Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said the United Kingdom (UK) should not “presume to tell me how my country should run”, when it comes to press freedom.
Mr Lee was replying to a question by Stephen Sackur during an interview for the BBC programme, HARDtalk.
Mr Sackur had asked Mr Lee for his response to what the leader of the Liberal Democrats party, Tim Farron, in the UK had said, regarding trade deals with Singapore.
“If we’re to seek a deal with Singapore, Theresa May, the Prime Minister, must raise issues of freedom of expression and freedom of the press in any trade talks with Singapore,” Mr Sackur quoted Mr Farron’s remarks.
In his response, Mr Lee said, referring to Mr Sackur: “I don’t see you being restrained in asking me any questions.”
The rebuttal seemed to catch Mr Sackur off-guard and there was a pause of silence after that.
“No, I’m not,” the British interviewer finally said.
“There you are!” Mr Lee interjected.
“But that’s not really the point, is it?” Mr Sackur said. “The point is whether you would be prepared to offer guarantees on your treatment of the press at home, here in Singapore. Whether you’d be prepared to talk about wider freedom for the press in this country?”
But if Mr Sackur was looking for any quarter, Mr Lee was not giving it.
“I would not presume to tell you how your press council should operate,” Mr Lee said. “Why should you presume to tell me how my country should run?”
Mr Lee defended the government’s position on the press here, saying that “we are completely open.”
“We have one of the fastest Internet accesses in the world. We have no great wall of the Internet. You can get any site in the world you wish. So where’s the restriction?”
Mr Sackur, however, was not letting Mr Lee off with such rather inane rhetoric.
He asked the prime minister: “So if the government of Britain were to make linkages between a trade deal and seeking guarantees about human rights, press freedom, workers’ rights, demonstrators’ rights, in this country, your reaction would be..?”
If it came to that, Mr Lee said he “would wait to react until I see it.”
Mr Lee then raised the example of the United States and how it is selective in how it promotes certain values.
“You look at the Americans,” Mr Lee said. “They don’t lack fervour in moral causes. They promote democracy, freedom of speech, women’s rights, gay rights, and sometimes even transgender rights.”
However, the Americans, Mr Lee said, do not apply such “fervour” universally, with all their allies, because there would be a certain price to pay if the Americans did so.
“Yes, they do it when the cost is low and then they can take a high position,” Mr Lee said. “But you look at some of the most important oil producers in the world. Do they conform? Have they been pressured? You have to do business.”
Mr Lee said the world is a diverse place and that “nobody has a monopoly on virtue or wisdom.”
“And unless we can accept that and we prosper together, and cooperate together, accepting our differences – differences in values, differences in outlook, differences even in what we see as goals of life to be – I think it becomes difficult.”
The issue of Singapore’s press freedom has been a sticking point with observers, including international organisations such as Freedom House and Reporters Without Border, and opposition parties and civil activists here in Singapore.
Singapore’s press ranking has been dismal, especially for a first-world country, for the longest time, and it currently sits at 154th in the world, out of some 200 countries.
In recent years, the Singapore government has introduced new legislations to rein in independent news websites, and has also brought bloggers to court, including charging them for sedition.
Mr Lee himself sued a blogger for defamation in 2015, the first time a Singapore minister has done so.
The interview with Mr Lee will be aired on Wednesday.
Here is the short clip from the BBC.