Letters from an ST reader to the Forum
Press- Freedom ranking: Why need for concern
Leong Chee Tung
Straits Times 6 November 2005
Finally, Singapore has done atrociously in an international ranking – coming in 140th out of 167 countries in a press-freedom index constructed by media watchdog Reporters Without Borders, , behind such bastions of freedom as Russia (138th), Sudan (133rd) and Afghanistan (125th).
More interesting is the official response: Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong downplays the significance and methodology of the survey, while highlighting other survey in which Singapore has done well (“SM to media: Use freedom responsibly”; ST, Nov 1).
He notes that the index is only a subjective measure, “computed through the prism of Western liberals”, while implicitly acknowledging that indices like the Heritage Foundation’s index of economic freedom is based on hard, solid facts.
However, such “hard” indices are also constructed through the filter of the liberal Western “prism” : some value judgements have to be used in deciding the criteria for the 10 broad factors of economic freedom in the Heritage Foundation’s index, for example.
Each index should be regarded in its own right, and even though the factors taken into consideration for the press-freedom index may be considered subjective and arbitary, it still stands that Singapore, judged on the same bases as neighbouring countries like Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia, fell far short of even the regional standard.
Slightly more disturbing is SM’s remark: “It has not been proven that having more press freedom would result in a clean and efficient government or economic freedom and prosperity.”
Underlying this statement is the assumption that, first, Singapore values an uncorrupt government and its wealth more than freedom of the press; and second, that having a freer press might infringe on the efficiency of the government or the economy.
While the government is free to choose its own “core values” for Singapore, this choice might also be questioned. Part of the responsibility of a free press is to act as a check and balance to the incumbent government, especially in the absence of a strong opposition. Just because the benefits of having a free press are intangible does not mean that they are non-existent.
And perhaps, like courtesy and racial tolerance, freedom of the press may be valuable as an end in itself, even while they can be useful to society.
Perhaps it is time to rethink the tired old official party line of OB markers and social expediency as a rationale for ignoring the non-economic aspects of development.