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In part two of the Seven Network submission to FIRB, Kerry Stokes explains the dangers of allowing these heavy-handed totalitarians control over any more key Australian assets.

In 1987, Brigadier General Lee Hsien Loong, the then Minister for Trade and Industry and Second Minister for Defence (Services) stated in a speech to the Congress of Newspaper Publishers:

“, 05when foreign based journals with significant circulation in Singapore start to report in Singapore for a Singapore audience, the Government has to take care. We do not want such foreign journals to take sides on domestic political issues, whether to increase their circulation in Singapore, or to campaign for a particular outcome they prefer. The foreign press has no part to play in what should be a purely domestic political process, 05

“And when a newspaper becomes involved in domestic politics, the Government will move to curb it, 05

“Any elected government of Singapore which adopted a laissez faire attitude to the foreign press would be in grave dereliction of its duty. To start from first principles foreign newspapers have no right to circulate in Singapore, 05Circulation is a privilege we grant on terms.”

In June 1990, Lee Hsien Loong, as Trade and Industry Minister made the government’s position very clear stating that there was no evidence “to prove that governments can still function effectively when the media are given absolute freedom, 05If we ask the people to choose between more freedom, democracy and more economic growth, we have no doubt that they would choose economic growth.”

David Birch in his book, “Singapore Media – Communication Strategies and Practices”, comments:

“Media accountability is not a question of free market economics in Singapore, but of Government control. ‘Who gives the media the right to criticise the Government?’, Lee Hsien Loong asks, 05The role of the mass media according to Lee ‘is to inform people of government policies’. ”

Christopher Lingle comments (at page 106):

“It should be clear that Mr Lee and the PAP regime are determined to take decisive and definitive steps in their pattern of domination over the news media. The years of a hostile and impatient treatment of the PAP’s opponents have apparently inspired a self-imposed conspiracy of silence among the news media. Through incremental and persistent harrying of the press, most reports on Singapore have become so uncritical as to appear to be verbatim press releases crafted by Singapore’s self-promoting Information Ministry.

Many of the functionaries and leaders of Singapore’s Government are on record making clear their contempt for the openness of the western media. To preserve their grip on power, they insist that introducing western-style democratic institutions would have a destructive impact upon social cohesion. According to the Singapore model, Asian democracy does not require individual citizens to have a voice in their government or to enjoy more freedom. Restrictions on information flows in general, and the media in particular, are an important element for Singapore’s ruling party to impose social control over their fellow citizens.”

Legislative framework for surveillance and control

The legislative framework in Singapore is geared towards assisting the Government’s surveillance and control efforts. In effect, it complements the coercion framework created by the Government’s control of the media and communications infrastructure.

The Internal Security Act was used to detain in the “public interest”, without trial, five editors of Nanyang Siang Pau, a Chinese newspaper, two editors of Berita Harian and a Singapore correspondent of the Far Eastern Economic Review .

The Telecommunications Authority of Singapore Act “provides most of the legislative basis for telecommunications and postal surveillance.”

Access to information

Access to information in Singapore, particularly information relating to government activities, is very restricted. The Government’s attitude to access to information is summed up by Brigadier General George Yeo, who in his capacity as the acting Minister for Information and the Arts addressed the Singapore Press Club in May 1991, making the Government’s position very clear:

“The free flow of information is not an end in itself but a means to an end, 05What matters is the survival and prosperity of Singapore, 05being Singapore Inc. dictates that information should not be divulged to competitors, 05and so therefore freedom of information domestically means you are giving more information to foreigners” .

In 1988, the Economist chose to close its Singapore offices after its journalists were denied access to government briefings .

In 1993, the Singapore Government brought a case against the editor of the Business Times, a government official, a journalist and 2 employees of a securities firm who were involved in a report citing unreleased economic growth figures. The defendants were all found guilty and fined for failing to protect the secrecy of official information .

At page 237 of his thesis, Worthington states:

“The public sector environment is highly constrained in Singapore, due to the culture of secrecy and the continuation of a command and control management approach from the colonial era. Underlying this culture is a raft of legislation and public sector management guidelines that reinforce these cultural traditions. In addition to the provisions for the public service within the constitution, 05several pieces of legislation supported by subsidiary legislation provide the operational framework for public service. It is these Acts which enforce a rigid secrecy and insularity within the public service and the civil service in particular.”

The Evidence Act 1990, for example, “contains a provision which forbids the production of any unpublished government records ‘relating to affairs of State’ as evidence in a court except with the permission of the permanent secretary subject to the control of the president. Additionally, public officials cannot be compelled to answer questions in court, either related to his official duties, or which are questions that it would ordinarily be improper for any reason to ask, or if they would “, 05disclose communications made to him in official confidence (either oral or written) when he considers that the public interest would suffer by the disclosure, 05This Act therefore provides for the total control of the release of information by public officials which might be detrimental to the government and also provides substantial protection for both the government and its officials from investigation by the courts through an extremely broad claim of executive privilege.

It is certainly conceivable that, with the Singapore Government’s attitude and practices towards providing access to information, if Sing Tel were to control Optus, information about Optus, particularly the use of Optus for the Singapore Government’s own purposes would become very difficult to attain, presumably on the basis that it related to Singapore’s “domestic affairs”.

The Singapore Government’s attitude and practices towards access to information are completely contrary to Australian practices. As Asad Latif points out in an article headed “Freer Flow of Information but at what Economic Cost?” viewing information as only a commodity possessing economic worth, ignore the political value of information so that whilst “the Government has a right to hoard information as a commodity, democratic openness demands a liberal attitude to information as a value.”

The law and the legal system

In Singapore, the legal system has become a tool of the Singapore government’s governance strategy. Asia Watch, an international human rights organisation has published a “damning expose” including references to the complicity of courts with the PAP’s exertion of political control .

Christopher Lingle, at pages 89-90, states:

“After nearly 3 decades of rigid single-party rule, Singapore’s rulers have successfully sold the world on a variety of really big lies. These lies, 05can be summarized in one sentence, such as follows: “Singapore’s independent judiciary provides crucial support for democratic institutions operated by incorruptible public officials who oversee a crime-free community.”, 05Reflecting a Jekyll and Hyde split, the courts enjoy a reputation for enforcing contracts and protecting property rights, especially when the commercial interests of multinational corporations or other foreign investors are involved. Unfortunately, strict adherence to due process and the Rule of Law is less often applied to domestic political opponents or critics of the regime.”

At page 341, Worthington states:

“The coercive framework is principally based upon a select body of legislation, although it must be said that virtually all Singapore legislation is designed to maintain executive control, minimise judicial review, provide intrusive powers to the police and agencies which have dual administrative and political coercion roles without warrant or independent review procedures.”

Christopher Lingle states, at page 16:

“Due to the prolonged dominance of single parties or even single families in government, there is an evident convergence and consolidation of the various instruments of power. The use and abuse of the law as a weapon by a ruling party is similar to the actions taken by the communist regime in Beijing , 05 Singapore and other East Asian countries do not exercise the Rule of Law as a means to protect individuals. Instead, rules are made by and for rulers or for the convenience of the ruling parties. What they have constructed is an illusion of law and order that camouflages a condition of “lawless order”, where due process falls victim to arbitrary governance and the executive branch interferes with the autonomy of other organs of government. While there is an appearance of an orderly community, the reality is that the government’s manipulation of the legal system leads to considerable insecurity for citizens.”

The Singapore judiciary is not an independent body, but is one influenced heavily by the Government. In his book, “Beyond Suspicion: The Singapore Courts on Trial”, Francis Seow states at pages vi-vii in his Preface:

“Harry Lee [Lee Kuan Yew] has subordinated the news media in Singapore to the primacy of his purpose and that of his PAP government: as a subservient mouthpiece of the government. The legal and judicial system is not too far behind. It is not an idle – but a terrifying thought.”

Worthington states, at page 193:

“The political executive, in the form of the Attorney-General, has clearly set out its policy on judicial review in stating that there is, and implicitly should be:

‘A self-conscious deference by judges towards the decisions of persons who have relatively greater technical and substantive expertise and are consequently better equipped to decide…deference and competence are grounds on which judges have also consciously avoided adjudicating in certain areas of governmental activity such as foreign relations, national security and political appointments.'”

Not only are civil defamation suits used to pressure the media, as described above, the Singapore Government has used civil defamation suits against its political opponents in a manner that violates their right to freely hold and peacefully express their convictions .

Following the defamation case against J. B. Jeyaretnam, a leader of an Opposition Party in Singapore, in 1997, Stuart Littlemore QC wrote:

“The Singapore leadership has a long-standing record of using the high court as a mechanism for silencing its opponents – by suing them for statements that, in any comparable jurisdiction, would be seen as part of the robust political debate inseparable from democratic freedoms, and by being awarded such unconscionably high damages and costs as to bankrupt the defendant, forcing them out of parliament.”

In a letter to the Editor of the Straits Times, Mr Littlemore QC also wrote:

“A comparison of the two classes of plaintiff demonstrates that the average PAP [ruling party in Singapore] damages award is S$570,000; while the average non-PAP plaintiff was awarded less than $45,000. Impartial readers may draw their own conclusions from the comparison.”

Amnesty International in a statement on 15 October 1997 said:

“Following the recent award of the libel damages against opposition Workers’ Party leader, J. B. Jeyaretnam, Amnesty International is increasingly concerned about the Singapore leadership’s use of civil defamation suits for political purposes, 05The organization believes that Singapore’s leaders are in fact resorting to defamation suits as a politically-motivated tactic to silence critical views and curb opposition activity, 05Amnesty International believes that civil defamation suits are being misused by the executive to intimidate and deter those Singaporeans holding dissenting views. The suits have a ‘chilling’ effect on Singapore’s political life and place unreasonable and unacceptable restrictions on the right of Singaporeans to freely hold and peacefully express their opinions.”

The practice of law and the legal system is highly restricted by government dictates in Singapore. In 1986, the Law Society expressed disagreement with proposed Government legislation – the Newspaper and Printing Presses (Amendment) Act – would impose restrictions on the circulation of foreign publications criticising the Singapore Government. In retaliation the Government passed legislation providing that the Law Society could only comment on legislative matters when requested to do so by the Government .

A number of commentators have expressed concerns at the lack of “rule of law” in Singapore. At page 146 of his thesis, Worthington states:

“The Singapore constitution is essentially an instrument of “rule by law” rather than “rule of law”, which when combined with the complete dominance of the legislature by one party has produced a “rule of State law” regime.”

Walter Woon Cheong Ming, a Vice-Dean of the NUS Law Facility and a one-time Nominated MP has commented:

“We effectively don’t have a Constitution. We have a law that can be easily changed by parliament, and by the party in power, because the party effectively is the parliament…it is unsettling how flexible the Constitution is’.”

Worthington states, at page 147:

“Rather than a constitution that acts as a supreme standard against which the validity of parliamentary and executive actions can be measured in terms of national progress, institutional integrity and the welfare of citizens, the Singaporean constitution is essentially the plaything of executive whim; a rulebook for running the school which the council of prefects, with the connivance of the headmaster, may change at will.”

John Goldring has commented:

“The most serious violation of human rights through the use of internal security and preventative detention legislation is currently taking place in Singapore, where there is no apparent threat to a stable social order, where standards of living are second only to Japan in Asia, and rapidly overtaking those in Australia and New Zealand, and where there are high levels of education. The only plausible reason for the use of these laws in Singapore is the desire of the present Prime Minister and the ruling elite to preserve their own power on their own terms.”

Freedom of expression

The political repression that characterises the attempts by Singapore’s leaders to continue their one-party rule has economic and political costs that are worthy of consideration. The Undesirable Publications Act 1967 prohibits the importation, distribution or reproduction of undesirable publications published or printed outside or within Singapore that are considered “prejudicial to public safety or public interest”. Publication is defined to include all written, pictorial or printed matter and anything, containing any visible representation. Publications may be found to be undesirable on the grounds that they are politically, morally, religiously or ethnically offensive .

David Birch writes, at page 23:

“The position in Singapore is made very clear: ‘In a fragile, vulnerable multi-racial society, we can never complacently assume that a free-for-all in the market place of ideas will magically lead to truth and enlightenment’, 05There is no First Amendment right to freedom of the press in Singapore, though there is constitutional freedom of speech and expression under the Fundamental Liberties (Articles 9-16). Exercising that constitutional freedom is still not easy, however, as those detained under the Internal Security Act have found to their cost. As Ivan Lim, Secretary of the National Union of Journalists has said, ‘As a result of the vaguely defined freedom, the government can impose restrictions whenever it deems necessary, for whatever reasons that people in power see fit to control situations’.”

Ho Khai Leong states:

“Some critics have arged that the country under PAP rule has become “an island of fear”, referring to the reluctance of citizens to speak up with complaints for fear of retribution from the authorities. Complaints from international human rights groups on this point are frequent and common.”

Elections

The attitude of Singapore’s rulers to the election and political process is perhaps best summed up by Lee Kuan Yew himself who stated:

“If I were in authority in Singapore indefinitely without having to ask those who are governed whether they like what is being done, then I have not the slightest doubt that I could govern much more effectively in their own interests.”

Francis Seow describes the manifestly unjust nature of the 1997 General Elections held in Singapore. While Government candidates had systematically worked the constituencies saturating them via Government-controlled media, prior to the election, the opposition had only a limited amount of time to target voters. Moreover the pervasive climate of fear meant that printers were often unwilling to print election posters and other election materials for the opposition parties because of fear of official harassment.

Douglas Sikorski describes the government and electoral processes in Singapore as follows:

“Although a political opposition is constitutionally permitted, and exists, the ruling party (PAP) has not brooked criticism easily. Those who conspicuously take issue with established government policy are expected not only to be constructive and tactful but ready to defend their position against often superior government resources in information and expertise. The few political opponents who have managed to succeed at the polls have found it very tough going in Parliament, as the PAP concentrates every effort to discredit those who are regarded as troublesome. All action against dissenters has been taken within the law and openly, but the legal system in Singapore gives the authorities strong prerogatives.”

The Government’s control of the media is used to effectively stifle opposition voices during election periods, in particular. Seow states:

“A common complaint of opposition parties, 05was the purposive denial of any or adequate news coverage by the controlled media, which, if given, was partisan at best, and inevitably favoured the ruling party. To circumvent this news neglect and denial, the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) decided to distribute pre-recorded videotapes of its electoral platform and messages, but was prevented by official threats of prosecution and punitive fines. Likewise, its proposed use of the Internet for the same purpose. It was firmly told that it required a permit to do so, but which, upon application, was denied the permit.”

During the 1997 elections, permits were also required from the police to hold public rallies. Furthermore, speeches were recorded and reviewed for possible seditious and defamatory remarks .

Derek da Cunha in “The 1997 Singapore General Election and Beyond: The Price of Victory”, describes the reaction of the international press to the 1997 Elections:

“The Economist magazine asserted that the price of the PAP’s success “seems to be the permanent exclusion of a significant, disgruntled minority from political representation, 05In an editorial, the Financial Times of London, a quality newspaper noted for straightforward analysis, also focused largely on the unrepresented minority. It said:

‘As long as it sets over-demanding targets in elections and rules with a rod of iron, the PAP will risk being perceived as a party whose authority is ebbing amid far greater popular resentment than actually exists. Sooner or later the PAP will have to accept change. Its overbearing approach makes Singapore politics unattractive to young people, 05Politics is unlikely to appeal to able young Singaporeans if debate is stifled.’

Other controls

Christopher Lingle describes other controls used by the Singapore Government. At page 27 he states:

“, 05 Authoritarian regimes often use a form of punitive economic sanctions. For example, business licences in Singapore are issued on a yearly basis and are subject to revocation by officials of the ruling party. Political constituencies in Singapore failing to support the ruling party find their access to publicly provided services limited or curtailed. Active political opponents have faced exceptional and thorough investigation of their tax records or character assassination by Members of Parliament who hide behind legislative immunity. Meanwhile most expatriates are convinced that their telephones are bugged and locals fear to speak openly.”

Singapore Government control of Optus

As set out in Seven’s preliminary submissions, being linked with such a foreign Government would be detrimental to the desire of Optus to portray itself as an open, commercial organisation which can be trusted to operate important telecommunications infrastructure and carry sensitive information properly and confidentially.

Christopher Lingle states (at page 34):

“The extensiveness of the social control imposed by Singapore’s ruling party is consistent with the policies of some of the most repressive regimes of this century, 05”

At page 95, he continues:

“, 05paranoiac control over information, rule by fear, the imposition of paternalistic dependency, intimidation of opposition politicians and an effective propaganda campaign allows Singapore’s authoritarian-capitalist regime to hide behind an unwarranted pristine image.”

Such a Government is not the type of entity which the Australian government should allow to control the second most significant telecommunications network in Australia. Just as Optus users and subscribers and Australians generally would find the invasion of privacy and surveillance conducted by Sing Tel and the Singapore Government repugnant, they would find equally repugnant, the concept of dealing with a foreign government that systematically abuses human rights.

Australia’s National Security Interests

Given the authoritarian and arbitrary nature of the Singapore Government’s regime, and its widespread use of intrusive surveillance, there are grave concerns about Australia’s national security interests. Some of these concerns were highlighted in Seven’s preliminary submissions.

The Optus Communications satellites currently carry approximately 70% of the Australian Defence Department’s secret signals traffic. Des Ball from the Strategic and Defence Centre, Australian National University, recently commented:

“This is of the utmost seriousness. This comes to the heart of the security of Australia`s telecommunications – not just the telephone calls of private citizens, but the most confidential, sensitive communications of Australian government authorities, which are now, potentially at least, at some risk.”

Control of strategic Australian assets

The bid for Optus by Sing Tel represents “the third major assault by Singapore Government-owned companies on strategic Australian infrastructure assets” in a short space of time.

Eric Ellis, writing in The Australian Newspaper, on 11 July 2001, reported that the Port of Singapore Authority (PSA), a Government-controlled entity, had refused to confirm or deny that it was in negotiations with Lang Corporation to buy a stake in the Australian port operator, after earlier issuing an outright denial. Ellis stated:

“Singapore Airlines is bidding to take control of Ansett Airlines via Ansett’s parent Air New Zealand while Singapore Telecommunications is expected to soon seal the $14 billion purchase of Cable & Wireless Optus. SIA, SingTel and the PSA are all majority owned by the Singapore Government’s investment company, Temasek Holdings. Singapore’s Ministry of Finance, which controls Temasek, has dismissed suggestions of collusion between it offshoots, despite the common directors of the various companies.”

Adele Ferguson, writing in Business Review Weekly, stated:

“In most situations, foreign takeovers are part and parcel of globalisation and can enhance a domestic company by plugging it into a thriving global network. However, in the case of Singapore, most of the companies bidding for Australian assets are controlled by the Singapore Government through a giant corporation, Temasek Holdings. Any government controlling assets is highly questionable for reasons of independence, particularly when it is the government of another country.”

Ferguson states that the events of the past month have already “starkly illustrated the problems the Singapore push poses to Australia’s national interest.” Ferguson explains:

“The Singaporean Government already owns 25% of Air New Zealand, 49% of Virgin Atlantic (which has entered Australia trading as Virgin Blue) and was the key reason Impulse Airlines fell apart early in May. The Singapore Government’s GIC Special Investments owned 15% of Impulse and decided not to support a $50-million fund raising. That decision put Impulse in a precarious position and was a key factor in it being split and bought by Qantas. Rumors were rife at the time that GIC bailed out of Impulse because the Singapore Government wanted to increase its stake in Ansett and Air New Zealand.”

It is disturbing that a Government with the authoritarian and intrusive governance practices described above, is seeking to gain control of an increasing number of key Australian infrastructure assets. Of equal concern is the realisation that when it gains control of such assets, those will be used to further the interests of the Singapore Government, even where that adversely affects Australia’s national interests.

Conclusion

The Seven Network submits that the offer by Sing Tel for Optus be rejected on the grounds that it would be against the national interest. If the bid by Sing Tel were to be accepted, a very significant Australian asset would come under the control of a foreign Government which is widely acknowledged as running an extremely intrusive and repressive authoritarian state.

The practices and governance of Sing Tel and the Singapore Government, in particular that Government’s flagrant and systemic use of technology to collect data for its own purposes, at the very least, raise many serious concerns about its control of a vital Australian telecommunications asset.

The submissions in this document should not be taken as representative of Seven Network’s corporate position on matters such as cross-media and foreign ownership. Seven Network’s submissions are specific to the issues that arise by virtue of Sing Tel’s offer for Optus. Seven Network has, and will continue, to formulate submissions specific to issues such as cross-media and foreign ownership in more appropriate and specific forums.

Peter Fray

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