Media, Cultural Control and Government in Singapore |

Media, Cultural Control and Government in Singapore

20121101_Terence_Lee_w170Singapore’s experience so far has shown that it is possible for a nation-building media to co-exist with economic openness, and that it is possible to regulate the cultural landscape tightly without risking one’s economic standing. As one of the most open economies in the world, Singapore constantly treads the fine line between maintaining that and marshalling harmony within society, said Dr Terence Lee of Murdoch University. The nation-state has so far done this successfully through a combination of laws and subtler cultural controls. Dr Lee explores some of these measures in his recent book The Media, Cultural Control and Government in Singapore

Using philosopher Michel Foucault’s concepts of discipline, governmentality and freedom, Dr Lee analysed Singapore society and found it to be a disciplinary society par excellence. Such aspects are already seen in Singapore’s manicured landscapes, orderliness of institutions and an ire for alternative lifestyles, Dr Lee said. The state also uses subtler cultural control in its governance, such as moral regulation, a concept articulated by academic Alan Hunt, where it asserts some “generalised sense of the wrongness of some conduct, habit or disposition”. This is then used to delineate between the “civic/civil/well-mannered citizen” from the “uncivil/immoral/amoral”. 

Government campaigns such as the Singapore Kindness Movement are an example. Another is when ex-PM Goh also remodelled the Singapore narrative in August 2002 to recast Singapore citizenship in the mould of the “stayer and quitter”, implying that there be fewer “quitters”—Singapore citizens who choose to move overseas. Besides that, cultural control happens on a subtler level where arts, culture and the media are co-opted for economic imperatives and nation-building purposes. This is different from the Western model, which traditionally views the freedom of these institutions as imperative to liberal pursuits. 

What is even more fascinating, said Dr Lee, is Singapore’s approach to controlling the Internet space since the mid-1990s when the medium grew popular. Besides punitive laws such as the Sedition Act and the Internet Code of Practice, Singapore also has the subtler Class Licensing Law where sites “determined by the Authority to be, an individual providing any programme, for the propagation, promotion or discussion of political or religious issues relating to Singapore” are required to register with authorities for accountability. 

However, Singapore has taken a ‘light touch’ approach so far; few bloggers have been punished for sedition or asked to register under the class licensing act. Yet the class licensing act is so broadly worded that it is a prime example of the panopticon—by suspecting surveillance, people become cautious. Control is subtle and openness is balanced with fear. This offers “one of the best ‘trade-offs’ model anywhere in the world”, said Dr Lee. 

As food for thought, Dr Lee quoted John Kampfner in his book Freedom for Sale, “Most people, Singapore citizens, international businesses, foreign governments, had a vested interest in preserving the status quo. […] Even more horrifying is the thought that plenty more people around the world, irrespective of their political culture, have also been contentedly anaesthetised. Singapore may be the home of the trade-off in its purest forms, but are we all more Singaporean than we realise?” 

In the question-and-answer session, a member of the audience asked whether the size of the country was linked to the amount of cultural control that Singapore has managed to create. Dr Lee agreed and said that the density of social networks in Singapore has helped to keep people in check. A larger state might find it much harder to do the same. Another suggested that the Internet is not a one-way panopticon but a two-way one. The watcher (the government) is also similarly being watched by the citizenry who have powerful tools like social media to share their views. The watcher has to now deal with this change. Dr Lee said that this was certainly true and he hoped that the Internet would now serve the cause of greater citizen-government accountability.


On 1 November 2012, Dr. Terence Lee, Associate Professor & Deputy Dean, School of Media Communication & Culture, Murdoch University gave a talk titled “The Media, Cultural Control and Government in Singapore” as part of the LKY School’s Bukit Timah Dialogue. It was chaired by Dr. Kenneth Paul Tan, Associate Professor; Vice-Dean (Academic Affairs), Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.


By Cheong Kah Shin, a Research Assistant in the Arts, Culture and Media Cluster at the Institute of Policy Studies.


Dr. Terence Lee, Associate Professor & Deputy Dean, School of Media Communication & Culture, Murdoch University

Thursday, 01 November 2012

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