After Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) publication of this year’s Press Freedom Index, we hear sniggers of derision from those who are ever on the lookout for proof (as if any is ever needed) to assist them in articulating the extent of oppression in Singapore. At the same time, we hear cries of indignation—though it is not entirely clear if they are caused by RSF’s ranking or by the derision that follow—from the implied oppressors who attempt to discredit the ranking by claiming that it is absurd to place Singapore’s press freedom below that of countries with tyrannical political regimes that seem quite obviously more oppressive than Singapore’s. As though the lack of press freedom were not existent simply because the ranking is flawed. As though the feet-stomping method of defending nothing in particular (no one, perhaps with the exception the usual non-sentient beings contributing to the Straits Times Forum, really dares to claim that there is true freedom in Singapore) could amount to anything more than a puerile political tantrum.
There almost seems to be some debate about press freedom going on in the press itself.
If we would just indulge the defenders-of-nothing-in-particular a little, perhaps we could consider why they are defending (defensive) instead of what they are defending. Perhaps the likes of Shanmugam appear concerned about press freedom rankings not because the results are yielded by a flawed methodology but because of what the methodology (whether or not it is flawed) reveals. Even if the survey reveals nothing about press freedom in Singapore, it reveals what people think of the press in Singapore. Cherian George points out that “[i]nstead of using a common pool of rigorously trained assessors, it asks respondents within each country to rate [the press freedom of] that country on various indicators. Their responses help determine where the country ranks.” The survey should not be mistaken for a confidence index survey, but if Singapore really does not deserve the 133rd position, perhaps it shows how badly people see it. Sure, we are not a country where journalists are killed and silenced. But we are in a country where journalists would not incur anyone’s murderous wrath to begin with. A country where journalists and publications that might put themselves in danger are not even given a chance to be born. The so-called unfairness is simply a phenomenon of Singaporeans having less respect for the local press than many other people have for the press in their own country. To be honest, I would be more inclined to read The Straits Times if a certain Ms Chua (for instance) is putting herself at any remote risk of being arrested by her ex-colleagues in the Internal Security Department (ISD).
But what making them so indignant about the ranking?
The worry is perhaps not so much that Singapore has a poor international image in the area of press freedom as much as it is that Singaporeans themselves do not seem to think that the press is free. This would be the real travesty in the eyes of hardcore tyrants. Have we not been taught to believe that we should not have a free press, which would be detrimental to the nation? Yes, but, still, people must have implicit faith in the system and believe that it is free. It is just like how people are supposed to believe that there can be real oppositional voices in the Parliament even with no MPs from opposition parties at all. We should believe that the government is able to control the press so tightly and so well that it is free to criticize the pair of hands strangling it. The purpose of controlling the press might be crumbling at its core, and it could be a self-aggravating phenomenon—because opinions spread. And if Singaporeans stop subscribing to the theory of the free government-controlled press, there would be no point having papers like The Straits Times churning out article after article of propaganda, even if they sprinkle a dash of criticisms here and there for the sake of creating an artificial flavor of press freedom. For there would be no point setting up the stage and dressing up the main actors when the supporting cast has gone on strike. People must believe that they can have democracy via authoritarianism and freedom via oppression. The truth sets you free, as people say. And apparently truth has to be articulated by the PAP.
Rarely do we see Power in a Catch-22 where letting go of its grip would weaken its intensity while continuing the grip risks being increasingly a self-exhausting and futile mission. But before this can even be capitalized upon, there first has to be a recognition that the lack of press freedom is hardly an issue in a country (which is actually not a country, according to Shanmugam) where the press is virtually non-existent. There is but a simulation of the press, just as there is a simulation of democratic processes, nationhood, and cosmopolitanism. Just as the existence of printing facilities in a predominantly Christian village for the sake of publishing and circulating Bibles and religious tracts for evangelical purposes does not quite constitute the press, speaking of the press in Singapore is to impose sense on senselessness (or perhaps to impose senselessness on reality), which is a necessary precondition of discourse that is ultimately inadequate if it is unaccompanied by a questioning of its existence. Of course we have these things that call themselves newspapers, but are they what they claim to be?
With this realization, one should see that the work to do is not to demand for more freedom. What freedom? For whom? The noise generated about the press freedom index hides the fact that there is no press to be freed in the first place while providing opportunities for the state-sanctioned publications masquerading as news to persuade everyone of the relative freedom to report their own unflattering ranking. We must first have subjects that can claim freedom. When government representatives point out that it is ridiculous for Singapore to be ranked lower than certain oppressive countries in terms of press freedom, they are right in that there is some relative freedom in Singapore and this is where the fissures in the system are visible and need to be exploited; it is just that all those eligible to claim the limited freedom available have been hunted to virtual extinction or they have no interest in claiming it. Press freedom: press before freedom. Press in, press forward, press on.
Could the simulated press possibly be exploited to allow for the emergence of a new reality?
If I have a devoted fan club that publishes news about me daily, I might give it all the freedom in the world. I might even request that it provides criticisms, or really tactful feedback on areas I can improve on in order to deflect accusations of bias. Would you accuse me of bullying my fans into putting me on a pedestal when they do so voluntarily? We cannot simply say that there is quite a substantial degree of press freedom or a lack of press freedom in Singapore. It is quite irrelevant, ultimately. It is not a yearly affair where the extent of freedom can be determined by an ahistorical survey. The frightening tale of the press in Singapore is a historical drama involving power exercised, of power (with)held but ever-present, everlasting, drawing its life from your blood. A power that does not need to be exercised on anyone, but one that extorts, like a debt that is its own debtor, boiling with snowballing interest.
What freedom when everyone has learned to demand for their own imprisonment? It works like superstitions, nothing natural or supernatural, but would anyone ever learn to turn colorful beliefs back into plain misguidance?
Or perhaps . . . the Singapore press, if we have to call something by that name, is he freest in the world. Except that it is homogeneous in all its manifestations, even to the point of choreographing a synchronized charade of plurality. Make this is the most damning judgment on the political regime. And work towards comeuppance.