Control, Coercion, and Censorship

Cheong Yip Seng. My Straits Times Story. Straits Times Press, 2013.

  • Cheong Yip Seng’s memoir is much more than just a “deep-background -off-the-record” of Lee Kuan Yew’s years as Singapore’s no. 1 newsmaker. It is a chronological and sensitive explationation of how the Republic’s newspaper of record was shaped by Mr Lee – and, more important, why he took it upon himself to do so. This memoir could not come at a more appropriate time, when Singapore’s third generation leaders find themselves in headwinds of public opinion the first Prime Minister dealt with with a firm hand. Whether times have changed and Singapore’s current leadership can no longer deal with The Straits Times the way Mr Lee dealt with Cheong Yip Seng and his predecessors is a question this book throws up. The answer is a subject worthy of debate among the myriad self-appointed and untrained citizen journalists, who really should read this book for their own much-needed enlightenment. It is also for anyone interested in the future of Singapore, for its accounts of what constituted “out of bounds” up until 2006 show how such areas could possibly be navigated now. As Cheong’s memoir of The Straits Times for more than four decades reveals, the rationale for the Singapore media model may be hard to accept for many liberals. But this model has been sufficiently successful to keep Singapore’s newspaper of record one of the most successful in the world.

Cherian George. “Consolidating authoritarian rule: calibrated coercion in Singapore,” The Pacific Review, no. 2, 2007, pp. 127-145.

  • Despite the persistence of authoritarian forms of rule, studies of state domination have seen little need to analyse the use of force against citizens. This essay argues that, while state violence is elemental, it is not straightforward. States have a range of repressive tools at their disposal, which they need to deploy rationally and with finesse if they are to consolidate their authoritarian systems. As a step towards problematizing state violence, this essay suggests the concept of calibrated coercion, which represses challengers with minimum political cost. Calibrated coercion is illustrated through an in-depth case study of press controls in Singapore, where one of the world’s most successful hegemonic parties has governed continuously for four decades. Behind the stability of the press system, the Singapore government has made fundamental changes to its modes of control, with less frequent recourse to blunter instruments such as newspaper closures or arbitrary arrest. Instead, less visible instruments are increasingly used, with the media’s commercial foundations turned against themselves.

Cherian George. Freedom from the Press: Journalism and State Power in Singapore. NUS Press, 2012.

  • For several decades, the city-state of Singapore has been an international anomaly, combining an advanced, open economy with restrictions on civil liberties and press freedom. Freedom from the Press analyses the republic’s media system, showing how it has been structured – like the rest of the political framework – to provide maximum freedom of manoeuvre for the People’s Action Party (PAP) government. Cherian George assessed why the PAP’s “freedom from the press” model has lasted longer than many other authoritarian systems. He suggests that one key factor has been the PAP’s recognition that market forces could be harnessed as a way to tame journalism. Another counter-intuitive strategy is its self-restraint in the use of force, progressively turning to subtler means of control that are less prone to backfire. The PAP has also remained open to internal reform, even as it tries to insulate itself from political competition. Thus, although increasingly challenged by dissenting views disseminated through the internet, the PAP has so far managed to consolidate its soft-authoritarian, hegemonic form of electoral democracy. Given Singapore’s unique place on the world map of press freedom and democracy, this book not only provides a constructive engagement with ongoing debates about the city-state but also makes a significant contribution to the comparative study of journalism and politics.

C. Tremewan. The Political Economy of Social Control in Singapore. Palgrave, 1996.
*This book is based on the authors doctoral dissertation which is available in its entirety here.*

  • This study examines the development of Singapore’s complex system of social regulation in relation to the phases of its economic strategy and political transition. It focuses on the way social control works through public housing and welfare, education, parliamentary politics and the law. It draws out the implications of such comprehensive control for political conflict. Popular explanations for Singapore’s success and its status as a model for other developing countries are brought into question.

Jothie Rajah. Authoritarian Rule of Law: Legislation, Discourse and Legitimacy in Singapore. Cambridge University Press, 2012.

  • Scholars have generally assumed that authoritarianism and rule of law are mutually incompatible. Convinced that free markets and rule of law must tip authoritarian societies in a liberal direction, nearly all studies of law and contemporary politics have neglected that improbable coupling: authoritarian rule of law. Through a focus on Singapore, this book presents an analysis of authoritarian legalism. It shows how prosperity, public discourse, and a rigorous observance of legal procedure have enabled a reconfigured rule of law such that liberal form encases illiberal content. Institutions and process at the bedrock of rule of law and liberal democracy become tools to constrain dissent while augmenting discretionary political power – even as the national and international legitimacy of the state is secured. This book offers a valuable and original contribution to understanding the complexities of law, language and legitimacy in our time.

PN Balji. Reluctant Editor: The Singapore Media as Seen through the Eyes of a Veteran Newspaper Journalist. Marshall Cavendish, 2019.

These are the hitherto unpublished stories about the stories that you may have read in Singapore newspapers over the years. Above all, they are Singapore media stories as experienced first-hand by a veteran journalist who had to be persuaded to become Editor of a leading newspaper. PN Balji was an active participant in mainstream journalism, having spent nearly 40 years working in five newsrooms. He was part of a hardy generation of newspaper editors who wrestled with editorial issues and made tough decisions, sometimes against the will of Lee Kuan Yew. He also had a ringside view of his colleagues’ tussles and confrontations with the government. In Reluctant Editor, Balji weaves a compelling narrative, with anecdotes, of an alternative story of how some editors of his generation managed to hold the ground when Lee was at his rogue best. He brings back the drama, mostly played behind the scenes, and attempts to answer the question: What made the editors of the 1970s, 80s and 90s act the way they did? It was a life lived dangerously; some lost their jobs, some had to leave the country, and some decided to give in and lived to fight another day.

Thum Ping Tjin. “The Use of Humiliation as a Political Tool,” New Naratif, December 4, 2017.

  • The public response to the charge of vandalism against Wham – the ridicule of the prosecutors and the sharing of photos of advertising posters and stickers – is understandable, but is based on a misunderstanding of the Vandalism Act. The Act was not meant to punish people who damage property. The Act was meant to give the PAP a monopoly over the information displayed in our public space; to conflate the ‘nation’ with the ‘PAP’; to criminalise and smear political opposition to the PAP as being subhuman and anti-national; to deter people who might dare exercise their constitutional right to free speech and political expression in opposition to the PAP; and, ultimately to humiliate through caning anyone who might persist in standing up to the PAP in public. In this regard, Jolovan Wham is exactly the type of person that the Vandalism Act is designed to target.