Singapore’s government likes to be number one. If you want proof, look through any speech by a government minister. They will invariably reel off a list of examples of the city-state coming top of some global ranking or other on the ease of doing business or quality of life.
Hence the frustration on the part of K Shanmugam, the newly promoted home affairs minister, at the censorious city-state’s lowly ranking in the press freedom rankings produced by Reporters without Borders and others.
In a speech in New York on Thursday, which the journalism.sg website described as the “government's most detailed and robust defence in years of its position on the role of the press”, he bemoaned the fact that media freedom organisations rank Singapore below Colombia, Guinea, Haiti, Kenya and Pakistan.
In Guinea, democracy activists have recently been gunned down and female opposition campaigners raped, so how can Singapore rank below Guinea, he ponders incredulously.
Shanmugam appears not to understand that press freedom indices rank press freedom, not military repression.
More broadly, it seems that he cannot make up his mind whether he wants to defend Singapore’s very restrictive media environment – using the old Asian values argument favoured by Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew – or promote Singapore’s ambitions to be a global media hub.
At one stage, he starts bragging about the Singapore government’s impeccable record of winning libel actions against the world’s leading news organisations:
I suspect that our rankings are at least partly due to the fact that we take an uncompromising attitude we take [sic] on libel – and the fact that we have taken on the almost every major newspaper company. Such audacity that tiny Singapore has.
Then he turns course, insisting that “we don’t shut out the world”:
We have more than 5,500 foreign newspapers and publications in circulation in Singapore. There are close to 100 TV channels carried on our cable networks. Nearly 200 correspondents from 72 foreign media organisations are based in Singapore.
Similarly, he says that the media in Singapore should be politically neutral and “should report fully and fairly what goes on… can probe, ask inconvenient questions, and expose wrong-doing.”
But he attacks the so-called western concept of the media as a fourth estate, holding the government to account. News organisations are fallible, unaccountable and open to influence from their owners and commercial partners, he says.
He’s right about that, of course. But when he poses the following question – “Do parts of the media act as campaign arms of politicians, peddle half-truths and present very biased perspectives?” – this concern surely applies more to Singapore’s homogeneous government-controlled press then to plural Western media environments.
Perhaps the greatest irony of his speech is that many of his criticisms of the Western liberal approach to the media are drawn from commentaries in the self-same leading newspapers that he is so proud of Singapore having sued.
It all goes to show that those who fear criticism the most also crave recognition.