Why Singaporeans need to discuss 1987’s Marxist Conspiracy

Do people become subversive after reading Animal Farm?

George Orwell’s allegory on totalitarianism was one piece of evidence Singapore’s Internal Security Department (ISD) allegedly seized in 1987 during Operation Spectrum. Thirty years on, the arrest and detention without trial of twenty-two people accused by the government of plotting a Marxist conspiracy to overthrow the state is still an episode shrouded in fog. There are good reasons today for society to embrace a more honest conversation about it.

The facts bear mention. On May 21st and June 20th 1987, a total of nine men and thirteen women, aged eighteen to forty, were arrested and detained by the ISD using powers conferred by Singapore’s Internal Security Act (ISA). The accused were a mix of activists, Catholic Church members, social workers and theatre performers. Some had ties to the rejuvenated Workers’ Party.

A week after the first arrests, the government released a statement tying them to a supposed plot masterminded by Tan Wah Piow, a Singaporean student activist who had gone into exile in London a decade earlier. All of the detained eventually gave written and/or video confessions.

By the end of 1987, all except Vincent Cheng, a church worker, had been released. On April 18th 1988, nine of the ex-detainees issued a statement recanting their confessions, saying they had been made under duress.

All but one, who was overseas, were rearrested the next day. They eventually reaffirmed their original statements and were again released. Two lawyers representing the detainees were also arrested, detained and later released. Cheng, the last detainee, was released in 1990.

Almost immediately doubts emerged about Operation Spectrum’s veracity. In 1991, Walter Woon, later to be Attorney-General, said “As far as I am concerned, the government’s case is still not proven. I would not say those fellows were Red, not from the stuff they presented.” In 1992, Minister S. Dhanabalan resigned from the Cabinet because of his discomfort with Operation Spectrum.

In 2001, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, personal friends with some of the accused, said “although I had no access to state intelligence, from what I knew of them, most were social activists but were not out to subvert the system.” Mary Turnbull, noted historian on Singapore, has called “the alleged Marxist conspiracy” a myth.

Despite this broad-based suspicion about what happened, the government has yet to conduct an inquiry. In 2011 the Ministry of Home Affairs reasserted its position that the twenty-two “were not detained for their political beliefs, but because they had involved themselves in subversive activities which posed a threat to national security.”

Many believe there is nothing to be gained from an inquiry into something that occurred thirty years ago. That is myopic. A nation cannot be built on collective amnesia. By conducting one, Singapore can finally ascertain the truth, strengthening societal cohesion, as well as public faith in its national security apparatus.

To understand why, it is worth first considering the allegations made by the detainees about their time in jail. Long reticent because of their fear of reprisals, some have in recent years started speaking out. Many claim they did not know each other before the arrests. The picture they paint of detention without trial, if true, is grim.

For the first seventy-two hours detainees claim they were made to stand barefoot in thin clothes while being interrogated in a tundra-like room by ISD officers wrapped in winter wear. Sleep deprived, the detainees started hallucinating.

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GE2015: Final thoughts (1 of 4)

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We are at a curious point in history. Whenever I share my electoral preferences, my PAP friends call me an opposition supporter; and my opposition friends call me a PAP supporter.

Why? I’ll come back to that at the end of these four pieces, but first I want to discuss three issues I think are important.

This is not some comprehensive analysis of this election. Just three issues that I think haven’t been given enough consideration; and that have affected my choice.

They are: the diversity of ideas in Singapore; the nexus of power in Singapore; and Singapore’s population policies.

Diversity of ideas

First, as Singapore prepares for its next phase of development, we simply do not have a sufficient diversity of ideas in the public realm. Our level of public debate and discourse is terrible. Our country is not having the conversations it so desperately needs.

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Second book launch: Hard Choices

Hard Choices Front_Ver 2

Dear friends, I just wanted to share some thoughts from my second book launch this past Tuesday. If you want to find out more about the book’s content and cover, please see my earlier post here.

I really enjoyed the launch. As in, it was genuinely fun. Lots of banter up on stage between Donald Low, my co-author, David Skilling, the moderator, and myself before the event. Engaging conversation and audience questions throughout on a range of important and sometimes emotive subjects, from Goh Keng Swee’s doubts in 1972 about Singapore’s emerging economic model to the recent uproar over the mooted Philippines Independence Day Celebration in Singapore this June.

If you are keen to see what you missed, here is a 22min video of the session.

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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. Continue reading

#FreeMyInternet: My statement at Hong Lim Park

Dear friends, unfortunately, I was not FreeMyInternetable to be at Hong Lim Park on Saturday, June 8th, to join the protest against the silly new Internet regulations in Singapore. I have just embarked on a seven-month trip across India and China, to do research for my second book. (Click here to read about my new project.)

Andrew Loh, the organiser, asked me to send him a short 200-word statement for him to read out. Thanks Andrew, appreciate it.

Here is the statement:

Dear friends, whatever our political beliefs, we should collectively oppose this regulation. Nobody should tell you what news is good and what is bad. That is for you to decide.

Some people will say, “Nevermind, it’s only 10 websites.” But that’s only the beginning. You give one inch, eventually they take one mile. Never let the authorities believe that they are more enlightened than you.

This new ruling will feed self censorship in Singapore—definitely in all those 10 websites, but also amongst other online writers.

Self censorship is a terrible thing. It infects a writer slowly, subconsciously. All of us in Singapore are affected by self censorship. It prevents us from having a richer, fuller dialogue.

Although we disagree with something someone is saying online, we should fight for that person’s right to say it.

Even if you trust the current government and the current MDA to do the right thing, do you trust tomorrow’s government? Do you trust tomorrow’s MDA?

You may hold the majority opinion now, but one day you might be in the minority. When that day comes, you will be thankful that we have a Free Internet for you to speak your mind.

The problem with the national conversation: information asymmetries

Dear friends, as long as there are significant information asymmetries in the government-citizen relationship, Singapore will never be able to have a completely fair and open national conversation.

What information asymmetries exist? Simply, the government has all the data and information, and we, the people, are given only selective access to it. Whenever people talk about the “lack of information” or the need for a “freedom of information” act, it is difficult to grasp what precisely this means in practice, and why exactly we need it.

Hence, in my humble bid to shed some light on this problem, I will adopt the same approach as I did last year, when I wrote a piece entitled “The problem with Singapore’s media“, showing six clear examples of institutionalised bias in Singapore’s media.

Here, I will show three clear examples of how the Singapore government’s stranglehold over data has blunted my ability to function as an analyst and journalist, preventing me from writing transparently, undermining the richness of any dialogue I can hope to promote through my writing.

If you’d like to cut straight to the three examples, please click here. But, if you are keen on some discussion on information asymmetries in society, then do read on.

Information asymmetries

“In economics and contract theory, information asymmetry deals with the study of decisions in transactions where one party has more or better information than the other. This creates an imbalance of power in transactions which can sometimes cause the transactions to go awry, a kind of market failure in the worst case.” 1

Information asymmetries can lead to several “market failures”, including adverse selection, moral hazard, and principal-agent problems.

“Adverse selection” is best demonstrated through the market for second-hand cars. Sellers know exactly how many times they’ve spilled coffee or burnt rubber on the cars they’re selling. Buyers don’t. Sellers of lemons are more likely to be bargained down than sellers of good cars. At any given price, it is more likely that a lemon than a good car is going to be sold, to the detriment of buyers and sellers of good cars.

“Moral hazard” pops up frequently in the insurance industry. Insurance firms assume all 26-year old drivers are the same. But Speedy Gonzalez assumes that once he has paid his insurance, he can drive how he wants because somebody else will cover him. If the insurance firm could have identified the Speedy Gonzalezes beforehand, it would have raised their premiums.

“Principal-agent problems” occur when the interests of the “principal” are not aligned to those of the “agent” who represents the principal. These issues are commonly discussed in terms of corporations. The company owners (principals) hire managers (agents) to run the firm. But the managers (agents) make decisions–bigger bonuses, more Club Med retreats–that might not be in the interests of the owners (principals), who are keen to maximise profits.

Everyday information asymmetries

Consider the doctor-patient relationship.

“The asymmetry of information makes the relationship between patients and doctors rather different from the usual relationship between buyers and sellers. We rely upon our doctor to act in our best interests, to act as our agent. This means we are expecting our doctor to divide herself in half – on the one hand to act in our interests as the buyer of health care for us but on the other to act in her own interests as the seller of health care. In a free market situation where the doctor is primarily motivated by the profit motive, the possibility exists for doctors to exploit patients by advising more treatment to be purchased than is necessary.” 2

Errrr, Susan Lim?

Many information asymmetries also exist in the financial services industry. Given the drama we witnessed in 2008, it’s fitting that we look at collateralised debt obligations (CDOs) in the American mortgage market. Perhaps the most famous example of an information asymmetry being exploited is when John Paulson, a hedge fund manager, allegedly influenced the composition of a Goldman Sachs CDO and then bet against it. In other words, Mr Paulson helped choose some really shitty mortgages that went into a bond which was then sold off to investors. The investors thought it was gold. Mr Paulson knew it was crap. And he made money off that trade. (Of course, he could have also lost money if the value of those subprime mortgages kept rising.)

Closer to home,  we have the Lehman Brothers Minibond Saga, where Singaporean financial institutions were accused of having mis-sold products; ten of them had penalties imposed. The mis-selling was possible only because of an information asymmetry: the sellers of the financial products had more information–i.e. understood the risk-reward profile better–than the buyers, many of whom were inexperienced elderly investors.

Information asymmetries in government-citizen relations

Government-citizen information asymmetries can lead to principal-agent problems. Elected politicians are actually the agents who are chosen to act on behalf of the principals: the voters, the people, the citizens. But these agents (politicians) may not always be acting in the best interests of the principals (voters).

Why would governments want to hide information from citizens? It usually relates to elite protection. People in positions of power, in their bid to retain their status, can go to great lengths to hide and massage data and information.

A country’s political system influences its approach to freedom of information. On one side of the spectrum we have the most information-biased country on the planet: North Korea, a brutal totalitarian, military dictatorship. On the other, we have liberal democracies, such as the US, which not only have Freedom of Information acts–including systematic declassification of secret government documents–but also have assertive, independent media outfits that relentlessly hound the government for data and information.

However, it would be wrong to conclude that the countries with the most liberal information agendas are the ones with the most politically aware or enlightened populations. As much as there is information, there is also mis-information. Vested financial and political interests regularly  manipulate the media in ostensibly open, democratic systems. That is the reason why many Americans believed that Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11, and why many of them today believe that President Obama was born outside the US.

Hence, even in countries where there is freedom of information, one might argue that the informational outcomes are not always optimal from the principals’ (voters) point of view. There are many other factors that matter, including literacy and media quality and diversity. If you’re keen to read more about information control and media manipulation, do refer to the work of Noam Chomsky.

Nevertheless, all other things being equal, it is in the interests of principals (voters) to demand greater information access from their agents (government); with a few possible caveats, related to national security. Yet, even then, according to Mr Chomsky in this video on freedom of information,

“If you look at the declassified records, you find very little material that has anything to do with national security or the defense of the country. What you find mostly is the need to defend the government against its own population. Most of what’s there, they just don’t want you to know, because it harms power.”

What are some other countries that have Freedom of Information Acts? According to Wikipedia,

“President Pervez Musharraf promulgated the Freedom of Information Ordinance 2002 in October 2002. The law allows any citizen access to public records held by a public body of the federal government including ministries, departments, boards, councils, courts and tribunals. It does not apply to government owned corporations or provincial governments. The bodies must respond within 21 days.

In Germany, the federal government passed a freedom of information law on September 5, 2005. The law grants each person an unconditional right to access official federal information. No legal, commercial, or any other kind of justification is necessary.” 3

Where does Singapore sit on this government-citizen information continuum?

Although some government critics have in the past (ridiculously) put Singapore and North Korea in the same sentence,  in terms of information, we are actually much, much closer to the US or other Western liberal democracies than we are to totalitarian states. Nevertheless, there is still a lot of information that the government keeps from us–let me describe the three instances of government agencies rebuffing my requests for data and information.

Note: As with my earlier piece on the media, I will not be revealing the names of any of the Singapore government officials I communicated with. This article and argument has absolutely nothing to do with them; it is simply about the system and structure that we all have to operate within. In fact, all of them were quite cordial and prompt in my discussions with them, and were simply following orders–or, perhaps, as often happens in any hierarchical organisation, they were erring WAY on the side of caution. Not empowered to make big decisions, so they “cover backside”, and turn me away.

Here are the three incidents:

1) Secretive population data Part I

In November 2009 I was working on a piece for The Economist looking at immigration and its impact on Singapore. You can read my final article here.

As part of my research for the piece, I wanted to find out the ethnic breakdown of three groups of people: the “Permanent resident population”, the “Non-resident population”, and the “New citizens (i.e. not born in Singapore)”?

Why did I want to know the ethnic breakdowns? Simple. I wanted to see if Singapore’s immigration policies were giving preference to any particular nationality or ethnic group. Some HR personnel and small business owners had told me, for instance, that it is much easier to bring in Chinese from China, Malaysia and Indonesia than it is any other person on this planet.

I wanted to find out if this is true, partly because then it might explain some of the irritation in society with service staff who speak only Chinese. ““I am Singaporean and tired of service staff who can only speak Mandarin” is a group on Facebook, the social-networking site, with more than 10,000 members,” I had written three years ago.

So I asked the Population Statistics Section at the Singapore Department of Statistics. The only data point it offered was “Permanent residents by ethnic group, 2000”. This was its reply: “We are sorry to inform we are unable to provide further breakdown of the permanent residents and non-residents for the other years requested.”

As soon as I read this, my mind started racing. Why wouldn’t the government want to share ethnic breakdowns of migrants? Was the situation really so serious, i.e. has Singapore really been drastically changing the composition of its population? I still don’t know.

I also asked the newly established National Integration Council (NIC): “How many Singapore citizens are Singapore-born, and how many are foreign-born?” This would allow me to properly consider the extent of the “integration” challenge facing the NIC.

I was foolishly assuming that the NIC would be happy to share this data. After all, if its mandate is to promote integration, surely it has to know how many foreign-born people there are in our country? And surely it would want to inform the people in the country so they are aware of all the other wonderful people in the country?

Well, no. As you will read further below, that was the first but not the last time the government did not want to share this bit of information with me. Again, my mind started racing. Why does the Singapore government not want Singaporeans to know how many foreign-born citizens are in the country?

2) Secretive education spending data

Earlier this year, the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), where I work, published a research report comparing preschool education around the world. I was the editor of the report. After the report was completed, I wanted to write an Op-Ed for The Straits Times on preschool education in Singapore. You can read the Op-Ed here.

Just to rewind a bit–when the EIU was conducting its research for the project, we had asked each of the 45 countries we studied to provide us with data on “Government spending per relevant-aged child”, i.e. how much public money is being spent on children below the age of 7. For every other country, this is public information. Not here–in Singapore, this data is confidential.

Singapore’s Ministry of Education (MOE) had very kindly agreed to let us have the data purely for the purposes of building the model, i.e. we could use it in our benchmarking of the 45 countries, but were not to publish it publicly.

OK. I had initially thought this was because MOE, for whatever reason, did not want this info being disseminated across the world. But surely MOE would consent to publishing it in the local newspapers, for Singapore citizens to understand the state of preschool education here?

Well, not really. The official at MOE told me not to release this figure to The Straits Times. So, as you will see in my Op-Ed, I had to dance clumsily around the fact:

“In terms of government spending per year on each relevant-aged child, exact figures for Singapore are not available, but it is understood to spend less than Norway does (US$7,620 in PPP terms), and less also than countries such as New Zealand (US$4,329), Japan (US$4,029) and Poland (US$2,635).”

From a journalistic point of view, this creates confusion. Any reader who reads the above statement will ask: So, what exactly does Singapore spend? Is it US$2,500? Or is it US$500? This loss of clarity is to the detriment of all parties involved.

From a citizen’s point of view, you are probably asking yourself the same question I did. In an article in a Singapore paper, why is it that we Singaporeans are not allowed to know how much of our tax money is flowing into preschool education? Not only that, what makes it more galling is the fact that we do have the information to discuss all the other countries’ spending amounts. But not ours.

Why does the Singapore government not want Singaporeans to know how much it spends on preschool education?

(Note: Even though I learned about all this during the course of my work, there is nothing confidential here. I did not discover all this because of any privileged access. Anybody who is interested in preschool spending in any of those 45 countries would have found out exactly what I did.)

3) Secretive population data Part II

The most recent brush I had with government information intransigence was last month, when I was doing research for a piece entitled “The End of Identity” that I intended to publish on the IPS Commons site.

In order to get a better grip on Singaporean identity, I wanted to know what percentage of citizens were born in this country. Essentially, the same question I had asked three years prior, but coming it at from a slightly different angle.

This time, I was actually much more optimistic about getting a straight answer from the government. At a macro socio-political level, from 2009 to 2012, there have been quite significant changes in this country, as Singapore’s political space has opened up. In particular, it seemed to me that the government is trying to be much more consultative, and engage citizens like myself in conversations and dialogues. At a more micro level, I was buoyed by the setting up of the National Population and Talent Division (NPTD), which sits under the Prime Minister’s Office. The NPTD was some proof, I thought, that the government is taking the population issue seriously.

Perhaps most importantly, the NPTD had recently rolled out a population “Issues paper” with a big song and dance, with the specific aim of “engaging the public extensively this year to hear their views, because we think it’s an important issue that affects all of us,” according to an official at NPTD.

Finally! Now I can ask the NPTD all my burning population questions that will help me write my pieces.

Well, not really.

As it turns out, the NPTD only wants Singaporeans to discuss certain population issues, not others.

After almost one week of mulling what to say to me, amid numerous conversations with a Corporate Comms person there, this was its official reply: “The number of Singapore citizens, as at Dec 2011, is 3.27 million. We do not provide a breakdown in terms of local-born or naturalised citizens, as we regard them all as Singaporeans.”

From a journalist’s point of view, this whole process of information gathering can be quite frustrating. First, I have no idea about whether I’m going to get the data I need. Second, my piece gets held up for a week, as the government spin doctors whir into action. No big deal in this case, since many people ultimately got to read it. But it still rankles.

Third, there is again loss of clarity, to the detriment of all parties.

This process of government obfuscation, which then leads to journalists having to come up with rough approximations, which then leads to readers having to wonder what the truth actually is–is this the kind of National Conversation we want to have?

Is the NPTD interested in a genuine engagement or is its main purpose simply to communicate the government’s population policies to the people of Singapore?

And, to ask the same question that bothered me three years ago, why does the Singapore government not want Singaporeans to know how many foreign-born citizens are in the country?

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Conclusion: What kind of a national conversation do we want?

Let me sum up with a few points. First, when faced with requests for Freedom of Information, a frequent government retort–not just in Singapore, but the world over–is that “there are national security concerns”. If anybody ever mentions this to you, dear reader, I’d appreciate if you can point them to the above three examples. I can’t wait for somebody to explain how spending on toddlers is a national security concern.

Second, to reiterate, I do not think there’s any point haranguing Singaporean government officials (i.e. civil servants) who refuse to provide data or information. They are trying to do the best possible job given the constraints they face, just like journalists in mainstream media outlets. We have an institutionalised problem that needs to be addressed.

In fact, I think the government officials’ jobs would be much easier if Singapore had a Freedom of Information Act. Then they wouldn’t have to spend time wondering whether to respond to requests from people like me. They could just get on with their work. Do note that data and info is not transparent even within the govt. According to my public sector friends, there is often a problem with government units hoarding information and hiding it from other government agencies.

A Freedom of Information Act would help us all. Note that, according to Wikipedia, “A basic principle behind most freedom of information legislation is that the burden of proof falls on the body asked for information, not the person asking for it. The person making the request does not usually have to give an explanation for their actions, but if the information is not disclosed a valid reason has to be given.”3

Even if a Freedom of Information Act is politically unworkable in the short term, I am sure there are other ways to free up the mountains of data and information that citizens want access to. Perhaps we can set up a separate “Information office”, or Ombudsman of some sort, with the authority and mandate to get other government bodies to release information to the public. I’m sure there are other problems around this, but it’s high time we considered all our options.

On a related note, I am not even sure Singapore’s most senior politicians are happy with the status quo. Some may be, of course, but there are others who might see the value in sharing data and information–like those in the 3 examples above–with the general public. This can improve the quality of public discourse and ultimately policies. But, as with any huge, hierarchical bureaucracy, not every intention at the top gets passed down the chain of command swiftly. It is entirely possible that the foot soldiers are slightly out of step with the generals.

Earlier this year, Teo Chee Hean, the deputy prime minister, got a lot of stick for asking students “What do you think?” in response to some tough questions. While it would have been nice for Mr Teo to offer more concrete opinions of his own, part of me agrees with him. It is important to ask Singaporeans what we think. (It’s also important to listen and absorb our responses.)

This is largely because of the increasing complexity of policymaking and economic development. In a modern, knowledge economy in an open, globalised world, information and knowledge exists in disparate pockets everywhere. “What do you think?” has arguably become a much more important question than at any point in our history.

But it’s also important for Mr Teo to remember two things. While it is good to ask “What do you think?”, the PAP should do so with a dose of humility. One of the main reasons Singaporeans assume that we do not have to think and contribute to policymaking is, well, for decades the PAP told us NOT TO.

“They say people can think for themselves? Do you honestly believe that the chap who can’t pass primary six knows the consequence of his choice when he answers a question viscerally, on language, culture and religion? But we knew the consequences. We would starve, we would have race riots. We would disintegrate.”
– Lee Kuan Yew, The Man & His Ideas, 1997

The second thing Mr Teo should understand is that as long as there are significant information asymmetries in society, Singapore will never be able to have a proper national conversation. And we the citizens will never be able to “think” as well as we should.

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Dear friends, in my book, Floating on a Malayan Breeze, I discuss in further detail several of the issues that crop up in this essay: the Malaysian and Singaporean governments’ control over information, and scripting of our national history; Singapore’s population policies; and our approach to ethnic composition, and the supposed preference for Chinese migrants.

If you are in Singapore, please join us for my book launch at 8pm, September 26th at the Esplanade. Do RSVP to Riya at orders.nuspress@nus.edu.sg if you’d like to come. Please click here for more details of the launch.

Also, the book itself will be available in book stores in Malaysia and Singapore very shortly. Look out for it! Or to buy on Amazon, click here.

References:

1 Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Information_asymmetry

2 http://oheschools.org/ohech3pg4.html

3 Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freedom_of_information_legislation

Photo credit: Derek Midgley’s photostream

ST Forum: Scandals exposed flaws in our system

Unless there’s some paywall, you can probably read the original on the ST site here.

Aug 02, 2012. The Straits Times

ALTHOUGH deputy editor Zuraidah Ibrahim makes many good points in her commentary on Sunday (“Scrubbing out sleaze in Singapore”) on recent corruption scandals, in particular, the need for a more watchful, engaged public, I am surprised by one of her conclusions that “everything that has happened in the past six months has shown that the system still works”.

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In fact, the scandals have exposed some flaws.

Singapore has prided itself on an elite system of talent selection and career progression.

Meritocracy and intense scrutiny together produce only the best leaders, or so we have been told.

The sex-for-business allegations against the former chiefs of the Central Narcotics Bureau and the Singapore Civil Defence Force, if true, suggest otherwise.

Singaporean meritocracy may, in reality, inflate the egos of those who succeed such that their sense of entitlement and privilege can supersede their better judgment.

Meanwhile, their followers, by virtue of finishing second or third, may lose the self-confidence and gumption needed to keep No. 1 on his toes.

In other words, our Darwinian selection system is partly behind the inordinate power structures one might find in Singapore organisations.

Second, although Ms Zuraidah cheers the effectiveness of Singaporean justice and vigilance in bringing these cases to light, she admits that the probe into the National Parks Board’s Brompton bicycle purchase was prompted only after Internet grumblings could no longer be ignored.

Hence, here again the system would have failed if not for the tireless – and purely voluntary – work of netizens.

It is good that the public is having a lively post-mortem on these scandals.

We must be honest about the potential problems in our system if we are going to address them.

(Photo credit: Andrew Loh )

Worthless words

A recent media kerfuffle has shed light on politics and society in Singapore. After decades of softball journalism and scripted Q&As, some of our politicians do not have the ability to articulate their views coherently, or answer tough questions.

As a result, when we hear the views of our leaders, as transmitted through the mainstream media, I wonder how much is true; how much is really their own view; and how much is scripted–them simply saying what they think we want to hear.

The story involves Lim Wee Kiak, a PAP MP for Nee Soon GRC. In late May, when discussing ministerial salaries, he told a Lianhe Zaobao reporter:

“If the annual salary of the Minister of Information, Communication and Arts is only $500,000, it may pose some problems when he discusses policies with CEOs of telco companies who earn millions of dollars because they need not listen to the minister’s ideas and proposals. Hence a reasonable payout will help to maintain a bit of dignity.”

Unsurprisingly, there was an immediate online backlash–why should dignity flow from a person’s income?

What followed was a series of ridiculous flip-flops that still leaves me baffled.

First, Dr Lim responded that he had been quoted out of context. OK–so he does believe that income=dignity, just that the example shouldn’t be quoted on its own.

A couple of days later, he released a statement, where he said, “I withdraw those remarks and apologise for making them. Dignity cannot be and must not be measured purely in monetary terms.”

Huh? I find it impossible that somebody can flip views on such a fundamental belief in two days.

On the one hand, I’ve always respected the fact that politicians in Singapore can change their opinions on larger policy issues–LKY on bilingualism, for instance–when new facts and evidence surface.

On the other hand, belief in income, dignity and a person’s worth are not policy ideas–they get to the very core of a person’s makeup. I doubt that some criticism can suddenly change that overnight. I am completely convinced that Dr Lim believes that dignity flows from income. Many people do, not just in Singapore, but all over the world.

That doesn’t make it right, and it worries me that our politicians think this way. Although I suppose it shouldn’t really surprise me: money-worship seems to have gotten a stranglehold on our society, especially over the past 10 years or so. At its extreme, it produces cases like that involving Susan Lim.

(to clarify: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with materialism and making money. this instinct drives many economies, after all. It’s only problematic when the pursuit, and the making, of money is immoral, unethical or excessive.)

In my mind, what probably happened is that other senior politicians told him to fall into line, and apologise. How many of those other politicians actually think exactly like Dr Lim–but simply sugar-coat their press statements to make it seem like they’re egalitarian, magnanimous folk?

What has surprised me is that speaking to some friends, and reading some of the commentary online, it seems as though some Singaporeans accept this flip-flop, and are willing to forget what he said.

In other words, we may be tempted to view his initial statement to Lianhe Zaobao as a genuine gaffe–unrepresentative of the man.

I think we shouldn’t. It is a precious insight into the thinking of a politician–unvarnished, unscripted, spontaneous, from the heart, away from the watchful eye of the PAP spin doctors.

We should cherish these moments.

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)