MEDIA freedom and out-of- bound markers were issues raised last night at a dialogue on Singapore’s future as the country turns 50 next year.

The dialogue, organised by the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA) and attended by about 20 of its members, was on the sort of society Singapore could become, and addressed issues such as culture and freedom of speech.

Panellists Chua Beng Huat, a sociologist at the National University of Singapore, and Ms Braema Mathi, president of human rights group Maruah, shared their views on whether media controls should be loosened in the years to come.

“It is becoming an open world, but also a narrower world,” said Ms Mathi, pointing out how people are likely to follow, on Facebook, friends and communities that echo their interests.

“The role of the mainstream media becomes even more important – and this is where freedom of expression becomes crucial. The media has to take on a big moderating influence.”

That, she said, calls for more diversity so people can “weigh out the different media” and decide which newspapers to follow. But that will only be possible if the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act is amended, she argued.

The Act gives the Government the authority to grant licences to newspaper publishing firms, which must be renewed annually.

Professor Chua, however, said the mainstream media’s influence has waned, and he questioned whether media regulations remain a concern: “Media freedom is now a silly issue because of the Internet. The mainstream media is now chasing the Internet.”

Newspapers, for instance, will have to step up their game, he said, adding that they risk becoming “largely irrelevant” unless they keep track of and report on issues gaining attention online.

During the question and answer session, lawyer Nizam Ismail – an SIIA council member – asked whether OB markers will remain relevant in the future.

Prof Chua said: “I don’t think there’s any society without censorship, and I think OB markers are really flexible things.”

Ten years ago, he noted, homosexuality was taboo. Now, the Pink Dot picnic takes place each year. But some topics that may potentially flare up – like religion – need to be kept in check, he said.

Ms Mathi agreed. In her view, religion will, in the coming years, be the region’s biggest challenge.

She cited Brunei, “a quiet little Islamic state”, which this year became the first South-east Asian country to officially impose syariah law, and asked how that would affect Singapore and its Muslim- majority neighbours.

She also took issue with the way people are classified by race under the Chinese-Malay-Indian- Other framework, saying it boxed people up and could open the way to discrimination.

But Prof Chua said the system has taken an unnecessary beating – and is not the reason for discrimination or an obstacle to diversity.

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