutions. Alarmingly, one of Singapore’s most sober and serious writers, Alex Au, may have to go to jail this year for scandalising the judiciary. Our defamation laws also need to be reviewed, to find a better balance between protecting individuals’ reputation and allowing open debate.
One of the arguments against reform is, if it ain’t broke why fix it. Conservatives who are not too concerned about individual rights want to know how more freedom will serve societal interests by improving governance or our quality of life.
To answer this, we can be guided by the past. And Singapore’s recent past suggests that governance has suffered as a result of the media regulatory regime. Problems were not tackled in time, not because they emerged suddenly and out of the blue, but because censorship allowed the government to remain in denial for too long.
I recall that back in the 1990s, when I was a journalist in the national media, there were already signs of unease about the government’s immigration policies. I had colleagues who felt it was in the public interest to investigate the generous Singapore Inc scholarships for foreign nationals, for example.
Certainly, there were also many journalists knew they should report and comment on the great public unhappiness about the new policy on market-pegged ministerial salaries. And newsrooms were fully aware of the mounting anxiety about healthcare and other costs, as a result of the PAP’s neoliberal turn towards market fundamentalism.
These public grievances and expert doubts did appear in the media; they were not completely blacked out. But, they were always toned down and set in a context that ensured that the government’s voice remained dominant. When there was undeniable distance between public opinion and the government’s position, leaders required the press to work towards a consensus by shifting the ground rather than nudging the government.
By dampening doubts and dissent, by allowing government to operate in an echo chamber, the media gave yesterday’s policy makers an easier ride. But, today’s policy makers are paying the price. There is now more for them to undo as they move their frame of reference back to the centre-left. Furthermore, a lack of responsiveness resulted in lower levels of trust, which now make it harder for the government to persuade the public when it needs to.
The flawed media policy is behind the current government’s biggest failure – its inability to sell its Population White Paper, which by its own reckoning was a vitally important strategic blueprint for the future. Because it had been unwilling to subject its immigration policies to even the gentle probing of friendly national media in the past, it lost touch with public sentiment and lost precious political capital. Today, it is unable to carry the ground on immigration issues.
Even when it speaks sense – like when the Prime Minister chided Singaporeans for their irrational, tribal response to the upcoming Philippine Independence Day celebration – it meets a wall of cynicism and hostility.
By the same logic, today’s media policy – which is fundamentally unchanged from the 1990s – will probably turn out to be a liability for the future. A freer press may be inconvenient for individual PAP leaders in the short term, but it is hard to see why the larger interests of Singapore – and even the larger interests of the PAP – would suffer if our media system embraced the principles honoured by World Press Freedom Day.
This is the text of a talk at a World Press Freedom Day dialogue organised by AMIC in Singapore.