~by: Ng E-Jay
The Prime Minister of Malaysia has announced that the annual renewal of press and publication permits would be abolished, and all press licenses will now remain valid indefinitely unless they are revoked. The obvious question now is why the Singapore government fails to heed repeated calls for media liberalization, and in fact, continues to justify existing laws even in the face of the changes happening across the causeway.
Malaysia’s Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA), enacted in 1984, has been used to censure newspapers on a very wide range of issues, some of it justified, but much of it not. While this degree of control has allowed the Malaysian government to censor inflammatory speech, it has on a multitude of occasions also been used to silence legitimate and peaceful dissent, curb freedom of expression, and instil fear.
The same can be said of Singapore’s laws relating to the press and publications. But the Singapore government, over the years, has made numerous refinements and calibrations to existing laws and policies, so that the government continues to have very flexible tools at its disposal to stifle or intimidate as it sees fit.
Singapore’s equivalent of Malaysia’s PPPA is the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act (NPPA), which continues to require annual renewal of press licenses. Our law also allows the government to gazette foreign publications and restrict their circulation here, in a manner that is completely unaccountable to the electorate. But this law is merely the tip of the iceberg.
Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) is the monopoly of the mainstream press in Singapore, and this company has been run by government bureaucrats and government intelligence officers for all of its existence. It is an unwritten policy of the government never to allow SPH’s monopoly to be compromised.
The corporate structure of SPH also features management shares, which have greater voting rights than ordinary shares. Management shares can only be awarded to entities or individuals approved by the Singapore government. Over the years, via pre-approved directorships and board appointees, as well as management shares, the government has retained firm control of SPH, and by extension, enormous influence over what it can report, and the manner in which it can report.
As media academic Cherian George explained recently: “Putting management shares in the hands of pro-stability stakeholders like banks is the main way that the law transformed the Singapore press into an establishment institution. Licensing is no longer as relevant, even though it’s still in the law.”
Despite the rapid changes taking place across the causeway, our government has refused to acknowledge that times have changed and people aspire to greater heights, not greater controls.
The Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts (Mica) has publicly defended our laws, saying that the media operating in Singapore play a responsible role and that publishers are accountable for the content they publish. Mica also states that these safeguards prevent local newspapers from being manipulated by foreign interests which can have a divisive effect on social cohesion.
However, the government has far too much administrative leeway and discretion, with little accountability and transparency in the way it censures or restricts both local and foreign media. The law is no doubt crafted under the ambit of responsible reporting. However, the government has betrayed this good intention and abused the law to serve its own ends instead.
It is time for the Singapore mainstream press to be liberalized, and for the government to stop hiding behind its policy of calibrated coercion as a means of stifling legitimate dissent, criticism, and political opposition.
This article first appeared in Sgpolitics.net. TOC thanks Sgpolitics.net for allowing us to reproduce it in full here.