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How Have Debates Surrounding Media Ownership and Political Influence Changed in an Era of Globalisation

By silkeri Mar 26, 2011 3099 Words
This paper examines how the emergence of media globalisation has fuelled debates that have arisen on the weakening of the nation state and the deregulation of government in media ownership. We will address how the tensions between political influence and media globalization create issues that include economic interests, resistance to cultural imperialism and promotion of national identity. Such issues create impacts on the role on governments, agencies and corporations making decisions about culture and the media, and how communities might interact with such decision-making.

Using Singapore as the site of analyses, explorations will be made on how authorities make vigorous efforts in permitting or preventing cross-media ownership and concentration in media sectors. Additionally, illustrations will be made on how Singapore government establish regulatory and security mechanisms to deal with issues of media responsibility, social cohesion and nation building which Heng (2002) proposes are central to the government-media relations that constitute the foundations of media markets. These domestic regulatory cultural policies bear economic and socio-cultural agendas for the media system in Singapore and create a new scenario for both regulatory bodies and media companies.

Media Ownership and Concentration in an Era of Globalisation McChesney (2001) identified that previously in the eighties and nineties, media systems were primarily national, predominated by local commercial interests, and sometimes combined with a state-affiliated broadcasting service. In the past few years however, we see an emergence of a global commercial-media market, dominated and concentrated with a few multinational, cross-media conglomerates.

This development of media concentration, makes media culture now fair game for commercial exploitation, influencing full-scale commercialization of sports, arts, and education, and affecting the disappearance of notions of public service from public discourse, and the degeneration of journalism, political coverage, and children's programming under commercial pressure (McChesney, 1998). Government deregulation effecting media ownership was decided to encourage growth of the nation’s domestic market. As explained by Doyle (2002, p1), ‘the prevalent impetus towards deregulation of conventional broadcasting and press ownership restraints is usually explained in terms of a need to allow domestic players to exploit important new economic and technological opportunities, preferably ahead of international rivals. For example, East Asian countries like Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea open up economy to global corporations in order to promote competitiveness and greater efficiencies in national economy (Linda Weiss, 2003; Flew, 2007, p84)

Singapore’s Mediascape: Print Media
In Terry Flew’s (2007, p42) “Understanding Global Media”, the term that Arjun Appadurai coin mediascape was highlighted as one of five dimensional planes that facilitated the global flows of images, narratives, media content and et cetera through print, broadcast, film and video, as well as new technologies like Internet and digital media. Appadurai (1996, p35) termed this global flow as ‘the production and dissemination of mediated information to form political and ideological “images of the world”.

Lee and Willnat (2006, p100) proposed that Singapore’s mediascape can be divided into three broad categories: broadcast, print media and the Internet, and that they all operate in the same manner as Appadurai has suggested; that management and control of the mass media are intended to keep the government in absolute power and control. We shall explore how these three dissemination channels of media information serve as government influence through regulations to globalisation efforts.

As proposed earlier, media ownership deregulation promotes growth of domestic market in the phenomenon of media globalisation. At the same time, it also benefits public interest. Media diversity through open and plural dispensation of information and viewpoints from different media sources and outlets serves public interest, which is a central policy goal of media regulation. At first glance, Singapore appears well served by a large number of newspapers and broadcast television channels: there are at least 21 local newspapers, including titles such as the Straits Times (English), Berita Harian (Malay), Lianhe Zaobao (Chinese), and Tamil Murasu (Tamil) (Kenyon and Marjoribanks, 2007, p108). However mergers and closures that occurred from the 1980s led all of the local daily newspapers to be owned and operated by the publicly owned Singapore Press Holdings (SPH), creating a newspaper monopoly that has strong government ties. This continued til the early 2000s, when the government allowed a lax in the regulations for the entry of another news press.

As proposed by George (2002, p175), in the classic liberal formulation, the press is seen as a pure expression of democracy, however he note that in the Singapore model, the formula is reversed and the elected government is positioned as the embodiment of democratic expression and must be protected from the unelected press which is prone to being swayed by private commercial interests, narrow ideological missions or, at the very least, the hubris of journalists’ inflated egos. Lee and Willnat (2006, p101) has observed that Singapore government have a paranoia to political criticisms, especially by foreign media and international broadcasters, and have enacted media laws to control the inflow of negative foreign social, cultural and political influences. George (2002, p176) added that Singapore’s libel laws compel writes to take extreme care with any comments that could be claimed to hurt officials’ reputation. These laws, together with the nation’s censorship standards, are critiqued by Ang (2007) as one of most stringent censorship standards among the developed economies.

The introduction of legislations and penalties has seriously eroded both the domestic and international media’s ability to comment freely on Singapore politics (Lee and Willnat, 2006). This resulted in a stable hegemonic state-media where local print and broadcast media are now identified as tools of the nation state’s political influence and dissemination channels of government propaganda.

Singapore’s Mediascape: Broadcast
The Singapore government attempted slight media deregulation in 2000 by liberating both broadcasting and news publication monopoly. It allowed the newspaper giant SPH to enter into the broadcasting industry and established the second TV station in Singapore’s history – MediaWorks, with the Chinese channel U and English channel i. MediaWorks paved the way for the SPH group to develop into a full-fledged media company (Ang, 2007). At the same time, it allowed MediaCorp, hitherto national broadcaster, to venture into newspaper publishing, previously SPH’s monopoly. The entrance of a competitor brought about the launch of three new English-language newspapers in that year alone. In August 2000, SPH launched Project Eyeball; the first integrated print and online publication in Singapore, and in the following month followed up with Singapore’s first free newspaper, Streats (Ang, 2007). MediaCorp quickly caught up with its own English tabloid, Today in November. Unfortunately, Project Eyeball’s readership declined and was duly suspended by SPH in June 2001.

This move to liberalize the media was done in part to support Singapore’s “creative industries” and to prepare media sector for globalisation (Lee and Willnat, 2006.) As Leo and Lee (2004) have elucidated, Singapore harbors the ambition of becoming the global media city of the Asia-Pacific region in the 21st century and recognise that its economic framework had to shift away from a monopolistic structure – at least in appearance – in order for the rest of the world to take its ambitions seriously. This blueprint initiative was named “Media 21” and was envisioned by the government to ‘to transform Singapore into a vibrant global media city that nurtures homegrown media enterprises and attract direct foreign investments to our media industry with our competitive skill sets and infrastructure (MDA, 2003).

The controlled competition between the core broadcast and print media giants over a span of four years however resulted in financial loss for both players, and MediaCorp and SPH ended up merging their mass-market television and free newspaper operations in a rationalisation move to stem losses and enhance shareholder value (SPH, 2004). MediaCorp’s horizontal integration of Channel U and the ceasing of Channel i, both of which were formerly of SPH, however, meant a detrimental effect on the diversity of content in free-to-air terrestrial channels. Based on the sizeable losses that both players have sustained over the three-year period since the introduction of ‘soft competition’ in April 2000, government officials lamented that media liberalisation in Singapore has largely failed and concluded that a monopolistic set-up was more realistic for Singapore, though they stopped short of endorsing such an anti-democratic move (Lee 2003)

Unlike the unsuccessful liberation in local television broadcasters, Singapore’s telecommunication players strongly expanded their media influence into the pay-TV services. In 2001, StarHub Limited, the nation state’s number two telco merged with Singapore Cable Vision Ltd (SCV), Singapore’s exclusive pay-TV service provider. The introduction of cable television in 1995 brought greater media diversity for audiences with its initial offering of 50 channels. At the same time, Ang (2007, p17) proposed that cable television was introduced to also to stave off competition from satellite TV broadcasters. Subsequently, in 2007, the Singapore government further relaxed its regulations on the pay-TV market to allow entry of Singtel, Singapore’s top telco provider, to provide pay-TV service through the company’s broadband network. The introduction of competition which, given the deeper-pockets of the telcos, could be more rigorous than that seen in the free-to-air TV market; the range of service would also be diversified beyond the current 37 channels of one-way TV services (Leo, 2003, p5). Within a length of seven years, Singapore authorities deregulated media ownership to expand a single broadcaster industry to a competitive media sector with four large corporations.

With the entry of cable television, foreign entertainment programmes will constitute a majority of the media content that is presented to Singapore citizens. This brings about the threat of media imperialism of the West, especially with the popularity of American television dramas as well as the star appeal of Hollywood Blockbusters. To retain national identity and to foster the development of national culture, one tactic that the Singapore authorities employ is to commission different popular local singers for the yearly national songs. These music video campaigns will be frequently broadcasted on local television and also act as a way to bring the arts to the community. This “soft approach of power towards propagation of politically endorsed messages serve as one of many counteracts to cultural imperialism threats of globalisation.

Singapore has always emphasized on its multiracial and multilingual society. According to the latest Singapore statistics report With the present population Mediacorp

MediaCorp TV12 owns and manages Suria, which features Malay-and Indianlanguage programmes and Central, which features cultural, arts, sports and public service programmes, mostly in English. Both stations are subsidise by the government. However, the government, in line with its philosophy of minimal, if any, subsidies, has urged the company to consider producing programs that they could sell to neighboring countries. MediaCorp Radio operates major radio stations to serve both local and international Audiences

National Identity
Government policies? through commissioning of national songs. ‘Soft approach’ of power towards propagation of politically endorsed messages - counteract to cultural imperialism

those aimed at developing a sense of national identity and those designed to bring the arts to the community. The former is best exempli®ed in the ``Sing Singapore'' programme introduced in 1988 and held in some form or other every two years since then. The Sing Singapore Programme, a bi-annual event was started in 1988 by MITA and was subsequently taken over by NAC in 1994, when it became renamed Sing Singapore: Festival of Songs Õ94. In 1996, it was named Song FestÕ96 and in 1998, it was back to Sing Singapore: Festival of Songs Õ98. This involved the penning and popularisation of songs in a ``Sing Singapore'' package, intended to achieve an ideologically hegemonic effect. Through various means of dissemination (including the constant airing on national television and radio; the organisation of community singing sessions in community centres; and teaching schoolchildren these songs during school assembly time at the directive of the Ministry of Education), an attempt was made to persuade and reinforce in Singaporeans the idea that Singapore has come a long way since its founding (in 1819) and independence (in 1965); and that Singaporeans must play their part in continuing this dramatic development (see Kong, 1995)

Singapore’s Mediascape: Internet
In 1992, the Singapore government proclaimed that Singapore would become the first “intelligent island-state” of the Asia-Pacific region by the year 2000 (Lee, 2002). To achieve the goal, the idea of making Singapore an efficient and convenient city by its well-connected physical infrastructure was transposed onto the ways new media communication was managed and provided for. Singapore was to become an “intelligent island” by the pipes and superhighways it built to enable the efficient economic operations of the new information-based economy (see National Computer Board, 1992). This communication infrastructure would constitute as a key driver stated in the Media 21 plan; that necessary growth of broadband networks and usage in Singapore caters for a stable infrastructure to create operating environments for media content to be developed and marketed (MDA, 2003, p4).

Now, Singapore is one of the most networked societies in the world and was recently ranked second in the World Economic Forum’s Global Information Technology Report 2009-2010. Today, about 83 per cent of households in Singapore have access to at least one computer at home, 81 per cent have Internet access and 80 per cent have broadband access. The diffusion of Internet in Singapore has stirred governmental concern in online media regulation and in July 1996, the Singapore Broadcasting Authority, announced the Class Licensing Scheme for Internet regulation. This automatic licensing scheme takes a three prong approach to Internet regulation. Firstly, minimum standards to safeguard values and promote healthy growth; secondly, encouraging industry self-regulation; thirdly, an active public education programme to promote parental supervision over children's access to the Internet.

The Internet has also become a channel for Singapore authorities to connect with the public. The opposition National Solidarity Party launched a website in 1995, provoking a response from the PAP which launched a ‘Young PAP website’ (Lee & Willnat 2006: 13). Traditional media, SPH and MediaCorp joined in the digital foray with the AsiaOne and Channel NewsAsia web portals. This allows the agenda of the government to extend to the digital platform as these mainstream meda are extensions of government influence as explored earlier (Kenyon and Marjoribanks, 2007).


As suggested by Lee and Willnat (2006), Singapore’s media landscape in the globalised era ‘operates in much the same manner in that management and control of the mass media are intended to keep the government in absolute power and control.’ Its political influence stems from its regulatory policies that keep foreign media in check, despite the threat of foreign media conglomerates and their global influence.

Flew (2007, p43) citing March and Olsen (1989, p1-2) proposed that ‘Social, political and economic institutions have become larger, considerably more complex and resourceful, and prima facie more important to collective life. Many of the major actors in modern economic and political systems are formal organisations, and the institutions of law and bureaucracy occupy a dominant role in contemporary life.’

Recent research works on Singapore and its media still reflect the media mainly, if not only, in that dimension where they are institutions/instruments of governmentality for central socialisation, acculturation and nation-building. Perceiving media liberalisation as limited and a stand-alone event, Ang and Lee report on it as a reflection of Singapore in transition, (Leo, 2005, p9)

Cherian George’s (2002) article on Singapore’s press deals more critically with the issue of restructuring. He argues that “while the changes [towards the pro-market policies in Singapore’s media system] may be subtle and evolutionary, they contribute to a real and discernible long-term trend towards greater democratisation.”


Ang, P. H. 2007. Singapore Media. Available: [accessed February 20 2010]

Appadurai, A. 1996. Modernity At Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Bagdikian, B. 1990. The Media Monopoly. Boston: Beacon Press.

Doyle, G. (2002). Media ownership: the economics and politics of convergence and concentration. London: SAGE.

Flew, T. 2004. ‘Sovereignty and Software: Rethinking Cultural Policy in a Global Creative Economy’, Forum Barcelona 2004 – Communications and Cultural Diversity: The Dialogue, Barcelona, Spain, 24-27 May, .

Flew, T. 2007. Understanding Global Media. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan

George, C. (2002) Singapore: Media at the Mainstream and the Margins. In Media Fortunes: Changing Times: ASEAN States in Transition, Heng, R.H.K. (Ed). Institute of Southeast Asian Studies: Singapore, pp. 173-200.

Heng, R.H.K. (Ed).2002. Media Fortunes: Changing Times: ASEAN States in Transition. Institute of Southeast Asian Studies: Singapore.

Kenyon, A. and Marjoribanks, T. 2007. Transforming Media Markets: The Cases of Malaysia and Singapore. Australian Journal of Emerging Technologies and Society 5 (2):103-118.

Kong, L. 2000b: Cultural policy in Singapore: negotiating economic and sociocultural agendas. Geoforum 31, 409–24.

March, J. G., and J. R Olsen: 1989. Rediscovering Institutions: The Organizational Basis of Politics. New York: Free Press.

McChesney, R. 1998. Making Media Democratic. Boston Review,

McChesney, R. 2001. Global Media, Neoliberalism, and Imperialism. Monthly Review, Vol. 52(10): 57-68

Media Development Authority. 2003. Media 21: Transforming Singapore into a Global Media City. Available: [accessed February 22 2010]

Lee, T. 2002. New Regulatory Politics and Communication Technologies in Singapore. Asia Pacific Media Educator, 12/13: 4-25.

Lee, T. 2005. Online New Media and Civil Society in the ‘New’ Singapore. Working Paper No. 123, Asia Research Centre: Murdoch University, April.

Lee, T. and Willnat, L. 2006. ‘Media Research and Political Communication in Singapore’. Working Paper No. 130, Asia Research Centre: Murdoch University, April.

Lee, T. 2007. Towards a 'New Equilibrium': The Economics and Politics of the Creative Industries in Singapore. The Copenhagen Journal Of Asian Studies, 24(2). Retrieved February 24, 2011, from

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Leo, P. & Lee, T. (2004) The “New” Singapore: Mediating Culture and Creativity, Continuum, 18(2), pp. 205-18.

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Tan, Kenneth Paul (2008) Cinema and Television in Singapore: Resistance in One Dimension. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.

Weiss, Linda (1998). The Myth of the Powerless State: Governing the Economy in a Global Era. Cambridge: Polity Press.

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