As a journalist who once lived in a country that did not have freedom of the press, I've become worried about our government's tendency to try to subvert our Constitutional protection of freedom of the press, which is freedom to get information and then publish or broadcast it.
The country I lived in was not a terrible place. It had many good things about it and was generally a pleasant place to live. The leader of that country did not say "the press is the enemy of the people," as the president of the United States has said. But if you were a journalist, you knew that the Ministry of Culture was keeping track of what you wrote and published so you tended to be careful, to censor yourself before you wrote something that the government might not like.
And if you wanted information from a government agency, there was no Freedom of Information Act to protect you. There still isn't, though I haven't lived in Singapore for nearly 40 years.
I didn't move to Singapore as a writer and didn't admit to being one for a while. I'd been advised not to put that on my visa application "because some countries are suspicious of writers." I went there because my husband was transferred there by his company and the wife and kids went with him. But before long I learned there was a community newspaper published by the American Association for Americans living in Singapore, so I joined the volunteer staff. Soon, I encountered a problem.
We wanted to publish a feature about a children's hospital and I tried to arrange an interview with the woman doctor who ran it. A photographer would go with me. It took a long time to get government approval for this story, though we finally did. The Singapore American Newspaper was completely non-controversial and never mentioned anything about politics anywhere in the world. It was circulated only to the 10,000 or so Americans living there. There should have been no problem. But I learned that deadlines depended not so much on our schedule as that of the Ministry of Culture that would, in due time, decide whether to permit the story.
When as a freelancer I wrote a story about the women of Singapore for the Singapore Airlines magazine, "Silver Kris," I ran into considerable delay again. The story was very complimentary, I thought, and mentioned that women had a wide variety of roles in the nation, including piloting jet fighters in the Air Force.
The editor finally called me to say that they really felt I should take out one line of my story. That line said: "There are no women in government in Singapore." That was certainly true, but if we wanted to publish the story, we'd best delete that line. So it was taken out.
The Singapore Constitution, like ours, theoretically provides for freedom of the press and speech, but several laws have been made to define and limit what is actually permitted. The same thing is happening here. Last Sunday the Gazette published an editorial about new rules that will curtail Freedom of Information requests at the Department of Interior. This is a good example of making rules that limit freedoms we think we have. If we are worried about what the new rules will do to our Freedom of Information, we have to say so by Jan. 28.
The judiciary in Singapore lacks independence from the government and tends to side with it in judging which rules governing speech and the press have been violated. Authors found guilty pay steep fines and are denied employment in their profession. I think about that when President Trump says that libel laws should be more strict, and that it's too bad newspapers can print whatever they want to. It's time to pay attention when he appoints extremist judges because he believes they are loyal to him, personally.
Freedom of the Press was part of the First Amendment to our Constitution, at the top of the Bill of Rights. Two hundred and twenty-eight years ago our Founding Fathers knew a free press is essential for free citizens. When we see attempts by government agencies to subvert our right to gather and publish information, we know it's time to recognize threats to Freedom of the Press and stand in its defense.