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World Press Freedom Review
1999 World Press Freedom Review
Chee Song Juan, head of the opposition Singapore Democratic Party, triggered a rare debate on free-speech restrictions in the city-state of Singapore by making two public speeches without a permit. In two separate cases, Chee was found guilty under the Public Entertainment Act, which requires permits for public speaking, and had to serve 7 and 12 days in prison respectively after he refused to pay the fines (US$ 830 and US$ 1,400), saying that the law violated his constitutional right to free speech. Chee Soo Juan was again convicted in March to pay a fine of US$ 350 for selling his book about Asian dissidents, "To Be Free", without a public health permit. The government says the permit law is a procedural matter necessary to maintain public order and does not substantively affect the right of free speech. But Chee’s opinion is that the public speaking permit system and censorship laws in Singapore are designed to make it hard for the opposition to be heard, stifling the democratic process. "In a multi-racial and multi-religious Singapore, we cannot put at risk the racial harmony and sense of public order, peace and safety built up painstakingly over the years," said Casimir Rozarion, a director of the Ministry of Home Affairs, rejecting a call for free-speech venues by members of a civil discussion group. Although the right to freedom of expression is granted by the constitution, in this so-called ‘Disneyland with death penalty’ key parts of the news media are state controlled, permits are required for public speaking and publications, censorship is strict and libel laws are rigorously enforced.
At the beginning of February Singapore’s parliament rejected an opposition motion urging the government to licence a completely independent press. J.B.Jeyaretnam said that the fact that Singapore’s newspapers are all owned by the government-linked Singapore Press Holding (SPH) curbed press freedom and he called for a newspaper company independent of SPH. Yatim Yusoff, senior parliamentary secretary for the Ministry of Information and the Arts, said Singapore wanted a non-adversarial press which reported accurately and objectively and did not subscribe to the US model of a free press.
The old and often discussed idea that Asia has a different culture and therefore different values from the "West" is still very much used by Singapore officials to justify limitations on individual freedoms and, specifically, on freedom of the press. "A balance must be struck between critical self-examination and limits on press freedom in Asian societies, where race and religion are sensitive issues" wrote the Singapore Strait Times, one of the SPH’s newspapers, in April. "Acknowledging that Asian societies do not encourage a sufficient degree of critical self-examination which would allow creativity to flourish... in promoting self-examination, there must be limits on press freedom."
But the new technologies, particularly the Internet, are forcing Singapore to relax some of its strict censorship laws. In the past it was easy for the government to keep out books, movies and magazines by simply banning their distribution or to prohibit home satellite dishes and take the licences of publishers deemed too controversial. But with 20 percent of Singaporeans connected to the Web, many see the government’s efforts to block controversial web-sites and scan private e-mails more as a demonstration of the government’s technical capability than as an effective form of censorship. Moreover, when it comes to the business community, the government has been willing to back down. Under a law enacted in 1998 to help attract foreign investment, for example, Internet service providers are no longer liable if their customers use their services to visit forbidden sites. On July 22, state television reported the newly-appointed Information Minister Lee Yock Suan as saying that the government is planning to review its censorship law in light of changing values and the influence of new technologies. "Times have changed and we are all bombarded by all these new media... Values have changed, people are now much more exposed," the Minister said.
Although this seems to be an unavoidable process for Singapore, censorship laws haven’t been softened yet and self-censorship is still very strong in the mind of most Singaporeans.
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