Academic journal article SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia

International NGOs: Filling the "Gap" in Singapore's Civil Society

Academic journal article SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia

International NGOs: Filling the "Gap" in Singapore's Civil Society

Article excerpt

When Reporters Sans Frontieres (1) (RSF) released their annual worldwide Press Freedom Index in 2004, putting Singapore near the bottom of the rung at 147 out of 167 countries, it made local news only because the People's Action Party (PAP) government rebutted the report by noting that "outsiders shouldn't equate freedom with criticizing the government" ("Singapore Slams Media Watchdog for Low Ranking in Press Freedom" 17 November 2004). The Minister of Information, Communications and the Arts, Dr Lee Boon Yang, in responding to a question in parliament by Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) Steve Chia, said that RSF's index "imposes a standard that fails to take into account 'special circumstances' in Singapore", where "journalists contribute to the nation's development and are not necessarily adversarial" (Latif 2004). He added that the index is "based largely on a different media model which favours the advocacy and adversarial role of the press" (ibid.). Former local journalist turned academic Russell Heng in a commentary about the incident two weeks later wrote that "The government would probably have ignored the [RSF] insult had Non-Constituency MP Steve Chia not dragged it out in Parliament two weeks ago" (Heng 2004).

Soon after this commentary, a journalist with the Straits Times wrote an opinion piece reflecting on the work of organizations such as Freedom House, Amnesty International (AI), and RSF that annually rate Singapore as restrictive and not a free democracy. In that piece, the writer argued that Singaporeans should care that their country is ranked so poorly on human rights indices because a poor international image would perpetuate the perception of limited civil liberties in Singapore and may, in turn, lead to the country losing foreign economic investment (Chua 2004). She suggested that, to correct the perception of poor human rights conditions, Singapore should plead to be evaluated differently. Her view was supported by the Press Secretary to the Minister of Home Affairs, who claimed that "human rights" was a Western liberal idea and that Singapore is unique (Ong-Chew 2004). Singapore should hence be exempt from such evaluations.

In April 2005 when two RSF personnel passed through Singapore and gave a press briefing organized by the Think Centre, a local nongovernmental organization (NGO), the Straits Times dispatched one of its journalists, Asad Latif, to cover the event. In a commentary published a week later, Latif argued that journalists from local media institutions should be judged by what they can do and not what they cannot do. He wrote that criticism of the local media is often only from critics of the political system, not from those happy with how things are run in Singapore (Latif 2005).

This series of interconnected incidents provide a valuable insight into the thinking of a segment of the Singaporean government and the local media. It reveals the arguments they use to reject such external reports and rankings of the state of freedom of expression and media in Singapore, the latter of which has in recent years grown in scope and variety. The above incidents also show that the PAP government is not the only one that responds negatively to such rankings of the local media, but that local journalists also respond negatively to them. Thus both the political and local media elite hold similar positions on the work of external advocacy organizations.

A decade earlier, news of such rankings would probably not have reached most Singaporeans or have even been debated in the local media as it was not the general practice of the local media to report such rankings. Instead, the practice was to report rankings that saw Singapore at the top, such as the annual Foreign Policy/AT Kearney Globalization Index; the World Economic Forum's Global Competitiveness Index; Economic Freedom of the World ratings; and the International Institute for Management Development's World Competitiveness rankings, just to name a few. …

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