Written by Natalie Berner

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  • Area: 718 square kilometres
  • Population: 5.5 million (2016)
  • Capital: Singapore
  • State form: parliamentary republic
  • Official language: English, Malay, Mandarin, Tamil
  • Religion: Buddhism (34%), Christianity (18), Islam (14)

  • Flag of Singapore

    The media system in Singapore is said to be “not free” since media production and media ownership are strongly tied to the government. Restrictions and censorships – including imprisonment and closure of newspapers – do have a broad legal foundation. Even though Singapore is a parliamentary democracy, the leading party PAP never dropped below 60 per cent of the votes since independence in 1965. Nation-building, national security and the preservation of its outstanding economy (comparable with the leading nations of Western Europe) are guidelines which dominate the communication policy. These guidelines serve as legitimization for the Media Development Authority (MDA) to monitor the media sector and keep opponents under control. The great approach of persisting as one nation irrespective of the multi-ethnical population and its small size, receives high acceptance within the population. That’s one reason why self-censorship and journalistic behaviour in favour of the administration is especially characteristic. The journalistic profession is seen more about serving the state and its objectives, rather than reporting critically.
    Communication policy and regulations
    The Constitution of Singapore mentions freedom of speech and expression in Article 14. However, clause two gives the government the power to restrict these rights if “the security of Singapore” is concerned as well as if “the privileges of parliament” or the occurrence of “defamation or incitement” was noticed (Article 19, 2005: 17). Furthermore “The Newspaper and Printing Presses Act, the Defamation Act, the Internal Security Act and articles in the penal code allow the authorities to block the circulation of news” if they threat the public order or interfere in domestic politics (Freedom House, 2015a). Freedom of the Press is not specifically enshrined in the Constitution. The Media Development Authority (MDA) functions as institutional control mechanism. Every newspaper, radio or broadcaster has to have an MDA licence, which means that there is no open access to the media market. Internet providers, too, are licensed and the MDA blocks 100 websites “for the purpose of signposting societal values” (Freedom House, 2015b).

    The MDA validates its role with the economical and nation-building argument: MDA wants “to contribute towards economic growth and help foster a cohesive and inclusive society in Singapore” (MDA, Roles and Outcomes 2016). In its mission statement “promoting nation-building” is specifically mentioned (MDA, Mission, Vision, Core Values 2016). The significance of this concept tracks back to 1965 when Singapore had to leave the Federation of Malaysia due to ethnical unrests. Singapore became independent without proactive wanting it, neither having natural resources nor a homogenous identity (Lampert, 2005; Ashraf, 2011). Ever since the administration has a strong interest in tying Chinese, Malaysian, Indian and Western habitants together into one value foundation; not least to provide the right conditions for business and productivity. Guaranteeing stability inside society is one important factor for investors and business activities. Since its independence, Singapore experienced a most dramatic increase in standard-of-living, its Human Development Index and its Gross National Product are on Western level (CIA World Factbook, 2016). Even if Singapore’s government is democratically elected, its governance model can be described as soft authoritarianism (Tripathi, 2015).

    Well known for liberal and “easy” trade conditions, the situation regarding the media system is the opposite: Freedom House labels the press status in Singapore as “not free” (Freedom House, 2015), the World Press Freedom Index 2016 ranks the city-state on position 154 out of 180. One explanation given by RWB for the bad score, is the closure of The Real Singapore (TRS) news website by the government in April 2015. The reason was the critical content of the website. “Two of its alleged contributors were accused of ’sedition,’ which is punishable by 21 years in prison”, accuses RWB on its website. Furthermore, defamation suits were common in the city-state and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had personally brought prosecutions against bloggers (Reporters Without Borders, 2016).

    The Sedition Act outlaws seditious speech, the distribution of seditious materials and acts with “seditious tendency” (Freedom House, 2015a). That “seditious tendency” appears as diffuse concept with negative impact on freedom of speech inside the media system of Singapore. It’s also one important cause for self-censorship as Aaron Ng (Communications and Media Department, National University of Singapore) outlines, who was interviewed as an expert on the Singaporean media system: “The government does not need to prove sedition in order to charge people for sedition; all it needs to prove is that there´s a “seditious tendency”, which is a likelihood or chance. This is a very low bar to clear, so those who have been charged (…) have almost zero chance of escaping a guilty verdict. Hence, journalists are generally quite careful about issues of race and religion.”

    Further legal foundation for censorship can be found throughout all important enactments dealing with media: The Media Development Authority Act, the Films Act and the Broadcasting Act as well as the Internet Code of Practise have “to ensure that nothing is included in any broadcasting service which is against public interest or order, national harmony or which offends against good taste or decency” (Internet Code of Practise, 1997: 1). All of these papers have to be seen as instruments, which allow the Singaporean administration “to censor journalistic content, including online content” (RWB, 2016). Since these laws and the assumption of “serving the nation” are strongly present in the public communication and public awareness, the consequences are once more self-censorship and adapted journalistic behavior.

    Even though there is de facto a wide range of possibilities to implement restrictions, Aaron Ng adds that the government nowadays is very reluctant in using these instruments. The fear that “such methods will scare away investors” (Interview Aaron Ng) is too big since Singapore is highly dominated by foreign investments. Due to changing economic power structures on the globe like the opening up of China, the economical strengthen of India, Indonesia and other Southeast countries, Singapore is forced to develop new strategies to keep its outstanding economic situation stable. One standing leg for the economy is therefore the approach to become the most important media centre of the Southeast region. So the administration is investing intensively in broadband technology, new media, online services and state-of-the-art media hubs (Federal Foreign Office Germany 2016). The effort to be top-ranked as an attractive business location (as well for the media industry) would be undermined by a high usage of repressive laws. Leitner & Lindner (2015: 12) describe Singapore’s media policy (especially regarding the internet) as thin line between two objectives: strengthen the economy on the one side while controlling the usage and content on the other side.
    Media offers and media usage
    The media landscape in Singapore is dominated by two big companies: Singapore Press Holding (SPH) and MediaCorp. Both of them are termed as privately-owned entities “even though their management are linked to the government and generally hold a pro-government stance. They keep strict control of the editorial line of their newspapers, Television and radio stations.” (Article 19, 2005: 23) SPH also owns 20 per cent of Media Corp Television and 40 per cent stake in Media Corp Press Ltd (SPH, 2016). Media ownership is therefore highly concentrated and intensively connected to the government. Political parallelism is also reported by Prof. Ang Peng Hwa (Nanyang Technology University). He indicates in another interview that there are regular meetings between chief editors and governmental representatives, “so that it’s clear to the editors how the government thinks. Especially on sensitive matter.” According to Freedom House (Freedom House, 2015b) every SPH chairman has been a former cabinet minister since the 1980s. Freedom House points out that compared with other, more fractured authoritarian regimes regarding elite support, power and influence, Singapore is unusually centralized within the “top echelons of the leading party PAP”. This does not only apply to the media industry: state owned companies dominate in almost every sector in Singapore (Lampert, 2005). Resulting out of a lack of competition within the media industry, the advertising rates are very high compared to similar cities in the US (Ang Peng Hwa). If companies want to advertise with high coverage, they have to deal with one of the two major media players which gives them a very strong economical and influential standing in relation to other industry sectors.

    Diversity concerning media offers in Singapore exists especially because of the different ethnic target audiences. There are ten main daily newspapers (Article 19, 2005: 23) published in English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil. Nine of them are published by SPH (The Strait Times, The Business Times, The New Paper, Berita Harian, My Paper, Tamil Murasu, Lianhe Zaobao, Lianhe Wanbao and Shin Min Daily Newsare) and one (Today) is published by MediaCorp. SPH and MediaCorp are also the dominating internet news sources since they are the “biggest online news player in terms of resources and viewership”, according to the Freedom on the Net Study (Freedom House, 2015). Singapore Press Holding is also involved in a variety of “other businesses” e.g. real-estate projects (SPH, 2016).

    There do exist gaps in importance within different language media. According to Ang Peng Hwa the English press is viewed as most serious and influential. Key medium is The Strait Times. Its daily average circulation (online and print) amounts 481.700 copies (Singapore Press Holding, 2015). Ang Peng Hwa categorizes the Chinese press “slightly more sensational” but with a more balanced picture when it comes to topics about China, Taiwan and Hong Kong (in comparison with the English press). Malaysian newspapers are not allowed to possess because of their historically critical reportage of Singapore politics (Article 19, 2015: 35).

    MediaCorp TV is Singapore’s largest terrestrial broadcaster offering two 24-hour channels in Mandarin and English (Channel 5 and Channel 8), three niche programme channels and twelve local and four international radio stations (Article 19, 2005: 26). Apart from MediaCorp, SPH is running few channels and radio stations too. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) World Service is the only radio outlet, which is said to be completely independent from the government (Federal Foreign Office Germany, 2016).

    In general, foreign publications are available as long as they do not interfere with guidelines of the administration. Furthermore the government may limit the circulation and some foreign publications only be obtained from selected newsstands and bookshops. There is censorship regarding nudity, pornography and homosexuality. That’s why, for example, the Playboy is banned (Ang Peng Hwa). Foreign publications which sell more than 300 copies have to place a deposit with the government. If they have a licence, they can operate freely but the government has always the possibility to recall editions and prevent a story to be distributed (Ang Peng Hwa). Private satellites are banned in Singapore but international broadcasters can be received via cable (Federal Foreign Office Germany, 2016).

    As Singapore is a wealthy and compact city-state the internet penetration rate is very high: 82 per cent. The access is widely free “but authorities monitor online material and block some content through directives to licensed service providers. Singaporeans’ increasing use of social-networking websites has sparked interest in social activism” (Freedom House, 2015b). This leads to a growing risk for Bloggers or social media users being charged with defamation. Although the internet usage is very high, if it comes to Singapore-related news people use especially Free-to-air TV (79 per cent), followed by print (70 per cent) and local websites (54 per cent) (MDA, 2014).
    Journalists' autonomy
    Of course, the working conditions for journalists in Singapore are influenced by the domination of the two top dogs SPH and MediaCorp. “For a long time SPH’s personnel management policy resembled the military (…) and they did not bother because they were the only action in town”, says Ang Peng Hwa. People who wanted to work as journalists had no choice, they only could start at one of these two companies. The situation has changed, nowadays the opportunities to practice journalism are wider e.g. in the online sector, but still: the legal framework and the “informal culture of secrecy” (Article 19, 2005: 61) are shrinking the scope for journalistic work and the actual realization of freedom of expression.

    According to a German foreign correspondent, there are three very concrete taboos: “the wealth of the Lee-Family, military issues (because the transition to espionage is fluid) and critical topics about race and religion.” This applies also for foreign publications. If for example a leading weekly German magazine had a cover story about the wealth of the Lee-Family, it’s very unlikely that it will be distributed, the German correspondent assumes. Critical reporting has to be indirect and subtle. Ang Peng Hwa describes it as “sandwich approach”, where the critical meat is between two “slaps of praise”.

    Generally journalists and civil society live in a “climate of fear of speaking up”. In addition “the media cannot defend themselves in cases of a defamation suit.” As prominent example serves the case of blogger Roy Ngerng. He was sued by Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Long after he covered corruption of the management of Singapore’s retirement savings plan. According to Freedom House (2015a) “Ngerng was fired from his job at a hospital with approval from the Ministry of Health and in November he was found guilty in the suit”. That is only one example of “post-publication punitive actions”, which symbolizes how restricted people are to express whatever opinion they have about the administration. Nevertheless “the government’s restrictions on online debate have not been severe enough to neutralize the internet’s importance as a space for alternative and more authentic voices. Anti-government views are routine in comment spaces, forums, and social media.” (Freedom House, 2015b).

    Most of the journalists hold a degree, either in journalism or another subject. Language abilities and general knowledge are demanded skills. The Wee Kim Wee School of Communication in Nanyang Technological University offers a degree in journalism, but it’s not a prerequisite for getting a job according to practices. A senior editor of the Strait Times mentioned scholarships. For example, aspirants bond with SPH six years, while they become journalists and get training on the job. According to the assessment of an expert the reputation of journalists in Singapore is rather low. “They are not proud”, the editor said. The salaries are below the average wages at least if you are not a senior editor. Later “attractive pay and bonuses prevent that senior journalists ’jump ship’ to an anti-government vehicle, even if one existed” (Article 19, 2005: 72). The social status of journalists is not very high neither: “it tend to be assumed that they are automatically mouthpieces and if news reports were official releases”, Ang Peng Hwa said. Among the population dominates a “sceptical view towards media” since everyone knows that working as journalist means being a “pro-PAP government person”. So the credibility of media and journalists suffers. The reason to become a journalist is more about earning income rather than pursuit because of passion (Aaron Ng). A particular low standing have journalists from foreign publications. A foreign correspondent from a German newspaper talked in one interview about his difficulties of getting answers during investigations (“We are not part of the nation-building, so why should they talk to us?”). There is “fear of the media in whole Asia, of Western media even more”.

    The self-concept of journalists is shaped by the government’s mission. Criticism is not a priority and journalists don’t see themselves as watchdogs rather than gatekeepers who try “not to harm Singapore”, as formulated by an interviewed senior editor of The Strait Times. The compliance with the government guidelines gets clear when he explains: “In times of national emergency and in times where important policy change need to be communicated we will clearly do that, we want the country to succeed.” Being successful with economic progress and successful with nation-building is higher prioritised than freedom rights in Singapore. Or to put it in the words of Aaron Ng: “For the sake of economic development everything else becomes less important, including civil liberties (…) allowing civil liberty would be allowing dissent, and dissent slow down progress.”
    This country report is largely based on a seminar paper composed by Theresa Leitner and Julia Lindner at Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich in 2015. All interviews have been conducted by them in January 2015.

    Interviewed experts
    • Aaron Ng, part time tutor in the Department of Communications and New Media, National University of Singapore
    • Foreign correspondent in Singapore working for a German newspaper
    • Prof. Ang Peng Hwa, Media Law, policy and internet governance, Nanyang Technology University
    • Senior Editor, The Straits Times
    • Tan Tarn How, Senior Research Fellow, Institute of Policy Studies, Lee Kuan Yew School
    Recommended citation form
    Natalie Berner: Singapore. In: Michael Meyen (ed.), Mapping Media Freedom. LMU Munich: Department of Communication Studies and Media Research 2017. /singapore (access date)

    Singapore by Night

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