The view from the top of the hill at Fort Canning Park--looking down onto the stage, rockers in full glory, bright lights blinding those in the pit, the Singapore skyline in the background--that's one of my favourite concert scenes.
And I have been spoilt for choice, lucky to attend many outdoor concerts with stunning backdrops, especially during my four years studying in California. The Greek Theater at Berkeley, my home away from home, holds a special place in my heart. Bob Dylan, Green Day, Live and Counting Crows together, they all played their part, as the sun set behind San Francisco, the city in the distance, the scent of eucalyptus, hotdogs and burning herbs wafting through the air.
Or the Chronicle Pavilion in Concord, more than an hour from Berkeley, which meant having to drive back an hour somewhat intoxicated; drunk enough to fail a breathalyser, but not drunk enough to cause any trouble--the drink driver's hymn, that one. Crosby, Stills and Nash (very old, and no Neil Young), and Third Eye Blind sang their hearts out beneath the crimson Californian sky. Magic.
Or Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View, nestled between Silicon Valley and San Francisco, where retired hippies chill while wannabe hippies and dotcom millionaires rock, bang and gyrate. I saw too many here, the pick were the Red Hot Chilli Peppers and the Dave Matthews Band (twice). But my good times memories are always tainted by the nightmarish traffic, leading in and out of this place, which made me miss even more the Greek Theater, minutes from my dorm.
And despite all those wonderful events there is something special, something unique about Fort Canning Park. Certainly not the overpriced drinks and mediocre food, pitiful in a gastronomic capital. Not the listless service offered by the lost schoolkids who've swapped school for waitstaff uniforms, all eager beavers with no clue, personifications of Singapore's productivity dilemma--pay as low as you can, get as many as possible, and don't you worry about the quality. (No disrespect to the kids--they tried their best, but they're just not trained well enough.)
And also not the long walk to the bathrooms in that grand old colonial building sitting on top of the hill. Nor the sight of brutish, drunk, belligerent White males walking to the nearest fence and unzipping their pants, showering the trees and grass, because they were too lazy to walk to the top of the hill, too eager to return to the electric Kasabian atmosphere and their plastic cups of beer.
My BIL and I, half hammered and bladders full, alternated between cursing at the foreigners pissing on our park and wondering if we should join them. It is easy to lament the torrid influx of foreigners into this country, especially at times like these, but just by looking around I was reminded that if not for them, acts like Kasabian would probably never bother coming here.
Still, we had to leggo some Singapore machismo. We heckled one bloke, who shivered nervously, barely 10 metres away, and then turned around and walked towards us.
As he approached, all seven feet of him, I realised one should not judge a man by his pissing physique. We started smiling, and luckily so did he. Instead of getting thumped, all I got was a rather damp handshake.
It was while on a separate urinary mission that I had my first brush of nostalgia. I was up in the old colonial building when I ran into a Singaporean Malay guy. We didn't shake hands. He was dressed in loose jeans and t-shirt, and spoke with a rather proper accent, as if he didn't care much for Singlish.
He went to secondary school at Saint Patrick's, and I at Saint Andrew's, and we found a lot of joy in reminiscing about ancient football rivalries.
"You know, I used to love hanging out with the Eurasians and Bhais, like you,.." "I'm not a Bha.." "You guys are the best. A lot of fun. We'd go drinking together" "Yes we would."
It won't be the last time I get mistaken for a Sikh. I never mind, they are a great bunch, and there certainly wasn't time for a geographical clarification. Besides, even if not the letter, the spirit of his point rang true--the Eurasians, Indians and Malays of my generasi all had a rollicking good time in school, corralled in Malay class, we became members, BFFs. Or so we hoped.
As I left the old colonial building, bladder empty and nostalgia recepticon tweaking, I gazed down the hill once more, and admired the view. And then it struck me why I like the skyline so much.
From Fort Canning Park, the only two buildings one can really see, far behind the stage, are Peninsula Plaza to the right and to the left the Westin Stamford (or Swissotel or whatever it's called today).
Peninsula Plaza, which at night wears that kitschy red and green neon crown, evokes memories of football shops, where one could buy English football jerseys, posters, photos and other memorabilia, a veritable emporium in those barren pre-Internet days. Or guitar studios. And photography labs.
Westin Stamford was the world's tallest hotel when it was built. For some reason I remember that, and remember being proud about that. Much more than I am today when I look at the Esplanade, the Marina Bay Sands, and all those other temples of the new, global, Singapore.
So I guess what I'm trying to say, dear Reader, is that I really enjoyed Kasabian, and the opening act, the Vaccines. But what made the night special was the view, of a 1980s-90s Singapore, unencumbered by all those burdens and trappings of being whatever it is we are supposed to be today.
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.
"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.
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.
Many Singaporeans are happy that the government will review ministerial salaries, partly because they finally feel that their voices are being heard and their votes making a difference.
Sadly Mr Gerrard Ee and his review committee will still be using old methodologies, such as benchmarking salaries to the private sector. That is a shame—this is a wonderful opportunity for a fresh, novel look at the issue, and a chance to set a good precedent for the government’s approach to other thorny challenges in the coming years.
For instance, Mr Ee’s team could consider a bottom-up approach. Instead of trying to figure out what discount from the private sector ministers should stomach, how about thinking about how much money a minister actually needs to live very comfortably?
Let me take an unscientific stab at it. I believe that in order for Singapore’s president to live very comfortably in Singapore today, every month we should pay him/her:
$20,000 family (including children’s education)
$10,000 food and beverage
$5,000 household miscellaneous
$5,000 IT miscellaneous
$5,000 entertainment miscellaneous
That comes up to S$70,000. Since there are many more things, unbeknownst to us, that a president might need, let’s add an extra 20%, bringing it to S$84,000. That equates to around $1m a year. At the moment, our president earns more than four times that.
By any measure, our president can enjoy a luxurious life in Singapore on that salary. Our president will also be able to provide the very best education and upbringing for his or her children.
What are the merits of this approach? First, it actually ensures that every minister will be well taken care of, regardless of the vagaries of the free market. In the wake of the global financial crisis, there has been much soul-searching in the private sector—mostly in the developed world, but also elsewhere—about levels of senior executive compensation. Imagine that within five years time, the private sector has decided to lower senior executive compensation across the board. Does that mean our politicians should take a pay cut? I hope not.
Our politicians should be shielded from these free-market fluctuations. On the other hand, if house prices climb rapidly, I hope that our politicians are not affected. I would rather they spend their time thinking about policies for Singapore rather than watching the housing market (unless, of course, they are formulating housing policies).
With a bottom-up approach, they do not have to worry. If housing costs climb 10% in a year, we will adjust their incomes appropriately—using a crude calculation on the above figures, the president would get an extra S$2,000 per month.
Second, this methodology has a symbolic benefit—the electorate is basically telling the people we elect to lead us, “Hey. Don’t worry. You’ll be taken care of. You will enjoy the same wonderful standard of living today, tomorrow, and in four years time.”
Third, it ensures that the gap between ministerial salaries and median salaries is not determined by external events—the going rate for, say, an accountant in developed Asia—but by local, internal cost-of-living measures. Unlike accountants and lawyers, a minister cannot suddenly pack his bags and say, “You don’t want me? I’ll go be a minister in Hong Kong.” Why should we benchmark their salaries to people who are mobile and whose salaries are generally determined by regional trends?
What are the downsides of this approach? Well, ministerial salaries will probably not keep pace with top private sector ones. But so what? Do we really want as our president somebody who’s only willing to serve the country for S$4m, rather than S$1m?
In any case, this is but one of many approaches. There are people much wiser than I who have suggested alternatives. The salient point is that Mr Ee and team should be generating fresh, novel ideas about ministerial salaries. If that is not the brief they have been given by the prime minister, well then, they should ask him for it. I believe he’s in the mood to listen.
Though it has taken some time for me to gather my thoughts on this complex, polarising figure, I think I've finally made up my mind. I believe it's important that we come together to support Tin Pei Ling--in the same way we should support every parliamentarian representing our country. The only exception: if she's found guilty of breaking cooling-off day rules, as discussed below.1
When I first heard that the PAP had recruited a 27-year old, I was delighted. Finally, I thought, we have our breath of fresh air, somebody who can represent the younger generation, and brighten up the party with new views.
That initial excitement quickly turned to amusement, as she was shown in all her Kate Spade glory. Had the PAP, in its mammoth effort to scour Singapore for political talent, just unearthed our first ever Hello Kitty Ambassador? From then on, it seemed as though she'd be less suited to the rigours of political life than to the dainty cutesiness of Japanese retail.
That tomfoolery was just simplistic pre-election humour, which we all happily indulged in (and why not?). But it was also a bit unfair in that it didn't tell us who TPL really is. The vast majority of people I know on FB--myself certainly included--could have also been as easily embarrassed by online photos.
(aside: I am actually quite sad that TPL's FB profile has been whitewashed. Gone are the cutesy photos. Will the real TPL please stand up? I fear that we will never get to know the real person now. I'd prefer if I knew more about our politicians--their knowledge and wisdom, for sure, but also their softer sides. Might make them seem more mortal, less aloof.)
Then a stream of TPL video clips were aired. One had her stomping up and down like a spoiled child at a loss for words. But the clincher, for me, was her comment about the greatest regret in her life. Remember: that was a proper, government-sanctioned, mainstream media interview, and she had just said one of the silliest things I've ever heard in local politics.
In a heartbeat, she went from Miss Hello Kitty to Miss Teen USA disaster reel.
She never really recovered from that. In the days that followed, more comical clips and reports emerged, some of which were also downright worrying--like her thoughts on income inequality in a 2007 speech. My current favourite TPL clip is a 2008 National Youth Forum video.
She has quickly become the most complex character in Singaporean politics. I do not think there is any other person who elicits such a range of visceral feelings and emotions.
Her supporters, however, seem to believe she is a Gen Y messiah. Meanwhile, some long-time PAP supporters have been completely disillusioned--a friend of mine, a smart, hardworking finance chap, says that he has always voted PAP, but now, for the first time, feels intellectually insulted by the choice of TPL--"They really take us for fools".
Similarly, I have friends who have been PAP grassroots volunteers for a long time. They also feel a bit aggrieved that she was chosen over many other talented young people. Some now contend that it's nepotism--her husband, after all, is PM Lee's private secretary. But I don't think that's possible, since there is no nepotism in Singaporean politics.
She has also become a lightning rod for criticism over the GRC system. She has also drawn in unlikely people to political commentary--a friend who's a teacher related a story of a Primary 4 student in her class. "Teacher, I don't believe she should be carrying branded handbags".
I personally don't have much against her. I just don't think she's very smart. She strikes me as fairly mediocre--not somebody of the highest calibre (what our politicians are supposed to be). As with almost everybody I speak with, it grates that a bit of every tax dollar I pay from now on will be going to her bumper S$15,000 salary. In a pre-election Op-ed piece I wrote for TOC, I expressed my dismay at her perceived shortcomings.
Almost as soon as she was elected, there have been calls and petitions to have her removed. However, now that I have read some different viewpoints, I feel that it is only fair and right that we support her.
There are several reasons for this. First is the need to develop a constructive political system, not a disruptive, unhealthy one. I hope that everybody in Singapore, including the PAP and its supporters, pay the utmost respect to the opposition politicians in parliament today. Similarly, I think that whatever your political inclinations, it's important to support TPL now that she's been elected.
Second is that in a democratic process, we must respect voters' wishes. We can dispute the GRC system. And we can argue till the cows come home about whether Marine Parade voters really wanted TPL in parliament. But the fact of the matter is that a majority of them voted for a team with her in it. That is important. They have chosen this team, and everybody should respect their choice.
Third, do we really know who she is? I'm not sure Singaporeans have really gotten a chance to know her. There's been so much noise and furore around everything she does. If anything, she's handled the criticism with admirable aplomb. I'm keen to see if there is something smart inside there.
All this is not to say that we should not criticise her words anymore. Every one of us should follow and scrutinise the words and actions of all our politicians, including TPL. If she makes any more mistakes, we must point them out. If we disagree with her mooted policies, let her know. However, criticising her just because of who she is seems pointless.
In the lead up to the next election, we should all again examine her record closely, and see whether we want her back in parliament. I no longer believe that she will be a breath of fresh air to Singaporean politics. If anything, she seems to be eerily similar in ideology to her predecessors. But that's not to say that she won't make a good politician. For the moment, at least, I'm giving her the benefit of the doubt--hopefully that doesn't become the greatest regret of my life.
1 If she is found guilty of breaking cooling-off day laws, then she must be punished appropriately. If she is found guilty of lying about who posted on her FB page--even worse. I hope the police conduct a full and thorough investigation into this. I'm sure there is a way to track FB activity though the IP addresses. Or something.
For me, the saddest thing about the elections is the loss of George Yeo.
(Just to be clear on this point, I am delighted that the opposition won a GRC, and I'm pleased that Low's team got in. But I am still sad that George is no longer around. as do many others, I blame our flawed GRC system for this.)
George is eloquent and smart, somebody who can represent Singapore in any corridor in the world. George is friendly and down-to-earth, engaging on Facebook, and discussing issues at McDonald's with us regular folk. most of all, George just seems like a genuinely nice guy. Sadly, I can't say all those things about all of our ministers.
When I was in grad school, I attended a class taught by Michael Porter, a strategy 'guru'. Every week, we would discuss a different country's development. During each, we had the good fortune of either listening directly to a senior politician from that country--Rwanda's Paul Kagame, for instance, actually came for the class on his country--or watching a video of a politician from that country.
When it was Singapore's turn, the discussion was fairly predictable, with lots of talk about rapid economic development, and rises in standards of living. as an international student amongst many other international students, it was stuff to feel rather smug about. But the best part was when George came on the screen.
Amongst many other wonderful things, he said, "the difference between Singapore and many other developed countries is that other countries measure their success by how well the people at the top do. In Singapore, we measure success by how well the people at the bottom do." (I am misquoting, I'm sure, but it's something like that)
Of course, this statement probably applies more to early Singapore than Singapore of the past 15 years, during which time the people at the bottom haven't really seen their standards of living rise much. Income inequality has spiked. That is probably one of the major reasons why more people have been voting for the opposition.
In other words, George lost his seat partly because the PAP has recently failed to raise living standards of those at the bottom.
The great irony in this story is that George is probably one of the ministers most concerned about this issue. Nobody will ever know this for sure, but it's just something I have a hunch about. Other PAP politicians do not seem as bothered about income inequality as George.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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)
It may seem peculiar for me to take a break now, after only just re-starting my blog. But as I enter the last two weeks of my twenties, I am ensconced in a rather circumspect and philosophical mood. I recently read that 'one of life's greatest skills is knowing when to let go', and, well, now I have to let go--until further notice, this will be my last posting on "Musings from Singapore". a hiatus, brief, I hope.
I am not forgoing the pen--or keyboard, as it were--altogether. Trouble is, I can't seem to get enough of it. Between my full-time job at the EIU; my regular contributions for Lexean(the webpage is finally up and running!); my baby steps towards my mountain of a book; and penning postings on the blog that accompanies the book, I simply don't have time to regularly write on this blog.
So, please read my book's blog, which I co-write with my buddy Sumana. That has regular postings. Leave us comments, which will help us as we write our book. It should be out in the next year (mind you, I've been saying that for the past three).