Singapore's press freedom ranking is "absurd and divorced from reality"

K. SHANMUGAM

Extract from the speech by Minister for Law K Shanmugam at the Opening Cocktail Reception of the Seasonal Meeting of NYSBA International Section, 26 October 2009.

If you look at Singapore in 1959 when we became a (self-governing) state and in 1965 when we were kicked out of the Federation and became independent, you will see a city that was poor, in the third-world, with no natural resources, surrounded by Malaysia in the north, which had just kicked us out, and Indonesia in the south. What can you do to survive as a city, many people warned us.

911 is a tragedy but it was never an existential threat for the US. For us, when World War II ended, the communists declared war on us. That involved thousands of highly-trained armed young men and women who were ideologically motivated, financed by communist countries. As many of you would recall, in the 1950s and 60s, there was a time when people thought that a large part of the world could be swept through with Communism. We were at the frontlines. And the British had to deal with that. They put in the predecessor to the Internal Security Act. We inherited it and added to it. There was paranoia, as you can understand, because of the existential threats. The communist threat, the threat of being kicked out of the Federation and the fact that our unemployment was high.

A large part of our economy was dependent on the British bases here. You can imagine the economic challenges. We needed to move the population from a third-world mindset, with most of the population being people who came here as immigrants with no idea of nationalism, and bringing them forward into the 20th century and developing economically while ensuring security and stability. Those were huge challenges. I invite the audience to think about this point. Name a country that became independent in the 1950s, post-colonial, post-Second World War, name me one country that has done better, better than Singapore, despite the challenges.

And when you talk about human rights, if you take stability for granted, if you take education, healthcare for granted, if you take economic progress for granted, as the US had taken all these for granted in the 20th century because all the bases for development had been set.

If you take your own security for granted, then you start thinking forward about the finer aspects of human rights. But first you must secure the base and make sure that the country is safe to move along. That was the part that most countries were involved in, in the third world, post-Second World War, and unfortunately, most of them did not succeed well in that.

Our success is that we took the institutions that the British gave us and we built upon them. We have a judiciary that is stronger today and more respected. It is a truly great institution that is ranked highly internationally. If you look at the institutions, whether it is civil service or the judiciary, or any other in Singapore, all these are free of corruption and they are efficient. None of this happens by an accident. None of this can take place with an absent rule of law. None of this can take place by controlling people’s minds. We have 115 per cent connectivity and you walk out there and you can get 5,500 international journals, it’s hard to talk about controlling people’s minds. But that is the perception that you might get of Singapore if you have only read certain American newspapers, without having being here.

If you read about Singapore in some American newspapers, you may not get the picture of prosperous modern city state, with strong adherence to the Rule of Law. Instead if you didn’t know Singapore and only read these journals, you may believe that we are a repressive, state that controls the people’s thoughts (as if that is possible in a modern, successful, wired and internationally connected city like Singapore), and that we unfairly target the press.

Our approach on press reporting is simple: The press can criticise us, our policies. We do not seek to proscribe that. But we demand the right of response, to be published in the journal that published the original article. We do not accept that they can decide whether to publish our response. That irks the press no end. If the press cross the line from attacking our policies and make allegations of fact against someone – that that person is corrupt or if they make some other personal factual attack is made, then there will be a libel suit – and the factual accusation must be proven. If allegation is proven, the Plaintiff will lose the case and pay legal costs. Otherwise the accuser pays damages and legal costs.

Likewise in the political arena. We have no problems with tough debate, criticism of policies. But we believe that such debate should avoid untrue and scurrilous personal attacks. Personal reputation is no less valuable than personal property. Public discourse does not have to descend into the gutter.

If untrue statements are made that a person is corrupt or that he lied, or that he tried to help my family or friends, there will be a suit. Let the accuser prove it. But if it is said that someone is stupid or that policies make no sense and the policies are attacked vigorously, then you can’t sue. There is public prerogative, to comment on policies. In response it will be sensible to defend the policies and ignore the attacks on intellect.

Over the years this has resulted in the Government and Ministers having several tussles with newspapers – the Wall Street Journal, Far Eastern Economic Review and so on. The press are not used to this anywhere else in the world. And of course it will be no surprise – they don’t like it one bit. So every Law suit is met with the same reaction – we are out to silence the press. That feeling has been pervasive and has, in my view, coloured the general reporting on Singapore. When I was in private practice, I have dealt with some libel cases. I have looked at some of the articles, which were the subject of a law suit: it would have been perfectly possible to have been deeply critical of government policies (often the central thrust of the articles) without the addition of totally unnecessary remarks on some form of corruption.

How objective is the criticism of Singapore in relation to press freedom? I took some trouble to go through with you how we rank on various economic, governance and quality of life indices. Is it possible to have a modern, successful, open economy if the people are not empowered and educated? I will share with you something that struck me as quite absurd and divorced from reality: there is an organization called Reporters Without Borders. It comes out with a ranking of countries on press freedom. In 2008 they ranked us 144 out of 173 countries, somewhere below Ethiopia, Sudan, Kazahkstan, Venezuela, Guinea, Haiti, and so on.

Today’s International Herald Tribune had a story on Guinea. The Headlines were “Ousting Guinea’s brutal junta”. The first paragraph read as follows:-

“One month ago over 150 people were gunned down by soldiers in the West Africa country of Guinea. Women were raped on the streets, and opposition leaders were locked up. This was the response of a brutal military junta to a group of brave citizens who dared to hold a peaceful pro-democracy rally.”

We are apparently below Guinea on Press Freedom.

This year, we have behaved better – so we moved up to Rank 133. Below Kenya (which saw riots following a disputed election), and Congo (which continues to struggle with the aftermath of an armed conflict that has claimed more than 5m lives), Venezuela, and so on. But we are ranked above North Korea and Eritrea.

If you look at a different ranking, the Freedom House rankings for 2009, we are ranked below Haiti, Colombia, Kenya, Moldova, Guinea, Pakistan and so on. We are 151 out of 195. We are ranked together with Iraq.

These are all countries which are trying to progress. My point is not that we are in any way inherently superior to them – the question is whether a truly objective assessment will give us such a ranking. Our approach has therefore to been to ignore the criticisms which make no sense – and we continue to do better. The people of Singapore also know better. Sixty-five per cent voted for the Government at the last General Elections. And the investors who put in billions every year know better as well. They do not have to come here. We do not have any natural resources. Our main selling point is that there will be good value added when they invest here, their investments will be protected, and that we are a stable democracy.

  • For RSF's Press Freedom Index, click here.

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