Lessons from Singapore on press freedom in Trump’s America
Then-Republican candidate Donald Trump speaks to reporters on Aug. 29, 2016 in Nashville, Tenn. | Mark Humphrey / AP

Around the world, it’s been alarming and frightening to read about the rise in hate crimes and the boost that Donald Trump’s presidential victory has given to white nationalists. Unfortunately, some aspects of Trump’s impending presidency have also triggered a sense of déjà vu.

As a journalist in Singapore, America’s skew toward authoritarianism, particularly Trump’s dismissal of and threat toward press freedom, is starting to hit close to home.

Singapore is often portrayed as a global success story. It’s known as an expat safe haven with a high GDP where the streets are safe, things are efficient, and it’s easy to do business.

These outward signs of development and modernity often lead to the impression of a well-functioning, democratic state, but the reality is somewhat different: Under the impressive sheen of the city-state’s achievements, Singapore’s social and political sphere continues to be run with a patriarchal authoritarian streak under the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) –  a party that has held on to power for over five decades.

Authoritarianism often conjures up images of societies where people live like automatons within a police state, accompanied by the overt brainwashing and top-down dominion displayed in George Orwell’s 1984. This mental picture makes claims of Trump turning the U.S. into an authoritarian state seem melodramatic and over-exaggerated.

But authoritarianism isn’t just about show trials or disappearing dissidents. It’s about the gradual consolidation of power through the erosion of democratic institutions and processes, the reduction of transparency, and the increase of conflicts of interest.

In Singapore, a long list of offenses, including non-violent ones, are deemed “arrestable.” This means that the police can search your home and seize your property without a warrant. You are only required to have access to legal counsel within a “reasonable” time, which means that people, even 15-year-old teenagers, are questioned by the police without being able to have their lawyers with them. With a single party dominating Parliament, bills are passed at a stunning pace, leaving little opportunity and space for contestation.

The colorful building which houses Singapore's Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI). The Infocommunications Media Development Authority (IMDA), an agency operating under the umbrella of the MCI, regulates and licenses all media outlets in the country. | Wikimedia (CC)
The colorful building which houses Singapore’s Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI). The Infocommunications Media Development Authority (IMDA), an agency operating under the umbrella of the MCI, regulates and licenses all media outlets in the country. | Wikimedia (CC)

These cutbacks often don’t have an immediate day-to-day impact on people’s lives, which means that most people don’t see it as a big deal or an urgent problem, but the effects are more insidious than you might think. As power gets more centralized and checks and balances recede, people start to feel like everything is out of their hands.

“What can you do? It’s just like this,” is something you hear a lot from Singaporeans. Your country feels less and less like it belongs to you, and more like a place in which you are allowed to live only as long as you play nice and stay obedient. It’s disempowering, discouraging people from taking action and perpetuating the vicious cycle.

The loss of control creeps up on you on many fronts. One of the most profound and irreversible ways is through assaults, subtle or overt, on press freedom. For all its faults – and journalists will be the first to tell you that there are many – a free press is crucial to a functioning democracy, because it’s how citizens and voters get informed, and how the powerful are scrutinized and held to account.

But that’s not the way Trump sees it. After the off-the-record roasting TV networks received, one source observed to The New Yorker that Trump “truly doesn’t seem to understand the First Amendment… He thinks we are supposed to say what he says and that’s it.”

This is how Singapore’s PAP government sees it too. The idea of the press as the Fourth Estate holds little sway here. Instead, the media is seen as part of the country’s “nation-building” exercise, and expected to perform an “educational role” to help Singaporeans understand the government’s policies. This means that principles like freedom of the press and freedom of information have been made subordinate to the interests of the state, as demonstrated by the country’s consistently dismal press freedom rankings.

The environment that Trump and his supporters have threatened to create for the press? We’re living it in Singapore.

When Trump declared that he would “open up” U.S. libel laws (a position that he may have reversed, because he doesn’t want to risk being sued himself), Singapore was already way ahead of him. PAP politicians have a long history of favoring defamation suits when countering both political opponents and media outlets: Local opposition politicians J.B. Jeyaretnam and Chee Soon Juan, as well as international news publications the International Herald Tribune and the Far Eastern Economic Review, have all been on the receiving end of the PAP leadership’s litigious bent.

Most recently, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong took out a civil defamation suit against local Singaporean blogger Roy Ngerng, winning S$150,000 in aggravated damages that Ngerng will only finish paying off in 2033.

In a further assault on press freedom, prominent Trump supporters like Sean Hannity have suggested that press outlets that have been critical should be denied access to the Trump administration, something Trump has enforced before and after the presidential campaign.

This, too, is common in Singapore and other authoritarian states, where the powerful seize the prerogative to offer information only to those who might be easier to control. They are able to restrict access to particular events like press conferences –  even to those who have media accreditation –  and foreign journalists have reported being denied visas to work in the country.

Off-the-record meetings also appear in the Singapore government’s playbook; confidential meetings with select groups, organizations, and individuals –  from civil society, business, academia, and the press –  are par for the course, resulting in the government’s ability to claim “public consultation” without having to actually be accountable or public about what the consultation entailed. As Margaret Sullivan observed in The Washington Post, such meetings result in skewed power dynamics where one side is able to control the narrative while the other is bound to silence.

Since November 8, the U.S. has been caught in a messy, confusing transition. Every day that the Trump makes any move (including a tweet), it comes off as one step forward and two steps back; what would, or wouldn’t, he do after his inauguration? How is he denouncing white supremacists and installing them in his team at the same time? Is he going to expand libel laws or not? What is his position on the “One China” policy? Does he or does he not intend to deport immigrants and implement a registry for Muslims?

There is an argument among some journalists to “wait and see,” to report on Trump like they would anything else. Michael Wolff recently argued that the press shouldn’t see Trump as a threat, but as “a story that needs to be told in rather conventional ways.”

“Yes, you do want to be stenographers,” he said. “You’re there to literally convey what someone in power says, and you bring it to people who want to know.”

That’s basically what the Singaporean mainstream media has been doing for years. And we are not better off for it. Instead, what we have is a culture where the government is assured of dominance, not just in the political sphere, but in controlling the narratives and frames that we use to understand the society we live in.

For example, when migrant bus drivers from China staged a strike in 2012, the mainstream media was reluctant to use the word “strike” in their coverage, until the Minister for Manpower denounced the collective action as an “illegal strike,” thus delegitimizing the workers’ action and setting the frame for all subsequent discussion of the issue. The question of whether outlawing strikes is a breach of freedom of assembly and labor rights fell by the wayside –  an opportunity to have an honest conversation in the media woefully turned into a series of pronouncements directly from government sources.

Without the media’s necessary role as watchdog, we’ve seen sustained normalization and justification of policies that further erode fundamental rights and freedoms. Earlier this year, the Singapore government introduced, and eventually passed, a bill on contempt of court, criminalizing comments about ongoing court cases that might “prejudge” proceedings.

The mainstream media, faithfully conveying the information dished out by the law minister, reported it as a good thing for Singapore, a simple consolidation of points of law. It wasn’t until later that civil society groups and actors –  myself included –  pointed out the implications on free speech and media freedom, but by then it was too late and the bill was passed a mere month after its introduction.

Fair, balanced reporting is important. But that has nothing to do with journalists becoming stenographers, or treating Trump like any other story. We’ve already seen how this strategy has led to the normalization and mainstreaming of extremist, racist rhetoric; just look at the absurdity of CNN hosting a debate on whether Trump should denounce supporters who question whether Jews are people.

This is how it begins. If journalists keep acting as if things are normal, they’ll eventually end up creating a new normal, in which the erosion of democratic freedoms are obscured.

It’s fair to see Trump as a threat, because he is.

He is not a “conventional” president; he is a man who has indicated a fundamental disregard for the First Amendment, for transparency and accountability, and many other democratic values that the rest of the world has long seen America as the embodiment of. This is not a time for stenography; it is a time for scrutiny and tough questions.

Journalists – and everyone who cares about democracy – must keep an eye on the processes and institutions on which a democratic society is built.

Take it from someone who operates in an environment where the First Amendment is a faraway aspiration. It’s really going to hurt when it’s gone, and everyone loses.

This story first appeared at The Establishment, a multimedia company funded and run by women. 


Kirsten Han
Kirsten Han

Kirsten Han is a Singaporean freelance journalist mostly focused on politics, democracy, and social justice issues. She is also an activist seeking the abolition of capital punishment.