counter Is Singapore a police state?

What characterizes Singapore's political system is the constant query, worry and anxiety among the majority of the citizens, foreigners and observers that individuals and groups will get into trouble with the police and the political authorities for challenging the political status quo. Such anxiety is based on repeated examples of political challengers consistently being found guilty of contravening the system of tight and restrictive laws that govern people in the city-state.

Saturday, July 17, 2004

Govt Ownership Of Singapore Media - Facts & Figures Revealed


"Freedom of the press, freedom of the news media, must be subordinated to the overriding needs of the integrity of Singapore, and to the primary purposes of an elected government," said Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who ruled Singapore from 1959 to 1990.(Endnote 1)

With a population of around 3.1 million, Singapore is one of the smallest nation states in the world. With a high per capita GDP of US$12,300, the economic miracle of the city is often regarded as the role model of other countries.

The city is said to be unique, with four official languages as Malay, Chinese (Mandarin), Tamil and English. The multi-racial and multi-religious nature of the city is often regarded as the justification for the government's tight monitoring of the mass media.

Media ownership in Singapore is carefully regulated and foreigners are reminded to keep their hands off the local politics. The Singapore Press Holdings owns all dailies in the city while the Media Corporation of Singapore dominates the broadcasting media. But the government find increasing difficulties in stopping the inflow of information from the Internet.

In this report, we conclude that government censorship has not been as effective as that of a decade ago. Opening up the mass media seems to be the most pressing issue facing the Singapore mass media today. No matter how the government is reluctant to liberalise the mass media, Internet will help break the monopoly of the traditional media organisations.


1. Kwang, Han Fooket al. (1998),Lee Kuan Yew: The Man Behind his Ideas, Singapore Press Holdings & Times editions.



All 12 newspapers in Singapore are owned by Singapore Press Holdings (SPH), one of the largest media corporations in Asia.The Straits Times is the largest circulation newspaper in Singapore, followed by a Chinese-language newspaper,Lianhe Zaobao.

The city's sole business daily, TheBusiness Times, was launched in October 1976. It emphasizes corporate, financial, economic and political news, analysis and commentary.

On the contents of The Straits Times, Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong has contended that the paper goes for "the human-interest kind of a story," citing an example of a sex survey on the front page of the paper.(Endnote 2) We observe the following in our study of this paper from 26 to 28 March 2000.

The newspaper seems to go in line with the government slogan: "act locally but think globally" to internationalise Singapore. In the first four pages under "Prime News," only three to four pieces are local news while the rest are international news supplied by foreign news agencies.
The local news section mainly focus on government announcements and policies. In the Malaysian page and the forum page, as on 28 March, the paper carried letters from the High Commission of both countries on regional conflicts. The Straits Times, thus, acts as a semi-official bridge between the government and the public as well as between the neighbouring countries.
The leading Chinese-language newspaper in Singapore, Lianhe Zaobao, also carries a lot of foreign news on its front page. It has special sections on Malaysian and regional news, but the paper is quite brief on local news. In our study, we find no pictures or stories featuring sexy girls in the newspaper.

The New Paper, an afternoon tabloid, usually features large and sensational stories with pictures. The paper, which was originally known as The New Nation, was renamed The New Paper in 1988.

A new morning daily under SPH,Project Eyeball, will hit the street by the middle of this year. SPH describes the paper as a "print tabloid edition" with "headlines that provoke." The paper will target at Internet savvy-readers aged between 20 and 40.(Endnote 3)

All newspapers have their But only Lianhe Zaobao states clear in its website that its editorial policy lies in "protecting national interests" and "promoting traditional Chinese culture and values under a multi-racial social framework." Other papers, however, did not respond to our enquiries on their editorial policies.

In addition to the 12 dailies, there are two student publications in Singapore.Thumbs Up targets primary school students while TheFriday Weekly aims its market at secondary school students.

The existing tabloid, The New Paper, is well received by the Singaporeans and has registered a 4.8 per cent annual increase in circulation.(Endnote 4) But mainstream newspapers and tabloid seem to be able to find their room for survival. According to SPH, the total circulation of newspapers went up by 2.9 per cent from 1.047 million to 1.078 million copies daily.(Endnote 5)


According to the Singapore government, there are a total of 722 magazines licenced under Newspaper Printing Presses Act. Locally published magazines are either business or entertainment oriented. We can hardly find any major news magazines in the city, which is similar to Newsweek and Time.

SPH is less dominant in the magazine market although it publishes and distributes eight magazines with a combined circulation of over 250,000. The largest sellers are published in English and are either women's or lifestyle magazines.(Endnote 6)

Panpac (previously has known as Panpac Media Group) publishes a wide range of "special interest magazines" including lifestyle, IT and finance magazines for the Asian Pacific region.

With the advance of technology, online magazines flourish in the city.

Panpac went into electronic publishing in April 1999. Its portal,, provides information to travellers while another portal,, focuses on financial information and share trading.

Virtual Mall is Singapore's biggest electronic magazine.(Endnote 7) It covers information ranging from food, men's and women's specials to nightlife in the city. The Web focuses on Internet lifestyle and popular culture while Herizon is an e-zine for the Internet-savvy modern women.


2. Far Eastern Economic Review, Interview with Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, "Loosening Up," 24 December 1998. (

3. Khalik, Salma,The Straits Times, "New SPH paper gets its licence, 23 Feb 2000 (

4. Singapore Press Holdings, "Chairman's Statement"Annual Report (as at 31 Aug 1999)

5. Ibid.

6.Singapore, p.139

7. Virtual Mall Web Site (

Dominance of SPH

The dominance of SPH is an outcome of government orders rather than a natural development. On 20 April 1982, Singapore's Prime Minister's Office issued a statement announcing a major restructuring of Chinese and English newspapers in Singapore. Two dailies, Nanyang Siang Pau and Sin Chew Jit Poh, were merged to become Lianhe Zaobao and incorporated into the Singapore News and Publications Ltd (SNPL).

In 1984, SNPL, the Straits Times Press Ltd and the Times Publishing Berhad merged to form a new holding company, SPH. In addition to trimming costs, one of the reasons cited for the merger was "to establish common ideals for newspapers in the various languages."(Endnote 8)

SPH also dominates the advertising market. If you want to place an advertisement in newspapers, the only place you can go is SPH.

Restrictions from entry
Under the Newspaper and the Printing Presses Act, no one may hold more than three per cent directly or indirectly in a newspaper company unless prior approval is obtained from the Ministry of Information and the Arts.

Explaining the three per cent ownership cap, Singapore Minister of Trade and Industry George Yeo said the law is to ensure that the internal access of Singaporeans.(Endnote 9)

"For domestic media principally concerned with Singaporean affairs, we must not cede control to foreigners because it may be manipulated for their own purposes without our knowing," said George Yeo.(Endnote 10)

Is it possible to get around the regulation? The answer is No.

In October 1999, Swedish media giant Modern Times Group planned to launch a "giveaway publication for commuters" in conjunction with local rail operator, Singapore Mass Rapid Transit. This was seen as a move to skirt around foreign-ownership restriction.

On 13 March 2000, Minister for Trade and Industry George Yeo disclosed in an interview with The Straits Times that the companies wanted the new publication not to be treated as a newspaper and to be exempted from the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act. Mr Yeo said, "My decision was 'no'. As it will circulate freely in subways, it must be licensed as a newspaper."(Endnote 11)

In other words, SPH enjoys monopoly under the present legislation.


8. Singapore Press Holdings Limited,Over 70 Years: History of Leading Chinese Newspapers in Singapore, 1993, p.49.

9. Irene Ng, "Control of core media stays local, says BG Yeo," The Straits Times, 6 March 2000. (

10. Irene Ng, "Control of core media stays local, says BG Yeo," The Straits Times, 6 March 2000. (

11. "One application: A matter of definition," The Straits Times, 13 March 2000 (

SPH-Government relationship

Who owns SPH?

The ownership of SPH is divided into ordinary shares and management shares (Appendix I). The government has the power to determine who are the shareholders of SPH as holders of management shares have to be approved by the Ministry of Information and the Arts.

The tricky point is the voting right between ordinary and management shares. According to SPH's latest annual report, the power of management shares is 200 times more powerful than that of ordinary shares on resolutions relating to the appointment or dismissal of a director or staff of the company.(Endnote 12) Therefore, it is difficult for ordinary shareholders to have a say on the appointment or dismissal of SPH staff.

SPH is partially owned by Temasek Holdings, the Singapore government's wholly owned investment arm. But both the SPH and the Singapore government declined to explain clearly the government's indirect ownership of SPH.

In an e-mail reply to our questions, SPH said: "The Singapore government does not own SPH shares directly, nor does it control what it publishes." In another reply, the Singapore government said: "SPH is a public listed company and it has many shareholders, including Temasek Holdings. Temasek Holdings, however, owns only 1.14 per cent of SPH ordinary shares."

The extent of indirect ownership of SPH by the government is not entirely clear. After analysing the management shareholders of SPH, we come to the following findings.

Fullerton (Private) Limited, which is part of Temasek Group, holds 4.02 % of management shares. Singapore Telecommunications Limited, which is majority-owned by Temasek Holdings, holds 13.30 % of the shares. The Development Bank of Singapore Limited, who owns 9.5 % of the shares, is also under Temasek Holdings.(Endnote 13) Fraser & Neave Limited, which held 4.02 % of management shares, is headed by Dr Michael Fam.(Endnote 14) Dr Fam is a member of the Council of Presidential Advisers of Singapore and has served on the Board of Temasek Holdings (Pte) Ltd.(Endnote 15)

Who heads SPH?

Incumbent SPH executive chairman is Lim Kim San while the first chairman of the group was Lien Ying Chow. Both the Singapore government and SPH decline to provide public service records of Lim and Lien.

Incumbent SPH executive chairman, Lim Kim San, was the Minister of the Interior and Defence in 1967.(Endnote 16) He is also the Chairman of the Council of Presidential Advisers, a top advisor to Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong.(Endnote 17) The close linkage between the government and the press can also be seen from the appointment of Group General Manager of Singapore News and Press Limited, Mah Bow Tan, to be the Minister of State, Ministry of Communications and Information and Ministry of Trade and Industry in 1988.(Endnote 18)

The concentration of media ownership and the monopoly of SPH have wide impacts on freedom of speech and free flow of information. Both the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) and the Workers' Party feel they have difficulties in putting their messages across through the mass media.

SDP's Dr Chee Soon Juan, who was jailed for seven days for "speaking in public without a licence" in late Dec 1988, is having difficulty in marketing his book. Up till now, none of bookstores in Singapore is willing to sell his book, To be Free.

"The SDP press releases and announcements have been repeatedly censored and blacked out. Even when I am directly criticised, the newspaper refuses to publishes my relies," Dr Chee said.(Endnote 19)

In a nutshell, media ownership determines not only the management of the newspapers but also the contents of newspapers.


12. Singapore Press Holdings,Annual Report (as at 31 Aug 1999), p.61

13. Temasek Holdings Web Site, Group of Companies. (

14. In an e-mail reply to our enquiries on 10 April 2000, Fraser & Neave Limited said the company did not own any SPH shares and the SPH Annual Report was outdated. Refusing to give further information on management shareholders, SPH said in another e-mail dated 10 April 2000 that the annual report is the most recent official report available.

15. Fraser & Neave Limited,Annual Report (30 Sept 1999), p.14 (

16. Singapore Government Website, History of Singapore Police Force, Internet Web Page (

17. Singapore Government Website (

18. Singapore Press Holdings Limited,Over 70 Years: History of Leading Chinese Newspapers in Singapore, 1993, p.50

19. We are able to find Dr Chee's article on The Straits Times Forum. For example:


Broadcasting Media in Singapore

Broadcasting media, like the print media in Singapore, consist of both local and foreign organisations but are also subjected to strict controls by the government in terms of ownership, censorship and other media regulations.

Television broadcasting began in February 1963 with a pilot service run by the Department of Broadcasting under the Ministry of Culture. In August 1965, Singapore separated from Malaysia and television broadcasting became a state-run operation under Radio-Television Singapore (RTS).

The next major change came in 1980, when RTS became the Singapore Broadcasting Corporation (SBC), a statutory organisation under the Ministry of Communication and Information, following the adoption by the Singapore Parliament of the Singapore Broadcasting Act of 1979. It subsequently incorporated into the Singapore International Media (SIM) group of companies on 1 October 1994 and was later renamed Media Corporation of Singapore and is 100 % owned by the Singapore government's wholly owned investment arms, Temasek Holdings.

Radio in Singapore dates back to the period of amateur radio in the period before the Second World War from 1941 to 1945.(Endnote 20)

At present, there are eight local broadcasters in Singapore. These include:

Television Corporation of Singapore (TCS) and Singapore Television Twelve (STV12) which operates a total of 6 channels: Channel 5 (English); Channel 8 (Mandarin), Suria (Malay) and Central (Tamil, Arts and Kids programming), Sportscity and Channel News Asia.
Singapore CableVision Ltd (SCV) which provides a 39-channel cable TV services, and allowing access to foreign channels such as HBO, Cinemax, CNN, BBC, Australia TV, NHK World (Japan), TVB Zongyi (Hong Kong).
Radio Corporation of Singapore (RCS), NTUC Media Cooperative LTD, SAFRA Radio, Rediffusion (S) Pte Ltd and National Arts Council which offer a total of 18 radio stations.
Out of the eight broadcasters above, only NTUC Media Cooperative LTD, SAFRA Radio, Rediffusion (S) Pte Ltd are free of government ownership. But all of them maintain strong ties with the government.

TV sets and radios must be licensed in Singapore. The majority of households in Singapore have at least one TV set. In 1998, there were about 680,000 TV licenses issued in early 1998 to households, as compared to a total of about 800,000 households on the island. Satellite dish is banned in Singapore and the only access to foreign broadcasting media is through the Singapore CableVision Ltd (SCV).

According to the ASEAN Media Directory, two bodies that play an important part in governing and regulating the media industry in Singapore are the Ministry of Information and the Arts (MITA) and the Singapore Broadcasting Authority (SBA). MITA formulates, implements and reviews policy concerning censorship and licensing of audio-visual materials. The SBA, a statutory board under the MITA, promotes and regulates the broadcasting industry.


20. Television in Singapore, by Sankaran Ramanathan and Reetha Balakrishnan,

The Media Corporation of Singapore


The Media Corporation of Singapore and is 100 % owned by the Singapore government's wholly owned investment arms, Temasek Holdings.

The Media Corporation of Singapore (MCS) is a holding company for TCS, STV12 and RCS. The government, thus, has a monopoly on television broadcasting and directly holds most of the radio channels in Singapore.

At present, TCS 5 and TCS 8 share around 82% of the audience during prime time whilst RCS collectively reach out to 2.1 million of Singaporeans weekly.

Structure and future move

At present, MCS has a Group President & CEO, under whom there are seven Strategic Business Units, namely (1) Television Corporation of Singapore, (2) Radio Corporation of Singapore, (3) Singapore Television Twelve, (4) MediaCorp Studios, (5) MediaCorp News, (6) MediaCorp Interactive, and (7) MediaCorp Publishing.

These seven strategic business units were formed after a restructure of the group in August 1999 to fight competition from new media entrants and to develop new markets. Among these are Television Corporation of Singapore, which operates channels 5, 8 and SportsCity, and MediaCorp News, which operates Channel NewsAsia.

According to David Lim, Minister of State of Information and the Arts, MCS is preparing to list on the Singapore Exchange within the next year or two. He said the rate of change in the media industry was accelerating and MCS would have to move even faster.(Endnote 21)

For the Channel NewsAsia (CAN), MCS has planned to expand their services to pan-Asia market. Aiming to feature the voices and perspectives of Asia, it was launched in March 1999. Viewers in Asia will be able to get the signal with a satellite dish or by subscribing to TV cable networks in their respective countries. However, those viewers in Singapore, which bans satellite dishes, will only receive the Channel with programmes specially designed for Singaporeans, which are, subjected to tight censorship by the Singapore government.(Endnote 22)

According to a Straits Times' article, "MediaCorp asks 210" by Karamjit Kaur on 29 April 2000, MCS has just terminated the employment of 210 employees. Eight in 10 of those were men, aged 40 years and above.

Richard Tan, the vice-president of Group Communications said it was not a cost-cutting measure.

"The new fast-moving media industry will encompass... telecommunications, computing and broadcasting technology," he said. "It will require people who have the skills and the mindset to help the company make the quantum leap."

Singapore Cable Vision


Singapore Cable Vision (SCV), launched in June 1995, offers pay-TV on 39 channels. It offers 39 channels in English, Mandarin, Japanese, Bahasa Malaysia/ Indonesia, Hindi, Tamil and German. It was accessible to 713,000 households at the end of 1997.

The first consortium, formed in 1991, was made up of Media Corporation of Singapore (65%) and Singapore Broadcasting Corporation (35%). In 1995, a new four-member consortium took over the ownership of Singapore Cable Vision Ltd. They are MCS (31%), Singapore Technologies Pte Ltd (24%), Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) (20%) and Media One (25%).

According to the SPH's press release, SPH has increased its shareholding in SCV from 20 to 26.7 per cent.(Endnote 23)

With 100% government-owned MCS and partially-government-owned SPH as their major shareholders, SCV is indirectly owned by the government.


21. "Local TV station gears up for listing", The Straits Times, 9 March 2000

22. "Channel NewsAsia'-by Asian, for Asian viewer", Jakarta Post, 22 March 2000

23. Increase in shareholding in SCV Ltd, SPH Press Release, 21 Jan 2000


NTUC Media Cooperative Ltd.


NTUC Media Cooperative Ltd., which has both the radio, magazines and newspaper divisions, is a private company. In terms of radio, it runs two radio channels- 91.3FM and 100.3FM with the name Radio Heart. It broadcasts in four languages.

Relations with the government

It has maintained a strong tie with the government which can be seen from their statement at their website.(Endnote 24) In other words, it is a close affiliate of the governing People's Action Party (PAP).

"Within Malaysia, sharp differences developed between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur on the sensitive issue of race. The problems led to Singapore's separation from Malaysia in 1965. The PAP Government, backed by the NTUC, then set out to prove our ability to survive, and prosper, against all odds.



SAFRA Radio is a private company. According to Daryl Yap, in an e-mail reply, human resource manager of SAFRA Radio, Temasek Holding or other government-related companies do not own any shares of SAFRA Radio.

It is a station under the Singapore Armed Forces Reservists' Association (SAFRA), runs two radio channels-Dongli 88.3FM and Power 98 FM. The stations are dedicated to operationally ready national servicemen, full-time national serviceman and regulars.

Relations with the government

But, he said, "As what the name SAFRA, Singapore Armed Forces Reservist Association denotes, it is closely linked to the Singapore Armed Forces. As national service is an integral part of Singaporean life, we strive constantly to reinforce these linkages."

Rediffusion (S) Pte Ltd


Rediffusion Investment Holdings (Singapore) Pte Ltd, offering 18 hours of Mandarin programmes on its Gold Channel and 24 hours of English and Mandarin programmes on its Silver Channel, is a private company.

Its subsidiaries include Rediffusion (Singapore) Pte Ltd, Rediware Marketing (Singapore) Pte Ltd, Rediffusion Communications Services (S) Pte Ltd, Redimart (Malaysia) Sdn Bhd, Reditech (Malaysia) Sdn Bhd.

Relations with the government

We received no reply from them despite repeated requests via e-mails.

25. "Some recommendations and reactions," The Straits Times, 23 February 2000

Characteristics of Broadcasting Media

Multi-cultural and multi-racial

To reflect the multi-cultural and multi-racial society in Singapore, television programmes are often subtitled in several languages. Recently, one of the recommendations on television appeared in The Strait Times, stated that "dub or subtitle Made-in Singapore Chinese, Malay and Indian cultural programmes to allow a wider audience here to watch good programmes and learn about each other's culture."(Endnote 25)

Strictly censored but seems opening up

Television and films are subjected to strict censorship to perform its national building role. According to former Minister of Information and the Arts George Yeo, censorship is "a sense of what is important for Singapore", and must be at the core of the establishment broadcasting media in Singapore.(Endnote 26)

However, enforcing it was becoming increasingly hard though Singapore government have long argued that censorship is vital for maintaining social and racial harmony. Its leaders have recently shown a new willingness to change as Singapore strives to become a cosmopolitan city. A sign of the censors' easing attitudes was seen when conservatives within the Film Censorship Board were recently shouted down in a debate over whether to change the title of Warner Brothers' latest Austin Powers movie The Spy Who Shagged Me. There were unsuccessful calls to change it, to switch the word shagged with shioked, "Singlish" slang for nice or kind. A few years ago, the conservative viewpoint would have won. On-screen nudity is also now allowed, though only from behind and it must be artistic and non-gratuitous.(Endnote 27)

Paternalistic approach

Television, under the strict censorship which rules out all violence, sex and any other issues that would harm the well being of the society, is "admittedly dull, and Singaporeans are increasingly turning to foreign broadcasting for entertainment," according to The Unfolding Lotus: East Asia's Changing Media (1993).

Very often, it is regarded as a tool to transmit national building message and paternalistic guidance. Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew, has touched off a crackdown on "Singlish", the local brand of English mixed with Malay and Chinese idioms. After Lee remarked that TV comedies in which Singlish is used stifle the country's economic development, MCS promptly promised to "educate" the lead character of a popular sitcom.(Endnote 28)

During our study, we have asked several Singaporeans /residents in Singapore to express their views toward the contents of local TV programmes through emails and their replies reflect the local media scene is dominated by the government-orientated programmes with very limited choices to the alternatives.

Reliance on foreign programmes

Singapore has relied on buying programmes from foreign countries to fill up its airtime, including those from Taiwan, Hong Kong and the United States. The programmes, however, are strictly censored to rule out any sex and violence.

According to The Unfolding Lotus: East Asia's Changing Media, however, Singapore has begun to develop more intensively its own filmmaking and television production industries to be on par with others such as those in Hong Kong and Taiwan. It has also created tax incentives to lure foreign film production companies.

This is evident in the increasing popularity among the public, especially the teenagers, of the local TV stars such as Aileen Tan, Zoe Tay and Chew Chor Meng.

Balance of contents

While the contents of the government-owned Radio Corporation of Singapore (RCS) are subjected to screening by the government to avoid any discussions of sensitive political issues, or social issues that the government believe would hamper the well being of the government. The other private radio stations, such as Heart Radio under NTUC and SAFRA, focus mainly on music and leave the major political and social issues on the hands of RCS.

Greener pastures elsewhere

As the IT industry is blooming in Singapore, there has been a recent trend for journalists and radio presenters to quit the mass media industry for "greener pastures" elsewhere.(Endnote 29)


26. Ian Stewart, "Media switch fails to turn on listeners, The South China Morning Post", 3 October 1994

27. Barry Porter, "Tide of modernity floods censors," The South China Morning Post, 23 July 1999

28. Jasmina Kuzmanovic, "Authoritarian Singapore more open, but not yet 'swinging'", AP, 23 December 1999

29. Tee Hun Ching, "This is IT for me", The Straits Times, 13 March 2000


One in four Singaporeans are Internet users and the number of registered websites has surged from 900 sites in 1996 to more than 17,200 sites at present.(Endnote 30)

SPH owns a number of popular and leading sites in Singapore including and through its subsidiary, SPH AsiaOne Pte Ltd. All local newspapers have established online web sites except the two student publications, The Friday Weekly and Thumbs Up., which were launched in 1995, provide online links to Singapore dailies.

But the technological innovation has also brought other newcomers into play.


Sintercom, who was formed by a group of overseas Singaporeans in 1994, provides an alternate voice to Singaporeans. Its online daily, SG Daily, delivers both "good and bad news" about Singapore to subscribers. The web site touches on what are considered to be taboos in Singapore such as racial issues.

Examples of "bad news" about Singapore included an interview with opposition politician Dr Chee Soon Chuan(Endnote 31) in which he criticised the government and an article comparing Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew's ideology with Leninism.(Endnote 32)

Apart from SG Daily, Sintercom just launched a "NOT the Straits Times Forum" on the net and publishes letters rejected or mangled by Straits Times Forum.(Endnote 33) Sintercom publishes the letters in their entirety together with the mangled version. The Straits Times Forum, similar to the letters to the editor column, is originally run by The Straits Times.

For example, Siew Kim Hong wrote a letter to The Straits Times Forum entitled "Face up to social responsibilities, DBS" to the Straits Times saying that both the government and DBS must defend the decision to impose charges for accounts below $500. But the newspaper published an edited version of the letter shifting the onus entirely to DBS. The "NOT The Straits Times Forum" published the original letter and highlighted what had been crossed out by The Straits Times.(Endnote 34)

Although Sintercom and SG Daily are critical of the Singapore government, they seem to fare well since its launch. About 120,000 pages are served per month and there are about 1,200 subscribers to SG Daily at present. No actions from the government can be noticed.

Singaporeans for Democracy

Singaporeans for Democracy (Sfd) carries a variety of articles ranging from human rights, the rule of law and press rights. The site was established in August 1998 and launched on Singapore's National Day by a group of group living in different countries. It aims to "present an opposition view to the propaganda churned out by the People's Action Party" and "provide Singaporeans an avenue to express their opinion without fear of repercussion through a certain amount of net anonymity."(Endnote 35)

A discussion centre run by the site, The Open Singapore Centre, is another channel for Singaporeans to air their views. The centre was jointly established by J.B. Jeyaretnam of The Workers' Party and Dr Chee Soon Juan of the Singapore Democratic Party in May 1999.

The editor of Sfd, who identifies himself as Tan Lee Kiat,(Endnote 36) said the site receives requests for as many as 1,500 files or pages per week. Apart from technical problems in running the site, Sfd has to break a psychological obstacle among the Singaporeans before it can make use of the Internet to change the political status quo.

"Many people write to us and send us articles but there must be many more Singaporeans who are still afraid mainly because the Singapore government has successfully created an atmosphere where most people believe that they can monitor everything," said Sfd editor Tan Lee Kiat in an e-mail reply to us.

Internet rules

30. Singapore Broadcasting Authority, "SBA and The Internet: Our Approach," (

31. Sintercom carries interview with opposition politican Dr Chee Soon Chuan (

32. Sintercom carries an article comparing Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew's ideology with Leninism. (

33. Sintercom, "NOT The Straits Times Forum" (

34. For details, see:

35. Singaporeans for Democracy (

36. The editorial name of the editor of Singaporeans for Democracy is Tan Lee Kiat. Tan said in a reply to this report that "it's not clear if this is my real name or a pseudonym."

Technological changes also prompt the Singapore government to introduce new laws governing the Internet. The Singapore Broadcasting Authority (SBA) has introduced the Class Licence Scheme and the Internet Code of Practice in July 1996. They are said to ensure that religious and political bodies will be responsible to what they say and be consistent with existing regulations pertaining to print and other electronic material.(Endnote 37)

Under the Internet Code of Practice, nothing is included in any broadcasting service which is against public interest or order, national harmony or which offends against good taste or decency.

Although there are widespread complaints about Internet censorship, we can find no empirical evidence that the Singapore government has blocked web sites other than pornographic sites. SG Daily receives no complaints about denial of access at the website while Singaporeans for Democracy received a few but the cause was never known. Although the Singapore government establishes strict laws governing the Internet, website managers develop their own strategies to circumvent the rules. For example, Singaporeans for Democracy uses a server from the UK to run the site.


SPH is eyeing on the International market by setting up joint ventures with international companies. SPH MultiMedia Pte Ltd, a wholly owned subsidiary of SPH, has also teamed up with a Frankfurt listed company,The Fantastic Corporation, to focus on mass market content services for the Asia-Pacific region in December 1999.(Endnote 39) However, SPH declines to reveal further details of the co-operation.

In February 2000,Panpac has signed an agreement withMicrosoft (MSN Singapore) to supply content including financial, investment, sports and entertainment news for MSN Singapore users.(Endnote 40)


The high penetration rate of Internet in Singapore means those disgruntled members of the public can have ways to express their different views. Web sites such as Sintercom has proved that it can find its market and room for survival.

"With the opening of the Internet, there is another channel open to Singaporeans to voice their alternative point," said S.B. Jeyaretnam of the Workers' Party in an e-mail to us.


37. Singapore Broadcasting Authority, "Myths and Facts about SBA and the Internet," (

39. Singapore Press Holdings, Press Release "Asia's First Complete Broadband Multimedia Solutions Provider for Mass Market Content - A New Regional Joint Venture Between The Fantastic Corporation and SPH Multimedia," 3 Dec 1999.

40. Panpac, Press Release, "Panpac Inks Deal with MSN Singapore to Deliver Financial, Investment & Entertainment News," 21 February 2000. (


Not a free press

The press is subject to strict controls by the government and has been cited by western media and Malaysian media as the mouthpiece of the government.

According to The Unfolding Lotus, "One of the roots of Singapore's strict reputation has been the willingness of Lee [Kuan Yew], its longtime leader, to confront Western notions of freedom of the press with an almost gleeful feistiness." It said, Lee, believed that western values may foster an entrepreneurial spirit, but they can also lead to a breakup of the family and cynicism toward government.

Cherian George, a Straits Times journalist stated in his conference paper in 1998,(Endnote 41) "Here (in US) is all about freedom of the press; in Singapore, it is about the government's freedom from the press."

Lee Hsien Long, Singapore's Deputy Prime Minister once(Endnote 42) said, "We do not start off from the American model where the media is the Fifth Estate, the unelected representatives of the people." He did not believe the media's role was to take on the Government. "First of all, who elected you?" he asked. "Secondly, what if we do what you suggest and things go wrong? How will you be able to answer for it? Are you in the position to take responsibility?"(Endnote 43)

Ang Peng Hwa, Associate Professor of School of Communication Studies, NTU, said in an e-mail reply, "I would agree more or less to the Freedom Forum's ranking that the Singapore media are not free. There is no question that the media are "state-controlled"."

But, he said, the Freedom Forum ranking on the television stations, although more directly owned by the government, is given a slightly higher freer ranking. In his opinion, it suggests that ownership by itself does not have to translate into being mouthpieces. The major media come across as mouthpieces because of the intervention by the government from before, from the lack of competition, and from the additional remarks by government ministers reminding the media of their role in national development.

Although The Straits Times has complained about erroneous perceptions of the Singapore media,(Endnote 44) no papers under the SPH group respond to our enquries on their relationship with the government and press freedom in the city state.


Though George Yeo, the former head of MITA, said recently that "it cannot be"(Endnote 45) for SPH enjoy monopoly on any news item, the partially-government owned SPH dominates the printed media while state-owned MCS takes the majority part of the broadcasting media. Despite there have been talks about opening up the media market lately, the government has stated that the media must stay in local hands. This can be seen as the media will stay in local hands which are directly or indirectly controlled or owned by the government.

According to J.B. Jeyaretnam of the Workers' Party, there is no press freedom in Singapore. Jeyaretnam said there is only the licence of the press to operate within guidelines laid down by the government.

Reporting from the government perspective

Flying the flag of "national-building efforts," the media in Singapore often goes along the Government's will.

In Ivan Lim's article, "The Singapore Press and the Fourth Estate",(Endnote 46) he stated that while the government PROs help provide the background to government policies; in return, they sometimes asked for press co-operation to play down or highlight stories on the government ministries concerned.

He further said that on a higher level, newspaper editors also meet ministers and top bureaucrats for briefing on government policies. Government policies, whether articulated in Parliament or announced by ministers in speeches at public functions, frequently made front-page news. Newspapers generally report government policies in a favourable light as much out of necessity as of conviction.


41. Conference Paper, Newspapers: Freedom from the press in the University of California, 2-3 April, 1998

42. An article in SCMP (20/8/1996)

43. Ian Stewart, "Curbs on press must continue, says minister", The South China Morning Post, 20 August 1996

44. Lim Boon Hee, "Why is S'pore media viewed with disdain?", The Straits Times, 7 March 2000

45. Irene Ng, "Control of core media stays local, says BG Yeo", The Straits Times, 13 March 2000

46. From Press Laws and System in ASEAN States. 1985

Law and restrictions

Singapore media is subjected to stringent government restrictions in the form of media laws, censorship and codes of practice. According to The Unfolding Lotus, most of the constraints on media are informal in nature -- a telephone call from a high-ranking official strongly suggesting to an editor that he or she is pursuing an unwelcome story too energetically usually suffices.

The main pieces of legislation governing the operations of newspapers and journalists in Singapore include: Newspaper and Printing Press Act 1974, The Internal Security Act, Defamation Act, Children and Young Persons Act, Official Secrets Act, Essential (control of publications & safeguarding of information) Regulation 1966, Undesirable Publication Act, and New Printing Presses (Application & Permits) Rules 1972.

In terms of censorship, George Yeo, former Minister for Information and the Arts said it is "a sense of what is important for Singapore."

In early 1993, the Minister for Information and the Arts, George Yeo, rejected the notion that the Government was not rushing to lift a 10-year-old ban on the magazine Cosmopolitan, although the publisher had proposed a special edition for Singapore. Cosmopolitan was banned for "advocating promiscuous values". His ministry banned the March issue of the French magazine Maire Claire, which began publishing a Singapore edition last November, because it contained an article on causal sex and group sex.(Endnote 47)

During our study, we asked whether that censorship is necessary because of the uniqueness of Singapore and it is a result of public wishes/desires, we obtained a variation of views from our interviewees.

On the supportive side, Weeteck Yeoh said, "We had the horrid race wars in the 60s and the government is wise to avoid that. Racial lines have not been blurred yet and until it does, it may be best to toe the line. Eventually, Singaporeans will not think of each other as a race, but as a citizenship. It is already starting to happen."

Daryl Yap also thinks that censorship is necessary due to the multi-racial nature of Singapore.

On the opposition side, Chee Soon Juan(Endnote 48) from Singapore Democratic Party said, "No. The control and censorship of the media in Singapore, or any other country, is never good. It may work for a while but in the long run, the Government finds that its mistakes and deeds are easy to cover up and before you know it, things get out of hand."

Choi Siu Kay, Alfred, Associated Professor of NTU said, "There is no doubt that the unique history & development of Spore make religion, race and foreign relations as ultra-sensitive issues. A number of public opinion surveys have been conducted. There is overwhelming public support in restricting public discussions in these areas." (Reply 13)

Professor Ang said he does not buy that argument.

"Every country is unique. No country is the same as another country. Singapore is not the only multi-racial and multi-religious country in the world. Yet not all countries have censorship. So I think the argument does not stand. My research suggests that the public do want censorship. It is a mixed bag, to be fair, but in general, Singaporeans are censorious," he said.

Opening up yet cramping down

Despite demands for more openness, the media is still under heavy restrictions of government control and their editors "sometimes test the limits of what can be reported."

"A lot of it is purely cosmetic," said poet and playwright Alfian Sa'at during an interview with AP. "Singapore is still permeated by restrictions, censorship and self-censorship. And not many (Singaporeans) try to control it."

Bruce Gale, a regional analyst with the Singapore-based Political and Economic Risk Consultancy, said in the same AP article. "They want to be careful. They want to open the society, but without endangering their grip on power."

"Singapore has become more relaxed since the '80s, but it's certainly not a liberal democracy," Gale added.

Nevertheless, in a recent "The Roundtable" discussion by the Straits Times journalists, they concluded that Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong's recent indication that his government will liberalise the licensing rules for public speaking in the "Speaker's Corner" is a promising step towards more openness in political discussion and participation.(Endnote 49)


47. Ian Stewart, "Media row echo of past", The South China Morning Post, 3 August, 1993

48. E-mail reply by Chee Soon Juan

49. Cherian George, Kevin Tan and Zulkifli Baharudin for The Roundtable "Let's get on with Speaker's Corner", The Straits Times, 5 April 2000


Facing the harsh penalty journalists may get if they publish something going against the government view, the press in Singapore has for long practised "a sort of self-censorship", according to The Unfolding Lotus. It stated, "Although Singapore's press is one of the most restrictive in non-communist Asia, instances of the government shutting down publications and jailing journalists are relatively infrequent."

Cherian George stated in a conference paper, "the press today tacitly accepts its own suppression. There are no blank editorials in protest at the lack of press freedom; there are no prolonged public exchanges when the government accuses a newspaper of being irresponsible."

But Professor Ang shared another view. He said, "To accept that the press accepts its own suppression would mean that reporters would not be able to function outside the Singapore context. That is, they would be so socialised that they can only work in Singapore. But evidently, that is not true. There are reporters in Singapore who are, in our terms, world class. That is, they can function anywhere in the world. I would say that it is the structure that affects the response from the press."

Sensitivity towards neighbouring countries

Being one of the Asean countries and the smallest country sandwiched between a number of countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia, Singapore strives hard to maintain a healthy and friendly relationship with its neighbouring countries. The government and the media fears that any social upheaval caused by criticism or careless handling of the bad news of neighbouring countries would hamper the economical and social well being of its society.

To create a greater buffer avoiding any conflicts between its closest neighbour, Malaysia, a ban has been imposed since 1960s to rule out any circulation of Malayisa's newspaper in Singapore and vice versa.

Though the Singapore government and the press handle news from the neighbouring countries with extra care or greater self-censorship, we find a large of numbers of "verbal attacks" among the press in particular between the two major newspaper of Singapore and Malaysia. Such attacks happen once to twice every year and are often resolved after an official from one side issued a statement of apology. We find that Malaysia usually takes the lead, in its national paper, The New Straits Times, to publish article criticising the media in Singapore. However, we notice that there seldom be any penalties beyond warnings.

Heavy restrictions on foreign media

Singapore government does not accept the widespread perception that the media is tightly controlled, often citing examples that "Singapore has full access to media information as evidenced by the number of international media organisations that have bureaus there."(Endnote 50)

Restrictions on foreign media, however, are much tighter than the local one. No foreigners can be the director of the media and foreign journalists have to renew their working permits from the Singapore government annually. Singapore bans satellite dishes and has expressed concerns about the impact an open-skies policy might have on its community.(Endnote 51)

There is no right to circulation by foreign press. Foreign media operate in Singapore under the threats of restrictions of their circulation and possible lawsuits. Asian Wall Street Journal, Time, Far Eastern Economic Review and Asiaweek all had its circulation cut. Despite all these, an interesting phenomenon is that different media corporations like BBC, CNBC Asia, CNN, news agencies and magazines all open bureaus in the city.

After the 1997 handover, CNBC and Reuters moved their regional headquarters from Hong Kong to Singapore. BBC, which is going to move its Asia headquarters there in late September or early October this year, said Singapore is geographically better located for their coverage on the Southeast Asia region.

But according to a correspondent at CNBC (HK Bureau), there is very few and limited reporting in Singapore due to the sensitive political condition and the small population there.

"As the same with Reuters, we only use the place [in Singapore] to do mainly the processing and management works. We do most of the reporting from Hong Kong," he said.


50. "March of progress leaves Singapore out of step", The South China Morning Post, 18 June 1999

51. Ian Stewart, "Media row echo of past", The South China Morning Post, 3 August, 1993


New structure but may be old rules

To be ready for the increasing competitions of the global media industry, the Singapore government has announced that a review of the media industry is underway and a decision is likely to be made within this year.(Endnote 52)

Among the proposals is to allow a second television operator to offer free-to-air or pay-television services. But the government has also made clear its stance that control of the local media must remain in local hands and foreigners must not be allowed to use the media to influence domestic politics here. In other words, the second television operator, if ever emerges, would most probably be government owned or related.

Censorship not so effective

With the advance of information technology, censorship has not been as effective as that a decade ago. Before stepping down as information minister in a cabinet reshuffle, George Yeo said "censorship is becoming more and more difficult to impose."

Lee Yock Suan, also said on Channel News Asia. "Times have changed and we all bombarded by all these new forms of media. Values have changed, people are now much more exposed."(Endnote 53)

More public voices

During our study, we notice that there have been more demands for a bigger say in government policies by the public.

On 25 April 2000, the Singapore Parliament decided to model on London's Hyde Park and set up a Speakers' Corner at Hong Lim Park. However, speakers at the corner have to fulfill certain rules. The speaker must be a Singapore citizen, must register first and must not make a speech that causes racial or religious enmity.

Professor Alfred Choi said, "I would agree that there is much room for greater political discourse, although it is happening slowly in the positive direction. There has been much coverage in the local newspaper of civil society, political tolerance of alternative views. The government has just approved of a Speakers' Corner (like Hyde Park in U.K.) for public discourse."

Call for media talents

Singapore is facing a shortage of good journalists.

Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, speaking during an interview on Channel News Asia (CNA), also calls on media talents to "enable them to compete effectively with foreign counterparts" and to "present news through an Asian perspective so that audiences in this part of the world could identify with the reports."

"Like all goods and services, if the quality is not there, nobody is going to watch you," he said, replying to CNA's question on how Singapore media organisations could compete with Western ones.

Opening up

It is generally believed that the Singapore government should open up the mass media to a greater extent, such as including foreign players to maintain its competitiveness, though at present, the government is still trying hard to prevent such a move.

"Opening up the media market will also encourage a flowering of outlets," Professor Ang said. "This allows for the base of practitioners. In turn, this will support the media hub concept that the Singapore government is pushing.

"The small number of media outlets hampers the creation of a media hub in Singapore. In other words, there is now reason to think that there is some real economic cost to not opening up the media scene."

In a letter appeared in the Straits Times forum by Daniel Koh Kah Soon, he said, "The SPH Group is doing a fine job. However, the overall interests of Singapore and our emerging civil society will be better served if we opened up the competition and allowed for one or two other serious newspapers to be published in Singapore."(Endnote 54)


Will the Internet bring greater freedom of speech to Singapore? The Internet, undoubtedly, begins to bring changes and challenges to Singapore. Internet sites such as Sintercom and Singaporeans for Democracy check on the performance of Singapore newspapers. They also give an outlet for people who are dissatisfied with the traditional media.

"Information technology, particularly the Internet, is rapidly undermining whatever monopoly control of the media governments might have had," said Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew.(Endnote 55)

Internet seems to be an effective way, if not the only way, to get around the ownership rules imposed by the Singapore government on the mass media. For Internet sites to be successful in Singapore, it requires one more factor - the support and desire of the Singaporeans themselves. The question remains: Are Singaporeans ready for it?


52. Ministry of Information and the Arts, Press Release "Signs of Major Media Shake-up," 10 March 2000

53. Chua Mui Hoong, "Signs of major media shake-up", The Straits Times, 9 March 2000

54. Daniel Koh Kah Soon, "Allow more local papers for better perspective", The Straits Times, 5 April 2000

55. Reuters, "Singapore minister decries tech," 30 October 1998. Remarks by Singapore Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew at a conference on Asian media. (


Major shareholders of Singapore Press Holdings

Holders of Management Shares (as at 23 Nov 1999)

Name Holdings Percent (%)
The Great Eastern Life Assurance Company Limited 1,281,632 34.71
Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation Limited 620,410 16.80
Singapore Telecommunications Limited 491,154 13.30
The Overseas Assurance Corporation Limited 354,535 9.61
The Development Bank of Singapore Limited 350,821 9.50
Fraser & Neave Limited 148,575 4.02
Fullerton (Private) Limited 148,575 4.02
Overseas Union Bank Limited 148,575 4.02
United Overseas Bank Limited 148,575 4.02
Lim Kim San 3 0.00
President 2 0.00
Directors 5 0.00
Total: 3,692,862 100.00

Source: Singapore Press Holdings,Annual Report, as at 31 August 1999

Twenty Largest Ordinary Shareholders (as at 23 Nov 1999)

Name Holdings Percent (%)
Raffles Nominees (Pte) Limited 79,680,679 21.79
DBS Nominees (Private) Limited 77,115,441 21.09
HSBC (Singapore) Nominees Pte Ltd 40,943,374 11.20
United Overseas Bank Nominees (Private) Ltd 21,755,505 5.95
Citibank Nominees Singapore Pte Ltd 16,764,079 4.59
Overseas Union Bank Nominees (Private) Ltd 6,535,262 1.79
The Overseas Assurance Corporation Ltd 5,315,941 1.45
Temasek Holdings (Pte) Ltd 5,170,176 1.41
The Asia Life Assurance Society Limited 4,573,800 1.25
Tan Eng Sian 4,568,701 1.25
Oversea-Chinese Bank Nominees Private Limited 4,165,824 1.14
NTUC Income Insurance Co-operative Limited 3,692,265 1.01
University of Malaya 3,641,778 1.00
Lee Foundation States of Malaya 3,580,123 0.98
Tokyo-Mitsubishi International (S) Ltd 3,515,016 0.96
DB Nominees (S) Pte Ltd 2,519,591 0.69
Prudential Assurance Co Singapore (Pte) Ltd - Life Fund 2,098,533 0.57
Lee Foundation 1,931,986 0.53
Prudential Assurance Co Singapore (Pte) Ltd - Prulink Fund 1,888,173 0.52
National University of Singapore 1,863,566 0.51
Total 291,319,813 79.68

Source: Singapore Press Holdings,Annual Report, as at 31 August 1999