The government headed by Lee Hsien Loong, with his father Lee Kuan Yew behind the scenes, has been engaged in a fierce battle with several foreign publications and at the same time has cracked down on Singaporean bloggers and cyberdissidents.
While hosting a World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) meeting in October 2006, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke out against the international media, which he said were trying to impose “their norms and their standards” on the country in relation to freedom of expression. The head of government justified control on the press in comments in July when he said that Asian countries who got “the best financial results were those whose media was less aggressive”.
The opposition was given very little opportunity to get its message across during the legislative election campaign in May. The Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) was given two and a half minutes air time on TV channels while many pro-government media spread false information about opposition candidates. And the government used a number of ruses to silence critical voices. Before the campaign, they banned political podcasts which are increasingly popular in Singapore.
Under threat of a defamation suit brought by both father and son Lee, the printer of The New Democrat, the SDP newsletter, was forced in April to apologise and promise not to print it again. To intimidate him still further, local pro-government newspapers published rumours about his private life. Police summoned SDP secretary general Chee Soon Juan on several occasions for selling The New Democrat in the street.
After the ruling PAP comfortably won the election, one leader, Baey Yam Keng speaking in November called for more debate in the national media. “When I read commentaries in the press and those published on blogs, it seems to me as though they come from two different populations speaking about two different countries,” he said. There was no reaction from the government.
The authorities tried to browbeat the foreign press into submission in 2006, in particular the Far Eastern Economic Review (FEER). After the paper carried an article about opposition leader Chee Soon Juan, which it called the “country’s martyr” because of the numerous legal suits which he has had to face, the prime minister unleashed a series of retaliatory measures against the Hong Kong-based FEER. Lee Hsien Loong and his father brought a “defamation” case at the end of August against editor Hugo Restall and the magazine’s publisher. They were also told to conform to section 23 of the law on newspapers and the written press which obliges foreign media to recruit a legal representative in the country and to pay a deposit of 200,000 Singapore dollars (100,000 euros). Four other English-language newspapers the International Herald Tribune, Time, the Financial Times and Newsweek, all received instructions to comply with the same rules when their licence expired. The FEER decided not to give in and, on the contrary, its editor announced that he planned to fight the government in the courts. At the end of September the FEER was banned from circulating in Singapore.
The Singaporean press is relatively independent as far as regional and international news goes. But it clearly operates self-censorship on domestic politics. In July the weekly column of blogger Lee Kin Mun, alias "mr brown", in the daily Today was axed after a criticism of a member of the government. The blogger had received several warnings.
In 2006, the government struck hard at the Internet. Several legal cases were launched for posting news, podcasts or videos on the Web. SDP activist Yap Keng Ho was sentenced in November to a fine of 2,000 dollars for posting a video of an illegal gathering of his party on his blog. Since the blogger refused to pay the fine, it was commuted to a prison sentence and he was jailed the same day for a period of ten days.