If xenophobia is defined as an unreasonable fear of foreigners, then the Media Development Authority may have some explaining to do. An obvious fear of foreign influences permeates the piles of paperwork which the MDA requires news websites to submit as an apparent condition of operating. Those burdensome sheets seem to have overwhelmed former Straits Times associate editor Bertha Henson and her fledgling Breakfast Network site has now been shuttered. Losing a professional journalist from the online media space is a significant loss, although she has committed to continue her personal blogging. But one question remains – should foreign influences really be excluded from Singapore’s media landscape? Is the fear of foreign meddling in local politics well founded, or is the MDA acting irrationally?
Xenophobia or hypocrisy?
The fear of foreign influence on local politics may appear well founded on the surface – Singaporean media for Singaporeans, right? But the most cursory of analysis reveals that the government position on this topic is hypocritical and untenable. One of the conditions that publishers are required to submit to is that they receive no foreign funding for their site. “Foreign” includes Singaporean permanent residents and companies with more than one foreigner (again, including PRs) on the board. The first whiff of hypocrisy comes from Mediacorp. I’ve not checked all their passports, but it does appear that at least one member of the Mediacorp board is not a Singapore citizen. Temasek Holdings, which owns 100% of Mediacorp, appears to have two board members who might fall foul of those same regulations. So is the MDA acting hypocritically in holding non-government linked news websites to a more stringent set of rules than those which Mediacorp appears to operate under?
More significant than the presence of a few overseas board members however is the explicit platform that foreigners are often given by the mainstream media to engage on local political matters. This being despite the MDA continuing to re-iterate that “politics must remain a matter for Singapore and Singaporeans alone” as they chase Breakfast Network off Facebook and other social media. The most obvious and recent example of this double standard is Parag Khanna. Parag Khanna is a foreigner (a PR) in the terms set by the MDA, yet he is given an open invitation by the mainstream media to speak at length in an effort to influence Singaporeans’ views on contentious local political issues – such as the population white paper. This is a clear violation of the MDA’s principle that politics should strictly be for Singaporeans, yet they apparently decline to censure the Straits Times for canvassing his views so openly.
This peculiar double standard however is easy to resolve once we understand the relationship between the government and mainstream media. Of course, Parag Khanna is given a government sponsored platform – and coming in the form of the government controlled Straits Times, the platform definitely is government sponsored – precisely for the purpose of speaking in support of the government and their unpopular policies. This is in contrast to the stated fear of foreign influences online, where perhaps it is not so much a fear of foreign voices exactly, as it is a fear of critical voices, which coming from overseas are much harder for the government to manage and contain.
As with many things in Singapore then, this is a power play by a ruling party which fears any dissenting voices that cannot be coerced or bullied into line. Foreign influences beyond the control of the government are kept on a tight leash, yet at the same time, foreigners who wish to influence the political landscape in support of the ruling party, enjoy the most sizable of platforms to put forth their views. In taking this approach, the government is attempting to ensure that the flow of information is always in their own favour.
The closed circle
This is therefore another example of the closed circle, wherein legislative and institutional structures which should be independent are actually designed and aligned to support the power of the ruling party. While this double standard on foreign voices influencing local political issues makes little sense superficially, the deeper principle is an immutable truth about Singapore. The government controls the media to support their goals and motives, through the availability of a monopoly platform for supportive voices, while simultaneously maintaining a significant legislative arsenal – which includes the MDA and the their licensing framework, but also defamation and contempt of court laws – aimed at silencing independent and critical voices.
The way forwards
If we sought to resolve the hypocrisy problem, there are two obvious approaches – a uniform ban or a uniform acceptance of foreign influences on local political matters – the latter of which is obviously preferable and clearly less xenophobic. But once we accept that the double standard is in fact by design, the claims of hypocrisy and irrationality directed at the MDA begin to melt away, for while to some their actions may seem heavy-handed and blundering, the fact remains that the MDA appear to have served their political masters successfully. And political is exactly what this situation is. Stripped of the hypocrisy and irrationality, the heart of the problem is obviously a political and partisan effort on the part of the ruling party to control the flow of information their own favour.
So if the problem is political, then the solution should be political too. A dismantling of the closed circle of power that the PAP have built over many years seems essential. A total reform of the laws making up our media landscape should also be front and centre, including mainstream as well as digital and social media. These changes will not come easily however, the PAP are certainly not going to give up control of the media voluntarily. The only real solution is political, through the ballot box, and it can only come by replacing the PAP with parties committed to making the necessary reforms.