The news media scene in Singapore continues to be distinguished by an unnatural stability. Despite universal acknowledgement that the country’s politics entered a more contentious “new normal” after the 2011 general election, there has been no sign of the media moving in tandem.
With talk of the next elections possibly being called as soon as late 2015, the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) is likely to be able to count on the media environment remaining conducive to its continued dominance. Mainstream media appear to be even more closely supervised than before. Meanwhile, independent online media show signs of stagnation. A new anti-harrassment law emerged as an additional tool for disciplining the internet.
Robust self-censorship regime
The year 2014 marked the 40th anniversary of the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act (NPPA), which provides the legal framework for the government’s management of the press. Remarkably, although much has been made of Singapore’s ascent to First World status, the controls contained in the Act have never been relaxed.
The NPPA leaves newspaper ownership fully in the hands of the stock market but empowers the government to nominate company directors through a system of management shares. The political leadership thus has a say in the appointment of chief editors, ensuring that newspapers’ editorial positions hew closely to official lines, especially on controversial issues.
After the electoral setback of 2011, the government made swift concessions on major public grievances such as housing and immigration policy. But its grip on media was unyielding, and may have even tightened. Six months after the election, it was announced that the editor of The Straits Times was to be replaced, by a journalist who had earlier been identified by the ruling party as a potential inductee for political office.
The same year, when the chairman’s position of the dominant Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) group became vacant, it was filled once again by a former cabinet minister – the third in succession.
In 2015, SPH took the unprecedented move of parachuting a senior civil servant directly into a top editorial position. Anthony Tan Kang Uei, 41, was appointed head of the group’s Chinese-language titles, taking over from a veteran journalist who retired after 38 years in professional journalism.
Tan, who arrived from the Ministry of Health, was a special assistant to former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew from 2011 to 2014. Although other former civil servants are found in SPH’s editorial leadership positions, all previous cases were required to rise through the ranks as journalists over several years before assuming senior roles.
The latest move suggests that the establishment is prepared to dispense with pretences of media independence, putting the priority on political continuity ahead of the next general election.
Since mainstream media restrictions are mainly effected through self-censorship or behind-the-scenes intervention, they are difficult to monitor and document. However, readers occasionally spot tell-tale discrepancies between initial online reports and subsequent versions of the same story.
For example, in February 2015, The Straits Times took down an online report of a cabinet minister’s remarks at a public event. The print version omitted several direct quotes from him that had earlier been considered newsworthy. Bloggers speculated that his statements, attempting to explain policies relating to the contentious issues of public housing and the income divide, could have backfired on the government.
In March 2015, a Channel NewsAsia report on a post-Budget public forum organised by the government’s feedback department was deleted after a few days. This was apparently because the junior minister’s answer to a question about national servicemen’s pay proved unpopular online.
The two cases suggest that mainstream journalists are now expected to protect the government’s authority not just from fiercely dissenting voices, but even from office holders’ own public statements when they prove embarrassing.
Hemming in online media
Mainstream media organisations’ self-censorship means that they rarely stray into legal danger zones. Not surprisingly, therefore, independent bloggers and other individuals faced the brunt of legal actions relating to political expression in the past year.
In late 2014, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong won his defamation suit against activist-blogger Roy Ngerng. Ngerng’s blog, The Heart Truths, campaigns against the government’s management of the Central Provident Fund (CPF) retirement benefits scheme. In one blog, he compared the CPF system with the organizational structure of a church whose leaders had been charged with misappropriating funds.
Lee saw this as tantamount to claiming that the prime minister was guilty of criminal misappropriation of Singaporeans’ money. The damages in the civil suit have yet to be assessed. Marking the first time that an individual blogger has been sued for libel by a government leader, it can be seen a symptom of the ruling party’s growing impatience with online dissent since the last election.
In early 2015, one of Singapore’s most respected bloggers, Alex Au, was convicted and fined SGD 8,000 for scandalizing the judiciary. He is appealing the verdict. Au had questioned the Supreme Court’s handling of a constitutional challenge to Singapore’s anti-sodomy law. The outcome of the trial was less severe than feared, as he could have been jailed for the offence. He was also acquitted on a second charge.
Also in February 2015, an editor and another individual linked to The Real Singapore blog were arrested under the Sedition Act. The anonymously edited site had published a report of a scuffle that took place during a Hindu religious procession, claiming that the incident was triggered by a complaint about noise by a Filipino family. The report attracted xenophobic comments against Filipinos.
Singapore has seen a trend of online hate against Filipinos and other expatriates: in May 2014, police advised the Filipino community to cancel a planned Philippine Independence Day celebration after drawing online opposition, including threats by Singaporeans to disrupt the event.
New anti-harrassment law
The new Protection from Harrassment Act, introduced in 2014, was touted by the government as a way to protect helpless citizens from cyberstalking, bullying and other troubling social trends. However, soon after its enactment, the government began using it against online dissent.
The government had inserted into the law a section dealing with “false statements of fact” published about a person. The affected party can seek a court order requiring that the publication of the falsehood cease unless a notice is inserted setting the record straight.
In January 2015, the defence ministry wielded these powers against an article written by an inventor with whom it was involved in a patent dispute. Both the writer and the website, The Online Citizen, were required to remove the article or provide a link to the ministry’s statements about the case. They are appealing against the move, arguing that a large organization like a government ministry could hardly qualify as a victim of harassment.
If the government succeeds in its action, it would have in effect introduced a “false news” provision into Singapore’s media laws, offering aggrieved parties a right of reply. On the positive side, this remedy is much less chilling than damages awarded in defamation suits. If the government adopts a policy of using it as a substitute for libel action, it could even open up space for criticism.
It also remains to be seen whether citizens can use the new law to defend themselves against unproven allegations made by office holders or other politicians of the ruling party. If so, former political detainees whose guilt has never been proven in court could use the law to challenge false statements made about them. However, the law empowers the government to declare certain classes of persons to be exempt from court orders under the Act.
The death of former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew in March 2015 stoked speculation about whether the People’s Action Party could sustain its dominance without his commanding presence. However, the extraordinary outpouring of sentiment from mourners showed that conservative political attitudes run deep in Singapore, buffering against more progressive forces.
The media are not likely to play a major liberalizing role in the short term, as they themselves continue to be stymied by restrictions. Mainstream media have shown no sign of wanting to align themselves with the growing culture of contention. Meanwhile, partly due to restrictions on fund-raising introduced in 2013, the independent media sector remains weak, with no capacity to conduct original daily reporting or regular investigative journalism.
The next general election will show whether the public is largely content with the low value that the government places on media freedom and other civil liberties.