Not for a hundred years has the freedom of the press in Singapore been in such danger as it is today. If the People’s Action Party is in a position to form a government, one of its first concerns will be to bring the newspapers to heel. This is the only construction that can be placed on the statements of PAP leaders, including its chairman Dr Toh Chin Chye and secretary general Lee Kuan Yew. If this conclusion is wrong, it is easy for PAP to say so. It’s leaders need only affirm their respect for freedom of the press, their respect for the right to criticize, their respect indeed for the rights of all political opposition. They must not, however, qualify their affirmation with “buts”. Like the individual, the press is either free or not free. It can comment and criticize, subject to the laws of defamation and libel, or it has no soul to call its own.
A censored press remains bad even when it produces good things. A free press remains good even when it produces bad things… a eunuch remains a mutilated being even if he possesses a fine voice. A great Socialist said that – Karl Marx. It may be that PAP’s spokesmen do not mean all they say, or that they intend to do all that they threaten. They have said some quite monstrous things, not only about the press, and are likely to go on saying them, partly no doubt because they believe threats sometimes work but also because a strong section of their following expect it of them. There is occasionally a conscious “bold bad boy” pose about PAP’s leaders, as noticeable as their undress uniform of tieless white shirt and trousers. It would be foolish and reckless, however, not to pay PAP’s leaders the compliment of believing that their threats, particularly against the press, are meant to be taken seriously.
It is ominous when is told, in an orgy of false witness by party leaders, that PAP believes in “objective reporting and the accurate dissemination of news.” This has been the classic introduction to the repression of the press everywhere the press is in chains. Dictatorships, whether of the Left or the Right, begin their suppression of the truth by confining the press to what they call “the accurate dissemination of news.” The papers then disseminate news as the party and its leaders instruct, or the press does not publish at all. It may seem fantastic that such a threat to freedom and liberty should confront Singapore in this day and age of political advance, but PAP’s leaders have made it quite clear that they do not understand the fundamental principles of the freedom of the press. It follows that they do not understand the first principles of the liberty of the people.
Opposition to PAP policy, PAP spokesmen have said, entails the risk of becoming “a political casualty.” There has been no definition yet of “a political casualty”, the extent of the injury and the manner of inflicting it has been left to the imagination. But we must assume that this phrase introduces a new PAP conception of a government’s powers, and of its right to act against those who do not share its views and refuse to keep their silence. Unmistakably PAP is hostile to a free press, to newspapers it cannot control.
- Threat to Freedom, Straits Times editorial, April 21, 1959.
A study of the subjugation of the Singapore media is a political study of Lee Kuan Yew in action. He was always wary of the media, especially of the Chinese and Malay newspapers, which, he said, “bore more careful watching than the English-language press, as they make much more emotive and powerful appeals in the mother language” and “tug at the heartstrings” of their leaders. But the unruly domestic media was not suddenly or violently reined in. That would have been politically gauche and very un-Lee. A masterplan for the suppression of the media was devised by him and time-implemented for maximum effect at critical stages.
At the advent of internal self-goverment in June 1959, Singapore had a raft of free and independent English and Chinese-language, as well as vernacular, newspapers, which, saved for the Straits Times, were owned or controlled by families or groups of individuals. But all this was to undergo a fundamental transmutation under PAP rule.
While professing his government a democracy, Lee introduced a plethora of laws systematically curbing freedom of expression under different guises. Newspapers were accused of “Malay chauvinism,” encouraging “permissiveness” or other “undesirable Western values,” “glamourizing” communism, “fanning the flames of Chinese chauvinism over language, education and culture,” or of murky conspiracies with foreign individuals, groups and governments closely accompanied by arbitrary detention of journalists, editors and owners of newspaper companies under one pretext or another, but always in the name of security and stability.
As a result, the independent Chinese-language Nanyang Siang Pau lost not only its owners but also its unique identity, while the two English-language newspapers – the politically correct Eastern Sun, whose bankers were the premier communist Bank of China, and the young and brash Singapore Herald, whose bankers, the Chase Manhatten Bank, were then the second-largest capitalist bank in the world – met their premature demise at the hands of the prime minister, whose hitherto enviable reputation with the international media lay shattered among the ruins of those newsapers.
In January 1973, as a first major step towards the subjugation of the print media, the Printing Presses Act was repealed and reenacted with profound amendments as the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act (NPPA) 1974, ostensibly to “safeguard public interest by ensuring that undesirable foreign elements do not gain control of our newspapers and use them against the welfare of our society.”
The law smoothed the way for management control of the newspaper companies by persons approved or nominated by the PAP government. Warned the Straits Times editor-in-chief [Peter Lim], who was later eased out of his powerful position: “Whatever the Singapore journalist’s dreams, he cannot forget … the reality that … the [PAP] government could put anyone or remove him from any position in a newspaper company.”
- The Media Enthralled, Francis Seow, 1998
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