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?

Notes:
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)

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3 responses

  1. I googled your blog as I agree totally with your "Three Local Myths" on TOC and reposted it on my FB and one of my colleagues saw it and said that "his blog has a bias" and I wanted to check if his/her comment was accurate. My colleague was wrong and I agree with your debunking of the myths even more now, and am even more appalled by the mainstream media now. You should submit this article to TOC as well.

  2. Another example:The Jurong Town Council sacking of NSP supporter Geraldine Soh, by her boss Ho Thian PohMedia articles on this failed to mention that Ho Thian Poh is a member of the PAP, as branch secretary of Bukit Batok East – obviously relevant informationhttp://www.straitstimes.com/GeneralElection/News/Story/STIStory_667357.htmlhttp://www.todayonline.com/Singapore/EDC110511-0000331/Dismissed-for-poor-performance–Town-council

  3. Commented by Alfian Sa'at at TOC:‎1) I remember an interview I had with the ST when I was in my 20's. I had just finished reading 'Comet In The Sky: Lim Chin Siong in History', one of the first books, I felt, that provided me with an alternative counterpoint to The Singapo…re Story. The journalist who interviewed me asked, 'so, who are your role models'?I said, 'Lim Chin Siong'.She asked, 'Anyone else?'I said, 'Can't think of anyone else.'Then she replied, 'We can't print that, you know. This is the Straits Times'. I can still remember the way she told me this, laughingly, with the fatalistic conviction that to quote me, an interviewee, directly, was an impossibility.2) In 1998, I wrote a review of Chong Tze Chien's play, PIE, where I said, 'this play reveals what Singapore is: a surveillance state (and I gave a couple of examples like ERP gantries and the then-screening of accounts by Singnet)'. The next day the editors changed this to 'this play reveals what some people perceive Singapore to be: a surveillance state'.I called the editor to ask why they had changed the line in such a way, especially since much of the editing they had done to my theatre reviews involved cutting it down to size, instead of adding new phrases. The explanation given was that I had made a political comment, and the place for this was 'in the political commentary section of the main paper, not Life!' I reasoned that it was irresponsible to write about a play that was *political* and not address its politics, paying attention only to its aesthetics.Then they switched track and said that I had a byline (which meant that whatever opinions I expressed was attributed to myself alone) and they were trying to protect me from any negative repercussions. I said I was willing to be sued for merely expressing the line 'Singapore is a surveillance state'. They said that it wasn't worth taking the risk.3) In 2000, I was commissioned by Life! to write a ghost story as part of a series, and I decided to write a story about how the Istana Kampong Glam, which had been expropriated by the government. In my story, the IKG, which was now a museum, was haunted by the restless spirits of the royals who had once inhabited its halls. I got a call from the editor who told me that he wasn't able to run the story, and the reason given was that 'the Malay ground is not sweet'. I asked why ST felt an obligation to sweeten the ground, and asked why he spoke of ST's readership in terms of an electorate, as if he was a politician and not a journalist. He didn't really have an answer and though they paid me for the commissioned story, it was ultimately never run in the pages of Life!.-The reason I'm documenting these incidences is to remind myself that whenever I speak about poor press standards in Singapore, I'm blithely not jumping on an ST-bashing bandwagon, or simply using the world press freedom index as the basis for my concerns. I've had personal experiences with three different journalists, who all displayed traits of self-censorship. I think what was alarming for me was how much self-censorship had been internalised to the point where many of these journalists saw them as routine and habitual practices.

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