The truth will set Singapore media free ... well, not necessarily

PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 November, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 22 November, 2004, 12:00am

'Information Minister Lee Boon Yang said the index imposes a standard that fails to take into account 'special circumstances' in Singapore, where he said journalists contribute to the nation's development and are not necessarily adversarial.'


NOT NECESSARILY ADVERSARIAL, you understand, in much the same way that the Singapore government does not necessarily like criticism. Now you know why I refer to the Straits Times as 'Pravda' (Party Rendition and Authorised Version of Daily Announcements).

The particular criticism to which Mr Lee objected in this case was a very low rating in the annual worldwide press freedom index put out by Reporters Without Borders, an international journalists association.

Singapore was ranked 147th out of 167 countries covered in the index, one notch worse than Bhutan, one notch better than Iraq. As the table shows, within East Asia it was given a better score than Laos but a much worse one than Malaysia, leave alone Indonesia and even Cambodia.

Here are a few more things the minister had to say, as reported in Pravda: '[The index] is based largely on a different media model which favours the advocacy and adversarial role of the press. We have a different model in Singapore. This model has evolved out of our special circumstances and has enabled our media to contribute to nation building.'

You get the basic idea. There are positive and negative forces in nation building and a free press is a negative force. Left uncontrolled it will corrode the process through irresponsible commentary. Journalists must therefore be restrained and focused on contributing to national development rather than be indulged, as they are elsewhere (how could other governments be so stupid?), in their obvious natural tendency of undermining it.

Now let me say immediately that there are indeed some special circumstances in Singapore to justify an element of restraint on the press. It is a multi-ethnic society and I can understand why officialdom there should want to be on guard against public commentary that inflames ethnic and religious passions.

I have just returned from a trip to The Netherlands where a tradition of unconditional tolerance has come into question following the murder of a television producer who offended Muslim sensibilities. All of Dutch society is now debating whether gag rules are sometimes needed.

But, this apart, I do not see that Singapore's circumstances are particularly special compared with any other country. What makes Singapore distinct is rather the confident and universal belief of its public officials that Daddy always knows best and that public dispute about the path he has marked out for the future can only be mischievous.

This is a curiously Marxist belief for a country that also prides itself on the frequent accolades it receives from American think tanks for having one of the world's freest economies.

It might have been understandable in Singapore's earlier impoverished days. The obvious objective then was to build the necessary industries, housing, schools and roads. But what to do when they have all been built, when gross domestic product per resident member of the population has reached almost US$30,000?

The questions are no longer so simple then and Daddy's crystal ball grows opaque. All that suffices at this stage (it suffices just as well at earlier ones) is to admit no-one really has the answers; the best society can do is consider all possibilities for the future.

And nothing serves this purpose quite as well as a free press with all its adversarial character. It is how a society best gropes with an uncertain future and it is the most certain way of ensuring that the best results will ensue. Contrary to what Mr Lee thinks, fettered journalists do not contribute to nation building. Only unfettered ones do.

I had that basic lesson in civil liberties drummed into me in elementary school and it makes me wonder what Mr Lee was doing in his.

Singapore's problem is that its government is still fighting the battles of 1963 while its population has outgrown them. I think we in Hong Kong have reason to be proud of our top score within Asia on this press freedom index.