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Media : Singapore's Paradox: Hostility to Press, TV Despite Little to Hide : The U.S. ally seemingly rolls out the welcome mat to all but news organizations, which the island's prime minister accuses of interference. After one legal battle, the Asian Wall Street Journal decides to halt circulation.

October 30, 1990|CHARLES P. WALLACE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SINGAPORE — It is one of the closest U.S. allies in the Pacific, offering access to military facilities at a time when the Philippines is trying to boot the Americans out. But despite a strong affinity for the United States and many aspects of its culture, Singapore continues to take a defiant stand against what it considers to be the unwelcome incursions of Western news media.

Two developments earlier this month help illustrate Singapore's stand, perhaps the toughest in the developed world:

* The Asian Wall Street Journal, sister publication of the Journal in the United States, announced that it was halting circulation in the island republic after a lengthy legal dispute with the Singapore government.

* Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, whose political party has ruled Singapore since it gained independence in 1965, issued a scathing criticism of the Western media, accusing television inparticular of creating false hopes among Chinese students during last year's disturbances in Beijing and charging that American news organizations had set out two years ago to deliberately change the view of Congress about Cambodia.

"Singapore is a totally urban society with state-of-the-art-telecommunications, and no government can effectively censor what the people read," Lee declared. "But the government can and will insist on no interference in the domestic politics of Singapore."

Singapore itself has a fairly tame domestic press, which never criticizes government policy. Singaporeans are also denied permission to erect satellite dishes to receive foreign television programs such as CNN, and videotapes entering the country are heavily censored, primarily to maintain a prudish standard about sex in films. But books are not censored and the government retransmits the foreign service of the British Broadcasting Corp., including its news programs.

By contrast, other Southeast Asian countries limit critical reporting in the local vernacular press, but few besides Vietnam and Cambodia seek to control what foreign publications circulate among the educated elite and foreigners.

In Singapore, the government draws the line at what it considers "interference in domestic politics," which it defines broadly as Singapore's political system, public institutions, ideology and government policies.

Its hostility toward the Western media is often regarded by both journalists and native Singaporeans as a paradox because among Southeast Asian nations it has the least to hide: a booming economy, with a corruption-free government, an enviable lifestyle and civic amenities that are the wonder of Asia.

Still, Singapore has clashed over the years with a number of foreign publications, including Time magazine and Asiaweek, a regional news weekly. Lee has even become personally embroiled in disputes with foreign columnists, challenging one--Bernard Levin of the London Times--to a televised debate.

But never has a dispute lasted as long or been as bitter as the one pitting Singapore against the Asian Wall Street Journal and the Far Eastern Economic Review, a regional weekly which is also owned by the Journal's parent, Dow Jones & Co.

The government has prevented the Hong Kong-based Review from basing a correspondent here since 1987; it similarly barred the Journal from having a correspondent in 1988. The confrontation briefly bubbled into an international incident when Secretary of States James A. Baker III wrote to ask the government to relax the ban for his visit in August, but the Singaporeans refused.

The dispute with the Review stemmed from an article over detentions of church workers, while the Journal was criticized for an article about a second-tier Singaporean securities market called Sesdaq. The Singaporeans were angered when they were not given a "right of reply" in the form of lengthy letters that they insisted could not be edited for publication; they then tried to buy advertisements that were also refused.

When the Journal published an editorial critical of Singaporean courts' handling of the legal case, Lee sued the newspaper for libel.

In 1987, the government ordered the Review to limit its circulation to 500 copies, and the magazine decided to halt sales in Singapore. So now a pirated version of the magazine circulates with government sanction, but with the advertisements blanked out.

The Journal had also seen its circulation limited to 400 copies, down from 5,000 before the ban. In announcing its decision to halt circulation, the Journal cited a new press law passed by Parliament in August.

The law requires foreign publications to obtain a permit from the Ministry of Communications and Information. The law gives the minister the power to reduce circulation at any time and to revoke the permit without giving a reason. The minister may also require the publication to put up a deposit to meet costs arising out of potential court actions.

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