Sunday, 13 January 2013

Singapore: leadership, democracy and media liberalization

No, that is not a statement by a medieval European King. Actually, it was said by former Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew in a 1987 newspaper interview (as recently quoted in a news article). Fortunately for Singaporeans, times have changed since LKY made that comment over a quarter of a century ago. More and more, Singaporeans are influencing behaviours and responses of the government, particularly over issues related to information disclosure and government transparency.

To be sure, much of the media remains firmly in the grip of government controlled corporations. Nonetheless, Singapore's social media has carved out a powerful space for itself in the republic's intellectual landscape. Political analysts of all hues air opinions which may not have seen the light of day in the past. Even ordinary citizens chime in with their two pennies worth – and not only through officially sanctioned programs such as 'Our Singapore Conversation.'

Politicians cannot take positive coverage for granted any longer. They must calculate moves to ensure 'blowback' from the social media will not be excessively negative – surely a good thing. Still, the limits of internet freedom are a 'work in progress.' Following threats of legal action by members of parliament several bloggers have apologized for writings on the internet.

Undoubtedly, public apologies are less severe than being sued for damages which often left opposition politicians bankrupt. Of course, these present voices are frequently not those of politicians. These views come directly from members of the electorate – voters who might swing election results every five years. Moreover, some of these opinions seem to represent beliefs widely held by many 'silent' Singaporeans. Clamping down hard on the 'messengers' will most certainly backfire politically.

Nevertheless, leaders should lead and not follow. That is the definition of leadership. Leading through persuasion and inspiration, not through wielding a big stick, is the new order of things in Singapore. After all, Singapore's past successes were not achieved by following populist policies. If Singapore is to get its mojo back then the level of public debate about governance must continue to improve.

Perhaps it is time for the authorities to initiate deliberate and conscious steps towards liberalizing the country's print media? Counterintuitive it may seem, but a controlled, deregulated traditional print media might serve national interests better than an uncontrolled social media – albeit with pockets of excellence in the form of a few committed bloggers and social analysts.
Imran is a business and management consultant. Through his work at Deodar Advisors and the Deodar Diagnostic, Imran improves profits of businesses operating in Singapore and the region. He can be reached at

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