Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The difference between red tape and repression

Fellow Asian Correspondent blogger Clement Tan has taken this account of my forced exit from Singapore to task, suggesting that I was a victim of over-cautious bureaucrats rather than government repression.

Suffice to say that his blog deserves a good fisking.

The case of Benjamin Bland, a fellow correspondent here at, might not be surprising to anybody familiar with the press situation in Singapore. But, without being seen to be defending The Establishment, I just want to say that his whole experience with Singapore's Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts (MICA) reeks more of bureaucratese than anything else.

Sure, his account illustrates the usual argument relating to the lack of press freedoms in Singapore, but I suspect it has got to do with the chronic "kiasi-ness" (literally means fear of death in Singapore colloquial-speak, can be used to refer to literal or metaphorical death) embedded in the hearts and minds of government bureaucrats. They are gate keepers, so when middle management bureaucrats don't know quite how to handle something "new" or something that carries shades of grey, it's better to err on the side of caution.

I don't disagree that Singaporean civil servants are often fearful of making the wrong decision in the eyes of their political masters. But, ultimately, they are paid to carry out the will of those political masters. If the officials at the Ministry of Information or Ministry of Manpower feel that it is risky to renew the visa of a resident foreign correspondent then they are reflecting the view of a government that is paranoid about independent journalism.

Clement also overlooks the fact that the Ministry of Information supported my first visa application in 2008. Surely, then, the easy decision would be to renew the visa (as is standard practice) rather than to reject it and risk some unpleasant blowback.

In addition, I should note that I was not just dealing with low-level bureaucrats. I made representations about my case reasonably high up the civil service food chain but to no avail.

Case in point from the Asia Sentinel article:

Over a cup of coffee at their office in a former colonial police station - possibly the world's most stylish propaganda ministry - they probed me politely about my background and intentions in Singapore. They were friendly but seemed perplexed about the concept of freelance journalism, even though it forms the backbone of much foreign reporting these days.

"If we have a problem with something that you've written, who can we speak to?"

Obviously, I told them, you can talk to the editor of whichever publication has commissioned any particular story.

"But what if we just don't like what you're writing in general?"

The questions I italicized were the exact questions my sources threw back at me in the early days when I told them Campus Observer, the campus online paper I co-founded in 2006 at the National University of Singapore (NUS), is an independent news outfit... and that we were answerable to nobody, other than ourselves and our readers. It was interesting, just as it was frustrating, that people, from the students' union to the various offices in NUS, seemed to think there had to be a "higher power" accountable for press "responsibility."

True, we were new kids on the block then... and it is impossible to tell whether they were reacting so cautiously because we were new, or because the concept of an "independent press" was new to them, or whether they felt threatened by that whole "free press thing" which generally tends towards speaking truth to power. But I also learnt it's also perhaps not fair to expect people in Singapore, socialized to be accustomed to a state-controlled press as necessary for "social stability" (whatever that means) to be able to see the benefits of a critical press - especially since Singaporeans tend to think of the chaos of the American press as the default model of the free press.

Clement, you appear to be equivocating here. Do you believe that a state-controlled press is necessary for social stability in Singapore or not? In any case, all I sought to do in Singapore was go about the business of reporting, not to tell Singaporeans how their press ownership structure should be reformed.

This is misguided especially when we are in a position to forge our own press culture - and I believe with the Internet, it has been growing. I don't need to repeat Amartya Sen's arguments refuting the whole thing about free press not being endemic to "Asian" culture. But the dangers of repressing press freedoms is far greater because the end products are probably going to be partisan yelling - not good for civil, social and political dialogue because people just want to speak and not listen to one another.

This can't be good for Singaporeans and any nation-building project. Press culture takes time to cultivate. It might be good for the party if the PAP government continues to maintain its strict press controls, but it wouldn't be good for the country. There is a reason why so many top journalists and media companies choose to base themselves or their regional headquarters in Bangkok or even KL, instead of Singapore. The few who set up base in Singapore are usually very "sensitive" when it comes to local news.

Do you think this self-censorship by the foreign media in Singapore is a good thing? Doesn't it help create a misleading impression of Singapore in the outside world? Wouldn't it be better if readers were aware of the climate of self-censorship in which the stories they read about Singapore are produced?

So where does it leave the rest of us who are free press junkies in Singapore? I honestly don't know. I am not saying Ben Bland is wrong... neither am I disputing the fact that the press isn't "free" in Singapore. It is important to call out the lack of a free press when such an incident happens, but I do wonder it is maybe more useful to stop harping on the lack of press freedoms and just get down to the grim and hard work of shoe leather reporting... to just tell the many yet-untold stories in a fair and balanced manner. And if a foreigner doesn't get to do it, maybe the numerous local sites can start doing the kind of neighborhood beat reporting that characterize American local news outlets?

Perhaps you are unfamiliar with my work but for the last year, pretty much all I did was "get down to the grim and hard work of shoe leather reporting", whether it was looking into the resurgence of farming in Singapore or investigating the causes behind the rise in loan shark violence.

It was precisely this kind of important yet straight-forward reporting that seems to have irked the Singapore government. Rather than "harping" on about press freedom, as you put it, I would much prefer to be back in Singapore reporting on other stories. Unfortunately, I have been prevented from doing so by the government.

Having been forced out, I feel it is important that people know how the Singapore government really treats journalists. Especially given the law minister's recent insistence that Singapore does not proscribe press criticism and that the city-state's low rankings in press freedom indices are "quite absurd and divorced from reality".

If you look at all the journalists - both Singaporeans and foreigners - who have been at the sharp end of some form of government reprisal, most were merely reporting rather than criticising.

By kicking these reporters out of Singapore or forcing them out of their jobs because of its intense paranoia about the press, it is therefore the government that makes media freedom an issue, not the journalists.

1 comment:

  1. It's pretty lame for someone to blame this sort of thing on "bureaucrats". As you say, they're employed by the government and ultimately answerable to the government.

    If Singapore had real freedoms, and some wayward bureaucrat was exceeding his or her powers, you'd have simply been able to go to your local court or government representative for redress.

    That you couldn't highlights that Singapore is not a free country at all.