The Singapore Swivel
- 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
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
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
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
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
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"
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
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
" 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."