When I moved from London to Singapore last October to set up as a freelance journalist, I finally got to meet the two officials from the Ministry of Information who had helped me secure an employment visa.
Over a cup of coffee at their office in a former colonial police station – possibly the world’s most stylish propaganda ministry – they probed me politely about my background and intentions in Singapore. They were friendly but seemed perplexed about the concept of freelance journalism, even though it forms the backbone of much foreign reporting these days.
“If we have a problem with something that you’ve written, who can we speak to?”
Obviously, I told them, you can talk to the editor of whichever publication has commissioned any particular story.
“But what if we just don’t like what you’re writing in general?”
Then talk to me, I added.
They never did. Last month, after applying to renew my visa following a successful year in Singapore, I received a one-line letter informing me that my application had been rejected.
While the governments of Burma, China and Iran tend to arrest troublesome foreign reporters or expel them without delay, Singapore’s more media-savvy government prefers a subtler approach to repression. The non-renewal of a work visa is their preferred method for getting rid of foreigners with minimal fuss or attention. It was the fate suffered last year by a group of Burmese permanent residents who made the mistake of protesting in support of their countrymen during the Saffron uprising of September 2007. They knew why they were being forced to leave, having breached Singapore’s strict laws, which effectively proscribe public protest. I have no idea why I was ushered out.
Although the government likes to brag about the Lion City’s ultra-efficient civil service, as soon as I tried to find out why my visa application had been rejected, I ran up against a brick wall. Officials from the Ministry of Manpower stonewalled me day after day while my ‘friends’ from the Ministry of Information suddenly became a lot less helpful, insisting that they knew nothing about my case and refusing to assist me.
Eventually, after an intervention from the British High Commission, I was told that the government was not willing to disclose the reasons for turning down my application, despite the fact that I met all the criteria for renewal. I was told, in no uncertain terms, not to bother appealing.
Kept out of the loop by the government, like a growing number of Singaporeans, I turned to the uncensored space of the internet to find some clues.
On the popular ‘Sam’s Alfresco Coffee Shop’ message board, one user called ‘scroobal’ seemed better informed about my enforced departure than the witless bureaucrats, suggesting it was somehow related to my work for Asia Sentinel.
He described me as “one dumb and ignorant journalist” for “staying in Singapore and doing things for Asia Sentinel”. “Might as well pee in front of the Istana gates while old man drives by,” he said, using the term many Singaporeans prefer to describe Lee Kuan Yew, their founding Prime Minister and current Minister Mentor, in private.
Elaborating on this theory, he explained that Asia Sentinel was founded by “ex-editors of publications previously sued by the old man such as Far Eastern Economic Review and Asian Wall Street Journal” some of whom were “previously banned from Singapore”.
I don’t know whether my work for Asia Sentinel irked the government as much as the presence of its editor John Berthelsen, who was refused entry to the city-state earlier this year, 21 years after he was first forced out as a correspondent for the Asian Wall Street Journal in circumstances remarkably similar to my own.
Over the last year, I have reported for a wide range of serious publications in addition to the Asia Sentinel, including The Economist, The Daily Telegraph, the Far Eastern Economic Review, the British Medical Journal and even Singapore’s government-owned Straits Times and Business Times. I have covered some sensitive subjects in the tightly-controlled city-state such as rising crime, healthcare and ageing and business links with Burma.
However I steered clear of criticism of Singapore’s first family, knowing that any negative comments about Lee Kuan Yew, his son, the Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, and the PM’s wife Ho Ching, who heads Temasek, one of Singapore’s two sovereign wealth funds, would lead to a libel suit I had little chance of defending, let alone winning.
In recent years, the Lees have won libel cases against almost every major international news organization including The Economist, the International Herald Tribune, the Financial Times, Bloomberg and, most recently, the soon-to-be-closed Far Eastern Economic Review.
Combined with the government’s direct control over the domestic press, this leads to an insidious climate of self-censorship that cows both Singaporean and foreign journalists. Yet, ironically, the government still pursues its ambition of becoming a global “media hub” as it seeks to invigorate its export-dependent economy.
While I was packing my bags, the law minister, K Shanmugam, was insisting to a group of visiting American lawyers that Singapore’s perpetually low rankings in press freedom indices were “quite absurd and divorced from reality”.
“Our approach on press reporting is simple: The press can criticise us, our policies. We do not seek to proscribe that. But we demand the right of response, to be published in the journal that published the original article.”
I was desperate to speak out against such rank hypocrisy but had been effectively gagged when my work visa was cancelled, receiving a stern warning not to engage in any “business, profession or occupation” or any activities “detrimental to the security and well-being of Singapore”.
Some news organisations are put off by the government’s bipolar approach to the media. One leading international publication decided to set up its new Southeast Asian bureau in Bangkok rather than Singapore after learning how I had been treated.
But many are still attracted by the well-developed infrastructure, good transport connections and generous tax breaks and other financial inducements offered by Singapore’s inward investment agency, the Economic Development Board. Dow Jones, Reuters and BBC Worldwide, the commercial arm of the British state broadcaster, are among those with regional headquarters in Singapore, for whatever reasons.
It is a great testament to the unique brand of soft authoritarianism honed by Lee Kuan Yew and his People’s Action Party that they are able to convince so many journalists and media organisations to slip into voluntary restraints.
One veteran foreign correspondent in Singapore went so far as to advise me not to talk about my situation lest the government bar me from returning in future, thereby limiting my career prospects in Southeast Asia.
If self-censorship is rife among foreign reporters, who can simply leave the Lion City when they fall foul of the authorities, imagine the predicament faced by Singaporean journalists.
Even if they cross the unwritten line of acceptability unwittingly, they are subject to a form of internal exile, forced out of their jobs and made to somehow conjure up an alternative career if they are to feed and house their families.
It is little wonder that the sage advice of one professor of journalism at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University to an eager student reporter was: “If you want to do journalism, don’t do it in Singapore.”
Ben Bland is a freelance journalist. He was based in Singapore between October 2008 and October 2009. He blogs at Asia File.