Big Brother is watching, make no mistake....

October 8, 2003

News Comment by Michael Backman

A STONG-WILLED patriarch, a management that is sensitive to criticism and which likes to micro-manage, underlings who will follow and not question, the desire to control and stage-manage everything and a general suspicion of information flow and the media.

This is a description of a typical, traditional Asian family company, but it might also be a description of Singapore. Like the traditional Asian company, the Singapore model is one that used to work. But times have changed and so too must the model.

No longer is manufacturing king. The name of the game these days is information.

Modern, rich countries like the United States, Britain and Australia do not feel the need for an Information Minister whose role, typically, is to constrain information rather than promote it. Yet Singapore has one, which puts it out of step with the world's wealthy, developed countries, a group of which it is a member.

Furthermore, why does the Government still feel the need to license newspapers and other media outlets? Why do editors feel the need to self-censor? Granted, the list of "sensitive" topics appears to have grown shorter. So, why maintain the old fashioned, out-moded trappings of a Third World dictatorship? What does Singapore have to hide?

The answer is nothing. Singaporeans have much to be proud of. They are affluent, well-travelled, well-educated and mature as voters and citizens. I have no doubt that they can handle information and discern between information sources as any American, Australian or Brit is assumed to be able to do.

Yet, no other government whose citizens have a comparable per capita income persists with the sort of media control as does Singapore's.

What Singapore needs is a media that is conducive to the development and exchange of ideas and which provides a venue for debate. By this, I mean debate on matters such as whether Government-linked companies, such as ST Engineering, should be involved in the international arms trade. Or whether Singapore wants Mr Lee Hsien Loong as their next Prime Minister. Or whether the Government is back-peddling on changes to the CPF.

"But Singapore is a small country and can't have such liberalism," is the line. But Denmark is a small country and it has no problem with such debate. "But Singapore is a young country and isn't ready for such media freedom," is another. But Indonesia is a young country and poorly-educated Indonesian maids are trusted more by their government with media freedom than their Singaporean employers.

Another reason for constraints on media freedom is the need to ensure harmony in a multi-racial country. But which country isn't multi- racial these days? Other countries have anti-racial vilification legislation so that newspapers can be prosecuted if they publish material that is demeaning or inflammatory on the basis of race. Such legislation is moderate and effective

The result of the Singaporean mismatch a free market for goods and services and a near monopoly in the market for ideas is that Singapore's economy is in danger of going down the drain. Its economy this year will be the worst performing one in Asia in terms of growth.

For too long, civil servants have been allowed to be the main source of ideas. To their credit, their professionalism has got Singapore to where it is. But now, such control threatens Singapore's prosperity.

I accept that the media has become more open in recent years. Today, for example, publishes challenging opinion pieces increasingly of a nature that would have been unthinkable several years ago. But five minutes of sunshine does not make a sunny day.

The Government should abolish the system of annual licensing and editors should have greater independence. Instead, what reforms have been made in the direction of liberalism? Bungee jumping and bar-top dancing.

I was walking along Boat Quay recently and saw four ladies standing on a bar in a pub, each writhing to music in a sexually-suggestive manner. This is not reform. This is not liberalism. This is sleaze. And sleaze should not be equated with freedom. The most important aspect of freedom, which is aligned to the freedom of the media, is the freedom to be wrong. And it's that freedom that Singapore needs to cultivate.