Asia Inc March 1994

BUSINESS: Singapore's broadcasting gamble

March 1994

If You Can't Beat Them…

Imagine an Asian Wall Street Journal reporter and a political-risk consultant criticizing Singapore's heavy-handed political system for stifling individual creativity. Next, imagine their discussion is broadcast live throughout Asia from a Singapore studio and paid for by a consortium including the Singapore government.No, it's not some liberal fantasy -- it's part of Singapore's decision to join the satellite revolution sweeping Asia. The program aired earlier this year, but thanks to Singapore's ban on individual satellite dish ownership, it went unseen there by all but a few bankers, diplomats, financial analysts and journalists whose companies are allowed to install dishes.

The telecast was part of Asian Wall Street Journal On Air, a program produced by the U.S.-based Dow Jones Group and carried on the new Asia Business News (ABN) network. Dow Jones has long had a difficult relationship with Singapore's government, which in the past restricted the circulation of the Journal and the company's Far Eastern Economic Review. Nonetheless, says program managing editor Christopher Graves: "We are independent of all our shareholders -- (including both) Dow Jones and the Singapore government." Graves would like his programs to be seen in Singapore, but says: "Instead of browbeating people to change their ways, we've decided to play ball."

ABN's arrival is often cited as evidence of a Singaporean glasnost. It is, in fact, part of Singapore's deliberate effort to lure international media companies. But the republic's technocratic regime is not yet ready to welcome an entirely free press. "The ability of governments to control the flow of information is being weakened," noted George Yeo, Singapore's erudite minister for information and the arts, in December. "But the fact that we cannot effectively censor the objectionable is not a reason for us to legitimize it. While we may not have the means to prevent satellite TV, we can make it very difficult for the broadcaster. . . . When we were poor we had no say. Now that we are less poor, we should begin to assert our own point of view."

To do that, Singapore is building a nationwide cable television network to carry its own selected programs. In January, it took another key step by launching an hour-long, daily television broadcast to key Southeast Asian markets via an Indonesian satellite. Mindful of regional sensitivities, distinguished academician Chan Heng Chee, who heads the foundation that runs the channel, vows: "We won't knock on people's heads to beam down our channel." The broadcast consists of eminently unwatchable local humor shows and anemic newscasts aimed at Singaporeans abroad. Says Chan: "Commercial consideration is not my criterion."