August 13, 2004
BY Michael Backman
WHAT is Singapore? A country or a child-care centre? That is a question Singapore's new Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, might do well to reflect on.
Singaporeans are sophisticated, well travelled and rich - yet the rules governing their media belong to another era. When it comes to local media, Singaporeans are fed a diet of mush and only the occasional solid.
Why? Singapore is no longer threatened by communism. The battle was won long ago and it's time to loosen up. Media freedom today is a business issue. Media that doesn't simply report but also scrutinises promotes better corporate governance in government and business. The threat of media exposure is a powerful one. But not in Singapore.
Defamation laws and anti-racial vilification laws can deal with libel and racial vilification in the media, but Singapore maintains a system whereby practically every media outlet ultimately is controlled by the Government, is licensed annually and is subject to unwritten and vague "out-of-bounds" (OB) markers - topics that the Government doesn't like canvassed in the media. And in the event these OB topics are discussed in the media, the Government promises retribution.
Last year, I fell foul of these mysterious markers. Information Minister Lee Boon Yang said in a speech that I had "crossed the line" and sought to intervene in Singapore's domestic politics. I'd written a column on media regulation in Singapore, published in the local, Government-linked Today newspaper.
Dr Lee's definition of what constitutes politics seems unique. Not that he's defined it, of course.
Earlier this year, another of my columns was published in the Today newspaper. It was about the high salaries awarded to Singapore Government ministers. I wrote that I felt those high salaries were justified. The piece received the relevant OKs from the information ministry and was published. This made clear something else about Singapore's OB markers. You only actually cross one if what you say differs from the Government line. From that, I deduced that it's not me that's political, it's the OB markers.
In the absence of written guidelines, I suspect that Dr Lee really wanted me, to put it crudely, to kek sai. In Hokkien this means to "hold shit", that is to hold in a bowel movement, a local euphemism for self-censorship.
OB markers that are not spelt out demand that people think within a certain mindset and their nefarious nature means that people err on the side of caution. OB markers contribute to the problem of the lack of creativity and entrepreneurship in Singapore, the very problem that the Government always complains about.
Look at the case of AirAsia, Asia's first budget airline and the most significant development in East Asian aviation in decades. Where did AirAsia originate? Not in Singapore with its excellent, Government-built aviation facilities, but in Malaysia. And so on this, as in many matters now, Singapore is dancing to a Malaysian tune.
OB markers encourage people to think only inside the box, to avoid being courageous and daring - the very attributes that we associate with Lee Kuan Yew, particularly in the early years. Singapore needs more people with the courage and the daring of a young Lee Kuan Yew, not just in politics, but in business and in all aspects of life. But what has happened to those attributes? There is far too much cowering in Singapore, particularly by its journalists.
But the greatest threat posed by the Government's OB markers is to the rule of law.
Singapore has become as rich as it is because it has a strong rule of law. The rule of law requires that laws be written down, that they are precise and that they are gazetted.
But the Singapore Government's OB markers are nebulous. They are not written down. They are not transparent. And they are applied in a discretionary manner. They are absolutely contrary to the rule of law. They offer a sample of the sort of legal chaos that reigns in China and Indonesia.
The views of foreigners particularly are targeted by the Singapore Government for censorship. But surely foreigners have a right to comment on Singapore, in Singapore. They have a right to be part of the national debate. Why? Because foreigners have invested billions of dollars in Singapore. Those billions might not buy the right to vote, but they buy the right to express an opinion. Taking foreigners' money but not allowing them a voice betrays a lack of self-confidence on the part of the Government.
Uncodified OB markers threaten Singapore's reputation as a place that observes the rule of law. And they threaten its prosperity. The Singapore Government's needless, exquisite sensitivity on this makes the world laugh at Singapore. That is a great shame because in so many other areas the Singapore Government has done so well.
At the very least, if the Singapore Government must have OB markers, it should clearly spell out what they are and enshrine them in law. Better still, it should get rid of them. In a global world built on information and knowledge, countries, and particularly little countries, that demand that thinkers kek sai, will end up with a sai economy.
If Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong wants to demonstrate that "generational change" really is under way in Singaporean politics as he claims he does, then one of his first acts ought to be to drag Singaporean media law into the 21st century. But so far, the signs are not good. On Tuesday he reaffirmed the existence of the Information Ministry, when it should be abolished. And the incumbent was reappointed as Information Minister.