The smallest country in Southeast Asia is creating some of the largest difficulties for journalists. Since the Republic of Singapore passed the Media Development Authority Act in 2002, the national and international media have been under intense pressure.
The spirit of the law grants freedom of the press to all individuals and agencies, but the letter of the law enforces strict guidelines for reporters. To compound matters, the act was revised and strengthened in 2003.
“The government threatens journalists, foreign media and opposition with defamation suits seeking dizzying amounts in damages,” according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF). “The government uses around a score of draconian laws, particularly those on the granting of licences for publications, on films, religious and political Web site managers and on national security, to stifle any criticism.”
Last year, for example, film producer Martyn See was threatened by the government when he attempted to distribute his documentary about a controversial figure in national politics.
“The censoring of Martyn See’s documentary film ‘Singapore Rebel,’ dealing with Singapore’s opposition leader, Chee Soon Juan, raised major local and international criticism of the city-state’s restrictive policies,” a report by the International Press Institute said.
“In March (2005), the Board of Film Censors required See to pull his film from the annual Singapore Film Festival. If he failed to do so, See would face jail time and a fine of about $60,000. At the same time, the Board also warned the Festival’s organizers not to show the film.”
Increasingly, journalists throughout Singapore are kept from publishing controversial or critical information because of stiff penalties under the MDA Act. The government, however, states the legislation is merely “to encourage, promote and facilitate the development of the media industries in Singapore.” More details on the act may be found by clicking on “Development and Policies” at the government Web site http://www.mda.gov.sg.
State of the media
* “Reporters Without Borders condemned an immediate ban on the distribution and sale in Singapore of the Far Eastern Economic Review, which has been imposed by the information minister under article 23 of the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act. The ban was imposed as a result of a lawsuit brought against the Hong Kong-based magazine by Prime Minster Lee Hsien Loong and his father, former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.” (www.rsf.org; Oct. 2, 2006)
* A foreign reporter following a trial in Singapore was detained trying to re-enter the country Sept. 24, The Epoch Times reported. “The newspaper … said its reporter, Jaya Gibson, was to be deported Sept. 25. Gibson had returned from a brief trip to Europe to resume coverage of the case of two Falun Gong practitioners who had been arrested for putting up a banner outside the Chinese Embassy to protest the persecution of fellow practitioners. Gibson claimed that the Singapore police have been monitoring him since he started reporting about the trial.” (www.ifex.org; Sept. 25, 2006)
Singapore in the news
* The smoky haze that reportedly caused health problems and hurt outdoor-related businesses in Singapore was likely to remain until late November. The thick smoke that has enveloped Southeast Asia since early October was expected to dissipate when the northeast monsoon douses the land-clearing fires in Indonesia’s Kalimantan and Sumatra, far later than the original October prediction. (www.bangkokpost.com, Oct. 22, 2006)
* “While most Malaysians regard Singapore as a land of opportunity, landing a job in the island republic has turned into a nightmare for some.
“These workers, all unskilled or semi-skilled, are the victims of unscrupulous recruitment agents who lure them with promises of good pay without giving them a true picture of their terms of employment.
“And despite facing terrible work conditions, they are unable to return home as the agents have held on to their passports as collateral until their “bonds” … are paid up…
“The more desperate ones have even tried swimming across the Straits of Johor to get back to Malaysia or sneaking into the agents’ offices to recover their passports.” (thestar.com.my/news, Oct. 22, 2006)
Facts about Singapore
* Founded as a British trading colony in 1819, the country became part of Malaysia in 1963 but declared its independence in 1965.
* The country is about 3.5 times the size of Washington, D.C.
* The main port of Singapore is one of the largest and busiest in the world.
* Religions include Buddhism (42%), Islam (15%), Taoism (8%) and Christian (15%).
* Suffrage at 21 is compulsory and universal.
* Singapore has the highest standard of living in Asia and ranks 11th in the world.
Bruce C. Swaffield is a professor of graduate studies in journalism at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Va. In addition to working as a professional journalist for many years in South Florida, Swaffield has been teaching journalism and writing since 1983. E-mail him with questions or comments.