It wasn’t always this way. The media in Singapore wasn’t always state-controlled. We didn’t always have the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act (NPPA). Our newspapers were not always run by a behemoth, monopolistic publisher whose key senior appointments are government-approved people and the biggest stakeholders are government-linked.
Our press once comprised a spectrum of independently run newspapers that presented different points of views and different communities—which stood up for what they believed in.
The NPPA, which requires publishers to obtain and renew licenses to publish and controls ownership of publishers, came into being in 1974. Singapore Press Holdings was established only 10 years later, in 1984.
While the press was already clamped down on before 1974—there was a massive crackdown in 1971 and several newspapers were forced to close or folded under duress; notable journalists were amongst those arrested and detained without trial in Operation Coldstore of 1963, including prominent Malay journalist Said Zahari who went on to spend 17 years in jail; and press licensing laws were inherited from the colonial era—the introduction of the NPPA, and the subsequent setting up of SPH to consolidate newspapers under central command, was a watershed in the government’s mission to tame the media and marked the end of an era.
Before all this, Singapore had a free, vibrant and fiery press.
Nanyang Siang Pau (1923-1983) was an outspoken Chinese newspaper. Utusan Melayu (1939-1958, when it moved to Kuala Lumpur), which Said Zahari was editor of when he was arrested, was an uncompromising Malay newspaper that dazzled with journalists, activists and intellectuals. These are just two examples of a number of newspapers that existed and expressed their views openly before they were snuffed out. The Straits Times, which today holds dubious regard as being the government’s mouthpiece, has been around since 1845 and obviously wasn’t always this way.
In an open, or at least less oppressive, pre-independence journalistic environment, the press was a centre of gravity for many of Singapore’s best thinkers and passionate activists, and was a key player in our quest for independence. It held its own and engaged its readers, and even as it did battle with the authorities, was autonomous enough to at least have room to fight. It contributed a great deal to quality ideas and discourse swirling around that fed society’s intellectual growth and political movements.
One of the arguments that the government has used to back its control of the media is that Singapore is not ‘mature’ enough to handle a free press. We are too young a nation, too delicate a society. We can’t risk the media rousing the people with stories and ideas which are different to what the government wants us to see and believe. So quieting the press, making it a compliant nation-building tool, is what our country needs for stability and security and is in our best interest.
But as history shows, for the most part of Singapore’s 194-year existence, we had a freer press and were not worse off for it. In fact, we thrived economically, grew as a multi-racial society, became a hugely prosperous settlement and in the end managed our greatest achievement—which was to become our own people and our own sovereign nation.
We did all that without state controlled media.
So when the Media Development Authority implements a Licensing Regime to bring local news websites under the same regulatory framework as print media, and empowers MDA to order a website to take down content within 24 hours, they are disrespecting many of our achievements, and distrusting the wisdom of the people.
Voices online are expressing their anger over this loudly and furiously, but it’s not just the online community that is against the state controlling the media. Traditional media journalists have long felt resentful of their editors who restrict what they can say—editors, approved by the authorities, who are in turn made to toe the line by the government.
In a now infamous Wikileaks cable from 2009 (09SINGAPORE61), entitled ‘Journalists Frustrated by Press Controls’, it says:
“Singapore journalists say they are increasingly frustrated with GOS-imposed [Government of Singapore] limits on their domestic reporting. Political leaders put pressure on The Straits Times staff to ensure that the paper’s domestic coverage follows the government line.”
And that “reporters have to be careful in their coverage of local news, as Singapore’s leaders will likely come down hard on anyone who reports negative stories about the government or its leadership.”
The cable continues:
“In the past, editors had to contend only with the opinions of former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew (now Minister Mentor) and former Deputy Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong (now Senior Minister). However, a younger generation of government ministers is now vying for future leadership positions and one way for them to burnish their credentials with the old guard is to show they can be tough with the media.”
The damning cable also says that young, aspiring journalists “think twice about building careers at home” because it’s too stifling, and view Singapore as a training ground for journalistic careers then established elsewhere.[Read the full Wikileaks cable here.]
By introducing the Licensing Regime, MDA is spreading the frustration and the disappointment, and it is confirming to the public that the Singapore government is out of step with the zeitgeist that is increasingly felt here.
What we so clearly need is not more state regulation of the press or media but better journalistic standards so that we move closer to the ranks of the best news journalists in the world, and are no longer the ones that aspiring journalists flee or international journalists mock.
Singapore can handle a free press. We did handle a free press. We advanced greatly politically and as a society under a free press. It is not a threat to society. It may be a threat to the ruling party, but it is not a threat to society. In fact, it is a key part of a healthy, vibrant society.
* Article first appeared in publichouse.sg