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Strategy, not Force, Allows Singapore to Control the Media, Visiting JMSC Professor says

Visiting Singapore writer and academic tells a Foreign Correspondents' Club audience that arguments about Singapore's "good governance" are not sufficient to explain the ruling party's decades-long hold on power and its ability to suppress press freedoms. Rather, a combination of factors such as market forces and self-restraint, e.g., more use of civil law, have become the preferred tools to curtail media freedoms.

For many Singapore watchers and journalists, a big question continues to be how a non-totalitarian regime is able to stifle press freedoms in today’s globalized world and still stay in power.

Dr. Cherian George (right)

Dr. Cherian George (right)

Some say it’s because Singapore has “good government” and a successful track record of delivering to the people. But Dr. Cherian George, a Singaporean writer and academic and visiting professor at the Journalism and Media Studies Centre, told a packed audience at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club October 8 that these explanations fell short.

“Other countries are doing better than Singapore without sacrificing a vibrant political scene,” he said. “So there’s no positive correlation between quality of life and lack of press freedom.” Dr. George, who is also author of Freedom From The Press: Journalism and State Power in Singapore, offered some alternative explanations.

For one, he said, Singapore’s government created a market system whereby investors in media outlets could profit handsomely within an authoritarian environment. “The government diluted the power of media barons, not through nationalization, but by requiring public ownership,” Dr. George explained. “Shareholders’ desire for profits worked hand in hand with the government’s need to restrict press freedoms.”

Another reason is that Singapore has adopted a strategy of “calibrated coercion,” whereby the government chooses self-restraint or tools such as civil defamation lawsuits to control the press, rather than resorting to the more heavy-handed tools of the Internal Security Act. Similarly, deploying plainclothes police instead of armed security forces when dealing with street demonstrations “robs protestors of their moral outrage and avoids headlines,” said Dr. George.

A final factor has been the government’s successful use of “networked hegemony,” through which it responds to the people’s needs even as it fends off political competition. As long as most people feel their needs are addressed, they are less likely to care about press freedoms, Dr. George said.

He said he sees no sign of traditional media restrictions lessening, and while there is little censorship of online media, he predicted that the government will try to pre-empt its further growth rather than restrict the freedoms that Singaporeans are already enjoying.