Special role media play in Singapore
September 30, 2000
DESPITE its multi-racial and multi-religious population, Singapore has been able to galvanise its people towards supporting the State and its development policies due to the close bond between the media and the government.
Presenting a paper on Singapore's media at the "Media and Democracy in Asia" conference here, president of the Singapore Confederation of Asean journalists Ivan Lim said an inter-twinning relationship between the Singapore government and its media was facilitated through a re-organisation of all the city-State's newspapers into one holding company, the Singapore Press Holdings.
"This was how the government exercised effective control because dealing with one newspaper group which publishes all the newspapers was easier," he said.
Although there was a recent relaxation towards the granting of media licences, Lim said they were issued to quasi-government organisations such as the Television Corporation of Singapore and the Media Corporaton of Singapore, to publish several new newspapers.
He said there has been an effective monopoly of the Singapore Press Holdings, and this allowed for effective government supervision of the media.
"Newspaper editors are also co-opted to serve in the nation-building political agenda of the ruling People's Action Party," he said, adding that some editors are privy to government policies.
"The editors are happy to play their role because they see themselves as part of the Singapore Incorporated concept."
Lim said in order to make sure the editors support the government and "go along government lines", former civil servants who held top positions are also employed by the newspapers.
"In the context of Singapore's media, you not only have full-fledged journalists but also former bureaucrats who understand government policies and are very loyal to the government."
Lim said Singapore has been able to remain unified because of this symbiotic relationship between the media and the government.
Another speaker, Institute of Policy Studies Singapore senior research fellow Dr Ooi Giok-Ling, said since the media is an effective channel of communication and socialisation, it was not surprising that the PAP regarded the media as an essential partner in nation-building.
"Popular sentiments have been shifted away from politics and redirected towards economy and the accumulation of material wealth."
Ooi said the PAP Government had provided such strong leadership, paternalism, efficiency and effectiveness in the delivery of public goods and services that "it appears to have pre-empted the need for mobilisation by civil society."
Quoting from a source, she said: "People are told what to like, who to marry, how many children they should have, how to behave themselves..."
The effectiveness of the State in pre-empting the needs of society, said Ooi, was seen in the establishment of a network of grassroots organisations such as community centres, citizens' consultative committees and residents' committees, "in order to provide local leadership as well as keep the centre informed of public responses to State policies."
Ooi pointed out some current developments in Singapore's civil society and the role of the media, including the formation of a virtual online organisation known as the Singapore Internet Community.
"It is perhaps an organisation with only a website to prove its existence, as well as pages such as the `Not the Straits Times Forum' (an alternative to the Singapore Straits Times newspaper's Forum letters page).
"This site features letters sent to the Straits Times that have been rejected and not published by the paper."
She said studies of the media in Singapore tended to compare the relatively unrestricted Press in colonial times to the emergence of Singapore as an independent nation-state.
However, she said the Singapore media today has been very much shaped by the PAP leadership.
Ooi said incidents such as the Maria Hertogh case of 1950, the Prophet Muhammad birthday procession of 1964 and the racial rioting that the incidents have been linked to, were cited as part of the PAP's view that the media may bring in undesirable values, how newspapers can be used to carry out covert subversion, and how inflammatory reporting can lead to racial riots.
"These are not theoretical dangers but painful setbacks in Singapore's recent history," she said.