Many Singaporeans will readily acknowledge (however much the MSM may protest otherwise) that there is an inherent slant in the local news that favours the ruling PAP. Some techniques are pretty obvious whilst others are quite subtle. The newspapers here have for a long time been assisting the state in building a narrative about our society and its politics. Much of the slanted views have entered into the collective psyche of the nation to a point where Singaporeans would readily agree with many fundamental arguments put forward by the ruling PAP.
Looking beyond the the way the the traditional media reports news, it is worthwhile reminding ourselves of the structural aspects of the newspaper industry in Singapore. The possession of a printing press, the printing of a newspaper and its circulation and the formation and operation of newspaper companies are tightly controled by the government through the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act.
Firstly, by virtue of S.3 of the Act, the keeping and using of a printing press is subject to licensing by the Minister. If a licence is refused or withdrawn, an appeal can be made to the President. But, does the President have discretion in this matter? Well, we have to look at the Singapore Constitution:
—(1) Except as provided by this Constitution, the President shall, in the exercise of his functions under this Constitution or any other written law, act in accordance with the advice of the Cabinet or of a Minister acting under the general authority of the Cabinet.
Thus the President's decision making under s.3 of the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act is subject to acting in accordance with the advice of the Cabinet.
So, if I were to apply for a licence to operate a printing press and it were to be rejected by MICA, I can appeal to the President. The President will then be told by the Cabinet to reject my licence anyway. It is a mockery of common sense. But, that is the law.
Secondly, the management of newspaper companies is controlled under sections 9 and 10 of the Newspaper and Priting Presses Act. The management shareholders of a newspaper company are persons approved by the Minister. Newspaper companies are not in a position to refuse the appointment of these management shareholders. The Minister's decision can be appealed to the President. the President's powers are subject to Article 21 of the Constitution.
Additionally, the management shareholders have 200 votes for every share that they hold in relation to hiring and firing decisions. As a result of this arrangment, the government approved management shareholders have effective control over the newspaper companies.
Section 10(11)of the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act is as follows:
"The holder of management shares shall be entitled either on a poll or by a show of hands to 200 votes for each management share held by him upon any resolution relating to the appointment or dismissal of a director or any member of the staff of a newspaper company but shall in all other respects have the same voting rights as the holder of ordinary shares."
Not happy with an article written by a journalist? No problem. Government approved management shareholders are on hand to fire him.
Journalists and reporters may want to perform their job impartially. But, there are structural aspects to our print media that prevent the aspiration for media independence to be truly realised.