Miss Chua championing free press.Oct 28, 2005
Take a hard look at bad press on freedom
By Chua Mui Hoong
THIS has been a Black October of sorts for those who harbour hopes of liberalising, democratising political change in Singapore.
Two high-profile bits of news have given the Republic a decidedly bad press.
A grouping of academics at Warwick University voted against the institution's plans to set up a campus in Singapore, citing concerns about academic freedom and financial viability.
And in its latest report, media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranked Singapore 140th in media freedom out of 167, alongside places like Azerbaijan (141), Bhutan (142), Egypt (143) and Syria (145).
Should Singaporeans care, when their country gets a bad press internationally or when surveys rank Singapore poorly?
Should Singaporeans be irked that this Republic, which has a constitutionally elected legislature and clean elections, is once again rated 'partly free' this year by the well-known Freedom House survey, with a dismal score of five for its political rights (seven being least free on a scale of one to seven)?
One approach to such issues is to discredit all such ratings as either inaccurate or demonstrating a 'Western' bias.
Another more nuanced response argues for 'Singapore exceptionalism', which basically says Singapore's multiracial and fragile society is unique and needs delicate management, and that Singapore is evolving its own brand of political democracy.
There is a third way to respond to Singapore's poor showing in these areas, which is to acknowledge that even if the surveys are not perfect, there may be lessons to be learnt from the substantive issues raised.
In other words, take them seriously enough to examine if, indeed, there are shortcomings in the areas of democratic freedom, human rights and civil liberties in Singapore's system.
After all, we are proud of accolades the country wins in the economic field.
Stories about its standing in competitiveness ratings, the top quality of its workforce, the high level of economic freedom, as well as having an excellent port or airport are regularly featured in the media and become talking points.
When Singapore does badly in a rating with economic impact, we look carefully at the issue and see if something can be done to rectify the situation. For example, Singapore has been doing badly for years now in competitiveness ratings in the indicators based on school enrolment.
The latest World Economic Forum (WEF) rating put Singapore 69th for primary education and health. Instead of rubbishing those ratings in the past, efforts were made to improve. Schooling has been made compulsory and, over time, the school enrolment figures should go up, and the rating improve.
But a poor rating on human rights or political freedom seems to attract a different kind of response, with the Government disagreeing with or discrediting the report.
The Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts' response to the media freedom index is that: 'The Press Freedom Index drawn up is based largely on a different media model which favours the advocacy and adversarial role of the press.'
When Amnesty International highlighted Singapore's execution rate last year, the Ministry of Home Affairs issued a detailed rebuttal which corrected factual errors. It went on to accuse the organisation of distorting facts and questioned its credibility.
It may well be that reports from institutions like Amnesty and RSF lack the rigour of competitiveness ratings by the likes of the WEF, and are more open to rebuttal.
Indeed, rights advocacy groups are by no means saintly institutions and some may have murky vested interests.
Even so, a more constructive response is to adopt a spirit of enquiry and an open mind to examine the substantive issues more closely.
For example: Is there cause for concern about media freedom in Singapore? Is the death penalty at risk of being overused? What are the safeguards to ensure that the vulnerable, marginalised groups such as those highlighted by Amnesty receive due process when sentenced?
In the case of Warwick University and academic freedom, Education Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam struck the right note when he balanced justifying Singapore to its critics, and taking an honest hard look at areas for improvement.
First, he noted that academics are free to study anything they wish and that many academics here are foreigners who presumably have no issue with lack of academic freedom.
He added: 'We should never think we are in a perfect spot. Are we at an optimal point now? I doubt it. We must evolve. The intellectual climate is not cast in stone.
'It will have to evolve with a new generation of Singaporeans...but it will have to reflect realities of the world around us, especially on race and religion.'
The same statement can be made with regard to issues to do with human rights and civil liberties.
Is Singapore at an optimal point now on these? Like the minister, I doubt it. Like him, I think we will evolve in our own way.
On Oct 6, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said at a talk to the Foreign Correspondents' Association that he had no doubt Singapore society and its politics would change. But Singapore won't become and doesn't aspire to be a Western-style democracy, he said.
Debate about the democratic development of Singapore and taking a hard look at weaknesses in the political system that impede democratic evolution - these are matters of domestic concern, and should not be interpreted as kowtowing to 'Western' brow-beating.
After all, even China is forthright about its wish to evolve a democracy with Chinese characteristics, where the people's 'legitimate rights and interests are fully guaranteed', as its first White Paper on democracy released on Oct 19 stated.
Within the parameters of keeping the Communist Party in charge, even communist China is paying attention to its democratic evolution.
So when foreign criticisms put Singapore's perceived lack of freedoms under scrutiny, the Singapore Government and people should examine the issue with an open mind, not adopt a defensive posture to discredit those views.
As even government ministers acknowledge, Singapore must change politically. No one knows what kind of creature the Singapore democracy will evolve into.
But evolve it must, and part of the process of evolution entails being honest about its flaws.
Seriously, I felt is rather weird and disconcerting when I read this article.
Since when did ST become a champion for freedom of press? Isn't it supposed to be a national consensuses building press? How can it fulfil its duty if there is freedom of press? Won't the people be confused by all the different opinions that arise from the lack of control? Lolx.
Anyway I had suggested in one of my previous post a good way to improve our rankings, perhaps Miss Chua could consider it if she wanted to do her part in affecting changes. ;)
Nevertheless she has highlighted some of the flaws in our system, hence kudos to her for that.