Singapore, an island nation at the southern tip of mainland Southeast Asia, has a population of about 3.6 million made up of 77 percent Chinese, 14 percent Malays, 7 percent Indians, and 2 percent classified as others. A former British colony, the republic adopts the Westminster parliamentary system, and the government has been controlled by the People’s Action Party (PAP) since 1959. The three corporations that provide for the various media in the country are largely owned by the government’s investment arm, Temasek.
Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) dominates the print media, publishing 14 newspapers and 80 periodicals. It also operates two radio stations and Internet portal services. SPH offers management and ordinary shares, with one management share equaling 200 ordinary shares. Transference of management shares must be approved by the government. MediaCorp dominates the broadcast media, operating five terrestrial TV channels, an outdoor digital TV channel, a TV production company, the channel News Asia providing round-the-clock satellite TV news, and 14 radio stations. It also publishes a free-circulation newspaper and 13 periodicals. At the end of 2004, MediaCorp and SPH merged to become MediaCorp TV Holdings, which is now owned 80 percent by the former and 20 percent by the latter. The third corporation, StarHub, is the sole provider of cable TV and a major Internet service provider. Temasek wholly owns MediaCorp and is a major shareholder of SPH and StarHub.
Singapore media come in four languages: English, Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil. Media in English and Mandarin command the largest readership or viewership. Newspapers like the English-language Straits Times and Mandarin Lianhe ZaoBao are known for their comprehensive coverage of foreign news. US TV programs are highly popular, but Singapore TV has increasingly aired programs produced domestically, with some programs in Mandarin (especially drama serials) and English (especially situation comedies) exported to countries like Malaysia. Singapore is quick to adopt the latest media technology. Digital TV began in 2001 in the form of mobile TV on buses. Internet penetration was at 68 percent of the population in 2005.
Besides the Official Secrets Act, the Sedition Act, the Defamation Act, and the Internal Security Act, which regulate the media, there are: the Undesirable Publications Act, which prevents importation, distribution, or reproduction of undesirable media material of all kinds; the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act, which requires licensing of all print media; the Films Act, which regulates possession, importation, production, distribution, and exhibition of films; the Broadcasting Act, which regulates ownership and operation of radio and TV broadcasting; and the Broadcasting Class License Act, which requires licensing of Internet service providers and Internet content providers. The laws empower the government to define topics as out of bounds, such as those that promote communism, contravene moral norms, show excessive or gratuitous sex and violence, glamorize drug use, or incite racial, religious, or linguistic animosities among the three major ethnic groups in the country. Critics argue the PAP also uses the laws to restrict political opposition and criticism. The government is known to defend itself vigorously against what it considers as personal attacks on public officials. Journalists are believed to exercise a good deal of self-censorship when covering such issues as alleged governmental corruption, nepotism, or a compliant judiciary. The government considers criticisms of domestic politics in the media and cyberspace as out of bounds because they are made outside of the formal political system. Commentators are often exhorted to declare their political affiliations or enter politics. The problem for critics is that the views of the political opposition are marginalized or ignored by the media.
Since the 1980s, the government has planned to make Singapore into a regional media hub. It has attracted global corporations like HBO, MTV, and Disney Channel to set up regional headquarters. But foreign journalists reporting on Singapore have to register with the government, submit a security deposit of US$200,000, and name a person in the country to accept legal service. The government may fine and/or curtail the circulation of foreign publications deemed to have interfered in domestic politics. Audiovisual entertainment programs are also monitored through a citizen advisory panel using guidelines established by the government. The PAP government defends its restriction of media in the name of securing economic development for resource-poor Singapore and maintaining peace and stability among the three ethnic groups in the country. This has led to the view of Singapore media as operating under the developmental media model.
Others see Singapore media as operating under the authoritarian model: the strict media restriction is made largely to serve PAP interests and power. When French-based Reporters Without Borders ranked the country’s press freedom in 2005 at 144th position out of 166 countries, the government rejected the measurement, claiming it was biased toward the western model of press criticism and opposition, whereas Singapore press followed a different model of contributing to nation-building.
Another view of Singapore’s media is that of “controlled commodification.” It argues that the government has the determining influence over the media through its managerial role for capital in order to secure capitalist economic development for the country. Although Singapore is known for its free trade policy, the government restricts the flow of media commodities like films in the name of securing the country’s political and cultural sovereignty against foreign, especially western, political or cultural encroachment.
- Birch, D. (1993). Singapore media: Communication strategies and practices. Melbourne: Longman Cheshire.
- Hukill, M. A. (1996). Structures of television in Singapore. In D. French & M. Richards (eds.), Contemporary television: Eastern perspective. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, pp. 132–156.
- Lent, J. A. (1984). Restructuring of mass media in Malaysia and Singapore: Pounding in the coffin nails? Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars, Oct.–Dec., 26–35.
- Seow, F. T. (1998). The media enthralled: Singapore revisited. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
- Tan, Y. S., & Soh, Y. P. (1994). The development of Singapore’s modern media industry. Singapore: Times Academic Press.
- Wong, K. (2001). Media and culture in Singapore: A theory of controlled commodification. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.