Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranked Singapore 146th out of 166 countries in its most recent World Press Freedom Ranking. In response to this, Lee Boon Yang, the Singapore Minister of Communication, Information and the Arts protested that the local press simply runs on a Â“different media modelÂ” from many of the countries gauged in the RSF rankings. He stated that the press in Singapore had uniquely evolved under the special circumstances of the nation to become Â“non-adversarialÂ”.
While working at The Straits Times, SingaporeÂ’s leading newspaper, the one thing that really struck me was the remarkable similarity in attitudes between SingaporeÂ’s government and our very own StudentsÂ’ Union (SU). When it comes to the media, our SU is a microcosm of SingaporeÂ’s ruling PeopleÂ’s Action Party (PAP).
Firstly, the two organisations share the intriguing notion of self-censorship. That is to say that a healthy fear of rocking the boat and subsequent ostracism is enough to keep most individuals quiet.
The relevant ministers in the PAP apparently do not find themselves pulling articles from The Straits Times (and other publications run by its publisher, Singapore Press Holdings) because writers rarely bother to comment on domestic politics. It is widely known among SingaporeÂ’s journalist community that if you do write something critical about the government and it slips through the net then you run the risk of facing a host of libel charges in court which the government will, inevitably of course, win. You are left with a shameful criminal record, a mountain of debt to climb and no further career prospects unless you flee the country.
Clearly, it is not quite the same here at Holloway. However the principles are compellingly similar. Here, people tend not to bother criticising the StudentsÂ’ Union because of the hassle that it causes. You may be branded an Â‘arseholeÂ’ by the Â‘UnionitesÂ’ (a term used by many to describe those who harbour a blinkered love of our dear Union). You will no doubt cause the shedding of tears among those linked to your criticisms. You might be on the end of a drunken tirade of insults from a caring friend of the person(s) linked to your criticisms. Whichever way it occurs, you will certainly be made to feel ostracised in a place as small as this.
The Vice-President for Communications and Services does not routinely have to cut large chunks of The Orbital or ban presenters from Insanity Radio for the reasons set out above, much like SingaporeÂ’s Minister of Communication, Information and the Arts.
However, both parties do censor their respective media outlets far too often and for the same unsettling reasons, i.e. a fear that if Â‘the peopleÂ’ are exposed to radical views regarding the respective establishments, they will become somehow disturbed and the harmony of everyday life will be somehow violently disrupted.
Lee Kuan Yew, first Prime Minister of Singapore and now Â‘Minister MentorÂ’ to his son who is now Prime Minister, set out a strategy in the late 1980s for dealing with the foreign press. He deemed that if foreigners Â“interferedÂ” in SingaporeÂ’s politics and sold their products there he would Â“hit them where it hurts, in their pocketsÂ”. This strategy led to a number of high-profile libel suits against foreign press organs including the Financial Times and The Economist.
You may have noticed that The Founder was not at FreshersÂ’ Fayre this year. The reason for this is that the Union thought it appropriate that we should pay more than Â£400 for the two days, a price that it claimed was Â“cheaper than any other stall given to the other companies at the FayreÂ”. In the same sentence it said, would you believe, that Â“as we have reiterated before, we would like to offer The Founder as much support as possibleÂ”. Any company that pays to be at a FreshersÂ’ Fayre works out whether or not it is worth doing by estimating how much money they will make from the fresh-faced new arrivals and whether or not that will justifiably offset the cost of being there. I have no doubt that Endsleigh Insurance are prepared to pay the Union thousands to secure its stall. Oddly enough, we are not like Endsleigh Insurance. We stand to make absolutely no money from students by having a stand at FreshersÂ’ Fayre. All we wanted to do was recruit new writers and spread the word about what we do. I shall leave you to decide whether or not this action reiterates the UnionÂ’s desire to offer us as much support as possible.
It is interesting to note that the StudentsÂ’ Union views this newspaper as a Â“companyÂ”, rather than the non-profit-making student society that it actually is.
Microcosmically speaking, The Founder has a very similar position with the StudentsÂ’ Union as the FT or The Economist has with the Singapore government. It is the element of campus society that the Union cannot control. Past sabbatical officers have happily stated that the main problem with The Founder from their point of view is that it cannot be censored. What an abhorrent attitude for a person in their early 20s to hold about the notion of freedom of the press.
Yet this raises a key issue: the transformation that our friendly fellows make from easygoing student to sabbatical officer. During the elections process at the start of the new year we hear many pledges that involve wonderful initiatives and great ideas. However, when we return to greet our new sabbs in September they seem to be singing from an entirely different hymn sheet. In March last year, during her hustings speech for Participations Officer, now President Liz Owen said that what she really wanted to see was The Orbital, as she held out one hand, inside The Founder, placing one hand neatly in the other. I do not necessarily feel that this would be the best strategy, yet it now seems that the StudentsÂ’ Union does not want to see The Founder at all.
Not only was The Founder not at FreshersÂ’ Fayre, but its members were not even allowed to advertise The Founder on Union premises during Thursday and Friday of FreshersÂ’ Week – being ushered away whenever we attempted to approach the queues. The Founder was allowed to submit a short video to the societies/sports video montage but was specifically told that it was only allowed to advertise The Founder ExposÃ©, i.e. we were not allowed to Â“recruitÂ”. Most bizarrely, discussion of The Founder is now banned at all AUC meetings.
All this newspaper does is try and provide an unrestricted platform for the students of Royal Holloway to air their views and get some experience in journalism. Yes, we have a business side and we get adverts to pay for the printing but unlike other campus publications, we are not given a Â£10,000 grant from the Union each year.
Are we really committing such a crime?
In the words of Patrick Camara Ropeta, editor of The Orbital from 2005-2006, it is time to Â“speak up HollowayÂ”, and free the press.