The time must be fast approaching when Australia considers human rights when it gets into cosy deals with places such as the repressive city-state of Singapore. The Singapore government’s reach into our telecommunications is a worry, especially considering the authoritarianism of its government.
Recently Singapore booted out a British journalist, Ben Bland, who had offended the sensibilities of that most touchy of places. The latest Reporters without Borders press freedom index rates Singapore 133rd out of 175 countries, below the likes of Kenya and Congo.
Singapore’s law minister, K. Shanmugam, was quick to rubbish the rating as “quite absurd and divorced from reality”, telling a group of visiting American lawyers that his is not “a repressive state” and does not “unfairly target the press”.
“Our approach on press reporting is simple: the press can criticise us, our policies. We do not seek to condemn that,” he said.
Bland, a freelance journalist, had spent a year in Singapore, contributing to publications such as The Economist, London’s Daily Telegraph and the British Medical Journal. He says his application to renew his work visa was rejected without warning, explanation or right of appeal.
And while the law minister’s comments are clearly hypocritical, to describe them as such while still in Singapore would have meant for Bland the inevitable ruinous defamation suit.
Expelling foreign correspondents, destroying the careers of local journalists, while owning all domestic newspapers and news broadcasters, the Singapore government also uses harsh libel laws to restrict further the freedom of the press.
Recently the about-to-close Far East Economic Review had to pay $300,000 in damages and costs to the prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, and his father, Singapore’s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, after being found guilty of defaming them in a 2006 article based on an interview with Chee Soon Juan, an opposition politician. Sam Zarifi of Amnesty International said the ruling further illustrates how press freedom is under threat in Singapore and sets a dangerous precedent for freedom of expression and journalism in the region.
He called on said Singapore to allow the media to act as a watchdog and bring in laws on freedom of expression in line with international law and standards.
"Laws that allow the authorities to impose restrictions on freedom of expression together with a pattern of politically motivated defamation suits, have created a climate of political intimidation and self-censorship in Singapore," he said.
Critics, including opposition leaders, say Singapore applies defamation laws selectively to silence criticism. The government says restrictions on speech and assembly are necessary to preserve the economic prosperity and racial stability of the multi-ethnic city-state of 4.8 million people. It says any slight on its leaders will hinder their ability to rule effectively.
The elder Lee founded the People's Action Party, which has ruled Singapore since 1959 and has 82 of Parliament's 84 members. Prime Minister from 1959 to 1990, he now has an advisory role in the government with the title of mentor minister.
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