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How long can Singapore continue with present media model?

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The PM was recently questioned about Singapore’s ranking in the press freedom index. He said the country’s media model has worked but was also changing with the coming on of the new media.

The Independent Singapore speaks to former NMP Siew Kum Hong on whether Singapore can continue with this model. Here are his answers to this and other questions.

Do you think Singapore’s media model can continue the way it has been?

I don’t think Singapore can afford to continue with this same media model, not if we want to build the society and economy that we all agree we need. I think there is broad consensus that we need to build a society that is resilient, independent and caring (amongst other things), and the economy needs to become more productive and high-value which inevitably means more innovation and creativity.

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But these developments are dependent on an environment that allows and supports transparency, free flow of information and robust debate, all of which are inconsistent with the current media model which is heavily premised on the existence of official narratives and government control of public discourse.

I’ve always maintained that the Government’s approach, which seeks to allow freedom and creativity in the economic realm while maintaining control (albeit with increasing latitude thanks to the Internet) in the political sphere, is inherently unworkable. It is an artificial distinction. Either we will not achieve the former, or the latter will fail spectacularly. If we really want to become the Singapore that we say we need to be, then the media model will have to change.

What needs to change?

Media regulation must be liberalised. Overt controls like those in the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act should be repealed. The Government should realise that it is in its enlightened self-interest to allow news operations to run independently and cease to interfere in newsroom operations.

Publishers must be allowed to put in place professional news editors who are good at their jobs, regardless of whether they are trusted or endorsed by the Government. The MDA must be more transparent and open with its regulation of new media, and repeal the media regulation scheme introduced last year, or at least significantly modify it so that it ceases to be arbitrary and inconsistent in its treatment of different media outlets.

Symbolic measures can go a long way as statements of intent. A very good example would be to lift the gazetting of The Online Citizen as a political association under the Political Donations Act, followed by a public commitment not to use that Act against media outlets in future (I stepped down from TOC early last year).

Where do you think this change is likely to come from?

Unfortunately, I don’t think that the Government will proactively make these changes. The PAP is too accustomed to control. While I think some parts of the party understand that these changes are necessary, they will probably not prevail. And so it will take a cataclysmic event, so to speak, for the PAP to understand that it will need to make these changes, which by definition may well come too late for the PAP.

So these changes will come, either if the PAP loses power or comes very close to losing it, or if the Government realises that it needs radical changes to successfully build the society and economy it needs to build to continue to deliver results for the people

Why do you think the government and the media are reluctant to fix the model?

As I’ve mentioned, the PAP is too accustomed to control. As for the mainstream media companies (SPH and MediaCorp), the current controls mean that they are essentially a duopoly, and so the controls serve their near-term financial interests, even though the controls may be irreversibly damaging to their journalistic brands as media outlets with strong editorial integrity

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