A Free Press for a Global Society

Dear Mr Shanmugam,

I refer to your 4 Nov speech at the Columbia University.

Allowing the political framework to determine media’s role would compromise media’s independence and undermine its ability to objectively report on the political framework.

When it comes to press freedom, there is no conflict between individual liberty and societal interests as long as the law is being respected. When there is no conflict between individual and society, there is no need to speak of balance between the two.

It is not quite right to attribute the grief of many third world countries to the ‘inappropriate transposition’ of Western standards when they were already poor and impoverished to begin with. The inability of democracy to take hold in many third world countries doesn’t mean that democracy is therefore not worth striving for or that the dictatorships that currently hold sway are the right answers to these countries.

Even when we consider the sorry outcomes of the developing world, those with dictatorships are sorrier than those with democracies. On the other hand, when you consider the thankful outcomes of the developed world, all except Singapore enjoy freedom and democracy.

The Singapore conditions revisited
Singapore may be small in population but so are many other first world nations and cities like Finland, Denmark, Norway, New Zealand, Ireland, Switzerland and Hong Kong. Of all the developed, small population economies, why should we be the only one denied press freedom?

Singapore wasn’t immune to the fashionable trend of import substitution in the 1950s and 1960s. We too foolishly embarked on import substitution until we were thrown out of Malaya in 1965 which rendered import substitution untenable. Internal and external circumstances were mere excuses to stifle the press, excuses that continue to be used long after these so-called internal and external circumstances ceased to exist.

The other three East Asian dragons – Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea have little or no natural resources too but have press freedom. So not having any natural resources is no reason to stifle the press. We didn’t just have a deep water port, we were strategically located at the crossroads between Europe and the Far East which became the basis for our wealth and prosperity. Our US$500 per capita GDP made us the fourth richest state in Asia at that time. The per capita GDP of many European nations at that time weren’t high too compared to what they are today.

Contrary to what you said, we inherited robust and well developed British institutions which we continue to use to this day. Contrary too to what you said, the people’s sense of identity with Singapore was so strong that some were willing to lay down their lives to defend Singapore against the Japanese during WWII including Lim Bo Seng and Lt Adnan. While people came to Singapore as migrants, many eventually sank roots. The society wasn’t deeply divided along ethnic and religious lines as Malay and Chinese villages lived harmoniously side by side for many decades and the Chinese majority even voted for minority candidates like David Marshall and JB Jeyaratnam. The idea that an independent Singapore is laughable or the idea that many thought Singapore would not survive for long have always been the figments of the ruling party’s imagination.

The Korean War wasn’t unpromising; it put a stop to Communism’s spread eastwards. The Vietnam War too was contained within Indochina and brought about numerous supply orders that contributed to the prosperity of Singapore. Contrary again to what you said, the communist threat in Malaya never once reached the shores of Singapore. The vicious, bitter fight between the British and the Malayan communists had always been confined to Malayan jungles and towns. Never once was a bullet fired by communists in Singapore because they were never in Singapore to begin with. While victory against the Vietcong was less certain, victory against the Malayan communists was more certain and the reason is simple. The Vietcong had the support of the Vietnamese people but the Malayan communists never won widespread support from the people of Malaya.

The racial issues that led to our split with the Malaysian Federation were rooted in the political antagonism between Tungku Abdul Rahman and Lee Kuan Yew. The confrontation with Indonesia was no more than two bombs set off without harm that never threatened the independence of Singapore. So many bombs have been set off all over the world – Bali, London, Mumbai and so on. Which bomb threatened the independence of the target country?

Thus, the seriousness of our external and internal risks has been overstated by the PAP over and over again with no reasonable justification. Singapore is not the only city which depended on its neighbour for water. Hong Kong too depended on China for water throughout the Cold War years.

If you can shrink the US without shrinking its nuclear arsenal and other high technology weapons and US troops, you will continue to maintain whatever military parity or advantage the US currently enjoys over both Russia and China. Therefore, small size doesn’t matter. What matters is sophisticated weapon systems which Israel has demonstrated time and again to be capable of defeating much larger adversaries. Singapore too, due to our healthy defence budget, is more than a match for our bigger neighbours.

It is silly to suggest that Singapore obtaining water from Malaysia is like one nuclear superpower obtaining water from another nuclear superpower in the midst of the Cold War. Was Singapore ever in a Cold War with Malaysia when both are members of the Five Power Defence Pact together with UK, Australia and New Zealand? Could the US and Russia have signed a defence pact like the one we signed with Malaysia when they were in the midst of a Cold War? So this is another seriously flawed analogy from you.

The risk involved in obtaining water from a Muslim country is no different from the risk involved in obtaining oil from the Arab states. The risk is simply the fluctuation in water price which is just risk to our pockets.

There are many small population nations like Finland, Switzerland and New Zealand that have not compromised on institutional checks and balances and yet could react just as quickly to internal and external situations. Thus, smallness in size is no excuse for us to do away with checks and balances.

It can be difficult for voters to judge the government during elections when there is no independent media to report any wrong doing or underperformance by the government. If a juggernaut like the US can overcome gridlock and react in time to tackle the Global Financial Crisis, gridlock should not be a problem to much smaller Singapore. If Hong Kong can survive street protests, why can’t Singapore?

Our transformation from 1965 is not as unique as you make it out to be. Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea have similarly made that transformation either without authoritarianism or abandoning it along the way. Thus, authoritarianism cannot be the reason why we have come this far since the other three East Asian dragons have also come far either without or having abandoned authoritarianism.

Our per capita GDP, our financial centre status, our free and open economy are only similar to those of Hong Kong’s due in no small part to our similar populations and the British institutions that we inherited. Our low crime rate and our safe streets are also similar to those of Hong Kong’s. We have done as well as Hong Kong yet we are not given the same liberties that Hong Kong enjoys. We have the short end of the stick.

Our thriftiness with our healthcare spending is an East Asian trait shared by many East Asian economies. Our students outperform their American counterparts only to find themselves rotting in government high posts giving useless speeches in exchange for million dollar salaries while their American counterparts go on to create billion dollar enterprises.

Of the more than 90% who supposedly own homes, half of them are heavily laden with debt due to the high cost of home ownership and will spend the rest of their lives as well as their retirement money to pay for their homes. Moreover, our supposed homes are not freehold houses but 99 year leasehold flats instead.

Part of the reason why we are top ranked in being corruption free is that we managed to legalise what may have been corruption in other countries. Only in third world dictatorships would you find dictators setting their own million dollar salaries. Yet, this is exactly what we have in Singapore, the setting of million dollar salaries by the ministers themselves, albeit legally.

We have not done so badly because of the promising circumstances we have always had going for us. We were a British Crown Colony and have always been a bustling trading port due to our strategic maritime location.

Media appraisal revisited
If journalists can be biased, unfair and prejudiced, the political regime controlling journalists can also be biased, unfair and prejudiced. The amalgamation of all newspapers into one company doesn’t change their profit driven nature nor alter any propensity to forsake journalistic values for profit. The trend towards tabloidization hasn’t escaped our newspapers either.

We can’t let the tremendous influence the media has in the political process be hijacked and monopolised by one political party. Doing so would allow the political process to be hijacked and monopolised by one political party. If the public is not the answer to the check and balance on the media, then who is? The government? But who is to check on the government? Are you also going to say that the public is not the check on the government? Then who is checking on the government? No one, absolutely no one. This puts us in a very dangerous position which is why it is imperative that we should let the people check on both the media and the government.

By quoting Tony Blair, are you also saying that we should cover up scandals and controversies because we do not want to generate any heat even if the public never gets to see the light of the day? Newspaper opinion leans so heavily towards the ruling party you hardly find objectivity in its commentary.

The role of American media is not much wider or freer than those of other Western nations including small nations. Since small and prosperous nations have also thrived with press freedom, your theory that America’s large size buffers it from any harmful consequences of a free press is therefore false and invalid. There is thus no basis to restrict Singapore’s media on account of our small size. If small Hong Kong and Taiwan can bear the heat and light of media without suffering from any irreparable harm, there is no reason why we can’t as well. Please stop using racial and religious fault lines as an excuse to restrict all other discussions on the ruling party’s policies and performance even if they may put them in a bad light.

Your aircraft carrier analogy includes skiffs like Hong Kong, Taiwan and New Zealand that have ploughed through waters as successfully as the aircraft carrier of the US. Only the skiff of Singapore has so far been operating in a swimming pool.

Our newspapers are far from neutral. They quite often trumpet the ‘virtues’ of the government through selective reporting and selective interpretation of statistics. Our newspapers do not fully and fairly report what goes on. The Straits Times reported Singapore’s rise in the Globlal Pension Index 2010 on 22 Oct 2010 but omitted to report our dismal performance in key areas and our ‘C’ grading. Our newspapers have long leaned on the government side of the political fray, conveying and reinforcing the government side of the story.

Therefore, your basic point is a false one. The American society has no greater in-built stability than many other small, first world societies.

Your surprise at Singapore’s ranking amongst third world nations by Reporters Without Borders doesn’t lessen the objectivity of the ranking. China and North Korea are the clearest examples demonstrating to us you don’t need people to be gunned down by soldiers or women raped on the streets to have suppression of press freedom.

69% of Singaporeans expressing confidence in our media doesn’t imply that our media is therefore free. If Gallup had performed a similar poll in North Korea, it might have found 100% of North Koreans expressing confidence in North Korean media. But does that mean that North Korean media is therefore free?

The fact that people in the US are more cynical about their media simply shows that they are more exposed to the various slants and biases of newspapers due to their press freedom and have learnt to be sceptical of the news they read. On the other hand, the greater confidence Singaporeans have of their media can be due to the fact that they’ve never been exposed to contrarian views that challenge their assumptions so they remain blissfully ignorant of the woeful lack of balance in our media.

Do not equate the Lee family to Singapore. It is not Singapore that has taken on every major newspaper company, it is the Lee family. Try asking the Lee family to take on Reporters Without Borders or any news related organisation that have absolutely no business dealings whatsoever with Singapore.

Criticisms make no sense to people who have no common sense. So our approach of ignoring criticisms that make no sense can mean that we lack common sense.

Good education and sophistication doesn’t imply wisdom. It is not surprising that 66% of Singaporeans voted for the government since 69% of Singaporeans blissfully and ignorantly trust our media not knowing how woefully unfair it is.

The question of whether Singapore could have done well had our media been more like that of America’s can be answered by looking at Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea. We would have done as well.

Three developing economies that have adopted the Western model while making rapid economic progress at the same time are Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea. These economies show us we don’t have to abandon economic prosperity even as we abandon state media control.

Friedman’s views can be applied to Singapore as well. We can’t rationally discuss the minimum wage issue without being brushed aside by ministers using half-baked arguments. Our ministers sound more like cable TV preachers than sensible scientists and engineers. If this is not a dysfunctional political system, what is?

A similar form of what was described by Carl Bernstein and George Stehpanapoulos appears here too:

– news has been reduced to a rehash of government statements
– selective interpretation of statistics is used to turn attention from real societal conditions
– an idiot culture has been perpetuated by rehash of nonsense speeches
– an overly acquiescent press no longer contributes independent thought on national issues

The only point that doesn’t seem to apply to us is that our press has not lost credibility, just as the North Korean press hasn’t.

The bargaining, lobbying, vested interests, political divides and time to resolve policy issues occur in all first world nations but they do not bog them down. So the system works not just for America but for all other first world nations as well. There is no truth to the supposed high cost that will be imposed on us.

The bulk of Singaporeans do not subscribe to the 5,500 foreign newspapers. The 100 TV channels are most watched for soccer, movies and other programmes that do not discuss Singapore politics. The 100% broadband penetration does not reach the many old folks who may never become Internet savvy. A sizeable portion of the Singaporean old is neither English educated nor Internet savvy. Of our nearly 7 million overseas trips, more than half is to next door Malaysia for shopping and eating that hardly opens us up to new ideas.

Our libel laws are strange because they don’t seem to abide by the principle of innocent until proven guilty. Take the recent case of the suing of the IHT by the Lee family. Shouldn’t the onus be on the Lee family to prove that a statement of the undeniable fact that the Singapore prime ministership has spanned across generations in the Lee family is in fact an allegation of nepotism?

Unlike Singapore, one party dominance in San Francisco and Chicago occurs in the absence of any unfair practices. You won’t find such unfair Singaporean practices in San Francisco and Chicago:

– Until the last election, selection for housing retrofitting projects has always been based on election results which coerces the populace into voting for the ruling party. This is a form of vote buying which you will not find in San Francisco or Chicago.

– All paid newspapers are amalgamated into one company whose shares are largely owned by government linked companies and whose chairmain has always been heavy weight ex-ministers.

– Up to six constituencies are lumped together and contested as one effectively allowing one minister to win six seats by himself.

The fact that our society has worked so far doesn’t mean that it wouldn’t work even better if we had real press freedom. The laws that govern our media are imposed on us by the ruling party not agreed by the populace.

Since our founding in 1819, we too have had nearly 200 years to refine our system. But our refinements have been stunted by the monopoly of one party since 1965.

China revisited
You have argued so vigorously on the in-built stability of large America. You should now apply that same argument to similarly large China. If as you say, size confers stability, then China should be your top choice candidate for democracy and press freedom. Why are you selectively applying your in-built stability argument to one big country but not another?

In conclusion, wrong facts and flawed arguments render your case weak and hollow.

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3 Responses to “A Free Press for a Global Society”

  1. cy Says:

    wow,this must be the longest article you have ever wrote

  2. genesis Says:

    well said. thank u.

    but do look thru your piece again. some bits are garbled.

  3. The Pariah Says:

    In his speech at the above forum at the Columbia University, Law Minister K Shanmugam professed and confessed that:

    QUOTE: There are thus less institutional checks and balances on Executive action in Singapore compared with the US – and that is deliberately so.
    UNQUOTE.

    Is this what Singaporeans want?

    That’s why the PAP Govt has gotten so brazen over the recent decades in eroding, undermining and dismantling public institutional checks-and-balances.

    At the next GE, Singaporeans need to decide whether:

    (a) We want the INSURANCE of having public institutional checks and balances; or

    (b) We want to give a BLANK CHEQUE to the ruling party post-dated for 5 years, without any care about systemic risks and human judgement deviance?

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