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By Sara Webb
SINGAPORE (Reuters) - A month before Singapore goes under the international spotlight as the venue of a major International Monetary Fund conference, the government flexed its muscles to remind the media of its controls on the press.
On August 3, it ordered five foreign publications -- the Far Eastern Economic Review, Time, Newsweek, the Financial Times and the International Herald Tribune (IHT) -- to post bonds of S$200,000 and appoint representatives in Singapore.
It was a sharp reminder of hefty damages paid in the past by media groups such as the Economist, IHT and Bloomberg to Singapore's leaders. The bonds would serve as security in any future government lawsuit for alleged defamation.
The moves highlighted the contradiction between Singapore's desire to become Asia's leading business center and its determination to maintain the tight controls that have given the country decades of stability in a turbulent region.
But such steps -- which press freedom groups see as intimidation -- did not go unnoticed in the business world, where investors depend on warts-and-all coverage of economics, politics and business in the countries in which they invest.
Mark Mobius, a fund manager at Templeton, declined to comment specifically on Singapore, where his firm has an office. But he said the general rule of thumb is that investors value a free press in countries where they put their money.
"In general, if there is a climate of fear or intimidation, it's a drag on investments," said Mobius, who oversees about $20 billion invested in various emerging economies.
Many analysts say they prefer not to comment directly on Singaporean issues because of the risk of legal action, given that government leaders have successfully sued opposition politicians and the foreign media in Singapore's courts.
Singapore is seeking to shift from manufacturing to services such as higher education, the media and finance to boost its international profile as it competes with Hong Kong as a base for foreign investment in the region.
Analysts say strict media laws might hamper this effort.