Media slings and arrows still wound Singapore

Stephen Vines examines the lengths to which the island state is prepared to go to stamp out criticism One cynical view has it that most publications cave in if you hit them in the p ocket
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The Independent Online
In suing the International Herald Tribune newspaper for libel, the notably sensitive Singapore government risks making itself look foolish in Western eyes. But the lesson of such incidents in the past is that the city-state will not be greatly per turbed.

The alleged libel concerns an article by Christopher Lingle, an American academic, who abruptly left his post as senior fellow at the National University of Singapore. The government took offence at his argument that "intolerant regimes in the region" were relying on "a compliant judiciary to bankrupt opposition politicians".

Mr Lingle did not refer to Singapore but the Attorney-General said that he and the newspaper had "scandalised the Singapore judiciary by calling it compliant".

The case resumes next Tuesday. If the government wins, it may lay itself open to accusations of presiding over a compliant judiciary. If it loses, it will be made to look foolish after launching a legal action, despite a grovelling apology from the newspaper and in spite of the fact that Singapore was not even mentioned in the article.

Why then does Singapore maintain an almost obsessive vigilance over the reporting of its affairs? The Prime Minister, Goh Chok Tong, freely admits that his government is "thin-skinned" over any perceived criticism of its integrity. "We regard integrity as the cornerstone of Singapore's excellence".

In pursuit of what the government sees as fair coverage, it has curtailed the circulation of Asia's two largest regional news magazines, imposed restrictions on Time magazine and banned all access for regional television broadcasters, despite the fact that one of the stations is based in Singapore.

The local media come under even tighter control. At the end of last year there was some hope that the curbs were being relaxed. Articles appeared in the local press written by Catherine Lim, criticising the authoritarian stance of the government and suggesting that this resulted from the continuing influence of the former prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew. Although Mr Lee is officially in retirement, he remains the most powerful man in Singapore.

Response to her mild criticisms was immediate. Mr Goh said she had "gone beyond the pale". His press secretary took the opportunity to explain the government's philosophy, saying that greater freedom of expression would evolve as society "becomes more mature and better-educated".

He then laid out what is developing as a central theme of the Singaporean case for restricting the free flow of opinion and information. "In a traditional Asian society, to destroy the respect accorded to the Prime Minister by denigration and contempt" was not acceptable. "Singapore is not America. It is small and fragile and needs a strong and fair government to survive".

Singaporeans, joined by other East Asian governments, are arguing that Western-style press freedom is alien to Asian values, which place greater emphasis on the development of the community, rather than the freedom of the individual.

Cheong Yip Seng, Editor-in-Chief of Singapore Press Holdings, the island state's only newspaper group, explained what this meant in practice at a press seminar held in Hong Kong. A newspaper's role is to help improve its country's competitive position and to emphasise success factors which create strong economic performance.

Asked about his government's influence over the local press, he said: "They are entitled to do what is best for the country as a whole."

At the same seminar Malaysia's Deputy Prime Minister, Anwar Ibrahim, offered a rather different view, while tactfully skirting around the issue of tight press controls in his own country. He said: "It is true that Asians lay great emphasis on order and social stability. But it is wrong to regard society as a kind of false god upon whose altar the individual must melt into the faceless community . . . to say that freedom is Western or un-Asian is to offend our own traditions."

Yet the banner of Asian values is constantly raised by governments in the region seeking to rein in criticism. Cambodia, still struggling to shake off the worst excesses of a terrifying authoritarian government, has published a draft press law containingtough penalties for a wide range of loosely defined journalistic offences. Articles threatening "national unity" or "the stability of governing the state" would be subject to redress.

Indonesia recently closed down publications on grounds of irresponsibility. China is routinely vigilant in prosecuting journalists who are deemed to have crossed the line of acceptable reporting. In recent weeks it has signalled its nervousness about newspapers not directly under state control by closing down joint venture projects with Hong Kong publishers, even though they were not known to be critical of the government.

Singapore, however, remains by the far most sophisticated of the region's media-controllers. Aware of its attractions as a centre for English-language readership and advertising revenues, it often exercises control by placing limits on circulation.

Mr Lee cynically observed that most publications cave in if you hit them in the pocket. The record of overseas publishers in Singapore shows that Mr Lee knows what he is talking about.