The importance of a compliant, government controlled media to support the misdeeds of authoritarian governments is not lost on the PAP. Lee Kuan Yew, the political godfather of Singapore, spoke eloquently in opposition on the evils that could be achieved in such an environment. As long as no voices exist to either contradict the lies or highlight the failings of a ruling party, there is almost no limit to the level of deceit that can be inflicted on unsuspecting citizens. The threat posed to such a government monopoly by independent voices online is increasingly forcing the Singapore government propaganda machine to be dialed up to eleven.
[A]n intimidated press and the government-controlled radio together can regularly sing your praises, and slowly and steadily the people are made to forget the evil things that have already been done, or if these things are referred to again they’re conveniently distorted and distorted with impunity, because there will be no opposition to contradict.
Lee Kuan Yew as an opposition PAP member speaking to David Marshall, Singapore Legislative Assembly, Debates, 4 October, 1956
An intimidated press is the model under which Singapore’s ruling PAP have governed for decades, however in recent years increasingly vocal online critics have challenged the government’s monopoly on news and analysis. Missteps, greater numbers of corruption cases and unexplained policy u-turns have increasingly been cited by online critics as indications of a government that does not plan or execute with a level of excellence most would expect in the context of their self awarded gargantuan paychecks. In response to the threat independent critics pose to the government’s monopoly of mainstream news and analysis, the ruling party has recently resorted to ever-more desperate efforts to silence, intimidate or discredit online commentators – the most recent example came a few weeks ago when Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen went so far as to suggest that online sources of misinformation could hamper Singapore’s Total Defence efforts. It appears that the existence of online voices critical of the ruling party has forced the government to turn their own propaganda machine up to eleven in response.
This is a sign of how much times have changed since Lee spoke in 1956. Having gained power for his People’s Action Party he would ultimately perform the most hypocritical of u-turns. Over the follow decades practically every democratic principle he spoke in support of in the years before he became Prime Minister of Singapore was abandoned, and there are few examples of this which are more glaring than his cultivation of the sort of intimidated, government controlled media that he opposed in 1956. The seeds of this were sown in the 1970s (and well documented by Francis Seow in his book “Media Enthralled”) when Lee cracked down on independent newspapers, but to this day Singapore’s mainstream media remains moribund, languishing below even that of Vladimir Putin’s Russia in international rankings for freedom.
In recent years however the media landscape has changed significantly. In Singapore, as in practically every country around the world, the emergence of the internet represents a revolution in the way people communicate and share information. And for the government here, as well as authoritarian governments around the world, this revolution represents an existential threat to the power of the ruling party. By giving ordinary citizens a means to not just by-pass but also directly challenge and contradict government lies and propaganda, what Lee described as “the evil things that have already been done” are harder to forget. The carefully stage-managed reputation for excellence that has been cultivated over the years is ever more difficult to maintain. The rudderless policy u-turns can no longer be executed in complete silence, since it is hard to pretend one has not changed course when a dozen bloggers are on hand to remind their readers.
All the above brings us to the crossroads Singapore current sits at. In one direction lies greater freedom of expression and a government that is constrained from mischief by the voices of ordinary Singaporeans speaking up when they feel something is wrong. In the other direction lies a return to the past, where ever fewer Singaporeans have a voice or a platform to speak out if they are concerned about the way the country is being run, and where the government has greater freedom to distort the truth and cover up its mistakes. While most Singaporeans would prefer more freedom to express themselves – and most importantly be listened to – it is clear the government wants to take Singapore down the much darker, regressive path. We see this in the MDA’s recent licensing changes. We see this in numerous attempts to malign and discredit bloggers (not to mention making inexplicable late night phone calls). And now we see the government going so far as to suggest that careless online comments can threaten the very defense of Singapore itself – the desperation betrayed by such extreme levels of propaganda should be obvious.
The desperation of the government may be obvious, but we should be careful to consider the question of why? Why is the government so desperate to lead Singapore down a regressive path, restricting freedom of speech? Restricting freedom to criticise and critically analyse government decisions and mistakes? Does the government covet the power spoken of by LKY, to distort the truth? Does the government wish that we, as LKY warned, forget some evils that have been done in the past? Is government policy so directionless that complete u-turns on policy will need to be performed without explanation? Who really benefits from the government’s stance on this? It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the government seeks to lead us down the dark and regressive path because it is the best way for the current leaders to maintain power, rather than because it is best aligned with the wishes of ordinary Singaporeans or the best way to make Singapore better. Is there anyone outside the PAP who believes Singapore would be better of with an increased rather than reduced government monopoly over news and information?
As Lee senior knew very well all those years ago, government controlled media is bad for citizens, but good for governments with dirty secrets to hide. So then why does his son’s government increasingly try to drown out the voices of ordinary citizens with noisy propaganda, intimidation and utterly absurd legislation? One can only guess.