A reader wrote in to the Straits Times forum today arguing that press freedom is a non-issue in the Internet age. I reproduce here the letter in its entirety, so you can draw your own conclusions.
I REFER to the recent reports and letters on press freedom, or the lack of it, in Singapore.
Given today’s borderless cyberspace of the World Wide Web and Internet-speed communications, I believe freedom of the press is a non-issue as far as Singapore is concerned.
While a muzzled press may restrict the flow of information in countries where the reach of the Internet is still embryonic, for an IT-savvy nation like Singapore, the press is no longer the sole source of information.
This explains how information from all quarters offering both truths and lies can be had effortlessly and even wirelessly in Singapore via the Web. Hence, so-called press freedom is nothing but a dying battle cry that has little impact on anyone who can read, type and is computer-literate.
In today’s lightning-speed communications with which a newsworthy murmur can be relayed globally in an instant, such talk of press freedom is silly because one cannot stop the flow.
Unlike in the past, when sources of information could be snuffed out easily even before newspapers hit the street, cyberspace today is just too big to police – and so it will remain at large.
So, while press freedom was once a coveted element of democracy, I do not think it matters now because one does not need the local press to be kept informed.
Paul Wee Kian Nghee
While the argument sounds convincing, more interesting is the government’s response to Reporters without Borders, which ranked Singapore 147th in the Third Annual Worldwide Press Freedom Index, behind such bastions of freedom as Afghanistan (125th), Russia (138th) and Sudan (133rd). According to Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, the index is only a subjective measure, “computed through the prism of western liberals” (“SM to media: Use freedom responsibly” — ST, Nov 1).
Furthermore, “it has not been proven that having more press freedom would result in a clean and efficient government or economic freedom and prosperity”, added SM Goh.
Underlying his disturbing remark is the assumption that, first, Singapore values an uncorrupt government and its wealth more than freedom of the press; and second, that having a free press might infringe on the efficiency of the government or the economy.
The argument is, of course, flawed. Firstly, even though the factors taken into consideration for the press freedom index may be considered subjective and arbitrary, it still stands that Singapore, judged on the same bases as neighbouring countries like Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia, fell far short of even the regional standard. And just because the benefits of having a free press are intangible does not mean that they are non-existent.
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As despots and dictators go, Lee Kuan Yew is vulgarly common. Nothing unique about him at all. First, like nearby Suharto and other dictators in the region and further, he got into power. Then, like Suharto, he quickly disposed of his enemies or potential enemies or just suspected enemies, though not as bloodily. Then, with his power firmly entrenched, he made himself very, very rich, again, like Suharto. Then, he surrounded himself with cronies, like Suharto, willing men and women who’d do his bidding and treat his ruminations as holy gospel. Then, finally, after having all that, he would try to justify and dignify his reign with an attempt to write his own history as he sees it. (Incidentally, he has declared that “Suharto is not a crook.”)
Writing his history was a monumental work. His version of himself spread over 2 volumes, much of it ghost written by paid researchers who know better than to produce anything he doesn’t want. And who had already been steeped in the new political ideology using falsifications of history now taught in school as National Education. I term it monumental because it is a monumental work to justify so much treachery, viciousness to political opponents, systematic corruption of every single institution in the country, and the gathering of all the reins of power and state money in his own personal hands. Even the transfer of power to his son is also a common trait.
In other words, Lee Kuan Yew is a classical dictator. Strip him of his modern guise and he could easily be a Chinese ruler. Or a Roman emperor. Or a Hitler. Or a Saddam. Seen in the light of history, Lee Kuan Yew is a familiar and common variant of absolute rulers. And like some Chinese absolute rulers, he too, wants immortality, though not in a magical herb, but in legend.
So, the poor man spent more than a year labouring into the wee hours, engaged in perfecting his legend for a posterity he hopes will treat his memory kinder than many are now beginning to do. Alas, like all search for immortality, Lee Kuan Yew’s search is as futile.
Even now, with him still hale and hearty and around, in full control of his senses and faculties and the rest of us, an endless stream of digital 1s and 0s is rewriting his history. On the Internet and off it, fingers are spelling out his misdeeds, his vileness, his loathsomeness. In chatrooms and forums, an endless flow of invective is erasing his memory. More thoughtful messages dissect his legacy to find rottenness and stench. Books like Comet in our Sky and Dark Clouds at Dawn restore some accuracy to Singapore’s history.
Astonishingly, he is silent. Impotently, he allows such writings to flourish. Even his own PAP website is born without a forum for fear of the criticising stream. Has he gone soft in his old age? Has he become kinder, gentler, mellower? Probably not. The most likely reason for his reticence is that he is helpless against this new digital phenomenon. He did not learn to use email until a few years ago. Whether he is aghast at this outpouring of venom or not, he is powerless to stem it. His famous use of defamation laws may well be over.
So, like an old, toothless lion, he just waits in dismay, hoping his young cronies can find a way to restore the old status quo, where he (at least in his own mind) basks in the people’s admiration and approbation.
The digital stream continues, strengthening. Soon, there may be new technologies allowing the people to communicate in even shorter time, on handphones, PDAs, even new devices. Sharing news, views and opinions. Then, as increasingly now, it will not be a matter of who controls the media that gets the last word, but who can summon the more credible news, the better informed views and the most intelligent opinions.
Unlike the one-way flow of information that Lee Kuan Yew and his ilk have shaped to form our minds, there will be a multiplicity of voices where the best voice will be heard and remembered longest. Lee Kuan Yew will have to compete on, finally, an equal footing, something they have never done and something which, judging by their cop out in not having a forum in the PAP website, they cannot do because they simply don’t have the arguments on their side.
Thus, the last word on Lee Kuan Yew will not be the pathetic attempts to write history in 2 volumes, but it will be with the people. It is an ongoing enterprise. Individual, not team. Sharing a bit here and there. News, views, opinions. All erasing Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy so carefully penned and beautifully crafted to simulate truth.
The last word has already begun.