Singapore: Refining Media Control Before A General Election

2001

Garry Rodan

Moves to fine-tune controls over electronic media suggest the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) is preparing the ground for a general election. Although an election is not required until August 2002, the PAP has never run close to full term. It is also accustomed to conducting election campaigns with a sympathetic media that promote rather than question or scrutinise its message.

Last month the Singapore Broadcasting Authority (Amendment) Bill brought broadcasting into line with printed media by outlawing ‘interference in domestic politics’ in that medium too. The amendment appears to give effect to former information minister George Yeo’s pronouncements in 1999. After appearances on CNBC and BBC television by Singapore Democratic Party’s Chee Soon Juan, who was imprisoned for speaking in a public place without a permit, Yeo then put foreign broadcasters on notice. By the time of the next election, he declared, there would need to be less coverage of government critics.

This month, and ironically at the launching of the PAP’s new website, Deputy Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced that the Elections Department was drafting new regulations to control the political use of the Internet during election campaigns. Already political advertising using films or videos is banned. But the government wants to clarify the status of website chat forums and other forms of communication where it believes the boundaries between information, advertising and entertainment are blurred. As Lee explained: ‘The way we have conducted politics, we have tried to channel the debate in a serious direction, towards information and discussion, rather than advertising, image and soft impressions because, really, politics is a serious business.’

Among the fourteen or so websites and bulletin boards dedicated to Singapore politics, some interweave serious content with a measure of levity and pizzazz that are absent within the political establishment. Indeed, the PAP’s website prompted one local columnist to observe: ‘There’s a lot of history, geography and party philosophy – but no discussion forum. No chat room. No nothing of the sort that draws crowds to a website’. The website of the Think Centre, a reformist think tank, is possibly a chief target of the pending regulations. It not only exudes a less anxious approach to critical politics than opposition parties. It has also creatively exploited the Internet to attract attention for its activities, and even to mobilise protest action.

WATCHPOINT: Before the next election, the PAP will be hoping to have regulations in place to limit the impact of tech savvy political entrepreneurs.

 

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