Sunday, July 14, 2013

Eerie similarities with Singapore

Having almost finished revising my paper comparing Fiji’s system of press control with that in Singapore (here’s the original, which has been completely rewritten), not only have the similarities become apparent, but the latest moves involving Fiji TV are making a lot of sense as well. It’s almost as if the Fiji regime has finally realized that attempting to crudely impose control from without is nowhere near as effective as ensconcing it within. 
Singapore's press is tightly controlled
In Singapore, founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew made it a project to bring the country’s free press under control in the 1970s and ’80s, especially the dominant Straits Times. Nicknamed the “Thunderer of the East” for its resounding editorials (after the Times of London), the Straits Times opposed the People’s Action Party (or PAP, which has to be one of the all-time best acronyms for a political party) which Lee headed. Lee used the PAP’s political dominance to impose the 1974 Newspaper and Printing Presses Act, under which all newspaper companies had to convert from private to public ownership, which immediately made them subject to the whims of the stock market. The NPPA also required that a percentage of management shares, which controlled editorial policy, be held by government-controlled companies, which placed representatives on their boards of directors and at the heads of their executive committees. At times, these representatives have included the prime minister’s former press secretary and the former head of Singapore’s secret service. In the 1980s, a series of government measures led to the creation of a newspaper monopoly. The two leading Chinese-language dailies were forced to merge, then they were folded into the Straits Times group to form Singapore Press Holdings (SPH), which now publishes all of the city-state’s dozen or so dailies (in four languages). MediaCorp, which owns 80 percent of broadcast outlets in Singapore, is wholly owned by a government investment company, so its control is ensured.
Singapore's leading media theorist, former Straits Times journalist Cherian George, calls the system of press control there Freedom From the Press, which is the title of his most recent book. In an extract available online, George explains how Lee and the PAP incrementally increased their control over the press.
Overt censorship has been largely replaced by self-censorship, achieved through economic disincentives against non-cooperation with the state. . . . The PAP has harnessed the dominant global trend of media commercialisation to tame journalism’s democratic purpose. 
The theoretical framework I have used in my paper to compare press control systems in Singapore and Fiji is that of hegemony, which was developed by the Italian writer Antonio Gramsci while he was imprisoned by  Mussolini’s Fascist regime in the 1930s. “The Singapore media system is sustained through hegemonic processes,” writes George. “Social theorists understand hegemony to be a kind of political domination in which coercion is masked by consent that has been manufactured through ideological work.” State control of media is vital in exercising hegemony, as it is through them that a country’s rulers make their policies seem reasonable and even natural. Thus state control comes to be seen as the public will.

My paper concludes that there are several factors preventing a Singapore-style hegemonic system from being implemented in Fiji. First, while Singapore’s system of political control is much admired by despots worldwide – the PAP has maintained power since the 1950s and often elects every seat in Parliament – some unique features make it unlikely to succeed elsewhere. The country has enjoyed enormous prosperity and was ranked 10th in per-capita GDP last year, according to the International Monetary Fund, just ahead of the U.S. The country’s economic success has endeared the PAP to Singaporeans, who are more than happy to look the other way in its muzzling of the press. Fiji, on the other hand, suffers from high levels of poverty and was ranked 123rd  in per-capita GDP by the IMF last year, behind Turkmenistan, Namibia, and the Republic of the Congo. Fijians are thus less likely to sit still for such infringements of their free expression rights.

More important to the success or failure of hegemony, however, is the way in which it is imposed. George has developed an elaborate theory to explain the success of hegemony in Singapore, but the experience in Fiji is proving quite the opposite. George notes the PAP’s proclivity to plug itself into networks in order to mitigate the traditional vulnerability of dictatorships – information. The “dictator’s dilemma,” he explains in his book, is that an army of spies and informants operating in a climate of fear can never approach the feedback a government receives in a democracy. A monopoly on power can thus be self-defeating because a lack of early warning systems prevents the all-powerful ruler from knowing if the masses are about to rise up against him. The PAP has nicely found a way around this problem by participating in civil society and actually listening to the concerns of people. The result, according to George, has been described as an “elected dictatorship.”
The regime has attempted to keep itself open to the flow of ideas and responsive to change even as it forecloses political competition. This approach, which I term “networked hegemony”, has so far spared Singapore the kind of rigidity and decline usually associated with authoritarian regimes. Networked hegemony challenges conventional wisdom about the kind of openness required of a high-functioning modern state.
The Bainimarama regime in Fiji, on the other hand, has relentlessly insisted on going its own way and has treated feedback with high-handed disregard. In the ongoing constitutional process, for example, it rejected the recommendations of the Ghai commission by literally torching its proposed draft earlier this year. After vowing to write its own constitution for rubber-stamping by a hand-picked constitutional assembly, the regime then cancelled even that planned consultation. As a result, noted the respected UK magazine The Economist, Bainimarma has “blown his chance to preside over the creation of a new political order that is durable and legitimate.”
The other mechanism the PAP has mastered in order to make hegemony work in Singapore is its use of what George calls “calibrated coercion.” The use of violence, noted German political theorist Hannah Arendt, tends to de-legitimise power. Its use must therefore be minimised in a hegemonic system of control, according to George, lest the dictator lose his grip on power.
Authoritarian regimes often overdo their use of force, provoking a political backlash that ultimately weakens them. The Singapore government has been particularly skilled at applying the right doses of force — just enough to contain competition, but not enough to provoke widespread moral outrage.
In Fiji, of course, the use of force is fairly unrestrained. Perhaps there is a greater cultural acceptance of its use, but the basic rule of thumb when it comes to hegemony is that coercion should come in the disguise of consensus. In Bainimarama’s Fiji, bashings are business as usual. Keeping the populace in line this way, however, makes hegemony less likely to succeed. The use of force in Singapore, on the other hand, is reserved for dire circumstances. Force, of course, can take many forms. Governments can exercise their control directly or indirectly through their networks of control. In Singapore, the powers that be have chosen to do what they can to shut Cherian George up. In a decision that has prompted worldwide outrage, Nanyang Technological University (where I used to teach) recently denied George tenure, so he's basically out of a job. (Where have we heard this story before?) Those in power always have the last laugh, it seems. If they want to shut you up, they will, one way or the other. The system in Singapore is just a little bit more sophisticated and subtle than the one in Fiji.

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