Out of Bounds: Freedom of Expression in Singapore Revisited

Author: James Rowlins
Published:

Singapore’s troubled relationship with freedom of speech and lack of a credible free press is no secret. William Gibson’s infamous treatise on Singapore, “Disneyland with the Death Penalty”, labelled the city-state’s newspapers as “essentially organs of the state”.[1] Academics have analysed the mechanics of the state’s media interventionism in detail. James Gomez writes that the prevalence of a “censorial culture”, particularly “self-censorship, [is] how the PAP (People’s Action Party)[2] administrative state has, over the decades, been able to effectively expand its control over the hearts and minds of its citizens”.[3]

International observers have confirmed the academics’ findings. In 2018, Reporters Without Borders ranked Singapore 151 out of 180 countries in the Press Freedom Index, lower than Indonesia (124), the Philippines (133), Thailand (140), and Malaysia (145). Under the heading “Intolerant government, self-censorship”, the report notes that:

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s government reacts quickly to criticism from journalists and does not hesitate to sue them, apply pressure to make them unemployable, or even force them to leave the country […] As a result of judicial and financial pressure from the authorities, self-censorship is widespread, including within the alternative independent media. The red lines imposed by the authorities, known by journalists as ‘OB markers’ (for out-of-bounds markers), apply to an ever-wider range of issues and public figures.[4]

The term “OB Marker” refers to a key principle of the practice of censorship in Singapore—an unspoken agreement that certain things will not be written about. Cheong Yip Seng, editor of The Straits Times from 1987 to 2006, published memoirs titled OB Marker: My Straits Times Story, in which he recounts his many run-ins with Prime Minister Lee and his successors.[5] As Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew was the chief architect of the Singapore’s media policy. In opposition, he staunchly supported a free media and criticised the pro-government The Straits Times, but once in power he made no secret of his desire to muzzle the free press in the name of “nation-building”. He infamously told the International Press Institute in 1971 that “freedom of the news media must be subordinated to the overriding needs of the integrity of Singapore, and to the primacy of purpose of an elected government”, and that the designated role of the media is to “reinforce, not to undermine, the cultural values and social attitudes being inculcated in our schools and universities”.[6] In a speech given to the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 1988, Lee forbade foreign journalists from playing the role of “invigilator, adversary, and inquisitor of the Administration”,[7] as is permitted in the USA, categorically stating that “one value which does not fit Singapore is the theory of the press as the fourth estate”.[8] In addition to banning various publications, Lee oversaw the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act of 1974, requiring newspapers to apply to the government for annual permits. In short, if a newspaper were to behave in a hostile way towards the ruling party, it would risk losing its licence. On top of this, the Act also gives the government the power to appoint the management shareholders of newspaper companies. With management shares holding more weight than ordinary shares in “any resolution relating to the appointment or dismissal of a director or any member of the staff of a newspaper company”, the government essentially also holds sway over staffing decisions.

The term ‘OB Marker’ refers to a key principle of the practice of censorship in Singapore—an unspoken agreement that certain things will not be written about.

Lee Kuan Yew stepped down as Prime Minister in 1990 and gave up his official role in government in 2011.[9] Without Lee at the helm, one might expect Singapore to have become more aligned with liberal Western democracies, or at least its neighbours. This is certainly the assumption that I made when I was offered a position at the newly-established Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), established in collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). I was aware of Singapore’s reputation as a conservative country, but I was informed by my prospective employers that the prevailing winds were changing, and that the younger generation has a more international outlook. In analysing whether Singapore has indeed evolved in a more liberal direction in recent years—specifically whether it has relaxed its stringent press controls and adopted a new attitude towards freedom of expression—I will primarily draw on my firsthand observations as a lecturer in film and media studies from 2012 to 2018.

Academia’s conservative culture club

My initial appraisal of liberties in the city-state, from within academia, was relatively positive—although in retrospect I see that the demands of my new job prevented me from fully fathoming my environment. MIT was supportive of my efforts to establish film and media electives. Once these were approved in principle, I had free rein to create syllabi that included theoretical writings against censorship, the perils of excluding the ‘other’ (such as ethnic, religious and sexual minorities) from representation and discourse, and films that explored socialist, anarchistic, libertarian and anti-war themes. I screened films that had, until recently, been banned in Singapore, such as Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, and films with extremely difficult content, such as Von Trier’s The Idiots, without interference. A university administrator once informed me that my duty as mentor to the university’s film club was to “keep the students on the straight and narrow”. I politely thanked him for his time. The guiding principle was that, within my classroom, it was forbidden to forbid. Instead of writing essays, students had to respond to the course content by making their own films. These could be about whatever the students wanted, without fear of censorship, so long as it was a genuine expression of their ideas.

Film poster for A Clockwork Orange

At first, students were resistant to studying films that did not offer reassuring worldviews, and perturbed by writings that explored non-heteronormative, psycho-sexual behaviour. I empathised with this, as they had never encountered anything like these works before, but I refused to moderate the materials. It so happened that the first batch of SUTD students (“pioneers”) were self-motivated and determined, prepared for the challenges that a start-up university entailed. In time, they were able to embrace ideas about complex and challenging subject matter. Films with anti-capitalist and anti-systemic themes, such as Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, spoke to the students in a very direct way—in fact, I have never seen such unabated enthusiasm for Chaplin. The films that the students produced were nothing short of extraordinary, exploring themes related to the repression of minorities, identity politics, conformity and LGBTQ+ issues. A favourite motif in students’ narratives was the fear of become consumed by a monotonous, soul-destroying career. I had the impression that for many, this was the first time in their education that they had been allowed to give free expression to their own ideas. Observers from MIT were especially enthusiastic about the films, as they corresponded to the MIT ideal of combining creative and critical thinking. SUTD’s senior academic management was satisfied with the programme’s popularity among students and supplied us with camera equipment, without fully grasping the nature of the course.

A favourite motif in students’ narratives was the fear of become consumed by a monotonous, soul-destroying career.

SUTD marketed itself as being different from the other universities in Singapore, providing a hands-on learning experience, no grading curve and the chance to study at MIT. But from the inside, I had the impression of a staid institution. The senior academic leadership never outlined any great vision for the school. Faculty meetings were concerned with the minutiae of curriculum development and student policies, and there was rarely any expression of disagreement. Crucially, it was apparent that the leadership’s understanding of Humanities and Arts education was as a service department to help students write and speak well. Many of my colleagues in the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences (HASS) department saw no problem with this, as it allowed them to pursue their own conservative agendas. Indeed, many of my fellow lecturers were remarkably conservative people, who took it upon themselves to challenge me over my ‘liberal’ teaching agenda. By way of an example, after a lecture in which I entertained the idea that Lee Kuan Yew’s tight control over a free media had had a negative impact on Singapore’s arts and film scene, a historian cautioned me to avoid such sensitive topics. In time, it became harder to get my electives approved after colleagues objected to teaching visual culture at SUTD, claiming it wasn’t a valid field of academic study. It even became hard for me to reserve the university’s auditorium.

I co-taught a core Humanities syllabus, mandatory for all freshers, which was dominated by the study of the Bible and other sacred religious texts. I protested to my colleagues that it was inappropriately orthodox to impose religious studies on science-centred students, but to no avail. In addition to the difficulty I had in motivating students to read these works, a further problem was that students felt they could not say anything critical about religious creeds, partly out of habit, and also, crucially, for fear of violating Singapore’s speech laws. It was therefore hard to impart anything meaningful in class. My attempts to introduce writings by so-called freethinkers (Voltaire and Roland Barthes, for instance) also failed.[*] Hostile to postmodern literary theory, colleagues publicly rebutted my lectures and I was eventually omitted from the lecturing circuit.

The department’s conservative ethos manifested itself in other ways too. In my final year of teaching, at the behest of a Parliamentary committee, my colleagues agreed to incorporate a Singaporean civics component into Humanities classes. The goal was for the teaching of film, literature and philosophy to help form students’ ideas about how to be a good citizen. I objected to this on the grounds that it was impossible to teach when the outcome of a reading is predetermined by anything, let alone by governmental policy.

It was therefore hard to impart anything meaningful in class. My attempts to introduce writings by so-called freethinkers (Voltaire and Roland Barthes, for instance) also failed.

I had never personally encountered such an anti-libertarian bias in any university in the UK, France or the USA. It is my opinion that many of the HASS faculty hires produced anachronistic scholarship that would not have passed a rigorous jobs committee reading in established Western universities, but once they had a foothold at SUTD, they were able to consolidate and strengthen their position.[10] It didn’t help that the first Head of the department, recruited a full three years after the creation of the university, appeared more interested in making use of the university’s financial resources than the day-to-day business of running a department. Those who did not share the department’s conservative ethos decried the situation in private, but remained silent in faculty meetings, afraid of being flagged as troublemakers. Nobody knew for sure the consequences of speaking out, but in time, a gifted and forthright colleague who lectured on literature and sexuality failed to have her contract renewed. It is important to note that the majority of my colleagues were foreigners, primarily Americans and Europeans, and as such were accustomed to generous academic freedoms. But as a collective, they behaved with the utmost timidity. In this way, it was ultimately my experience that the practice of self-censorship and the infamous out-of-bounds markers applied as much to academia as to journalism.

The Amos Yee affair

Lee Kuan Yew’s death in March 2015 inadvertently led to a major incident relating to freedom of expression in Singapore, namely the prosecution of the teenage blogger and YouTube star Amos Yee. In the wake of Lee’s death, Yee posted a video titled “Lee Kuan Yew is finally dead!” in which he compared the former leader to Jesus, declaring him to be a “horrible person”, an “awful leader” and “a dictator who managed to fool most of the world to think he was democratic”. On his blog he posted a drawing of Lee Kuan Yew and Margaret Thatcher engaging in a sex act. Unable to stop the 16-year-old Yee from self-publishing on YouTube, Facebook and WordPress, the authorities charged and subsequently convicted him of publishing obscene materials (Section 282 of the Penal Code) and for “wounding the religious feelings of Christians” (Section 298 of the Penal Code). After a spell in prison, Yee published more inflammatory comments on his blog, this time disparaging Islam. Following a second prison term, in December 2016 Yee fled to the United States, where he was granted asylum in September 2017.

Amos Yee

Amos Yee’s treatment drew sharp criticism from international journalists and bloggers, and bodies such as the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists and the United Nations Human Rights Office, who declared that “the criminal sanctions considered in this case seem disproportionate and inappropriate in terms of the international protections for freedom of expression and opinion”.[11] The Guardian wrote that the “subsequent arrest of Yee is a sign that the suppression of free speech during Lee’s time in power has continued as a part of governance in Singapore”.[12] Nathan Heller of The New Yorker wrote that “those of us in the fourth estate have a duty to spread word of his ridiculous charges”, adding: “Yee has all the hallmarks of a green and thriving mind; he is exactly the kind of person you would one day want reviewing your books, making your movies, maybe even running your country.”[13]

This incident was pivotal in my assessment of the progression—or worsening—of freedom of expression in Singapore. The fact that the authorities used the Penal Code to indict a young person appeared to signal that the government planned no relaxation of Singapore’s stringent intolerance of dissent. My attempts to dialogue with students on Amos Yee generally met with silence—a distinct feeling that even in the context of a media module, this was out-of-bounds. I was even more disappointed that academics with whom I had previously collaborated took a neutral or hostile attitude towards Yee. A colleague at the National University of Singapore (NUS) published a paper titled “Amos Yee, Free Speech, and Maintaining Religious Harmony in Singapore”,[14] in which he claims foreign commentators have forgotten that “religious harmony is a key issue in the management of religiously insensitive speech in Singapore”, and, tenuously, that the laws used to prosecute Yee are no more extreme than historic blasphemy laws in the USA and Holocaust-denial prohibitions in Europe.

My attempts to dialogue with students on Amos Yee generally met with silence—a distinct feeling that even in the context of a media module, this was out-of-bounds.

State of the media

It is relatively easy for the State to place controls over news outlets and websites operating in Singapore. A significant example of this occurred in 2015, when Singapore’s Media Development Authority (MDA) ordered the closure of a popular online news portal, The Real Singapore (TRS). TRS published crowd-sourced articles on all aspects of Singaporean life, including tabloid human-interest stories, political news and current affairs. At its peak it had over three million visitors per month and was generating a substantial profit in advertising revenue.[15] The site published articles without a high degree of editorial control. After TRS had uploaded a series of stories about the alleged misbehaviour of migrant workers, the MDA stepped in, condemning the site for publishing “prohibited material as defined by the Code to be objectionable on the grounds of public interest, public order and national harmony”.[16] The stories in question undoubtedly contained factual inaccuracies, but many commentators agreed that the MDA’s were actions excessively severe.[17] The site’s editors, Yang Kaiheng and Ai Takagi, an Australian national, were also convicted of sedition, serving time in jail.[18]

The preferred modus operandi for controlling the media is to issue licences to news providers, ensuring they agree in principle to “remove content found to be in breach of certain standards such as being in bad taste, offending religious sensitives or relating to vice”. They must also pay a $50,000 deposit that can be forfeited if they don’t comply. It is worth noting, though, that the IMDA (as the MDA has been renamed)[19] has the power to block or shut down any website operating in Singapore, so essentially no news provider based in the city-state can operate outside of the authority’s control. Since TRS’s demise, a plethora of sites have opened and shut, unable to sustain their operations due to financial difficulties or IMDA interventions.[20] It is consequently very hard for Singaporeans to access reliable independent news outlets, and discerning readers are obliged to consult multiple sources, including foreign outlets, in order to get an interdependent perspective on news stories. Revealingly, at the time of writing, if you enter “The Real Singapore” into a Google search you are directed to Singapore’s biggest online news site Mothership.sg. The site offers a light-hearted look at current affairs along the lines of the American website Buzzfeed. When it was launched in 2013 its backers were anonymous, but it has since been revealed that former Foreign Minister George Yeo spearheaded the project.[21][22] The website also identifies multiple government ministries and agencies as their advertising partners, which can be expected to have some impact on their editorial stance.

One of the most resilient online news platforms to exist independently from the mainstream media in Singapore is The Online Citizen (TOC). Its mission statement declares its belief “that Singapore’s future is best served by having an informed and involved citizenry that has access to a wide range of sources of news and views and an open and vibrant environment in which to share and to debate ideas and opinions”.[23] TOC has not evaded attempts to curtail its reporting. In 2011, the Singapore Registry of Political Donations gazetted the platform as a political organisation, requiring its financial donors of more than $5,000 to declare themselves. Due to prolonged financial pressures, TOC is primarily published by a single full-time editor, Terry Xu.[24] Xu has been investigated by the police on multiple occasions and has recently been charged with criminal defamation for publishing an article alleging “corruption at the highest echelons” of government.[25] Amnesty International are extremely concerned by this, citing this as “the latest example of the authorities coming down hard on independent media outlets who refuse to toe the line by publishing social and political views”.[26]

[Mothership.sg] also identifies multiple government ministries and agencies as their advertising partners, which can be expected to have some impact on their editorial stance.

I experienced the state’s control over the media through some my own dealings with the press. Having reached a point of exasperation with the working environment at SUTD—its almost exclusively conservative, white male constituency and departmental turmoil—I reached out to education journalists at The Straits Times. I quickly understood that they would not publish a negative story about a government-funded university and that I was running a considerable professional risk in talking to them. Several years later, I asked the media to help promote an award-winning short film I had made with my students, Monstrosity. The film adapted the themes of the literary classic Crime and Punishment to modern-day Singapore. Although it had been made by first-time filmmakers and received many international accolades and prizes, not a single newspaper or news website would run the story. Journalists privately advised me that its dark nature was not commensurate with their publication’s values.

Debate on media freedom with CNA’s Steven Chia

In August 2016 I received a request from Singapore’s largest media provider, Mediacorp,[27] to host a conference at SUTD. I intended this to be a forum to ask probing questions about media freedom in Singapore, using the freedom of expression privileges afforded by the university setting. The principal guest would be Steven Chia, a former Channel News Asia (CNA) anchor who presents the current affairs show Talking Point. He was also host of the television debate between the candidates from various political parties that took place as part of the 2015 General Election. We agreed on a proposal to have a “no-holds-barred discussion of the line between ‘fact and fiction’” in Mediacorp productions, and set the date for 12 October.

New Naratif Managing Director Thum Pingtjin discusses the 2015 Singaporean General Election debate

Despite the presence of a media personality, it was difficult to persuade SUTD students to attend the event. It seemed they expected it to be a rehearsed presentation extolling the virtues of Mediacorp, and indeed, the first hour of the seminar was taken up with a promotional video presentation about the corporation’s activities with a behind-the-scenes special on Talking Point. Steven Chia and his producer-journalist colleagues, Lam Shushan and Jacyln Low Minmin, then gave a talk. At the question and answer session, I talked theoretically about the notion of actuality (“is anything ever true on TV?”) and received intelligent responses that did not touch on any key issues. I subsequently changed tack, confronting the journalists with Singapore’s poor ranking in the World Press Freedom Index and asking how they felt about the culture of censorship in the workplace.

Taken unawares by the directness of my question, the journalists were exceptionally forthcoming. Chia affirmed that the media in Singapore is “not the watchdog there to pounce on politicians and to hold people accountable”. He stated that the “national agenda plays a part in what is coming out”. Asked if CNA’s reporting could be deemed “propaganda,” he agreed. “Do we do propaganda? We do. Singapore is very unique in that respect.” Lam Shushan concurred that she “doesn’t want to be the watchdog of politicians, I have no interest in that”. Their junior colleague, however, had something quite different to say. Relating the difficulties she had experienced on numerous instances while pursuing sensitive stories, such as on migrant workers, and the censorship incurred once her reports were submitted, she became very upset and was unable to finish her account. She related how, on one occasion, she felt she had let down a foreign worker who had confided her plight in her, believing she would tell her story truthfully and “get this story out”. The journalist’s distress was authentic and moving, an unexpected moment of cinéma verité.

Jaclyn Low Minmin shares her experiences with censorship working in Singaporean media, in this video summary of the SUTD-Mediacorp conference

Over the course of the hour-long debate, the journalists shed light on the mechanics of the censorship process. Self-censorship is the most commonly practiced form of control, where editors themselves decide if a story is harmful to the ruling party. If it is, they do not commission it. It is not uncommon for a ministry insider, or a member of the public for that matter, to raise objections to news items, prompting a retraction. Another major form of control is financial. The journalists claim that employees working in Singaporean television are generally paid considerably less than their equivalents in other developed nations.[28] Dramas also receive only a fraction of the budgets enjoyed by overseas production houses. Through tight restrictions on the money for media productions, an environment is created where many media employees simply cannot afford to step out of line or challenge the status quo—or only do so at real personal risk. These findings confirm that the practices outlined by James Gomez, Cheong Yip Seng and others are still in force.

This conference took place in October 2016, but the findings remain pertinent. It struck me that Steven Chia’s unabashed defence of the Singaporean model was strikingly reminiscent of Lee Kuan Yew’s 1971 discourse to the International Press Institute in which he insisted on Singapore’s “uniqueness”. The “uniqueness” that Chia and Lam Shushan speak of refers to the Singaporean media’s refusal to take on the mantle of the fourth estate. This is, they feel, a good thing, that other countries could do well to emulate. Referring to the city-state’s self-imposed “white picket fence,” Chia added that “the things Singapore bans and doesn’t allow are things which generally most of us don’t want”. He argues that the freedoms enjoyed by journalists in the United States are not commensurate with a country’s well-being. Chia’s passionate intellectual defence of a model that forgoes the burden of responsibility to probe or challenge a government’s decisions was to me quite unexpected. It speaks of a sincere belief—rarely articulated by public figures—in the superiority of the Singaporean way.

The SUTD-Mediacorp conference in full

Learning points

Video recordings of the conference, as well as a shorter edit with the main points, are hosted on The Online Citizen’s Facebook page. The videos currently have over 14,000 views and many comments, most of which express anger towards Chia’s and Lam Shushan’s positions. The journalists’ revelations go some way to answering my question about whether Singapore has relaxed its stringent controls over the media and free speech in recent years. Evidence points, on the contrary, to a tendency since Lee Kuan Yew’s death to bolster suppression of information that is harmful to the ruling party. In its statement calling for an end to the “harassment” of The Online Citizen, Amnesty expresses concern about Singapore’s “escalating crackdown on freedom of expression”.[29] Certainly, it was my impression that this period marked an intensification, rather than a softening, of the dominant conservative ethos. The political stage may have lost its leading man, but the show goes on. The culture of censorship and self-censorship fostered by Lee Kuan Yew continues to be enforced by a complicit army of media practitioners, as well as managers, executives, financiers and even teachers. The Lee-era explanation that Singapore is too young for Western freedoms is absurd given its own history of far greater media freedom in the 1950s-70s (even during the repression of the Malayan Emergency) and that the city-state’s immediate neighbours—also relatively new republics—have freer presses. Independent observers agree that there needs to be a profound shakeup of the Singapore’s media institutions and a dissolution of the government’s control over the fourth estate in order to legitimise the profession.[30]

In academia, likewise, it is paramount that universities assert their independence and uphold their right to free speech. There is an unfortunate tendency the world over, and especially in Singapore, to think of university education primarily as a commodity to enhance national economic growth and for individuals to achieve financial success. An alternative model holds universities as a protected space for free expression and thinking to tackle a host of social, economic, environmental and political problems from an independent position. In the Singaporean context, the ability to conduct research and to voice opinions that do not conform to received governmental ideas is a fundamental precondition for exercising the profession of the academic. Singaporean faculty should lead the way in advocating a less timorous stance in their dealings with the government, and universities should not hire foreign faculty who are looking for a sinecure or a conservative enclave to promote outmoded or reactionary ideas. There should also be more awareness about the restrictions in the current climate, so that international faculty have a full understanding of the working environment in Singapore. The last time this was seen on a large scale were the spirited protests, in New York, at Yale’s decision to open a liberal arts college on the National University of Singapore campus.[31]

The political stage may have lost its leading man, but the show goes on. The culture of censorship and self-censorship fostered by Lee Kuan Yew continues to be enforced by a complicit army of media practitioners, as well as managers, executives, financiers and even teachers.

In spite of the difficult climate at SUTD, I look back on my years there with fondness. SUTD students produced over a hundred short films under my supervision, with each cohort seeming to surpass the previous one in terms of exploring sensitive areas of free speech.[32] Some students may have been paying lip service to these ideas, but for the most part their motivation was sincere and their enthusiasm phenomenal. I sensed that many of them had a healthy contempt for the overarching state controls in their lives, but they had come to accept these as an inevitable fact of life. It was extremely rewarding to work with students who were able to challenge the doxa they had been exposed to and embrace a more inclusive, nuanced ways of seeing the world. I will observe with interest as these students embark on the next stages of their lives. It is difficult for students in any environment to preserve their ideals from university after graduating, and certainly this group faces challenges ahead. I have encouraged them to read widely, to source media carefully and, above all, to stay true to themselves. The early signs are encouraging. Several students have gone on to earn MAs overseas, while others have found jobs with international social enterprises and start-ups, thus avoiding the conformist work culture of large corporations. I notice that many former students actively participate in events such as the Pink Dot rally in support of the Singaporean LGBTQ+ community. I am delighted that some are making independent films. One group recently raised funds to travel to Kuala Lumpur to report on the Rohingya refugees and will be submitting the resulting documentary to international festivals.

SUTD Film Studies Trailer, a montage of films created by Dr. Rowlins’ students

None of my former students, to my knowledge, have entered the media profession. I attribute this to their understanding of the demoralising restrictions they would face in such a work environment. Meeting journalists like Jaclyn Low Minmin, however, gives further reason to be optimistic. Her emotional response to the practice of censorship show the very real pain and frustration incurred. From her testimony, it is clear that her instincts, experience and education informed her that something is profoundly wrong in her profession. A journalist with integrity, who aims to give truthful reports on issues that are inconvenient for the ruling party, will undoubtedly suffer by adhering to the rules of the game. But if they remain in said system without becoming indifferent or browbeaten, they will undoubtedly have opportunities to challenge the status quo. One viewer of the conference video recording commented: “the young lady journalist [Jaclyn Low Minmin] speaks well and impartial (sic.). Hope to see more of such millennial generation & New Gen Z journalists… A new beginning.”[33]

Cheong Yip Seng observed that as Singapore developed, Lee Kuan Yew “had to abandon his knuckleduster ways; they were ill-suited to a more educated electorate wanting more political space”.[34] Likewise, there must come a point when the next generation will no longer tolerate the high level of controls—over the media, free speech and their lives—that are still in place. On a personal note, after six years in Singapore, I felt that the institutional brick walls made my position untenable in the long term and I resigned. I left behind friends, students and colleagues, however, who shared my appraisal of the problems, but who are prepared to stay the course to see in better days.

Update

[*]Following publication of this article, we received feedback from a current SUTD faculty member that the course has since evolved. It no longer includes the religious texts and the reading has broadened to include a more diverse range of texts, including Voltaire, Ibn Tufayl, and Marx.

References

[1]William Gibson, “Disneyland with the Death Penalty.” Wired. Condé Nast (1.04), September 2008.

[2]The People’s Action Party (PAP) has been the ruling party in Singapore since 1959. In the previous General Election, they won 69.86% of the vote and 83 out of 89 seats.

[3]Gomez adds that this state of affairs “fosters a negative perception towards political expression [and] causes the majority of people to see individuals and groups engaged in alternative political discourses as illegitimate beings, not to be encouraged but stopped.” James Gomez, Self-Censorship: Singapore’s Shame (Michigan: Think Centre, 2000), 3.

[4]https://rsf.org/en/singapore (accessed 25 January 2019).

[5]Cheong Yip Seng, Ob Marker: My Straits Times Story (Straits Times Press, 2012).

[6]Lee Kuan Yew, “Address to the general assembly of the International Press Institute at Helsinki, 9th June 1971.” National Archives of Singapore.

[7]Lee Kuan Yew, “Address by Prime minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew to the American Society of Newspaper Editors on Thursday, 14 April 1988, in Washington D.C.” National Archives of Singapore.

[8]Ibid.

[9]After stepping down as Senior Minister, Lee Kuan Yew held the position of “Minister Mentor” from 2004-2011.

[10]HASS job searches were, for the first few years of the university’s operation, managed by human resource managers with no academic training.

[11]Johan Nylander, “UN Urges Singapore to Release 16-Year-Old Blogger Amos Yee: UPDATED,” Forbes, 23 June 2015, https://www.forbes.com/sites/jnylander/2015/06/23/un-urges-singapore-to-release-16-year-old-blogger-accused-of-posting-critical-lee-kuan-yew-photos/#2a2cd9a1b151 (accessed 27 January 2019).

[12]Kirsten Han, “Singapore police arrest 17-year-old Amos Yee over critical Lee Kuan Yew video,” The Guardian, 30 March 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/mar/30/singapore-police-arrest-17-year-old-amos-yee-critical-lee-kuan-yew-video (accessed 27 January 2019).

[13]Nathan Heller, “Amos Yee: YouTube Star, Teen-Ager, Dissident,” The New Yorker, 10 April 2015, https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/the-arrest-of-a-teen-aged-youtube-star (accessed 27 January 2019).

[14]George Baylon Radics & Yee Suan Poon, “Amos Yee, Free Speech, and Maintaining Religious Harmony in Singapore.” University of Pennsylvania Asian Law Review 12, issue 2 (2016): 238.

[15]Siau Ming En, “Former TRS Editor Faces 7 Charges of Sedition,” Today Online, 28 March 2016, https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/former-trs-editor-faces-7-charges-sedition (accessed 27 January 2019).

[16]Kelly Ng, “Former TRS Editor Yang Kaiheng found Guilty of Sedition,” Today Online, 24 June 2016,
https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/former-trs-editor-yang-kaiheng-found-guilty-sedition (accessed 27 January 2019).

[17]Alex Au, “In the real Singapore, the MDA is the Greater Evil,” The Online Citizen, 05 May 2015, https://www.theonlinecitizen.com/2015/05/11/in-the-real-singapore-mda-is-the-greater-evil (accessed 25 January 2019).\

[18]The Sedition Act (1948), which punishes actions construed as undermining the government, is thus a further weapon used by the authorities to target individuals working in the media who have become a nuisance to the ruling party.

[19]The MDA was renamed IMDA: Info-Communications Media Development Authority.

[20]In late 2018, the IMDA blocked access to the States Times Review website, run by political activist Alex Tan. Tan subsequently helped set up another site, the Singapore Herald, which was also blocked by the IMDA. The sites could not be taken down, however, as they are hosted overseas.

[21]Howard Lee, “Who’s fueling the Mothership?” The Online Citizen, 04 April 2014, https://www.theonlinecitizen.com/2014/04/11/whos-fueling-the-mothership (accessed 26 January 2019).

[22]George Yeo is said to have coined the term “OB marker” while Minister for Information and the Arts.

[23]https://www.theonlinecitizen.com/theonlinecitizen-team (accessed 27 January 2019).

[24]The Online Citizen publishes contributions from freelancers and employs staff in Malaysia and Indonesia.

[25]Wong Pei Ting, “TOC Editor Terry Xu and author charged with criminal defamation over corruption allegation,” Today Online, 13 December 2018, https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/toc-editor-terry-xu-and-author-charged-criminal-defamation-over-article-alleging (accessed 23 January 2019).

[26]“Singapore Government must end harassment of online news platform targeted over critical article,” 18 Amnesty International, November 2018, https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2018/11/singapore-government-must-end-harassment-of-online-news-platform-targeted-over-critical-article (accessed 27 January 2019).

[27]Mediacorp runs seven TV channels and eleven radio stations in Singapore. It is owned by Temasek Holdings, a state-owned multi-billion-dollar investment company whose CEO is Ho Ching, the Prime Minister’s wife.

[28]Journalists working for The Straits Times reportedly have competitive salaries. This also makes it harder for employees to make a stand against censorship, as they risk losing a comfortable salary with good prospects.

[29]Amnesty International, “Singapore Government must end harassment of online news platform targeted over critical article,” 18 November 2018.

[30]Studies by James Gomez (Self-Censorship: Singapore’s Shame, Michigan: Think Centre, 2000) and Cherian George (Freedom from the Press: Journalism and State Power in Singapore, Singapore: NUS Press, 2012) comprehensively catalogue the PAP’s authoritarian intrusion into the profession of journalism. Professor Terence Lee has recently called into question Singapore’s self-proclaimed credentials as a global media hub in view of the state’s tight controls (“The Myth of Singapore as a Global Media Hub”, Living with Myths in Singapore, Singapore: Ethos Books 61-71).

[31]Stephanie Simon, “Yale under fire for new campus in restrictive Singapore,” Reuters, 29 December 2012, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-education-yale-singapore-idUSBRE8BS03320121229 (accessed 28 February 2019).

[32]Some of the students’ films can be seen here: https://vimeo.com/channels/720511.

[33]https://www.facebook.com/theonlinecitizen/videos/219966588933713 (accessed 27 January 2019).

[34]Cheong Yip Seng, “Press Freedom was a fine balancing act with Mr Lee Kuan Yew,” The Straits Times, 25 March 2015, https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/press-freedom-was-a-fine-balancing-act-with-mr-lee-kuan-yew

James Rowlins

Dr. James Rowlins has lectured in Asia, Europe and the United States, having earned a PhD in French Literature and Film at the University of Southern California. He is currently the Director of Brighton Rocks Film Festival.

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