As countries across the globe commemorate World Press Freedom Day (http://en.unesco.org/events/world-press-freedom-day-2016), it is noteworthy to remember two events this year that touched on the issue of press freedom in Singapore.
Singapore is not renowned for its indulgence on free speech and press anatomy. Lee Kuan Yew and other members of his government have famously pursued rigorous legal actions against errant press with excellent results. This has arguably kept the press in line as it practiced self-censorship to avoid any potential legal liabilities.
As a result of control that can be perceived as overtly stringent, Singapore’s reputation in the sphere of civil liberties has always been low. Indeed, Singapore routinely leads the list from the bottom where press freedom is concerned. Just a few weeks ago, Singapore achieved the dubious honour of dropping further on the World Press Freedom Index (https://theindependent.sg.sg/singapore-drops-to-154th-spot-in-world-press-freedom-index/) – Just in time for World Press Freedom Day!
It is fairly uncontroversial to therefore come to the conclusion and state that Singapore is not known for its tolerance of an overly independent press.
The incident that triggered the most coverage this year was the public spat between Ms Lee Wei Ling and both her brother, PM Lee and The Straits Times. Most Singaporeans would be familiar with what many have dubbed as a dynasty saga akin to a TCS drama serial between members of the most powerful family in Singapore (https://theindependent.sg.sg/i-always-try-to-stick-by-the-truth-lee-wei-ling/).
Ms Lee, being a member of the family that has arguably been the chief arbiters of press restrictions in Singapore has publicly accused The Straits Times of gagging her freedom of speech! While the contents of the accusation is hardly surprising, the manner in which it was aired for all and sundry was shocking to most Singaporeans. Singaporeans were enthralled as heated exchanges transpired between a former editor of The Straits Times and the increasingly embattled Ms Lee.
Irony aside, she raised an important issue that has not been debated so publicly and openly in many years – that of press censorship and curtailment. In a time of unprecedented media news activity via the Internet, many occurrences of public faux pas and failures have come to light. Have previous incidences of negligence been covered up?
Clearly, the press plays a crucial role in maintaining the publics’ right to information and accountability. Against the backdrop of the government‘s cat and mouse games with trying to regulate the online community enters Lee Wei Lin all guns blazing, publicly attacking the mainstream media and taking to Facebook to air her grievances. In so doing, she has given the lack of press freedom in Singapore a face and a voice while endorsing the very forum that the government at times tries to suppress!
The incident that provided much fodder for coffee shop gossip has gone quiet. It would appear that the wildfire died down as quickly as it was ignited. While the embers are no longer glowing, the smoke still lingers. Ms Lee may have gone silent, but most people have been reminded of the reality of press censorship in Singapore. If a member of the powerful Lee family faces censorship, what more the rest of us mere mortals?
Contrast the Lee debacle with another citizen that has caused offence to the powers be – Roy Ngerg who as of early this year has agreed to pay $150,000 in damages to PM Lee for defamation over monthly installments that will begin on 1 April 2016! And no, it is not an April fool’s joke! (https://theindependent.sg.sg/roy-ngerng-to-pay-150k-damages-to-pm-lee-hsien-loong-over-a-17-year-period/)
As far as I am aware, Ms Lee has not suffered any punitive measures as a result of her candour. Why the different treatment between the two offenders of press sensitivities?
I don’t want to downplay the point that Ms Lee has made. Indeed, she has through her position of privilege publicised an important concern that many of us average Joes will never be able to raise unscathed. It is also not her personal fault that she has not faced any official censure from the powers be. But yet, it is glaringly obvious that citizen Ngerng has not been treated in the same way as sister Lee!
Press freedom and it being a vital ingredient to accountability and transparency is not in contention. Press independence being limited in Singapore is also regarded by many as an open secret. Ms Lee has therefore done us a favour by bringing this white elephant into the public domain allowing for it to be more robustly discussed than before.
In his own way Ngerng has tried to do the same for Singaporeans. Yet without the same connections as Ms Lee, Ngerng has been subjected to a defamation suit and will spend 17 years paying damages!
While press freedoms are limited in Singapore, the Ms Lee saga has created yet another layer in the free speech lasagna. Not only has she through her status as both a writer and a member of the ruing family, lent credibility to the camp that routinely accuses Singapore of press restrictions, she has also unwittingly highlighted the inequality in how punishment for errant writers are meted out.
As Singaporeans continue to remember the importance of free speech, it also bears remembering that press freedom is an important tool to democracy that should be sacrosanct. This is a right that belongs to everyone – not just the connected and powerful.
The stories of Lee Wei Ling and Roy Ngerng – 'How connected you are' seems to be a factor in how press freedom is applied here