Global media and Singapore’s bureaucrats
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Global media and Singapore’s bureaucrats

The island republic’s media development authority squashes competition, reports Asia Sentinel

Will the media moguls of the United States fight for their open-market principles against the Singapore government’s arbitrary demands? Or will they, after a brief skirmish, surrender like their counterparts in the print media to Singapore authoritarianism at the unspoken behest of a US government anxious to keep its Singapore facilities and executives desperate to keep their cushy Singapore expatriate living standards?

If they fight, Singapore’s reputation as offering a free and fair playing field for foreign business will suffer. If not, the way is open for governments all over Asia to act in a similar fashion to determine not just what their citizens can view on TV but how much they pay.

The issue is not about the right to censorship but the right to normal commercial bargaining.

Until March this year Singapore was like most countries with competitive pay-TV channels. Content providers such as Disney, Discovery etc would sell their products to the highest bidder. In Singapore there are two such channels, SingTel, the lumbering state behemoth formerly headed by Lee Kuan Yew’s younger son Lee Hsieng Yang, and the more sprightly StarHub.

Then, apparently in response to complaints in letters to the press that Singaporeans were paying too much to watch English Premier League football, the rules were suddenly changed. Out went commercial bargaining and in came an arm of Singapore’s bureaucracy, the Media Development Authority, to determine to whom and at what price the content providers could sell their products. It not only flies in the face of open markets for the foreign providers but makes nonsense of the supposed competition between SingTel and StarHub because the officials at the MDA can order that what they regard as key content has to be carried on both channels at the price they decree.

On July 8 the providers, represented by the Cable and Satellite Broadcasting Association of Asia (CASBAA), which represents some 130 providers and other industry operators around Asia, launched a formal appeal against the MDA decision with the Minister of Communications. However it is thought unlikely that one part of the Singapore bureaucracy will undo what has been done by a related arm. Some tinkering is possible but a major retreat is unlikely unless the providers put their money where their mouth is, withdraw content and start shifting their operations elsewhere.