PM Lee interviewed on BBC HARDTALK, declines to comment on restriction of press freedom in Singapore

BBC HARDtalk featured a trailer of an interview with Singapore Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, a short exchange between Stephen Sackur and PM Lee on questions regarding trade deals, human rights and press freedom.

The BBC HARDtalk is a current affairs program by British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) that features a 30-minute one-on-one interview. The interviewee is subjected to about 30 minutes of tough questioning by the host.

In the trailer, Sackur is shown, asking the Prime Minister, “This is what Tim Farron, the leader of the Liberal Democrats in the UK said: if we’re to seek a deal with Singapore, Theresa May the Prime Minister must raise issues of freedom of expression and freedom of the press in any trade talks with Singapore; how do you respond to that?”

PM Lee awkwardly deflected the question by saying, “ I don’t see you’re being restrained in asking me any question.”

Sackur stopped for a brief moment and said, “No, I’m not… that’s not really the point, is it? The point is whether you’re really prepared to offer guarantees on your treatment of the press at home here in Singapore.”

“Whether you’re really prepared to talk about why the freedom of the press in this …” said Sackur before being interrupted by PM Lee with his reply.

PM Lee said, “I would not presume to tell you how your press council should operate, why would you presume to tell me my country should run?”

“We’re completely open, we have one of the fastest internet access in the world, we have no great wall of the internet, you can get any site on the world… so where is the restriction?”

Sackur pressed on by asking, “So if the government of Britain were to make linkages between a trade deal and seeking guarantees about human right, press freedom, workers rights, demonstrator rights in this country, your reaction would be?”

PM Lee laughed and answered, “I would wait to react until I see it.”

He added, “You look at the Americans, they don’t lack fervour in moral causes. They promote democracy, freedom of speech, women’s rights, gay rights, at some times even transgender rights. But you don’t see them applying that universally across the world with all their allies. Yes, they do it where the cost is low, and then they can take a high position…”

“But you look at some of the most important oil producers in the world, do they conform? Have they been pressured? You have to do business.”

PM Lee paused for a while before saying, “The world is a diverse place, nobody has a monopoly of virtue or wisdom and unless we can accept that and we prosper together and cooperate together, accepting our differences; differences in values, differences in outlook, differences in even what we see that our goals to be, I think it becomes difficult..”

Lowest ever ranking of Press Freedom 

In April 2016, Singapore dropped one rank from its 2015’s 153rd ranking to 154th in Reporters Without Borders (RSF)’s 2016 World Press Freedom Index. The new ranking places the city-state in its lowest ever rank in the index, the highest ever rank obtained by Singapore is 135th in 2012.

In November 2016, RSF named PM Lee as one of 35 predators on press freedom.

It stated that one of PM Lee’s strategies in stifling media is to use SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation). Which consists of bringing defamation suits or other legal actions against isolated journalists and bloggers who cannot easily defend themselves against political powerful or wealthy plaintiffs, with the aim of deterring them and their colleagues from contributing to the public debate.

PM Lee has posted the interview on his Facebook page and asked Singaporeans to watch it on Wednesday.

The full episode can be viewed on StarHub TV Ch 701 tomorrow at 12.30pm, 5.30pm and 11.30pm.