11 Nov 2005

Role of The Media in Singapore?

I replied to TODAY online on two articles published commenting on the state of the media in Singapore. Below is my submitted letter.

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I refer to the two letters published on TODAY online, dated November 11: “it's your job to serve as a check” by Dharmendra Yadav and “Informed readers aren't fools” by Huang Shoou Chyuan.

One of the roles of the media in any modern democracy is to act as a “check and balance” on the government regardless of how much Opposition there are in the country as these gatekeepers have the ability and are trained to do so.

Ordinary citizens, unlike journalists, do not have access to press conferences nor by invitation only events. As such, it is impossible for these concerned people who have doubts on certain issues to come forward and question the authorities. Journalists should also be trained to think and write news stories that are objective; and raise issues if there is a need to do so. All these are out of reach to the ordinary citizen as he or she is not trained nor have the means to raise these questions in the public domain. That is precisely why the role of the media is extremely important.

Without a free media, and journalists only allowed to report on issues that serves national interest, often defined by the powers, ordinary citizens are fed propaganda that may tell half-truths, distorts reality or completely black out news that may be of importance.

As such, the title of Huang Shoou Chyuan’s letter is ironic. Readers cannot be informed if there is no free media. One cannot know if one is fooled if the source of which he or she derives his or her news from is not free from any higher divine intervention.

While I agree with him that political education is essential, it does not mean that the citizens of a country do not need a free press if they are not politically educated. In fact, the reverse is true.

By reporting on issues that deserves society’s attention, the media is indirectly and informally educating its citizens on the benefits of democracy.

That indirectly ties in with his statement that he hopes our society would soon be matured enough to consider freedom of the press and good governance as non-mutually exclusive.

What does he mean by the term maturity? Does he mean the literacy rate? level of education in our society? Our ability to be logicial? Our level of political awareness or political education? I hesitate with the argument that a society cannot be democratic if its people are not matured enough.

Moreover, one cannot guarantee good governance even with a free media. That ultimately depends on the quality of the Ministers of Parliament being elected into office; as well as the institutions and values of the democracy mentioned. A competitive environment in which MPs are free to debate and vote on issues would nevertheless ensure a respectable standard and degree of transparency and accountability within the legislative.

In Dharmendra Yadav’s letter, he wiped out the role of the media by mentioning that it is the people who should act as a check on the government.

While the people can email our prime minister; or are allowed to vote during elections (or not vote depending on the constituency one lives in); he nevertheless did not mention what individuals should do when they disagree with governmental issues. PAP MPs are prevented from being overtly vocal because of the party whip. It is hence important that Opposition MPs are voted into office and speak up for those who oppose certain policies. Unfortunately, Opposition Politicians are prevented from elected because of the uneven playing field that the PAP has created over the years.

I agree with him that citizens should play an important part in a democracy. However, that can only happen in Singapore if citizens realize and are willing to make an effort to change our authoritarian climate that needs more than cosmetic changes.

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Link: http://www.todayonline.com/articles/83577.asp
it's your job to serve as a check

Voters must take on the burden of ensuring a corruption-free government, in a situation where the media does not

Friday • November 11, 2005

Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, whom I regard as a political hero of my generation, recently addressed the audience at Today's fifth anniversary dinner on the key issue of media responsibility in Singapore.

He said: "Western liberals often argue that press freedom is a necessary ingredient of democracy and that it is the fourth estate to check elected governments, especially against corruption."

But this view, he said, did not apply to Singapore.

A free press "by Western standards does not always lead to a clean and efficient government or contribute to economic freedom and prosperity", he noted.

He spoke of how media professionals must act responsibly and in the national interest; views must be balanced and non-partisan; and news reports should be sensitive and constructive.

There was nothing new in his position, since it was something his predecessor, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, had emphasised.

So why reiterate this?

In recent months, Singapore has come under criticism yet again from organisations such as Amnesty International.

Mr Goh also touched on Singapore's low ranking in the Press Freedom Index by Reporters without Borders — pointing out that Singapore was ranked the fifth least corrupt country in another international survey.

No surprise here that one of the country's elder politicians rose to defend what Singapore stood for.

But if the media's role as the fourth estate cannot be the starting point for building a stable, incorrupt and thriving Singapore — as Mr Goh puts it — then who can take on this burden?

One answer is that it falls on the Executive (that is, the Prime Minister and his team), the Legislature (Members of Parliament and, by extension, the electorate) and the Judiciary.

In Singapore's model, there are legislative prohibitions on the judiciary's powers of review on executive decisions.

In addition, the executive and the legislature have been in the hands of one dominant political party for as long as Singapore has been independent.

Consequently, the burden of ensuring a responsible leadership also lies on a key group — voters — people like us with the constitutional right to vote. As the Senior Minister's press secretary Stanley Loh stated in a Nov 9 letter to the press: "The media, unlike an elected government, is not accountable to the people."

The people, therefore, must hold the elected government accountable for its cleanliness, fairness and efficiency.

This is a fact that all Prime Ministers of independent Singapore have emphasised — citizens must take their right to vote seriously, which is why the right has been linked to administrative decisions such as estate management.

Of course, there is the other fact — that in a typical general election, a significant portion of Singaporeans do not get to vote, with walkovers in many constituencies.

Perhaps the key to citizen participation, then, lies in the example set by Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, who said: "The task of nation building does not rest on the government alone. Every Malaysian has an equally important role in ensuring the nation achieves further progress and prosperity."

Malaysians can email their Prime Minister directly and it is this way that he gets feedback about political leaders and public servants.

Singaporeans, too, have direct access to our Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and, from his references to it in his two National Day Rallies, it is evident many already write to him.

Perhaps more Singaporeans will use this channel to share more about the work their Members of Parliament (especially those who came into their posts through walkovers) are doing. This can go some way to help our top leaders ensure that good and responsible leaders are at the helm, at every level.

In short, each citizen in Singapore has a cardinal duty to elect a responsible leadership and to serve as a check on an elected Government even after the polls. Such a duty must never be taken lightly.

The writer, a corporate counsel, contributes in a personal capacity.
Dharmendra Yadav
news@newstoday.com.sg
Copyright MediaCorp Press Ltd. All rights reserved.

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Link: http://www.todayonline.com/articles/83658.asp
Informed readers aren't fools
Friday • November 11, 2005
Letter from Huang Shoou Chyuan

I refer to the ongoing debate about Singapore's poor ranking in the press-freedom index constructed by Reporters Without Borders.

Being 140th out of 167 countries cannot be described as "a feather in the cap" as the company we keep at the bottom end of the index really does read like a "Who's who" in the UN's rogues' gallery. We must be truly "unloved" by the foreign correspondents and freedom of expression organisations who participated in the index compilation.

Still, it is heartening to note that Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong's view is that "a freer press can contribute to good governance and economic prosperity" with the caveat "that the media acts responsibly".

Hopefully, as we mature, there would be less of a need to treat press freedom and good political governance as mutually exclusive entities. Singapore's readers are no fools and we would probably recognise biased journalism (of whatever persuasion) when we see it.

To facilitate this development of an informed readership, political education in our schools, during which concepts of freedom, democracy, racial harmony and even "responsible press", if necessary, will help imbue basic instincts into our young citizens.

The Government can then divert its attention to more pressing affairs of the state as there will no longer be a need to "mollycoddle" its citizenry.

The latter must be a tiresome and tedious task that nobody really enjoys.

Copyright MediaCorp Press Ltd. All rights reserved.

6 comments:

patriot said...

You said "In Dharmendra Yadav’s letter, he wiped out the role of the media by mentioning that it is the people who should act as a check on the government."

I think Yadav is merely extrapolating on GCT's position - which naturally leads to the fact that the press here currently plays no role as a check on the government. GCT check-mated himself.

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