Two pieces I wrote recently for TOC

Dear reader, I recently wrote two pieces for The Online Citizen. You can read them here:

1. Why Singapore needs more opposition MPs

2. Three local myths

Overall, I have received positive feedback about them, which is nice. I was a little bit skeptical about writing at first, because I wasn’t sure who reads TOC, and whether or not they’d appreciate my writing. So thanks everybody who’s given me feedback.

I didn’t write for any money. More just because I felt that I had views to share, and there aren’t many places in Singapore I could share them. Of all the online sites, my sense is that TOC is the most balanced. although it certainly has an opposition slant–which in a way can’t be helped, as all these online sites feel the need to counteract our pro-PAP mainstream media.

What has actually been most interesting to me–and which speaks volumes about politics in Singapore–is that some people have suggested that my articles are pro-opposition.

Think about it: in both pieces, I say that my preferred political outcome is for the PAP to win about 67 seats, and the opposition 20.

Only in Singapore can that be interpreted as a plug for the opposition…:-)

What has surprised me, pleasantly, over the past few weeks, has been the sheer number of people I see talking about politics. Up till a year ago, I would have maintained that Singaporeans are politically apathetic. Not anymore. I think we were all just waiting for an avenue, and a critical mass–now there is confidence in numbers. people seem more willing to speak their mind because others are too.

So, even if the opposition wins just two seats again, at least we’ve all found our voice.

Three local myths

We Singaporeans know not to pee on trees. What might elsewhere be thought of as fun, or fertiliser, is here considered sacrilegious, a needless provoking of dormant tree spirits. How do we know this? Like any old wives’ tale, it is based on unverifiable anecdotes. Over time, these tales becomes ingrained in society and accepted as fact.

Similarly, there exist several political axioms in Singapore that discourage people from voting for the opposition. These have been passed down from one generation to the next and are rarely debated. But with elections round the corner, it is worth now asking—which are actually myths and which are true?

1. Singapore Inc’s efficiency will suffer with too many opposition politicians


There is this idea that if we elect “too many” opposition members of parliament (MPs), Singapore will sputter and stutter and grind to a halt, akin to throwing a wrench into a well-oiled machine. I recently suggested here that it would be beneficial for Singapore to elect up to 20 credible opposition MPs.

Immediately some asked if 20 is “too many” for our country to handle. The truth is that none of us, really, has a good idea about what “too many” means for modern Singapore. For the past forty-odd years, we have had a one-party state.

It is important, therefore, to explore what really drives Singapore’s efficiency. It is certainly not just about politics. More important, in my mind, is our lean, efficient civil service that implements government policy. Many people I speak with, however, believe that Singapore = PAP = Civil service. That is not true—our civil service is in no way beholden to the PAP. It will continue its great work regardless of who our politicians are.

Also important are things like infrastructure and the rule of law. These are also not beholden to the PAP. Singapore’s power supply and corporate framework are not going to suddenly go haywire if Singaporeans elect “too many” opposition MPs.

No doubt, political consensus matters too. But even if we accept that Singapore works best with one strong party, how many parliamentary seats does the PAP actually need to govern efficiently?

At a minimum, the PAP requires 44 of the 87 elected seats. With more than 50% of parliament, the PAP can still pass legislation unhindered—the opposition cannot block any new laws or policies.[i]

In order to make any amendments to Singapore’s constitution, however, the PAP will need at least two-thirds of the parliamentary vote, i.e. 58 of the 87 elected seats. Note that constitutional amendments are not everyday necessities, but extraordinary changes.

Two of the most significant constitutional amendments in Singapore’s history are

a)     the creation of the Group Representation Constituency (GRC) system in 1988; and

b)    changes to the president’s powers in 1991

So let’s assume that that the PAP wins between 44 and 57 seats (50.6%-65.5%). The PAP will still be able to pass laws and run Singapore. In order to make any changes to Singapore’s constitution, however, the PAP will have to convince a few opposition politicians about its viewpoint, and get them to vote along with it. Some might consider this the ideal long-term scenario for Singapore.

But what, if by some freak of nature, the PAP wins fewer than 44 seats? This scenario will undermine the functioning of Singapore as we know it. With less than half of the parliamentary seats, the PAP will need to secure buy-in from the opposition on every single issue. The opposition will effectively be in a position to block legislation. This would indeed be “too many” opposition MPs. (Nevertheless, some might say there is a potential benefit to this arrangement as well. If there is a policy that many Singaporeans disagree with, the PAP will not be able to easily bulldoze its way through.)

However, as long as the PAP wins 44 of the elected seats (around 10 GRCs), Singapore will continue to function smoothly. In other words, the opposition can win up to 43 seats without anything dramatic happening to us. Don’t worry.

2. If Singapore is not a one-party state, it will be like the UK or the US.

Establishment folk love to bandy this myth around. The line of reasoning usually goes something like this—“Not happy with Singapore’s system? Would you rather be like the UK or the US?”

This argument is terribly problematic. First, it presents us with a false dichotomy, i.e. the erroneous claim that there are only two choices. In fact, there are many. Singapore does not have to be a one-party state, nor does it have to be like the UK or the US. We should be striving for something much, much better. What might that be? Opinions differ. I personally would like to see a majority PAP-government with a strong opposition.

Second, there are fundamental differences between Singapore and most other democracies, including the UK and the US. As a result, our political systems can never be similar. For instance, most other democracies have huge rural and urban populations. This influences the nature of politics—rural and urban residents have some different desires, needs and preferences, which parties must appeal to. By comparison, Singapore’s electorate is urban, relatively homogenous and crammed into a tiny space.

In my opinion, there is no basis for comparing Singapore’s political system to giant, multi-party democracies. We are not, and will never be, like them.

3. If I vote for the opposition, the government will blacklist me.

Pointing to serial numbers on voting slips, some suggest that the government blacklists those who vote for the opposition. This is absolute bunkum. Everybody’s vote is secret. I know people who have voted for the opposition their whole lives and not been disadvantaged in any way.

Unfortunately, the above three myths have been circulated in Singapore for as long as I can remember. Come every election, somebody will surely repeat them, trying to convince all and sundry. The point of this piece is to try and debunk these myths—not advocate voting for the opposition.

Ultimately, we each have to decide based on the quality of the candidates who are running in our districts. It is important that we choose the party we feel can do the best job for Singapore. If you believe that is the PAP, then do vote for them.

If you believe that is an opposition party, however, then do vote for them. There is really nothing to fear. It is much safer, I imagine, than peeing on a tree.

Why Singapore needs more opposition MPs

Many of us will experience the joy of voting this year. More thrilling, perhaps, is that we will actually have tough choices to make—Singapore’s opposition has recruited some credible candidates. Good thing, for we need more of them in parliament if Singapore is to develop politically, socially and economically.

Though the People’s Action Party (PAP) has proved brilliant at transforming Singapore into a manufacturing- and service-sector economy, it has been far less successful in nurturing a knowledge-based economy. Qualities that served early Singapore so well—such as easy political consensus, an obedient populace, and a compliant media—now seem archaic.

Many HR (Human Resource) directors at multi-national companies (MNCs) paint to me similar caricatures of the typical Singaporean worker—hardworking and smart, but unable to question authority, think outside the box, or work collaboratively across the organisation. Though our government has been moderately successful in attracting some high-value knowledge work to Singapore, many firms have had to look outside for talent.

The “Singapore model” is good at churning out disciplined, process-oriented workers who can follow orders in their own silos. It is less adept at developing creative, dynamic people who can think strategically or build companies.

Liberalising school curriculums, increasing funding for the arts sector, and prodding people to “be creative”, as our government has done, is all well and good. But these efforts are doomed if Singaporeans have to contend with a stuffy social and political atmosphere. Everybody must feel comfortable voicing their opinions and defending their points of view, particularly contrarian ones.

We Singaporeans tend to take our cue from those above. More debate and opposition in parliament, therefore, will trickle down through society, creating a more conducive environment for all of us who want higher-income jobs.

But why should we care about fluffy notions of creativity? After all, Singapore has still been developing fabulously, hasn’t it?

Well, not really. Though impressive, Singapore’s headline GDP growth numbers obscure some real problems. Consider income inequality. In the decade to 2007, the bottom 30 per cent of households saw their real incomes stagnate, even as Singapore continued to churn out millionaires. By some measures, Singapore today is more unequal than China and the US. Economic growth has not benefitted all. The cost of living, meanwhile, has spiraled.

The government is not entirely to blame for all this. Singapore is subject to the same disruptive economic forces that affect other countries, including globalisation and resource shortages. Nevertheless, some policies, such as promoting high immigration, have certainly accentuated their impact.

That speaks to the other benefit of electing more opposition Members of Parliament (MP) — Singapore desperately needs discussion about alternative growth models.

Part of the reason for high immigration is that the PAP has been pursuing a high-growth economic growth strategy that involves feeding greater quantities of “inputs”, such as low-cost labour, into the system, rather than focusing on improving the productivity of existing workers.

This depresses low-end wages—the median salary in Singapore is S$2,400. In other words, 50 per cent of Singaporeans earn, at most, only as much as a university grad’s first paycheck. The most poignant description I’ve heard of Singapore today is a “first-world country with a third-world wage structure”.

This is not to suggest that migrants are unwelcome. They are, and will always be, important contributors to the Singapore story. The point here is that society needs to take pause and contemplate—do we really need to grow this way, or is there a more inclusive, sustainable path to economic development?

Without a more open society and active political debate, we will never know—Singapore will not benefit from the rigorous competition of ideas that is essential for better policies. Sure, income inequality is discussed more today, but why wasn’t it in, say, 2005? The PAP, for all its virtues, is prone to groupthink, just like any hierarchical organisation.

Judging by its new candidates, the PAP also continues to prefer likeminded personalities. This is best exemplified by Tin Pei Ling, who recently admitted that her greatest regret in life is that “I didn’t manage to bring my parents to Universal Studios.”

Some might salute her filial piety. But that is a given—we expect every candidate to love and respect their parents. Ms Tin’s answer, in fact, betrays a shocking lack of ambition and imagination.

More worrying are her thoughts on income inequality. In a 2007 speech, she makes it a point to state that while the rich have gotten richer, “the poor have NOT gotten poorer”. (Emphasis hers.)

Imagine that by 2030, some 70 per cent of Singaporeans are driving around in BMWs and Ferraris, while the bottom 30 per cent live exactly as they do today, some struggling to put food on the table. Is that development?

While the PAP’s recruits are cut from the same cloth, the opposition offers some diversity. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong recently questioned how the opposition can find many talented people if the PAP cannot. It’s probably because some talented people do not agree with all of the PAP’s policies.

Consider Gerald Giam and Ong Theng Khoon, two first-time candidates. I have known both for more than 15 years. Gerald is a family friend, while TK was my junior college classmate. They are affable, compassionate and smart, and I expect will make fantastic politicians.

Gerald is running for the Worker’s Party, while TK is running for the PAP. Is one much better than the other? No. They just have different ideas about how they can serve Singapore. Candidates like Gerald prove that the opposition can recruit talent.

The PAP has always attracted people who have somewhat similar credentials and consistent views on policy. But Singapore also needs alternative voices that can infuse politics with fresh ideas. Gerald will certainly do this—for instance, he has spoken about the need for Singapore to reduce its reliance on government-linked companies (GLCs) and MNCs, partly because that will spur job creation in our small and medium enterprises (SME) sector.

All this does not imply that Singapore needs to dabble with multi-party democracy. The PAP remains competent, effective and transparent. Singapore’s ideal model may indeed be having one dominant party that is kept on its toes by an able, vocal, strong opposition.

The current situation, however, is pitiful. There are just two elected opposition members in parliament. An ideal scenario, in my opinion, is for Singapore to elect up to 20 credible opposition members in the upcoming election. Out of a total of 87, that will still leave the PAP with more than three-quarters of the elected seats.

It will be able to pass legislation, but will have to pay much more attention to alternative views. Some worry that if the PAP loses a Group Representation Constituency (GRC), Singapore will lose a crucial minister. But the PAP is bigger than any individual, with enough ministerial material in reserve.

This scenario will allow the opposition parties to improve, and will force Singapore’s staid mainstream media to report on more non-establishment opinions—both of which are in Singapore’s long-term interest. Our efficient civil service, meanwhile, will continue to chug along, implementing policies, and keeping Singapore working as smoothly as ever.

The only ‘downside’ is that politicians might have to engage in lengthier debates. But that’s precisely what will lead to better policies. Besides, I suspect our MPs will be adequately compensated for their time.

We should not, of course, expect the PAP to advocate such an outcome. The PAP will continue to behave like any successful monopoly.

Last year Minister Vivian Balakrishnan admitted that the PAP strives to grab all available talent in Singapore. In 2006, meanwhile, PM Lee said that if there are 10, 15 or 20 opposition members in parliament, “I’m going to spend all my time thinking what’s the right way to fix them, to buy my supporters votes…”

Recall that in Singapore’s exacting meritocracy, we are taught the virtues of competition from the time we are toddlers. Students fight it out for the best grades. Our free-market economy is lauded for promoting the fittest companies.

When it comes to politics, however, Singaporeans are suddenly told that we should forget competition, and instead embrace a monopoly.

Isn’t that odd?

The problem with Singapore’s media

I am publishing this post, dear reader, because I believe that Singaporeans place too much trust in our mainstream media to deliver “the truth”. It really irks me that Singapore’s media keeps patting itself on the back, when it suffers from several problems, not least a pro-government bias. So, I have decided to show six very clear examples of poor journalism. Each one is different, but together they highlight everything that is wrong with our media. Please scroll to the middle of this post to see them. Or, if you permit some preliminary yakking, then read on here….

16 years ago, our RJC football team was coached by one of our English teachers, Mr David Whitehead, a sarcastic geezer who was always ready to chew off somebody’s head and crack us up.

One Saturday morning, when a new player showed up for practice without shinguards, Mr Whitehead mocked him for his stupidity before finishing, “Sonny, why don’t you roll up your Straits Times and stuff it in your socks? There’s no better use for it.”

From that moment, I’ve maintained a healthy skepticism towards Singapore’s media–the opinion, after all, came from an A-Levels English Literature teacher.

My experiences studying and working have sharpened my opinion of the Straits Times, and Singapore’s media in general. General editorial standards leave a lot to be desired. Worse, Singapore’s media has a decidedly pro-government bias. This translates into a lot of positive spin around articles about Singapore, as well as excessive self-censorship by journalists, particularly when discussing Singaporean politics.

In terms of content, what that means is that any article that discusses Singapore is liable to be written in a particular pro-government fashion.

So, in my opinion, the main strength of Singapore’s mainstream media is as a good source of news on other South-east Asian countries. Unless of course the news concerns Singapore, like a piece on buying water from Malaysia, in which case it is also prone to bias.

The problem, of course, is that for local news, we have no other options. So, we Singaporeans have to read the ST et al, or resign ourselves to living under a shell. No doubt, I do find some of the stories interesting. And we have some very talented writers, including Carolyn Hong, Deepika Shetty, and Rohit Brijnath. But they face the same limitations that all journalists here do.

Thankfully, the advent of the Internet has led to the rise of other credible news sources, such as The Online Citizen (where I occasionally contribute). Sadly, these do not have the resources or readership to seriously challenge the incumbents.

However, what frustrates me is that whenever I get into a discussion about Singapore’s media with somebody, I find it hard to articulate exactly what I mean. It’s easy to say “pro-government bias” or “sloppy journalism”, but unless I have concrete examples, the conversation ends quickly. Worse, without solid evidence, those people who love our media can easily accuse me of being anti-SPH or anti-Mediacorp. Which is also silly–the only thing I am against is poor journalism.

So, because of all that, I have decided to make a safe, accessible repository here of six instances of poor journalism. What is interesting is that they each reflect a different kind of problem.

Together, they highlight everything that is wrong with our media, and why Singaporeans should be skeptical about everything we read in the mainstream media (we should, of course, also be skeptical about what we read in blogs such as this one–make sure the facts support the argument).

It is actually quite difficult for me to write all this because I have many friends who work in Singapore’s mainstream media. They are some of the smartest, most opinionated people I know. I will not endear myself to them by criticising their firms. Still, I feel that staying silent will also be an insult to them. So, I’m going ahead in the spirit of good journalism. In fact, most of them are actually quite frank about the restrictions they face–off the record, of course.

More importantly, I think it’s important to recognise that the problem with Singapore’s media is well above individual writers. We have a systemic, institutional problem. Singapore’s media is like a state organ. Its raison d’etre is to convey the government’s view to the people.

It was never designed to a) question the government; b) disagree with the government; c) convey the people’s view to the government; d) think creatively about challenges facing Singapore. (unless a-d are somehow pre-sanctioned by the government)

This institutional structure is the cause for the other symptoms, like pro-government bias. Individual writers are simply products of this system. Therefore, I will not reveal individual writer’s names. This is not about them; just the system they work in.

In my opinion, this media model has served us well through our formative years. Now that Singapore is trying to develop its knowledge economy, however, this model is terribly outdated. Anyway, I will save my humble media suggestions for another post.

As awareness is the first step, here I simply want to showcase the problem with Singapore’s media:

1) Obscuring the whole truth
On 18th August 2009, Tharman Shanmugaratnam, our finance minister, was asked in parliament to reveal the reasons for Charles Goodyear’s resignation from Temasek Holdings. Amongst other things, he said:

“People do want to know, there is curiosity, it is a matter of public interest. That is not sufficient reason to disclose information. It is not sufficient that there be curiosity and interest that you want to disclose information.”

The next day, the Straits Times published the parliamentary conversations. However, for some inexplicable reason, ST decided to leave out the phrase “it is a matter of public interest”. See here

As you might imagine, leaving out the phrase changes the statement completely. It is one thing for our finance minister to say, “Yes there’s curiosity but we’re not going to tell.” It is something completely different for him to say, “Yes, it is a matter of public interest but we’re not going to tell.”

The latter–what was actually said–suggests that even when there is a matter of public interest, the government does not feel that it has to let Singaporeans know. (Whoa…..say what?)

The question of course is: Why did ST feel that it had to censor that bit? Was ST acting alone, correcting on behalf of Mr Tharman? Did ST get a call from somebody higher up?

Whatever the case, this is a clear example of our mainstream media obscuring the whole truth from Singaporeans. How many other political statements over the years have been sugar-coated or white washed? How much censorship?

2) Obscuring the whole truth Part II
Mark Chow, founder of a model agency and a former actor, was sentenced to jail in April 2010 for molesting a lady in 2007. In August, his sentence was extended.

In every single mainstream media report, however, the journalist failed to mention that Mr Chow is a member of the Young PAP. Here is an example.

Why does that matter? Simple. Just imagine what would have been reported had Mr Chow been a member of an opposition party.

The mainstream media has long trumpeted the achievements of the PAP and downplayed any flaws. Conversely, it rarely gives credit to the opposition, and frequently highlights any opposition shortcomings.

In this subtle but insidious way, the mainstream media indelibly shapes the opinion of Singaporeans. How many other stories involving party cadres/politicians have been spun this way?

3) Deciding who Singaporeans can listen to–the case of Chee Soon Juan and the SDP
Let me start by saying that I have never been a big fan of Chee Soon Juan. He has always seemed more prone to bouts of political theater than genuine, constructive politics. But it’s entirely possible that my mind has been warped by the biased coverage in our mainstream media. As far back as I can remember, CSJ has been publicly portrayed as a devil. (I first saw his gentler side in a Martyn See documentary, Singapore Rebel.)

Equally worrying, over the past five years or so, CSJ and the SDP have suffered a media blackout. Our mainstream media channels have simply refused to feature them–it is as though the powers that be have been trying assiduously to erase them from our collective imagination.

This carried on as recently as February this year, when the SDP was excluded from one of Channel News Asia’s pre-election shows, Talking Point. Excluding the SDP, one of Singapore’s major opposition parties, is inexcusable. CNA’s response to the incident was, well, underwhelming.

So, even though I have never really understood CSJ’s messages or methods, I will defend to the death his right to speak and be heard, to paraphrase one of Voltaire’s beliefs. Everybody in our society deserves this–as long as they’re not promoting terrorism, racism, or anything else illiberal or unjust.

Who decided to blackout CSJ and the SDP? Have our mainstream media channels been acting independently, or did they get instruction from somebody above? How come they get to decide which politicians I can listen to, and which ones I can’t? What other issues/people have been blocked or blacked out? How else has our understanding of Singapore been manipulated?

Interestingly, if you analyse mainstream media coverage of the opposition over the past year, you will find nothing about the SDP before March this year. The Reform Party and the Worker’s Party got some air time. But not the SDP.

Then something happened, and the mainstream media channels decided that they had to cover the SDP. Perhaps they realised that they would look really foolish ignoring a major opposition party, with new, credible candidates such as Dr Vincent Wijeysingha and Tan Jee Say.

Even then, however, coverage was paltry and biased. The two most egregious examples of poor journalism came from The New Paper. First, it disgracefully played the anti-gay card in a piece on Dr Vincent. Then, without any conclusive evidence, it suggested that CSJ had tried to start a march at one of the election rallies (subsequently refuted by eyewitnesses).

4) Deciding what Singaporeans can listen to–the MDA
Singapore’s Media Development Authority is, in its own words, a promotional and regulatory body set up “to champion the development of a vibrant media sector in Singapore: one that nurtures homegrown media enterprises and attracts direct foreign investment for economic growth, new jobs and greater economic dynamism”.

Well, in my opinion, it hasn’t been very successful. It is difficult, after all, to “champion the development of a vibrant media sector” when one spends so much time figuring out how to censor and restrict.

A recent example:
In mid February 2011, somebody I know who is in charge of a popular television show in Singapore was sent a memo. The memo, allegedly passed down from the MDA, told this person and team that they CANNOT report on certain sensitive issues until after the elections. The list of sensitive issues included Foreign Talent; Housing issues; Soccer/FAS; Income inequality; Public Transport and several others.

I was flabbergasted when I heard this. There are so many problems with this directive. First is the simple declaration of “sensitive issues”. Who in Singapore gets to decide what is sensitive or not? Is it a senior politician? Or a senior bureaucrat in MDA? Why should anybody decide what is sensitive or not to us Singaporeans?

Second, and more problematic, even if we agree on “sensitive issues”, why can’t we talk and hear about them before elections? Isn’t election time precisely when we should be discussing these things? We voters have to make important decisions–why are we being prevented from hearing about “sensitive issues” that might influence our vote?

If our media is supposed to be objective, and our democratic process supposed to be fair, I cannot imagine anything more inane than this. Essentially we are being told “Do not discuss sensitive issues during elections when they are actually most important. But please do discuss them after elections when they are of absolutely no political consequence”.

5) Appalling journalistic standards
When I first discovered this error, I was confused. I could not believe that a journalist at the Business Times would make such a mistake, particularly since I had always regarded–and still do–BT as the best media outlet in Singapore.

In order to understand this error of monumental proportions, it’s probably better that you first scan through the article here.

OK, now that you’ve scanned the article, what would you think if I told you that the entire main thrust of the article–Singapore moving up the rankings–is bogus? Well, that’s the truth. As it turns out, Singapore did not move at all on the Democracy Index–remained exactly where it was, at number 82.

How do I know? Well, when I read this article, I found the headline odd–I couldn’t imagine how Singapore had become more democratic in the past year. And so I went online to look for the actual index, which is available free of charge to anybody with an Internet connection.

Within two minutes of looking for it, I had found the report, and the index that shows Singapore at position 82 (you can see it for yourself here). So why would the journalist say otherwise? I dug around a bit, and got a response from BT saying that they had been using information from a press release that was obviously erroneous.

Let that sink in: a BT journalist had written an article based on a press release without checking the facts–facts, remember, that any lay person could have checked within two minutes.

It really amazed me. And it got me thinking. There are only two possible explanations, as I see it:

One, this BT journalist is similarly slipshod with all his/her work.

Two, because the content showed Singapore in a positive light, the journalist decided to forgo fact checking. In other words, this journalist only checks facts when it is something negative about Singapore.

Either way, it is a terrible indictment of the kind of work that goes on at BT.

How many other stories about Singapore are based on false information? When do Singaporean journalists actually check facts? How do editors tolerate such sloppiness?

(yes, those of you who work in PR/ Journalism might say, “So what? Every journalist uses press releases”. OK. But that doesn’t make it right. Especially when you muck up big time.)

6) Spin
On the same day, three different newspapers had three different angles to the same story. I put all here for you to understand the different approaches each takes.

FT: See here
WSJ: See here
ST: See here

The ST, as you will see, can always be counted on to deliver the most fantabulous spin about Singapore. In this case, it talks up the growth in Temasek’s assets, and relegates the part about net profits declining.

In my mind, net profit is what’s important to Singaporeans–that’s our national income! Somebody who just glanced the ST’s headlines without reading more would presume that it was a fantastic year.

There you go. If you have more and better examples of poor journalism in Singapore, do let me know. And, if you disagree with my diagnosis, I’d be keen to hear your thoughts too.

But what does that all mean?
It’s important to recognise a couple of things. First, one might reasonably expect to find some of the same issues in other countries. Every media channel, whether Fox News, The New York Times, or The Economist, has a bias of some sort. Editorial at all of Rupert Murdoch’s media outlets, for instance, are seemingly controlled by the great man.1

Furthermore, no media channel is perfect. Every journalist makes occasional mistakes. In fact, editorial standards are probably much higher in Singapore than they are in, say, Malaysia or the Philippines.

However, we Singaporeans need to hold MediaCorp and SPH accountable to much higher, almost perfect, standards. Why? Two reasons. First, Singapore’s politicians and bureaucrats go to great lengths to trumpet our media model. Every few months, Singaporeans are treated to some shameless gloating and back-patting about Singapore’s media–how it is so objective, fact-based and unbiased. Just last year, for instance, Ministers Lui Tuck Yew and Shanmugam said as much separately.

As the six examples above show, this is simply untrue–our media suffers from some fundamental problems, and we need to acknowledge that.

On a related note, we must demand perfect standards because Singaporeans have no media choice–there is no media competition here. In other countries, if a reader does not like coverage from a particular source, he/she can simply choose to read or watch something else. Here we cannot. We are told that we need only one source/owner because it is infallible.

The result of all this is that many Singaporeans place unquestioned faith in our mainstream media. If our dear government says it’s good, it must be, right? Mr Lui quoted a survey that found that 68% of Singaporeans consider newspapers a trusted source of information (compared with an international average of 34%).

In other words, more than two-thirds of Singaporeans believe in the credibility of our newspapers. As I’ve tried to show, however, we should not have unwavering faith. Instead, we should read and watch with a critical and questioning mind.

Finally, I would like to reiterate the point about individual writers, and even publications–they are all just symptoms of a broader issue. There is no point haranguing them–many are doing the best they possibly can given the constraints they operate within.

We have a systemic problem. Self-censorship is an insidious, vicious cycle that feeds upon itself. There is no Grand Government Censor who pre-approves every article before it is published. Self-censorship evolves like a military order, where a General’s call for a 10am fall-in gets amplified through the chain of command, ultimately forcing lowly corporals to get ready at 9am. Similarly, self-censorship exerts its ruinous force on the system by forcing each editor/journalist below to draw an even safer line.

Every Singaporean is just a player in this paralysing game. Some suggest that the only victors are the PAP, although maybe even they have been undermined of late. Consider their poor performance in the last elections. Outgoing Minister Lim Hwee Hwa said that “it was a surprise for us that the resentment is so deep and the unhappiness is so deep”. Well, Ms Lim, perhaps if our media channels were freer to say what they wanted and convey the views of disgruntled Singaporeans, you may not have been so surprised.

Ultimately, what Singaporeans need to do is collectively seek reform of our media sector–which will, amongst other things, free our media channels and journalists to do an even better job.

1 Ken Auletta, writing in The New Yorker, call this ‘anticipatory censorship’. He quotes David Yelland, the former deputy editor of the Post and ex-editor of Rupert Murdoch’s largest London tabloid, the Sun, who told the London Evening Standard, “All Murdoch editors…go on a journey where they end up agreeing with everything Rupert says. But you don’t admit to yourself that you’re being influenced. Most Murdoch editors wake up in the morning, switch on the radio, hear that somethings has happened and think, ‘What would Rupert think about this?’ ”

(“Murdoch’s best friend”, The New Yorker, April 11 2011)