August 30, 2006
By Sara Webb
A MONTH before Singapore goes under the international spotlight as the venue of a major International Monetary Fund conference, the government flexed its muscles to remind the media of its press restrictions.
The government on Aug 3 ordered five foreign publications -- the Far Eastern Economic Review (FEER), Time, Newsweek, the Financial Times and the International Herald Tribune (IHT) -- to post bonds of S$200,000 and appoint representatives in Singapore.
It was a sharp reminder of hefty damages paid in the past by media groups such as the Economist, IHT and Bloomberg to Singapore's leaders. The bonds would serve as security in any future government lawsuit for alleged defamation.
The moves highlighted the contradiction between Singapore's desire to become Asia's leading business centre and its determination to maintain the tight controls that have given the country decades of stability in a turbulent region.
But such steps -- which press freedom groups see as intimidation -- did not go unnoticed in the business world where investors depend on warts-and-all coverage of economics, politics and business in the countries in which they invest.
Mark Mobius, a fund manager at Templeton, declined to comment specifically on Singapore, where his firm has an office. But he said that the general rule of thumb was that investors valued a free press in countries where they put their money.
"In general, if there is a climate of fear or intimidation, it's a drag on investments," said Mobius, who oversees about $20 billion invested in various emerging economies. Many analysts say they prefer not to comment directly on Singaporean issues because of the risk of legal action, given that government leaders have successfully sued opposition politicians and the foreign media in Singapore's courts.
Singapore is seeking to shift from manufacturing to services such as higher education, the media and finance, to boost its international profile as it competes with Hong Kong as a base for foreign investment in the region.
Analysts say strict media laws might hamper this effort.
"One of the things that sustain Hong Kong's attractiveness as a financial centre is its freedom of speech. It improves transparency and facilitates the discussion of important issues," said David Webb, a shareholder activist in Hong Kong.
The IMF meeting on Sept 19-20 could provide an excellent opportunity for Singapore to promote itself with 16,000 delegates due to attend the conference and the run-up meetings.
But with about 2000 international journalists expected to converge on Singapore to cover the event, the media restrictions may come under scrutiny at an embarrassing time as financial and political leaders gather in the country.
Still, the government is not concerned by any backlash.
"We are confident that Singapore will remain a good investment location," said K. Bhavani, press secretary to the minister of information, communications and the arts.
"Singapore offers a stable, pro-business environment, and a safe, secure and vibrant place for foreigners to live, work and play," she added.
Reporters Without Borders slammed the decision to issue restrictions against the five foreign publications, including the Far Eastern Economic Review, which last month published an interview with opposition politician Chee Soon Juan.
"The authorities are looking for effective ways, including fear of prosecution and heavy fines, to intimidate these publications into censoring themselves," the media watchdog said. It ranks Singapore 140th out of 167 countries for press freedom -- worse than Russia but better than North Korea.
Even the pro-government local media can run into trouble. In July, state-owned paper Today axed a popular blogger's column after the government complained that his sarcastic comments on economic policies "distort the truth".
Last year, the University of Warwick scrapped plans for a campus in the city-state citing concern over academic freedom.
Despite this, Singapore has lured leading names in banking, the media, and education, thanks to tax breaks and lower costs.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, son of founding leader Lee Kuan Yew, said in his annual address to the nation this month that he welcomed criticism.
Two years ago at his inauguration, Lee promised a more open, inclusive society, but his government has shown little sign of implementing change.
Opposition politician Chee and two supporters were charged with speaking in public without the required permit ahead of the May 6 general election.
The People's Action Party, which has ruled since independence in 1965, fears losing its huge majority in parliament and its leaders argue that they have to take a tough line on critics.
"If we don't respond, untruths will be repeated and will be believed, and eventually will be treated as facts, and the government and the leaders will lose the respect of the population and the moral authority to govern," Lee said in his annual address earlier this month.
Lee's government has kept a ban on public protests in place and has clamped down on homosexuals and political bloggers who were told by a senior minister of state before the May 6 election that it was illegal to "propagate, promote or circulate political issues" in election periods.
Last year, the authorities banned a gay and lesbian festival for being "contrary to public interest".
So far, Singapore's balancing act has proved successful.
"Thus far the PAP government has shown a remarkable capacity to reconcile tensions between political controls and economic progress," said Garry Rodan, head of the Asia Research Centre at Murdoch University in Perth, Australia.