Singapore Media Watch

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Asian nations must find own political, media models: PM

The Straits Times
7 October 2006
Peh Shing Huei

The above article by ST journalist Peh Shing Huei can be considered at best an "unedited" transcript of PM Lee's speech at the 7th Asian-European Editors' Forum. There was no input, processing or analysis from the writer at all.

The forum was organized by Germany's Konrad Adenauer Stiftung research foundation and the Straits Time. The foundation is a political foundation focused on the employment of political education to promote peace, freedom and justice.

Though not stated explicitly in the article, we can expect audience in the forum to comprise of journalists, policy-makers, government and corporate leaders from Singapore and Europe.

The gist of PM Lee's message can be summarized as follows:

1. Liberal democracy and free press is not compatible with Singapore.

2. The internet is not a reliable source of information compared to the mainstream media.

3. Europe should play a bigger role in Asia.

In the aftermath of the IMF-WB meetings where Singapore's reputation had taken a beating in the foreign press for the banning of 27 civil activists, PM Lee appeared to be doing some damage control here to defend and justify his government's actions.

The basis of his justification lies in the often quoted vague argument employed by past Singapore leaders that Western democracy and a free press is not compatible with Singapore.

"But what worked for the West - liberal democracy - may not be the best option for Asia", he cautioned.

"Unthinkingly importing institutions from other countries and grafting them into the local political system can end up doing more harm than good."

What exactly is "liberal democracy"? Depending on one's upbringing, values and beliefs, it is not surprising to have different interpretations. PM Lee did not elaborate on his perception of "liberal democracy". He also chose not to specify what "harm" it can do to Singapore.

As an advocate of greater "openness" for Singapore, it is baffling that PM Lee did not go into detail on how he intend to build an "open" and "inclusive" society for Singapore without learning or adopting from other countries.

He countered by providing examples in Thailand and Indonesia where "Western-style democracy had not always led to stable, legitimate and effective government".

Thailand's political woes stem primarily from the previous PM Thaksin's abuse of his position to entrench himself in power and possibly to enrich himself through dubious transactions now under investigation by the Thai courts. How can the failings of a person be blamed squarely on a system?

Indonesia has progressed remarkably in many areas under President Bambang Yudhyono's leadership most notably the ending of the 30-year civil war in the province of Aceh which seems an improbability under Suharto. Democractic reforms have also led to greater accountability, checks and balances and participation from ordinary citizens. Either PM Lee is not unaware of these facts or he chose to ignore it.

PM Lee's choice of Thailand and Indonesia as examples of why "Western-style" democracy will fail in Singapore is inappropriate given the wide chasm between our society, standard of living and theirs. Hong Kong and Taiwan which have a predominant Chinese population, modern economies with high GDP and an established middle class will make better examples. Both countries have a robust democracy, a relatively free press and a proactive civil society. We don't see them sliding into chaos, instability and economic depression.

The next section of PM Lee's speech is intended solely for Singaporeans as he takes pot-shots at the emergence of the internet as an alternative media. Rather than acknowledging the presence and growth of such media, he proceed instead to attack its credibility and cast doubts on the authencity of its reports:

"The challenge for every newspaper and society is to maintain public debate on a high plane and counter the "half-truths and untruths" of the cyberworld. "

We are curious to know what PM Lee meant exactly by "high plane". Does it refers to moral authority or legitimacy? Whatever it is, PM Lee probably believes that public debate should only be conducted through government-sanctioned sources. The hidden message to Singaporeans is this: the internet should not become their primary source of news as it is full of lies and untruths and only the state media has the authority to disseminate news which is objective, balanced and credible.

No one person, organization or media have a monopoly of truth. What we read or see is always a reflection of what goes through tainted glasses wore by the orginator.Truth can be selected, distorted or shaped to serve the hidden agendas and vested interests of various groups.

In order for real public debate to take place, there must be pluralism and balance in the media. Allowing for diverse views to be represented freely without any fear or restraint will better reflect the actual sentiments of citizens. Serving only to "report" the government's plans and policies with little feedback from citizens doesn't quite constitute "debate".

This negative protrayal and condemnation of alternative online media as untruth, unreliable and even dangerous by the state media will continue in the days to come. After the PM, other ministers and MPs will take the heed and step forward to reinforce the message. Once repeated long enough, it will be perpetuated and eventually imbibed as "truth" by a Singaporean who derives his news only from the mainstream media.

The misconception that "Western democracy and a liberal press" is not suitable for Singapore has already been deeply ingrained in the Singaporea psyche. Whether the government will suceed this time in influencing Singaporeans' perception of the alternative media in an era where information can be produced by anybody at any place and time remains to be seen.

The challenge will be formidable if not for the fact the mainstream local media still enjoy a near monopoly of news. However, as young IT-savvy Singaporeans become more widely read and exposed to non-traditional sources of uncensored news, can their appetite and trust for objective journalism be quenched satisfactorily by Singapore newsmakers?


  • well said, clap clap!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:52 PM  

  • well said, clap clap!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:52 PM  

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