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The Singapore Swivel

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  • Sg_Review@yahoogroups.com
    An old article circulated on Singapore s National Day which shows how little things have changed. Date: 8 Jun 2002 16:45:54 -0700 Eric Ellis - The Australian
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 8, 2003
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      An old article circulated on Singapore's National Day which shows how little
      things have changed.

      Date: 8 Jun 2002 16:45:54 -0700
      Eric Ellis - The Australian
      The Singapore Swivel

      Walls may not have ears in Singapore, but many locals aren't fully
      convinced they don't. And so they've affected this curious
      idiosyncrasy, which I call the Singapore Swivel.

      I've seen it constantly in the two years I've been based here. It
      happens when discussions graduate from small talk to opinions. The
      interviewee goes "off-the-record", the voice lowers to a whisper, and
      the head slowly turns left-right-left-centre, scanning the location,
      checking who's within earshot. The Swivel speaks to the probably
      unfounded suspicion that the "wired island" is monitoring your
      activities.

      Some Singaporeans talk of their country's "climate of fear", more
      charitably described as a "contract" with their leaders: keep our
      economy soaring and we won't challenge the restrictions imposed on our
      civil liberties.

      Step out of line in Singapore and you will be politely requested by
      the regime to step back. Do it repeatedly and openly and be prepared
      for the state machinery to crank into action against you, as it did in
      1987 against lawyer Teo Soh Lung and businessman Chew Kheng Chuan.
      They were among the 22 Singaporeans detained, some beaten and
      tortured, by Tjong's ISD for being suspected "Marxists" – a charge
      roundly denied and one from which even the Government has backed away.
      The Government says it is committed to openness and airing contrary
      views. But the message seems to be taking its time to sink in at the
      ST.

      Take the way it dealt with a hot local topic recently – ministerial
      salaries. On June 29 last year, Singapore's Deputy Prime Minister, Lee
      Hsien Loong (Lee Kuan Yew's eldest son) announced massive pay rises
      for cabinet ministers. Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong's annual salary
      would jump 14 per cent to $2.25 million, or $187,000 a month, five
      times that of the US president.

      On May 11, six weeks earlier, the independent Hong Kong-based
      think-tank, the Political and Economic Risk Consultancy, released a
      survey of expatriate businessmen on political leadership in Asia. The
      survey ranked Singapore as Asia's most capable government. The
      findings were carried by the major wire agencies on May 12, in Hong
      Kong by Agence France-Presse and by the Reuters bureau in Singapore.

      In Singapore the story didn't appear in the ST until June 26, when it
      was splashed across the front page headlined "S'pore Govt rated top in
      Asia". Three days later the Government announced the ministerial pay
      increases. That same day, the ST carried another excerpt of the same
      PERC report, headlined "PERC: Govt's economic policy makes the
      difference".

      From June 30 to July 7, as controversy raged in Singapore salons about
      whether already well-rewarded ministers deserved their increased
      salaries, the ST evoked PERC's rosy view of Singapore's Government
      another four times.
      Is it just a coincidence that a six-week-old report became front-page
      news in Singapore just days before the Singapore Government justified
      its massive pay rise?

      "If you want to arrange the facts in that way, I suppose that you do
      have a case," says editor-in-chief Cheong. "But I'm a newspaper and I
      must accept information that is given to me and then I make a judgment
      whether I want to use or not use it."

      Other times news judgment can appear downright wacky. In early 1999,
      Lee Kuan Yew wished to The Wall Street Journal that someone would
      invent air-conditioned underwear – because that way "everyone can then
      work at his optimum temperature and civilisation can spread across all
      climates".

      A news editor on a mainstream Australian newspaper might hand the item
      to a wry columnist. The medical writer might consult some physicians
      as to whether the nation was in good hands. And the science writer
      might ring boffins to see if boreal boxers were possible.

      Not at the ST, which ran it as a straight story on page one. A month
      later, it published a 1455-word feature quoting local academics and
      engineers hot for the idea – with an illustration of how a "cold suit"
      might work.

      Part of the challenge, Chua says, of being a journalist and possibly
      even being a Singaporean is testing boundaries that are "not clearly
      defined" by the Government, "perhaps on purpose". "It's part of our
      culture, part of our maturing as a nation."
      That means little campaigning journalism and no established culture of
      investigative reporting. An underground press is virtually
      non-existent, in large part because of the Government's restrictive
      press laws.

      The system functions like a big corporation, designed to maximise
      profit. The Government maintains an upbeat information department,
      frequently holding press briefings lauding economic achievements but
      rarely or publicly discusses substantive matters of policy and
      politics.

      " The Government press control might shock one's liberal western
      mindset, but this is now a well-entrenched part of national culture,"
      says Roland Rich, a former Australian ambassador to Laos and co-author
      of the book Losing Control, which analyses press freedom across Asia.
      "You get the government you deserve and in Singapore you also get the
      press you deserve."
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