Singapore is one of the most well-developed countries currently. It is the third-richest country in the world, has the most powerful passport, and the best airport for seven consecutive years. However, the very same country has also been widely criticised for having a lack of free speech, most notably, the lack of free press. According to Reporters Without Borders’ 2019 World Press Freedom Index, Singapore has been ranked 151th out of 180 countries, just below Bangladesh and Russia in terms of press freedom. But, with the rise of fake news and the lack of diversity in newsrooms, is having a government-controlled press really such a bad thing?
A Government-Controlled Press
In Singapore, the government acknowledges the power of the media and therefore, it is used as a nation-building tool that should contribute to social cohesion. The Singaporean government views the press to be able “to serve an active, participatory, and ‘responsible’ role of contributing to the ideal of a strong nation-building model in Singapore”, and “only through a ‘responsible’ press will nation-building be successfully realised in Singapore”. As a result, individuals or corporations are not allowed to control the press, the press is unable to exercise editorial independence, and the press is not allowed to ridicule political leadership.
The main regulation, ‘Newspaper and Printing Presses Act’ in Singapore, requires a permit from companies who would like to print and publish in Singapore, publish, sell, or distribute Malaysian newspapers in Singapore, or sell or distribute an international newspaper that is published outside of Singapore. This state-issued license has to be renewed every year.
Moreover, the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act gives the government of Singapore the power to approve ‘substantial’ shareholders: one who holds more than 5% of votes, of a newspaper company. The act also gives the government the right to restrict the person’s exercise of voting power in a newspaper company.
How Can This be a Good Thing?
You might be thinking “This sounds way too restrictive. How can this be a good thing?”. Well, through the act, the government is also allowed to control the number of players in the market to ensure that the press is able to cater to diverse groups in Singapore. This also allows people of various ethnicities in Singapore to be represented and heard in the mainstream media.
For example, the Singapore Press Holdings, a major publicly-listed media organisation with strong links to the government, has a wide range of newspapers to cater to the diverse ethnicities in Singapore. The company publishes Lianhe Zaobao, a daily Chinese newspaper, Shin Min Daily News, a light-hearted evening newspaper in Chinese, Berita Harian, a Malay daily newspaper, and Tamil Murasu, a Tamil language newspaper.
In contrast, countries like America and the United Kingdom, which practices press freedom, have been experiencing a lack of diversity in newsrooms. According to a study, minority individuals, who are of a black, Asian, Hispanic, Native American, or other ethnicities, accounted for one out of 11 people appearing on the masthead of The Washington Post, three out of 18 people of The New York Times, and one out of 14 people of the Los Angeles Times.
Besides encouraging diversity in newsrooms, I also believe that Singapore’s government-controlled press helps to tackle a large issue many countries face: the rise of fake news. In March 2018, the Singapore government caught the attention of international media by proposing plans to block electronic communication at terrorist attack scenes. This new law gives police the ability to block all communication of journalists and members of the public on-site a terrorist attack. This ranges from photographs to videos, text and audio messages, for up to a month if the authorities feel that the security operations could be compromised. This proposal was heavily criticised by press freedom rights groups and puts Singapore’s press media in the limelight. However, not only does this proposed law help to prevent any information leaks to terrorists and compromise security, this could also help to fight fake news.
For Singapore, where the media is viewed as a nation-building tool, it is understandable why such a law is proposed. Imagine if such a scene were to occur and passers-by who may not have a clear overview of the situation post pictures and videos on their social media. The content uploaded on social media could result in unsolicited speculations and spark concern and anxiety among its citizens. By blocking such electronic communication, it could allow an authorised personnel, who will most likely have a better understanding of the situation, to disseminate factual information to the residents of Singapore, so as to avoid a country-wide panic attack.
Granted, not many countries with a restrictive press use it the way Singapore uses its press. These countries may use it to spread their political agenda, or to enforce certain behaviour to its citizens. However, using Singapore as an example, I hope that people can be more critical and understand why certain measures are in place before blatantly expressing that this is wrong and that their citizens are repressed. I hope that this article can help you realise that having a government-controlled press may not be as disastrous as many people claim to be.
Cover: brotiN biswaS// Final Editor: Ivo Martens