Singapore Gets Nasty

Until a few weeks ago the Asian Wall Street Journal had a circulation of 5,100 copies a day in Singapore. Now, by government fiat, it may sell only 400 copies a day. The ban imposed on the paper isn't unique. Time magazine used to sell 18,000 copies a week in Singapore. Last October the government slashed that to 9,000 copies, and in January cut it still further to 2,000. The reason for these harsh restrictions is that Singapore is punishing the publications for refusing to print letters from government officials.

Time and the Asian Journal will both survive Singapore's effort to limit their audiences. The real losers are Singaporeans who now are denied access to the publications. Recognizing in particular the effect of this policy on Singapore's important business community, the Asian Journal has asked permission to distribute the paper free of charge to its previous subscribers. Singapore agreed, but on condition that the free copies carry no advertising. The Asian Journal, pointing out that news and advertising are integral parts of any paper, refused this condition.

The government acted under a disturbing law enacted last July giving it the power to curb any foreign publication held to be "engaging in the domestic politics of Singapore." Such a finding was made after the government objected to stories in Time and the Asian Journal, alleging both reportorial bias and factual errors and demanding that each publish in full an official response.

Time, after resisting the government's demand for some months, eventually published an official letter, but its circulation remains restricted. The Asian Journal has published a letter from non-official sources questioning its reporting, but it refuses to print an official letter "attacking our staff member for unprofessional conduct, of which he is not guilty, and alleging errors that do not exist."

Like many papers, the Asian Journal has a policy of printing factual corrections in its news pages while opening its letters column to those who differ with its editorial opinions. It is not obligated to print attacks on the integrity of its staff. That is a responsible policy, and the government of Singapore ought to respect it instead of pushing its demands to such an extreme.

The American Business Council in Singapore has noted that U.S. businesses that are thinking about investing in Singapore will now weigh "the disadvantages of limited coverage of news affecting their operations." That is a serious matter. It is far more serious when a government in a democracy uses its powers to inhibit the free dissemination of news and opinion.

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