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Singapore - offending the sensibilities of government

By Kevin Childs - posted Thursday, 10 December 2009

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.

As for the Murdoch-owned Far East Economic Review, it denied any wrongdoing but said it would pay up to avoid a protracted legal battle.

Journalists in Singapore generally agree that the government’s targeting of libel suits against global news organisations such as The Economist, the International Herald Tribune, the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg has had the required chilling effect.

Astonishingly, international news organisations have been largely silenced by the threat of having to pay substantial damages or having their access to the lucrative Singapore market curtailed.

Stories that quote an opposition politician or civil society expert are rare, while hard-hitting investigative journalism is virtually non-existent.

Says Bland, “The real victims of this repression are not foreign correspondents like me, who can re-locate, or large news organisations such as Dow Jones, which can afford to bear the costs of an occasional libel suit, but Singaporeans.”

The government’s regular attacks on the foreign press and its exercise of direct control over the domestic media means a corrosive atmosphere of self-censorship is all-pervasive.

The ruling People’s Action Party refuses to clarify what it is that journalists can and cannot report. By doing so it ensures that most journalists and other commentators err on the side of caution - especially Singaporeans, who have much more to lose than their foreign counterparts if they fall foul of the authorities.

The Committee to Protect Journalists, a press freedom campaign group, says Bland is "the latest on a long list of foreign journalists who have been targeted by the government for their news coverage".

Intriguingly, one of the recent pieces Bland wrote was on a forum run by opponents of the death penalty in Singapore. There, activists, including human rights lawyer M. Ravi, suggested that the government was perhaps becoming more open to providing information on how many people it hangs and for what crimes.

Amnesty International has described such killings as a hidden tool of the government, but while denouncing this report as wrong, the government refuses to release up-to-date figures on the deaths.

Singapore believes that censorship is needed to keep its people in line, harking back to riots in 1950, 1964 and 1969.

The 1950 riots are blamed partly on uninhibited reporting and are often cited as examples of how the press can incite racial and ethnic violence. The Malay press is accused of playing up an angle that Maria Hertogh, a Dutch girl raised as a Muslim by a Malay family was being forced to take up the Christian religion. The story was read by the Muslim community as a case of religious injustice and the resulting riot left 18 people dead and 173 hurt.

Again, sometimes Singapore goes too far and attracts global derision. Such was the case in 1994 when 18-year-old American Michael Peter Fay was sentenced to caning for theft and vandalism. While caning may be a routine punishment in Singapore, this was the first caning involving an American citizen. The number of strokes was reduced from six to four after US officials requested leniency.

More seriously, in 1991 a Filipino domestic worker named Delia Maga was found strangled to death in Singapore. A four-year-old in her care, Nicholas Huang, was discovered drowned. Police suspicion centred on a Filipina maid, Flor Contemplacion, and they interrogated her until she confessed to both murders.

She was sentenced to death by hanging, but just before her execution, two Filipino witnesses claimed that Huang's father had framed her. They said he killed Maga in a rage after finding his son to have accidentally drowned. The son was an epileptic and said to have an attack while in the bath. The Singaporean court considered and rejected the testimony. Contemplacion was hanged even though Philippines’ President Fidel Ramos made a personal plea for her life. Contemplacion became a rallying cry against the inhumane, abusive, and exploitive working conditions of many Filipino domestic workers and labourers abroad.

Events like these are used to justify the need for tight censorship in a Multi-racial/multi-religious society. It is said the unimpeded flow of ideas instead of leading to enlightenment can sometimes have negative effects.

This, of course, extends to the internet. Back in 1996, ASEAN member nations, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam agreed to collaborate on restrictions on internet communication.

Human rights, free expression and electronic privacy organisations protested to the ASEAN secretariat about the deal, organised by the Singapore Broadcasting Authority.

Content-based restrictions on online communication violate internationally guaranteed rights of free expression, said the free speech groups from Europe and North America.

A number of ASEAN delegates reportedly expressed support for Singapore's Internet Code of Practice. Human Rights Watch/Asia has written to the Singaporean government to oppose these regulations, which impose sweeping controls on content, including political discussion. The regulations have already resulted in arbitrary censorship of at least one newsgroup message.

So Singapore is a handy model for repressive regimes, such as in Vietnam.

As the protest note said, the most effective means of responding to offensive content is by disseminating more content. Censoring offensive material will not remove it from the internet; it will simply cause it to be reproduced on additional internet sites.

Removing journalists such as Bland simply means that they move elsewhere in Asia and still report, perhaps even more freely, on what the Lee family regime is up to. But certainly, the time is well overdue when Australia took more than a moneymaking interest in Singapore.

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About the Author

Kevin Childs is a freelance journalist and author, and a member of the board of the United Nations Association of Australia, Victoria.

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