More problems at Singapore’s mainstream media channels

One of the great ironies of modern Singapore’s media development is that even as politicians, establishment supporters and other conservatives continue to heap scorn on internet sites, the mainstream channels keep making mistakes, sometimes egregious ones. It is as if they are doing their utmost to make a mockery of their fans.

2013 proved a particularly horrible year for Singapore’s mainstream media channels, and they have started off 2014 on the same shot-riddled foot. Pointing out these errors is important not in order to have a laugh–although one can hardly blame Singapore’s beleaguered bloggers for indulging in a bit of schadenfreude.

The bigger reason is that, like so many other sacred cows of the Singapore model, media policies here are based on a seemingly immutable national orthodoxy about the role of elites: Singapore society must rely on a tiny, enlightened group of people, rather than the distributed intelligence of all Singaporeans. This belief manifests itself in everything from a government-knows-best attitude to the presumption that our restricted, elite-led mainstream media model is serving our country well.

It is not. Singapore’s media policies hamper the free flow of information and exchange of ideas that any knowledge economy needs. Although many talented journalists work at our mainstream media channels, they are prevented from fulfilling their potential by the climate of self-censorship and the lack of competition in the sector, among other things.

Therefore, for those of us who believe in media reform, it is imperative that we keep pointing out the failures of the mainstream media. Without acknowledging that something is wrong, there can be no impetus for change.

Almost three years ago, I wrote a piece entitled The problem with Singapore’s media, where I highlighted six clear examples of mainstream media failures. That was around the time of Singapore’s last general election.

It is disappointing to note that little has changed since then. Worse, the recent transgressions below are far more damning.

Moreover, considering how The Breakfast Network, a somewhat centrist online publication, was recently forced to close in the face of puzzling regulations imposed by Singapore’s Media Development Authority, it is difficult not to feel depressed about where Singapore’s media sector is heading.

1) Nicole Seah’s character assassination

As Singapore transitions from a one-party state to a proper democracy, politicians will have to contend with, among other things, greater public scrutiny of their lives, as competing parties and their followers seek to exploit their opponents’ perceived failings to score political points.

But even PAP ideologues must have groaned at how low asiaone and Lianhe Wanbao, two outfits belonging to Singapore Press Holdings (SPH), stooped in order to win the 2013 muckraker of the year award.

Nicole Seah, the second assistant secretary-general of the National Solidarity Party, is well-liked by a fair number of Singaporeans, partly because she comes across as humble, straightforward and in touch with the common Singaporean, qualities that voters want to see more of in today’s politicians.

By publishing a tabloidy piece headlined “Nicole Seah uploads a photo of her with a man believed to be married”, asiaone and Lianhe Wanbao (which published a Chinese equivalent) were effectively trying to portray one of the opposition’s sweethearts as an adulteress.

It later emerged that Steven Goh, the man Ms Seah is dating, was already divorced. asiaone and Lianhe Wanbao updated their articles (see new headline below) and issued an apology to Ms Seah–at her request. And with that Singapore considered the case closed.


The questions Singaporeans must ask are:

Why are asiaone and Lianhe Wanbao, two supposed purveyors of quality journalism, even researching and publishing inane pieces on our politicians’ dating lives?

How is it that editors at the two papers are so incredibly lax with their facts?

What might have happened if, instead of an opposition politician, a PAP politician was falsely accused of committing adultery?

And, finally, for the even bigger picture view, if Singapore is indeed trying to build a democracy where healthy, reasoned discourse is valued, then who exactly is to blame for any descent into gutter politics?

2) South Asian confusion

Three shocking errors are grouped together here because they are partly symptoms of a broader problem: many Singaporeans’ inability to properly distinguish between different South Asian ethnic groups, and between individual South Asians.

There are many historical reasons for this, including the fact that Singapore society has for long bundled all Indians, and occasionally South Asians from other countries, into a convenient, reductionist basket called “Indian”, part of the so-called CMIO model (Chinese-Malay-Indian-Others) of administering ethnic policies.

Nevertheless, one does not expect the mainstream media to make these gaffes:

a) Calling an Indian a Bangladeshi

In the immediate aftermath of the Little India Riots of Dec 8th 2013, The Straits Times reported that “a Bangladeshi” had been hit by a bus. In fact, the deceased was an Indian.

Paired with other riot-related reports about alcohol, drunken behaviour and violent mobs, it didn’t paint a very good picture of the Bangladeshis in Singapore. The Bangladesh government condemned the report.

ST Bangladeshi

b) Mixing up the names Shanmugam and Shanmugaratnam

On Dec 15th 2013, an asiaone report called deputy prime minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam “Shanmugam”, the name of foreign affairs and law minister K Shanmugam.

c) Mixing up the leaders of Bangladesh

On Jan 6th 2014, The Straits Times front-page had a blurb about the Bangladeshi polls and prime minister Sheikh Hasina. However, instead of displaying her image, it used a photo of her arch-rival, Khaleda Zia. The two, of course, have for more than twenty years been involved in one of the world’s most contentious, violent political feuds.

ST Khaleda

My sense is that if any one of the above three happened in isolation, we could accept it as human error. But for so many South Asian confusion mistakes to occur in less than one month is inexcusable. It points to a deeper malaise within the mainstream media.

I am really quite shocked that the mainstream media has the nerve to falsely suggest that an opposition politician is an adulteress; and that it can make so many consecutive mistakes about South Asians.

I do not have much more to add, except to reproduce the last few paragraphs from my original piece on The problem with Singapore’s media:

“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.”

(Photo credits: The Online Citizen)

7 thoughts on “More problems at Singapore’s mainstream media channels

  1. In my original piece, I had written that Lianhe Zaobao had reported about Nicole Seah. It is actually Lianhe Wanbao, the sister paper, which is published in the afternoon, like The New Paper. I made the change on Jan 9th.

  2. Evidently, you will never be a player in this self-paralysing game. Neither are you likely to be offered a job in MSM.

    Good on you. And I hope that this will be the start of a journey towards change in the MSM.

    I hope.

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