LAW Minister K. Shanmugam yesterday said rankings that place Singapore lowly on press freedom "struck him as quite absurd and divorced from reality".
At the Opening of the seasonal meeting of the New York state bar association International Section, Mr. Shanmugam addressed the perception American newspapers portray of Singapore being "a repressive, state that controls the people's thoughts" and "unfairly target the press".
He referred to the Press Freedom Index compiled by the organization Reporters without Borders - which placed Singapore 144th out of 173 countries on press freedom in 2008 below Ethiopia, Sudan, Kazahkstan, Venezuela, Guinea, Haiti.
This year Singapore was ranked 133rd out of 175 countries below Kenya - which saw riots following a disputed election - and Congo - which continues to struggle with the aftermath of an armed conflict that has claimed more than 5 million lives.
Mr. Shanmugam said that it did not make sense that Singapore is ranked lower than countries trying to progress. "My point is not that we are in any way inherently superior to them - the question is whether a truly objective assessment will give us such a ranking."
The Singapore government has had tussels and won law suits against with several newspapers such as the Wall Street Journal and Far Eastern Economic Review. He said that the press is not used to this anywhere else in the world and "they don't like it one bit".
"So every Law suit is met with the same reaction - we are out to silence the press. That feeling has been pervasive and has, in my view, coloured the general reporting on Singapore."
"Is it possible to have a modern, successful, open economy if the people are not empowered and educated?"
He added that it is perfectly possible to be deeply critical of government policies without the addition of totally unnecessary remarks on some form of corruption, as he had seen such cases when he was previously in private practice.
"Our approach on press reporting is simple: The press can criticize us, our policies. We do not seek to condemn that.
"But we demand the right of response, to be published in the journal that published the original article. We do not accept that they can decide whether to publish our response."
There will be libel suits if personal factual attacks are made. "Public discourse does not have to descend into the gutter, " he said.
He went on to emphasize that there is a public right to comment on policies and even if it is "someone is stupid or that policies make no sense and the policies are attacked vigorously you can't sue."
He stressed the public right to comment on policies while the goverment will respond to defend policies and ignore comments on intellect.
Mr. Shanmugam said that proof of our stability can be seen by the billions of dollars invested in Singapore annually by international organizations.
"Our main selling point is that there will be good value added when they invest here, their investments will be protected, and that we are a stable democracy."