Left - Warren Fernandez, Chief Editor of Singapore Press Holdings, Right - Dr Cherian George, both were on a panel talkin about regulating "fake news" during the East West Media forum this year in June.

Dr Cherian George calls out the defence of ‘pseudo-freedom’ of the Singapore press

The conversation about press freedom is not a new one – not in the West nor in Singapore. On the one hand, there are media platforms from newspapers to digital newsrooms that are in a constant struggle to maintain press freedom while others are happy to serve as mouthpieces for their ruling government.

In a post on his blog at Air Conditioned Nation, Dr Cherian George, a prominent professor of Media Studies, touched on the debate of press freedom or lack thereof in Singapore.

Specifically, Dr George pointed out how the Singapore press exists in a somewhat grey area.

He writes, “The Straits Times in Singapore is in neither category. It operates under laws that compel the press to align itself with the government, which is not its fault — but it tries to deny it. Instead of struggling to be free, it struggles to be seen as free.”

Pointing out the two news stories this past week – first of Tommy Koh raising the point about how the Singapore media has a tendency to show a bias for official positions while failing to raise newsworthy opposing arguments. The second was of Yahoo! News article that broke the story on how government leaders influenced the decision to remove a competent journalist from her post as ST’s political editor.

Cherian pointed out, “even as the paper should be gearing up for elections that may be called within a year, an already depleted political desk was absorbed into the general news desk, relegating its importance.”H e went on to describe these incidents ‘conformism and self-censorship at an advanced level, where gatekeepers do what’s required of the powers that be while insisting, maybe even believing, that they are acting independently.

And if you’re paying any attention at all to the type of content that local media outlets are putting out, you’d surely agree that Dr George has made valid point, one that you’d be hard put to disagree with.

This unusual system of the press being so evidently influenced by the government while staunchly insisting that they are independent is what Lee Kuan Yew designed the press system to do, says Dr George.

In a chapter of his 2017 book ‘Singapore, Incomplete’, which he had graciously shared with the public at no cost, he talks about the shake-up of the Singapore press system that was initiated by Lee Kuan Yew. He describes how back in the 1970s, Lee Kuan Yew began to restructure the newspaper industry by removing power from individual-owned publishers and spreading ownership across many shareholders to dilute the influences of any single person via the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act.

He shifted the goal of the newspaper industry from championing public opinions and community identities towards boosting shareholder value and the government’s agenda.

“Lee’s intervention was designed to allow the press to survive financially while also making it incapable of satisfying the public emotionally”, write Dr George in his book.

For decades since then, the media in Singapore has been on a short leash. There is press freedom enough to allow the media to perform their professional service but never enough for them to side with the people against the government.

“The law requires newspaper companies to be listed on the stock exchange, with no shareholder controlling 12% or more of its stock”, Mr George notes.

This, combined with the fact one of Singapore’s biggest publishing behemoth, Singapore Press Holdings, is tied to the restrictive NPPA law gives you a ripe environment for a falsely free press.

The board of the SPH is stacked with PAP loyalists since the 80’s, says Dr George and the editorships have been professional-cum-political appointments, leaving the public with editors that only serve them to the extent that it doesn’t conflict with the government’s rule.

Once there’s even a sliver a chance that the press is getting too vocal, one phone call from a high-up government official is enough to quell any potential fires for the ruling party. Just like when PM Lee Hsien Loong collapsed during his National Day Rally Speech in 2016, which was barely covered at all in the news, as Dr George pointed out in his book.

Truly free press does not exist in Singapore and the public is aware of this. But they continue to rely on these media outlets because it’s the best place for them to receive timely and accurate information about the latest government policies. “The government has a huge impact of people’s lives from cradle to beyond the grave. Regardless of their political orientation, the people in Singapore need to keep up with what the government is thinking and going in multiple arenas”, Dr George points out.

The only thing the press lacks right now is the drive to speak out for the people, particular when public opinion deviates from that of the government. Ironically, this is when press freedom is vital; when it is necessary for the loudspeaker to be turned towards the government instead as the media champions the voice of the people.

That’s where Singapore falls flat. It is precisely at moments of political tension and controversy that the press, especially major publishers (not independent, community run platforms) end up being the government’s advocate instead.

Dr George couldn’t be more right when he said that this has gone on so long many have given up hope that things will change. After years of fighting for true press freedom, the fighters are tired and weary.

But it’s important for journalists and reporters to put pen to paper and speak truth to power. That is what the media is here for and that should be the duty of every platform that calls itself a news outlet.

And it’s important for the public to also demand for a better, freer press. As Dr George says, “it’s vital that we push our media – and more importantly their political masters – to improve their quality”.