When I was younger, I would pester my mom for ridiculous stuff to eat at breakfast, like ice cream, or some cold stuff. Of course, she would always say no. Then I would press my case by citing that Westerners do that (must be the TV). And she would always reply: “Asian stomach is different from Western stomach.”
I’ve been receptive to the idea of press freedom from the time I was first introduced to it. That’s a no-brainer because I am an idealist. It is also the reason why I can’t agree with my parents on many issues.
In many ways, Singapore has a relatively free press. At least, I don’t know of local journalists being killed for being on the wrong side of the fence. That could mean that our journalists don’t venture into contentious areas. Which is true because our media mostly covers local news; it isn’t an international press. But our papers have been generally open to alternative views held by more radical Singaporeans. We have forums, avenues for arguments against mainstream ideas, etc. Yes, we are quite liberal…except for the things we don’t hear.
The way our mass media is is not quite like places where journalists are assassinated for writing about the truth. Our media works in a more subtle way. News are framed in a way that persuades you to think in a certain way and come to a certain conclusion; some information is omitted; and of course, there is the omnipresent threat of libel suits looming somewhere overhead. But as I said, all these do not apply so strikingly to general issues. They come down hard on the opposition. Politics is largely a taboo subject in Singapore. You get flak whichever side of the fence you stand on, just which kind.
Having established that press censorship in Singapore mostly applies only to politics, why is the West so critical of Singapore’s position on press freedom? I have to admit that Kishore Mahbubani planted more than just a seed of doubt in my mind about the idea of press freedom. When I was through reading his article (An Asian perspective on human rights), I found my ideals in shambles. He is mainly anti-West, but speaks behind a veil of pluralism in his arguments. I wouldn’t normally be receptive to such tones but I find him incessantly persuasive. Also, it probably isn’t wise to be swayed by the anecdotal arguments he provides but they are compelling examples, evidences and analogies.
Why are my beliefs shaken? Firstly, I am Asian. No matter how much I’ve been exposed to Western media and ideologies. I have loyalties that will forever lie with my roots, even if they’re not manifest. Secondly, because I am Asian, I have to recognize that in our fight for better lives, we have no one else to depend on. We alone have to decide which ideologies are beneficial to our survival. Because isn’t human rights about having better lives ultimately?
Mahbubani has established that human rights and press freedom are Western notions and I don’t contest that. These are notions relatively new to us. But if all human beings should be awarded such rights, it does seem to contradict Western ideals when they try to force such notions down our throats. The problem with us blindly accepting such ideals without weighing their benefits is that we may neglect to see the political agenda behind their advocacy. And you know damn right there must be some kind of vested interest involved. But it is perfectly justified, because they too have their own allegiance. What I’m saying is that we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be led like merry fools into a situation we may not be able to handle, and let ourselves be sacrificed for their ideological purity.
I find myself agreeing with Mahbubani and our government that we should hold our grounds and decide for ourselves whether or not it will benefit us to subscribe to such ideals. Are we ready for a free press? Superficially, I might say yes, we are literate enough for that. But are we proactive enough to take advantage of that? These are noble ideals. They are the kind of ideals that detractors will find hard to argue against when activists lobby for it. You have to admire LKY for his firm stand because few can ever decry such ideals and come out smelling clean.
The day we take that step towards an unprecedented degree of press freedom, I hope we do it for the right reasons, not just for the sake of it. Can we really stomach these high Western ideals and not suffer a massive tummy-ache?