The government’s policy of far-reaching control of the news media did not change. The two big press groups, Singapore Press Holdings and Mediacorp, were still controlled by the ruling party’s allies. There are no independent media. But Singaporeans have plenty of access to foreign media.
The authorities were urged to liberalise censorship of the news media, the arts and public meetings on 24 June 2003 by the committee that was set up by the government in April 2002 to review the existing censorship laws. The panel of experts said a new balance needed to be found between public order requirements and the Singaporean people’s creativity. The government had still not acted on the recommendations at the end of the year.
Today, one of the three English-language dailies, ran a column in October by Australian journalist Michael Backman that was scathing about Singapore’s system of censorship. He criticised the information minister’s meddling in editorial content, the system of publication licences and the regime’s paranoia.
The government’s reaction was acrimonious. In a response published five days later, the information ministry insisted that the media system was suited to Singapore’s circumstances. At the start of November, information minister Lee Bon Yang told the Press Club that foreign journalists should stay out of Singapore’s politics. He said Backman had knowingly crossed the line and meddled in internal politics. He also insisted that the government was not going to liberalise the censorship system just to please an excited minority and that censorship was needed to protect society from violence and a decline in morals.
The censorship department in 2003 nonetheless authorised the sale of the international magazine Cosmopolitan and the screening of the American TV series "Sex and the City." On the other hand, a commercial radio station was fined more than 8,000 euros in September for broadcasting a recording of a female orgasm, which the censors considered "obscene."
An adviser to former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew reprimanded Today editor Mano Sabnani in November for allowing a report to be published about a trip by Lee’s wife to London for medical reasons. The young journalist who wrote the story, Val Chua, reportedly had her press card suspended.
The country’s two press groups, Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) and Mediacorp, are led by supporters of the People’s Action Party, which has been in power for nearly 40 years. They keep strict control of the editorial line of their TV and radio stations and newspapers. SPH, the dominant group, is headed by Tjong Yik Min, who was one of the directors of the security services in the 1980s. Chua Lee Hoon, the star columnist of the daily The Straits Times, admits to also acting as an "expert" for the political police. The Straits Times bills itself as "one of the world’s most respected newspapers" and it does indeed have a reputation for its Asia coverage. But it practices systematic self-censorship in its domestic reporting. Its competitors are Today and Streats, which dare more often to publish independent commentaries on the domestic situation. Nonetheless, the only real freedom is to be found on a small number of Internet sites operated by government opponents or by some of the few independent journalists. But they risk very heavy fines for defamation while the internal security law allows the authorities to imprison people without judicial approval.
The media are also at the service of the state. In the middle of the Sars epidemic in May, for example, the two main press groups got together to launch a TV channel entirely given over to "informing and educating Singaporeans about the different aspects of Sars." The programmes, which went out by cable, were terminated when the epidemic had been contained. The state tends in general to be interventionist. The information minister announced in June that Singapore wanted to become a "global media city." To this end, the state Media Development Authority plans to invest nearly 100 million euros in the media sector over the next five years. In return, the government expects media professionals to step up their efforts to increase the sector’s share of Singapore’s GDP. But when a foreign specialist called for a radical liberalisation of censorship and media control policies, the minister bristled. He finally conceded that some regulations might have to be revised in order not to hold back economic growth.