Singapore boasts of being a model of economic development but it is an example of what not to be in regard to freedom of the press, which is almost non-existent.
Despite the “Switzerland of the East” label often used in government propaganda, the city-state does not fall far short of China when it comes to suppressing press freedom. Citizens have to deal with a media machine that is tightly controlled by the government. Harassment by the authorities has steadily silenced the few independent news websites, such as The Online Citizen, which was forced to close at the end of 2021.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s People’s Action Party (PAP), which has ruled the city-state continuously since its independence in 1965, has a regulatory arsenal that allows the government to directly appoint members of the boards and the editors of the leading media outlets, which are required to enforce the government line. The authorities also have the power to decide, arbitrarily, whether or not a foreign media outlet’s publications or broadcasts are permitted in the city-state.
Under the penal code and sedition law – colonial era hangovers – promoting “ill-will and hostility” towards the government are punishable by imprisonment. Since the “anti-fake news” law’s adoption in 2019, the government can also “correct” online content if it deems it to be “false” or decides that it must “prevent a diminution of public confidence in (...) the government.” Finally, Singaporean media are banned from conducting any domestic political reporting “on behalf of a foreign principal” by the 2021 Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act, which nonetheless fails to explain what this phrase means.
Two large media groups own all of the major print, radio and broadcast media. One, MediaCorp, is owned by a state investment company. The other, Singapore Press Holdings, is supposed to be privately owned but its directors are appointed by the government. As a result, self-censorship is widespread, including within independent media, which – despite alternative forms of funding – are subjected to systematic judicial and economic harassment by the government.
Implicit red lines defining topics that are off limits – known as “out of bounds markers” – drastically restrict coverage of many subjects and are enforced by the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA), a censorship office controlled by the information ministry. It enables the government to impose its own version of the truth on the media on a diverse range of subjects including the death penalty, measures taken to combat Covid-19 and even the salary of the prime minister’s wife.
Bloggers and independent journalists often find themselves the targets of lawsuits brought directly by the prime minister or his aides that seek huge sums in damages for comments that annoy him. In a highly connected society, news and information providers who cross red lines may also be subjected to smear campaigns orchestrated by ruling party trolls, to the point that the victims often choose self-imposed exile if this option is available to them.