In the years preceding independence, the East India Company did not exercise any control over newspaper publications in territories under its jurisdiction. Towards the end of the 18th Century, colonial imperatives arising from threats from external powers - the French, in particular, and Napoleon's dealings with the Sultan of Mysore - led Lord Wellesley, the Governor-General of Bengal in India, to impose strict restrictions on the printing and publishing of newspapers and penalties for the publication of seditious or defamatory matters.
Singapore, as part of the Straits Settlements, was subordinated to the Bengal Presidency and subject to its laws applicable in India until 1867 when the East India Company transferred its territorial possessions, including Singapore, to the Colonial Office in London. Nevertheless, legislation related to the printing and publishing of newspapers continued to apply in Singapore until it was repealed by the Singapore Legislative Council in 1920. This was then replaced by the Printing Presses Ordinance (PPO), which required licensing for all printing press owners. In 1939, this legislation was amended to require a permit for printing or publishing a newspaper in the colony. Under Section 3 of the Act, the Minister could "in his discretion, grant or withdraw a licence to own and operate a printing press". Section 15 required permits for circulating newspapers printed in Malaysia in Singapore whilst Section 15(A) required a permit for dealing in offshore newspapers in Singapore.
When Singapore became independent in 1965, regulation of the media environment remained critically important. The Printing Presses Ordinance was largely non-interventionist and failed to address serious concerns that some newspapers were being manipulated by foreign elements. The Government was also concerned that the press exercise "responsible journalism" which required the press to be an instrument of nation-building rather than a check on political power. In 1974 , the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act (NPPA) replaced the Printing Presses Ordinance. The underlying imperative for this was made clear by Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew in a speech in Helsinki on 9 June 1971 that the "freedom of the press, freedom of the news media, must be subordinated to the overriding needs of the integrity of Singapore, and to the primacy of purpose of an elected government" ,. Thus, under the NPPA, the Government retained the spirit, but not the style, of the Printing Presses Ordinance. The licensing rules of the Ordinance were retained and licences, granted on a discretionary basis, were needed to operate printing presses as well as to print or publish newspapers.
The broad provisions of the NPPA allowed the Government to exercise some control over the content of the publications, for example, when the publications overstepped the boundaries on matters of public morality and sex and when commentaries were assessed to be slanderous or critical of religion, race or language. Safeguards included putting management shares in the hands of pro-stability stakeholders like local banks. The strict regulatory environment was evident in the licensing process, the need for a licence to operate a printing press , the application and renewal process , strict moral policing and the ban on the sale and distribution of controversial publications .
In September 2011, the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts (MICA) affirmed that "the various safeguards in the NPPA help to ensure that the media operating in Singapore play a responsible role and that publishers are accountable for the content they publish". It added that these considerations were as valid in 2011 as they were in 1974 and that "the safeguards also prevent local newspapers from being manipulated by foreign interests which can have a divisive effect on social cohesion". The Ministry added that it would "continue to review [the NPPA] on a regular basis to ensure its continued relevance".