Singapore’s grip

Singapore’s grip

Wallace, Charles P

As regular readers of William Safire’s New York Times column well know, the commentator frequently turns his pen on Singapore’s authoritarian government. His July 10 column, for example, was headed “Honoring Repression,” and said Singapore’s leaders “represent old-fashioned European totalitarianism.”

In an unusual twist to the tale, Safire’s fans outside the United States never got to see the column because it was not published in Safire’s usual op-ed spot in the International Herald Tribune, the Paris-based newspaper owned jointly by The New York Times Company and The Washington Post Company.

The IHT has stopped printing articles critical of Singapore since it was hit with a libel suit by the country’s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, along with Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong and Lee’s son, Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsein Loong, over a fleeting reference in an editorial-page piece to “dynastic politics” in Singapore. In August, a Singapore judge awarded them $678,000 in damages plus their legal fees.

Many countries have tried to control how they are portrayed in the media, and some, especially developing countries, have succeeded partially by muzzling their domestic press. But none has succeeded so well with the outside world’s media as Singapore, a tiny island nation of only 3 million people situated at the tail end of the Malaysian peninsula. Through court cases, libel suits, restrictions on circulation, and limitations on reporters, the Singapore government has been able to intimidate some of the world’s largest media organizations, which would never accept such restrictions on their home turf.

What alarmed many press observers in the West about the IHT case was that the newspaper, which has a worldwide circulation of 190,000 and prints 17,000 a day in Singapore, offered no defense against the libel charges and abjectly apologized. “I think it is scandalous” says Stephen Barnett, a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley. “I think the IHT should instead get out of Singapore. They need to consider their readers worldwide who get a compromised form of journalism.”

A statement issued by the co-chairmen of the IHT, Katharine Graham of the Post and Arthur Ochs Sulzberger of the Times, said their newspapers had defended the principle of a free press on numerous occasions and that it is “ludicrous” to think they would set a different standard for a newspaper they own jointly. “But we publish in countries that have different laws and different standards and, on occasion, we face the kind of problems presented in Singapore,” the statement continues. “We will work to resolve these problems in the context of free and responsible journalism.”

The IHT libel case was the second attack on the paper by Singapore this year. In January, a Singapore judge held the paper’s publisher and Asia editor in contempt of court for publishing an op-ed piece by Christopher Lingle an American academic then working at the National University of Singapore Lingle had written that some Asian regimes, which he didn’t name, rely “upon a compliant judiciary to bankrupt opposition politicians.” The newspaper still faces a libel suit over this case, as well.

Readers in the West may wonder what all the fuss is about. Apart from the occasional diatribe by Safire Singapore receives generally high marks in the Western media for its level of economic development and low corruption. But the government takes an entirely different perspective; in fact, Prime Minister Goh listed attacks by hostile Western media as the second gravest threat facing the nation in his annual National Day rally speech in August. The Western media are considered important and potentially destabilizing in a country with a high level of literacy in English, one where, by comparison, the local press is openly pro-government.

Pressure on foreign publishers stepped up in 1986 when Singapore adopted a strict newspaper publishing law that gave the government the right not only to ban certain publications, such as Playboy, but to restrict the circulation of foreign-owned newspapers as economic punishment for unfavorable coverage.

Soon after the law was adopted Time magazine and The Asian Wall Street Journal had their circulations cut by 90 percent in Singapore–the Journal’s second most important market in Asia, Time’s fifth for refusing to publish longwinded letters from the government replying to critical articles. Soon the government slashed the circulation of another Dow Jones publication, the Far Eastern Economic Review, from 9,000 to 500 copies a week–a cut that amounted to nearly a fifth of its total circulation–for not publishing a reply to coverage of the arrest of Catholic activists. When the Review announced that it was pulling out of Singapore as a result, the government printed a pirate edition of the magazine.

Dow Jones & Company finally reached a settlement with Singapore last year, and the circulations of both publications have been allowed to rise, although limits are still set by the governmentcurrently 7,000 copies for The Asian Wall Street Journal. “We don’t consider ourselves back to normal,” says Urban C. Lehner, the editor of the Hong Kong-based daily. “We’d prefer the market to set the circulation.”

Far Eastern Economic Review, meanwhile, has recently accepted a condition in which its Kuala Lumpur correspondent visits once a month.

“There are no two ways about it, the news media have been intimidated through their pocketbook,” says Francis T. Seow, a former solicitor general of Singapore now living in Boston. “They are now more wary about the sensitivities of the Singapore government.”

Charles P. Wallace

Wallace served until recently as the Southeast Asia correspondent for the Los Angeles Times. In May, he was told by the Singapore government that his work permit would not be renewed beyond February because several of his articles about Singapore “were not balanced or accurate.”

Copyright Columbia University, Graduate School of Journalism Nov 1995

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