There is perhaps no other country ranking where Singapore finds itself below Congo, the Philippines, Russia and Sudan. In 2021, that’s what made me take a much closer look at the Press Freedom Index by Reporters sans frontières (RSF, Reporters Without Borders). The Index analyses the environment for journalists—political, legal, economic, socio-cultural and security—in 180 countries and territories around the world.
Singapore placed 160th in 2021. Odd. Whatever my grievances about media restrictions here, surely we don’t deserve to rank below countries, like those four, where journalists are regularly killed or “disappeared”. That same year, RSF invited me to join the survey panel for Singapore, for the 2022 Index.
I was excited. I have much respect for the organisation’s work, even more urgent in today’s polarised world. Many establishment journalists may not see the point. In February 2022, Patrick Daniel, a former editor-in-chief of Singapore Press Holdings (SPH), said that there is “a little bit of opacity” in RSF’s methodology, which he argued should be audited. (The irony of SPH barons mentioning opacity and audits is lost, maybe, only on them.)
More generally, defenders of the Singapore model have long poo-poohed foreign assessments of democratic values here. Part of their objection is relativistic, an Asian Values-esque argument that the nature of democracy necessarily differs from one society to the next, and that attempts to suggest a universality to them are at best hollow, and at worst neo-colonial.
A related objection is around societal definitions of success. The Singaporean, so it goes, cares more about socio-political stability and economic growth than waffly things like individual liberties. In terms of press freedom, there is the further dissonance of an ostensibly open global financial centre, which depends on the free flow of information, being accused of throttling the media.
All this leads to an instinctive rejection in Singapore of the RSF Index. To me, it was an opportunity to meditate more deeply on the concept of freedom, not only at a personal level, in terms of my own craft, but also perhaps in terms of advocacy.
However, the survey panel requires anonymity, for good reason. Many journalists, especially in the “Global South”, might be targeted by their own governments if they are known to be cooperating with Western NGOs, allegedly out to promote some liberal Western agenda (to repeat a batty nativist trope).
I told RSF that while I appreciate many journalists’ need for discretion, my circumstance is different—I want to participate and I want to be able to talk openly about it. They eventually agreed.
In the two years that I’ve since served on the panel, my respect for RSF’s work has grown. The survey is exhaustive, rigorous and run efficiently with much attention paid to privacy. The global summary report that’s released along with the index on World Press Freedom Day (May 3rd) is always illuminating. Among other startling findings this year is the impact of the fake content industry. In 118 countries, “most of the Index questionnaire’s respondents reported that political actors in their countries were often or systematically involved in massive disinformation or propaganda campaigns.”
From 2021 to 2023, Singapore’s position rose from 160 to 129. This is partly a reflection of a better raw score but also a relative shift, as the media environment has deteriorated in other countries. Over that same period, Hong Kong dropped from 80 to 140 while India fell from 142 to 161.
In this essay, I will examine Singapore’s score in those five categories—political, legal, economic, socio-cultural and security—and also share some broad recommendations on how we can improve. Before that, it’s important to understand the evolution of Singapore’s quite unique media model.
Singapore’s media has its origins in God. In 1822, three years after Stamford Raffles ushered in colonialism, Claudius Henry Thomsen of the London Missionary Society (LMS) arrived from Malacca with modern Singapore’s first printing press. In 1823, LMS missionaries established Singapore’s first-ever publisher, the Mission Press, which over the next two decades served the Church, the government and the people, publishing among other things the Singapore Chronicle, the island’s first newspaper (founded January 1824), and Malay translations of the New Testament. The subsequent decades, a period generally regarded as a golden era of publishing in Singapore, saw a slew of new outfits emerge, including The Singapore Free Press, Chinese weeklies like Tifang Jih Pao (地方日报; Local News) and Jit Sheng (日升; Rising Sun), as well as Chermin Mata, a Malay (Jawi) quarterly journal.