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Shaking off the fear of state censorship – youth hold out hope

SINGAPORE – Twenty-two-year-old Wendy (not her real name), on her first day as a Hospitality Intern in a budget tourist hostel in Chinatown in Singapore, speaks surprisingly frankly on a seemingly taboo subject, much to this writer’s relief.

Clad in a colorful traditional gown, the native Singaporean is taking a break from washing dishes and chatting with guests to talk about how free people and media in her country are to criticize the government – a subject which senior Singapore-based journalists were extremely reluctant to discuss with the writer.

“Actually I don’t think Singapore has much freedom of speech. I mean, compared to America, they don’t really have,” she says as we talk, surrounded by Western tourists having breakfast.

“In Singapore, they don’t allow protests, they don’t allow riots…you will get arrested. Singaporeans are generally quite well-behaved. We don’t do those things because we know the consequences,” she speaks, a smile on her face

Wendy’s candid views were a refreshing response after a week of frustrated efforts trying to know first-hand, the views of Singaporeans and media professionals on free speech in a country known for its heavy-handed treatment of public criticism of government policy.

“Sorry, we’re not mature enough to talk about that,” responded a teen whom the writer tried to query in a coffee shop in the Indian-dominated Bugis district.

Experienced media professionals were equally evasive. “I’m afraid I’m not available this month to assist you. In any case I rarely cover ‘sensitive’ areas,” a senior foreign journalist replied in response to an emailed request for an interview.

A Philippine national, working with a well-known Singaporean corporation, advised against trying to interview people on the streets on the subject, cautioning that this exposed one to the risk of being arrested on suspicion of being a terrorist.

  Since 1959, the People’s Action Party has won majority of the contested constituency seats in the Singapore Parliament. (Photo by Marlon Alexander, 2013 SEAPA Fellow) 


No right to claim ‘fourth estate’ status

In his recently published book, “OB Markers,” one of Singapore’s senior-most journalists, former Straits Times Editor-in-Chief Cheong Yip Seng emphasizes how Singapore’s rulers, starting with the nation’s founder and first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew have consistently refused to recognize the media’s watchdog role. “The political leadership holds fast to the principle that Singapore journalists have no right to be members of the fourth estate, a status enjoyed by the media in the West,” writes Mr. Seng.

“The PAP (ruling People’s Action party) case for this policy is simple: the media does not subject itself to popular will by contesting an election, therefore it cannot claim the mandate to speak on the public’s behalf,” he elaborates.

This is why media is “deemed to have interfered in politics”, which is unlawful, when it criticizes policies approved by Parliament.

In a 1971 speech at the International Press Institute General Assembly in Finland, Singapore’s first prime minister was quoted as saying “Freedom of the press, freedom of the news media must be subordinated to the overriding needs of the integrity of Singapore and to the primary purpose of an elected government.”

The 2013 ‘Freedom of the Press Report’ published by Freedom House rates Singapore media as “not free” and places it 153rd in a global press freedom ranking, tied with Iraq, Afghanistan and Qatar, the last being a country where criticizing either the government, the ruling family or Islam is illegal and punishable with a jail sentence.


Singapore judiciary, with its recent defamation rulings, is widely perceived as subservient and biased in favor of the the PAP-led government, Lee family and their associates. (Photo by Marlon Alexander, 2013 SEAPA Fellow)


Judicial intimidation

Over the decades, the Singapore government has silenced political foes and the media using the country’s courts. The elder Mr. Lee and his son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, have won public apologies and monetary damages in several defamation and libel cases.

Similar pressure tactics are now being used to silence criticism of authorities in blogs and social media.

Earlier this year, blogger Alex Au had to apologize and take down an article he wrote, alleging corruption in the sale of town council computer systems to a ruling party-owned company. In April this year, cartoonist Chew Pen Ee, popularly known as Leslie Chew, was arrested for alleged sedition over two cartoon strips published last year on the “Demon-cratic Singapore” Facebook page which describes itself as a “100 % fictional comic series about a country that does not exist” and has over 28,000 followers. In its December 17, 2012 notice to the cartoonist, the Attorney General Chambers (AGC) said the cartoon “scandalizes our Courts through allegations and imputations that are scurrilous and false."

Chew was released on bail on April 21. Three months later he apologized and took down the cartoons. The AGC has since withdrawn the charge.

Leading Singaporean press freedom advocate and Professor of Journalism at the Nanyang Technological University, Cherian George recognizes the harsh reality of the limits to media freedom in his country. “The main reason why they decided to just apologize was maybe because their lawyers advised them they had no chance at all to win their case,” he says. Battling out the charges in the courts to stand up for their principles would be financially ruinous for the defendants, especially in the absence of a wider ecosystem of supporting groups such as well-resourced free speech non-government organizations, he explains.

Self-exiled political blogger and disbarred Singapore lawyer Gopalan Nair who lives in the United States after renouncing citizenship and becoming a US national, is no stranger to the government’s use of the law to silence critics. Mr. Nair was jailed for three months after he wrote in a May 2008 blog post that a senior judge had “prostituted herself…by being nothing more than an employee of Mr. Lee Kuan Yew and his son” and ruling in their favour in their defamation case against an opposition politician.

“My passport was confiscated and I was held in solitary confinement for about eight days and interrogated every day, several times a day, many times in the early hours of the night,” he told the writer in an emailed reply. “I was mentally tortured with sleep deprivation. They tried to intimidate me into confessing. I did not.” Another contempt of court charge case was filed against him while he was in the final week of his sentence. Mr. Nair eventually apologized. However, he told the writer, he had “no intention in my mind of actually apologizing.” In his blog, Mr. Nair later retracted his apology.

“They isolate and marginalize critics simply by making sure that once you are identified as a critic and you persist, you will be denied jobs, denied a career and you will be harassed and victimized all your life. This naturally will dissuade anyone from becoming an open Singapore critic,” he said.


Singapore Democratic Party leader Chee Soon Juan has been previously bankrupted and barred from running for public office for his failure to pay $500,000 worth monetary claims to former Prime Ministers Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong in a defamation case for remarks he made in the 2001 elections against the said influential leaders. (Photo by Marlon Alexander, 2013 SEAPA Fellow)


Climate of fear and self-censorship

Such horror stories, say rights activists, have not only increased media self-censorship but also created a climate of fear among people, effectively preventing public criticism of government policies.

Braehma Mathi, executive director of Singapore-based human rights group MARUAH says that the use of defamation suits is “big psychological warfare, which we haven’t overcome yet because of all these horror stories of the past”.

In 2006, Chee Soon Juan, Secretary-General of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) was declared bankrupt and barred from running for public office, after he failed to pay S$500,000 in court-awarded damages to former Prime Ministers Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong over remarks Dr. Chee had made during the 2001 election campaign.

“It’s a difficult time for me and my family. But you have to remember that the only reason why autocrats are doing these things to you is that you have something important to say,” Dr. Chee told the writer.

The series of government-initiated defamation and contempt-of-court charges over critical online posts have bothered alternative website TR Emeritus columnist Gilbert Goh who admitted, in an interview, that bloggers like him do “self-censor whenever someone’s being sued.”  He does feel “enraged”, though, whenever he hears about bloggers being sued and forced to apologize.

Self-exiled blogger Mr. Nair knows very well the limitations faced by Singapore-based anti-government bloggers. “Singapore only goes after those whom they can bully within the island. They cannot bully anyone outside Singapore because their courts, unlike Singapore's, are not Kangaroo Courts,” he said.

The Real Singapore website tries to get around this by allowing anonymous user postings. “Self-censorship is an issue as people are still afraid to be critical (of the government). We at The Real Singapore try to overcome this by allowing users to post anonymously. Of course this also brings in other problems like some individuals not showing enough restraint or careful thought before posting, but we attempt to strike a good balance,” the website editors told the writer in an emailed response.

Speaking to the writer on condition of anonymity, a local journalist said there was “very little press freedom in Singapore” and self-censorship was common. “I know what’s going on because I work for the mainstream (media),” he said.

This was evident in media coverage of the June 2013 protests against new restrictive licensing restrictions imposed on Internet-based media by the State online regulator, Media Development Authority (MDA). Mainstream media coverage of the protest rally organized in Singapore’s Hong Lim Park by the #FreemyInternet bloggers group and attended by thousands of people, was “carefully angled” so as not to offend the government, the journalist said.

He does not, however, worry too much about working in a heavily-regulated environment. “You know where your limits are. If you feel stifled, then don’t work for the mainstream. I’m here to earn a living. (If I had been troubled enough), I wouldn’t have lasted so long,” he adds. He insists there is minimal government intervention in mainstream media compared to China.

Not all journalists are reconciled to the heavy-handed government regulation. “We can criticize the government here but we can only do it gently and that’s the difficult part of it. They only want to present one view but you want to present more views,” another local journalist told the writer, shaking his head.

The fear of criticizing authority extends to ordinary citizens. Back in the tourist hostel, the writer’s conversation with hospitality trainee Wendy was interrupted by the hostel manager wanting to know what we were discussing. When told it was about free speech issues in Singapore, the increasingly suspicious manager advised against taking the trainee’s views to be those of the hostel as “this is just her personal opinion”.  Wendy also sought an assurance that her identity would be kept confidential.


Internet enables and empowers citizens to speak up

The Internet has, however, made it possible for ordinary citizens to speak their minds on issues rarely discussed publicly in the past.

In a speech at the Asian Media Conference held in 1998 in the US, Singapore founder Lee recognized that with the emergence of Internet and 24-hour international news channels, governments can no longer stop reports disagreeable to them. Those who “try to fight the new technology will lose”, he had said.

In his book, Freedom From the Press published this year, media freedom advocate Prof. George says it is not easy for the Singapore government to shield itself from “watchdogs in the cyberspace.”

“Within a decade, it was clear that the internet was transforming Singapore’s political culture. The government could no longer so easily set the national agenda by silencing dissenters, who now had the ability to magnify their voices well beyond their economic or institutional heft,” he says.

Since its launch in 2006, The Online Citizen (TOC) has become a highly popular website in Singapore with an average of over 100,000 hits, TOC founder Choo Zheng Xi told the writer. The TOC gained recognition after it organized political discussion forums for poll candidates during the 2011 parliament election. 

Its popularity has soared with its coverage of socio-economic issues neglected by mainstream media. These included stories about poverty and homelessness in Singapore and slave-like working conditions of foreign domestic helpers, most of them women from Indonesia, the Philippines and Sri Lanka. The TOC’s sustained coverage of the issue forced the Ministry of Manpower to act.

For Mr. Xi, this was a manifestation of the growing power and influence of online media in Singapore.

Socio-political blogs like Alex Au’s Yawning Bread, Roy Ngerng’s The Heart Truths, Martin See Tong Ming’s Singapore Rebel, Gopalan Nair’s Singapore Dissident and websites such as TR Emeritus, Public House and The Real Singapore are also popular.

Facebook has also opened up the space for political satires such as Leslie Chew’s Demon-cratic Singapore featuring cartoon strips that indirectly criticize the government and its policies.

The We Believe In Second Chances website launched by an anonymous youth group is trying to raise awareness about the mandatory death penalty in Singapore.

A major event in Singapore’ alternative, online-based media landscape was the June 2013 launch of the Independent Singapore which aims to professionalize independent online media, according to the website’s Legal Advisor Alfred Dodwell.

Opposition parties have also been actively using cyberspace, particularly Facebook and YouTube, to reach out to voters and sidestep government control of mainstream media.

The Internet has been a welcome development for opposition parties in a country where election rallies are limited to government-designated areas over a nine-day-period.

Unlike in the past, when even a little-known candidate put up by the ruling party had an easy walk-in to Parliament, vigilant netizens have raised the bar on the acceptability of lawmaker aspirants. In his book, Prof. George tells how the PAP bid to woo young voters with a little-known, 27-year-old woman candidate backfired when a Facebook photo of her holding a new designer handbag in “girlish glee” went ‘viral’ with commentators describing her as an “immature social climber.”  

Cyberspace has also been used to mock self-censorship by the mainstream press such as by the defunct website Sintercom’s ‘Not The Straits Times’ section, which used to publish letters “mysteriously rejected” by Singapore’s leading newspaper The Straits Times.

On July 27 this year, the Facebook page Fabrications by the PAP, having  more than 1,000 ‘likes’, posted excerpts from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s 2004 oath-taking speech in which he emphasized an “open and inclusive Singapore” where people should “feel free to express diverse views, pursue unconventional ideas, or simply be different”.

The posting drew sharply critical comments with one visitor writing: “I think he has forgotten what he said.” Others labeled PAP as “cold and heartless” and wondered why, despite the prime minister’s failure to keep to his promise, “a significant number of Singaporeans still refuse to wake up”.

“Cyberspace has provided the third dimension to information sharing. We used to only read from one source, but now there are variant sources to read from which enhances one’s knowledge and perspective of what is right and wrong,” TR Emeritus columnist blogger Gilbert Goh told the writer. “When you only read from one controlled source, after a while you get sick and realise that they are all half-truths,” he adds.

Wendy, the hospitality trainee in the Chinatown tourist hostel says social media has indeed changed ordinary Singaporeans’ lives as it enables people to “share ideas and their feelings and your response as well”.


Youth standing up to state regulation

Wendy’s frankness on freedom-of-expression issues in Singapore gives rise to hopes that the country’s youth may be beginning to shed fear of state regulation.

A recent survey by the government-led public outreach committee Our Singapore Conversation, which queried 4,000 citizens found that a majority of Singaporeans prefer some media censorship in the public interest and rejected gay lifestyles, although the younger generation tends to be more liberal when it comes to freedom of expression.

In recent years, Singapore youth have been getting active in advocacy of the right to free speech. In 2008, student journalists in the Nanyang Technological University (NTU), working on the campus newspaper Nanyang Chronicle, staged a public protest on the campus after the university president ordered the paper to censor a news report on the visit of key opposition leader Chee Soon Juan to the campus.

The Chronicle editor also expressed his protest against censorship by setting up an independent NTU students-run website Enquirer.Sg. “On its first anniversary, he penned a stinging rebuke of the culture of censorship and self-censorship that he claimed had routinely neutered the Chronicle even before the Chee Soon Juan case,” Prof. George writes in his book.

Fast forward to August 9, 2013. Twenty-one-year-old Han Hui Hui who is facing a charge of defamation over emailed remarks to the Council for Private Education (CPE), Singapore’s statutory private sector education regulator, appeared at the Singapore National Day celebration in Hong Lim Park with thousands of others to share her views and make a demand for free speech in the country.

Unlike senior journalists, the young woman has courageously answered charges against her in court and has stood up to political pressure to apologize.  “I was only 21 years old and I was puzzled. How can the CPE, a government body threaten to sue me, a Singaporean citizen for defamation? How is asking questions defamatory? Where is our freedom of speech?” Han said boldly during her speech, much to the audience’s applause.

The video recording of her speech, uploaded to YouTube, has been viewed 5,865 times. Viewers’ comments praise her courage: “We need more people like her” and “Seeing the video, you made me feel there is still hope for Singapore. I’m impressed by your courageous stand against the Goliath threat".  

Two weeks after her Hong Lim Park speech, Ms. Hui Hui lambasted Prime Minister Hsien Loong on her Facebook page for his remarks that he was “flame proof” when it comes to nasty online comments against him. Made during an interaction with students after his August 18 National Day Rally speech, the prime minister’s remarks were widely reported in mainstream media.

“Then why am I being sued for defamation by the Singaporean government?” asked Ms. Hui Hui on her Facebook page.

Mr. Xi of The Online Citizen says that the fact that Singapore is a “very materialistic society” makes people wonder whether this creates an environment where citizens are apathetic and unwilling enough to assert their right to free speech.

For hospitality trainee Wendy the choice seems to be easy. Asked if she would have the “freedom to shop” or “freedom of expression”, she answers, after a short pause: “Shopping!” with a giggle. But she quickly adds that she has changed her mind and will go with the other option. “If the government will only listen to us, yes, I’ll choose the other one to be able to voice out. I just wish that the government would be more responsive,” she says.

The ‘economics’ of defamation 

In 2002, global business news agency Bloomberg made headlines when it issued a public apology and paid substantial damages for a contributor’s article which suggested nepotism in the appointment of then Singapore Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s daughter-in-law Ho Ching as Executive Director of state-owned investment company Temasek Holdings, Inc.

The Bloomberg apology acknowledged that the article implied then prime minister Goh Chok Tong put the Lee family’s interests above those of the country in Ho’s appointment and that her husband Lee Hsien Loong, and father-in-law were guilty of nepotism. The apology added that the writer could have implied that Ms. Ho’s appointment was made not on merit “but in order to indulge the interests of the Lee family or for some other corrupt motive.”

''We admit and acknowledge that these allegations are false and completely without foundation,'' said the Bloomberg apology published on its website and subscription service. The offending story was also removed.

With the Lees having won several defamation cases against opposition politicians and media organizations, involving large monetary compensation, Bloomberg’s apology and the S$595,000 it paid in damages to the Lees without the case even reaching the courts, came as no surprise to media observers who said it actually was good economic sense.

Bloomberg joined a long list of international media giants – Financial Times, Far Eastern Economic Review, The Economist, Asian Wall Street Journal, Time and Asia Week – which have been at the losing end of expensive legal defamation actions by Singapore’s rulers. In 2010, the International Herald Tribune apologized to former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew and his son and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, paying US$114,000 in damages, rather than trying to contest a defamation charge. In 1994, the Tribune had paid a record US$678,000 in damages to the Lees in another out-of-court settlement over an allegedly defamatory article.

Leading Singapore media freedom advocate Professor Cherian George says Singapore’s courts tend to disregard the standard defense against defamation that it is justified in the public interest. Based on previous judgments, he says, the courts in Singapore tend to side with the public official’s right to protect his or her reputation rather than need for open and vigorous public debate. “It’s very hard to find an argument to defend your client. In Singapore, the public interest argument has not been taken seriously by the courts,” he says.

In most cases, lawyers simply advise defendants to apologize and reach an out-of-court settlement. Nowadays, foreign publications find it makes economic sense to apologize and pay damages rather than contest the charges in court, says Prof. George. A prolonged legal battle, which they know they will almost certainly lose, will be far more expensive.

In a September 2002 report in The Australian, Sydney lawyer and journalist Stuart Littlemore who has studied several defamation cases in Singapore, said that no foreign publisher has successfully defended a libel action against a Singapore politician and when these leaders win their case, the average monetary compensation awarded is usually S$450,000, which is 12 times that when the defendant is a Singapore citizen.

In 1988, Far Eastern Economic Review paid US$175,000 after the court ruled the magazine had defamed the Lees. Eleven years later, the Review paid US$290,000 again to the Lees in an out-of-court settlement for an allegedly defamatory 2006 article. The Economist has paid a total of US$352,000 in damages in two separate defamation cases brought by the Singapore government.

International news organizations also do not want to risk expulsion from Singapore, a key global business and financial news hub, says Prof. George.  “For most foreign journalists and most foreign media operating in this region, we are one of the easiest countries to work from. I don’t think they feel that’s a problem.”

“Also, what’s happening is that the foreign media has become more commercial. The nature of foreign media has also changed. In the past, before the 1990s, these decisions of whether to challenge authoritarian practices in Southeast Asia were more of a professional and principled decision. So you fight on principle,” he added.

“Now, it’s more of a business decision. They ask themselves, ‘Does it make economic sense?’ Does it fit in with our future plan for expansion in Asia,” Prof. George explained.

A memo from Bloomberg’s New York-based chief editor Matthew Winkler to its news staff in Singapore after the agency’s apology, expressed concern that the welfare of the company’s 180 employees in Singapore was “at risk” and that the agency’s 3,000 subscribers in Singapore “might lose the Bloomberg service.”

A 2009 Court of Appeals decision upholding a High Court ruling, which had stated that “only Singapore citizens are entitled to enjoy constitutional free speech”, seems to have made it even more difficult for foreign media outfits to defend themselves in defamation cases.

Defamation is punishable with up to two years of imprisonment or a fine or both under Singapore’s Defamation Act and Penal Code. 


This article was produced for the 2013 Southeast Asian Press Alliance (Seapa) fellowship program. Marlon Alexander, an editorial director for the Filipino Connection, is one of the 2013 fellows. This year’s theme is Freedom of Expression Challenges to Internet Government in Southeast Asia.