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Singapore’s domestic media — both print and broadcast — are closely linked to the long-ruling People’s Action Party government, and eschew so-called Western-style adversarial reporting in favour of what is dubed ‘nation-building’. Do not expect to read, see or hear much that is critical of the administration or its policies. Government press officers assiduously shepherd domestic news through the local news channels, effectively shaping what is reported. Some local journalists admit to a widespread culture of self-censorship in their newsrooms. Government officials are prone to initiating (and winning) defamation suits against foreign publications. All of the main newspapers (15 in total, along with six periodicals) come under the umbrella of Singapore Press Holdings (SPH), the ultimate control of which is determined by the government. A state-owned company, MediaCorp, runs television and radio stations. In early 2005, MediaCorp and SPH merged their free newspaper and television operations.
The most widely circulated English-language paper is The Straits Times (www.straitstimes.com), a broadsheet available Monday to Saturday, with a sister Sunday edition. Editorials are generally a good guide to establishment thinking. For commerce and finance there is The Business Times(www.businesstimes.com.sg), printed Monday to Saturday. Both The Straits Times and The Business Times are published by Singapore Press Holdings. There are also two English-language tabloids: The New Paper, which is cheerfully downmarket and specialises in sport and celebrity coverage, and the more thoughtful Today (www.todayonline.com), published by MediaCorp.
MediaCorp operates entertainment-oriented Channel 5 and Channel 8, Suria (a Malay Channel), Channel U (Mandarin) and Channel NewsAsia. It also operates more than a dozen radio stations, including news and talk station 938Live and Chinese, Indian and Malay services. MediaCorp also manages the external service Radio Singapore International which transmits in four languages, including English. Unionworks runs WKRZ (English-language) and UFM (Mandarin).
Internet access is regulated and individuals posting political content are expected to register with the Media Development Authority. Private ownership of satellite dishes is prohibited. Nevertheless, Singapore is a regional leader in mobile and high-definition television and the government’s ambitious ‘Media 21’ strategy aims to transform the country into a Southeast Asia hub for digital media.
For an insight into local media arrangements, see the second volume of Lee Kuan Yew’s highly informative autobiography From Third World to First, pp 212 – 225. ”Freedom of press, freedom of the news media, must be subordinated to over-riding needs of Singapore, and the primacy of purpose of an elective government,” Lee wrote, quoting a speech he gave in 1971. Not much has changed.
In July 2006 satirist Lee Kin Mun’s Today column was cancelled after he criticised the government for waiting until after the May elections to announce transport and electricity price increases. Commenting on the decision, a Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts spokesperson said ”it is not the role of journalists or newspapers in Singapore to champion issues, or campaign for or against the government”.
In the run-up to the country’s 2006 parliamentary elections, it extended censorship laws to ban podcasts and videocasts with political content — an action directed at the opposition Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), which had attempted to use the new media to overcome traditional censorship laws. In November of that year SDP activist Yap Keng Ho was jailed for posting a video of an illegal gathering of his party on the Internet.
The rigorous domestic controls have earned Singapore a scathing mention in global media surveys, which routinely note that it ranks very poorly in terms of the media’s freedom to operate.
Despite the chilly climate for local press and television, many international news organisations use Singapore as a base for regional operations because of its efficient infrastructure, central location and outstanding international airport. In addition, the city-state is home to more than 100 reporters for print and broadcast outlets from across Asia, Europe and North America. Singapore is also probably the only place in Asia where the BBC World Service is available on FM 24 hours a day.
International publications are widely available, including The Financial Times, The Asian Wall Street Journal, and International Herald Tribune, along with the main news-weeklies: The Economist, Newsweek and Time Magazine. Singapore bans what it regards as lewd or indecent material, and printed pornography widely available in western countries and Hong Kong is forbidden.
The Singapore government and its leaders take a very close interest in what is written or broadcast about the country and how it is run. Over the years there have been a series of run-ins between high-profile news organisations and the Singapore government or its leaders over coverage.
In the 1980s there were flare-ups between Singapore and Time Magazine, The Asian Wall Street Journal, the now-defunct Asiaweek and Far Eastern Economic Review. More recently financial news-wire Bloomberg and The Economist paid substantial damages to members of the Lee family after being threatened with libel lawsuits. In September 2006, a defamation suit was brought against the publisher and editor of the Hong Kong-based Far Eastern Economic Revue over an article which called opposition leader Chee Soon Juan the ‘country’s martyr’ as a result of the legal suits brought against him. After the paper failed to appoint a legal representative and post a US$126,000 security bond, as is required under new regulations governing foreign publications, its Singapore distribution rights were revoked.
International coverage of Singapore can elicit a letter of reply from government spokespeople, who set out what they feel are inaccuracies or biases. The government typically demands that such letters are printed in full in the newspaper or magazine that carried the original piece.
Many foreign correspondents based in Singapore are members of the Foreign Correspondents’ Association, although there is no obligation to belong. The FCA has no permanent base but members typically meet monthly for evening drinks, and more often to hear speakers of interest. For details see www.fcasingapore.com. The site details forthcoming events.
Resident foreign journalists and photographers need an employment pass, for which sponsorship by an employer is required. The Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts (140 Hill Street, #02-02 MICA Building, Singapore 179369. Tel: (65) 6270 7988. Fax: (65) 6837 9837 website www.mica.gov.sg) is the main starting point and on request will also arrange introduction courses to the country for newcomers.
Journalists who wish to visit Singapore for a working trip should contact the ministry as well as the Singapore embassy in New Zealand before setting out. The ministry has a general purpose hotline known as the duty desk (tel: 6837 9666) which can handle basic enquiries, or direct callers to the relevant department.
A great deal of useful information — official and otherwise — is found online. For the main government site see www.gov.sg; for the bulk of government press releases try www.sprinter.gov.sg; and for lists of ministry personnel and details of their websites http://app.sgdi.gov.sg. For a general round-up of what others are saying about Singapore, www.singapore-window.org is a good place to start.
It is very unlikely that visiting reporters will require a translator. English is the lingua franca of a compact community of ethnic Chinese (76.2 percent), ethnic Malays (13.8 percent) and ethnic Indians (8.3 percent). As well as speaking English, most Singaporeans also speak their mother language: Malay for the Malays; Tamil for Indians; and Mandarin for the ethnic Chinese. Other Indian and mainland dialects are also widely spoken, especially among Singaporeans over 50.
Singapore has first-class medical facilities, though health care costs are high and it is advisable to have medical insurance to pay for the cost of treatment, should it be needed. Dengue fever remains a health risk in Singapore, and travellers should seek advice about anti-mosquito precautions.
Given Singapore’s small size and its first-class infrastructure, which includes a network of expressways, it is possible to arrange many interviews in a single day. Citizens are generally open to talking about most subjects, although there is a marked reluctance among many to address issues of domestic politics with people whom they do not know well.
Unauthorised public demonstrations are illegal in Singapore and a permit is needed for a gathering of more than four people. Anyone failing to comply with this requirement is liable to arrest and possible prosecution.
Contributor: Jake Lloyd-Smith | Updated by Vaughan Yarwood
Latest update September 2008