10 May 2006

The Truth About Singapore's Media

A Message from a Media Insider

I've been in contact with someone from inside the media industry and I requested that he/she write a short piece for my blog to tell anyone who visits what it's like to be inside the organisation which has failed us in so many ways during this General Election, and before, and after. There have been many calls for journalists, reporters, cameramen etc. to step up and tell the world what really goes on there, but it's always easier to stand outside a glass house and throw rocks at it, rather than stand beneath its roof and do the same. I can't reveal the name of this person, nor any of his/her particulars, but nevertheless the truth of the message is far more important than the identity behind it. Suffice it to say that the person has had experience in the coverage of the general elections these past few weeks.

I had no illusions about the independence of the local media when I first started my job as a [------] in Singapore. I knew that my work would be edited, and possibly censored for political safety, and I was mostly fine with that - no media channel anywhere in the world is entirely free from some form of editorial trimming, after all.
What I didn't bargain for was individual self-censorship, unspoken policies and rules, and the stoutness with which people swallowed their journalistic dignity and integrity (because it does exist, even strongly, in some places) to toe the party line. Incredible as it seems, reporters in Singapore do have the same fierce pride in their work as reporters anywhere else; I think this is especially evident in sections of the media that don't touch on politics.
But when it comes to political news, particularly something as sensitive as the elections, many of us leave our brains and consciences at home and resign ourselves to doing what we're told and writing what's being dictated. To some extent I appreciate the rationale of this - there really is a very close watch being kept on the media and when we're kept in line it's largely for our own safety.
However, as someone still young and naive and idealistic, it's hard for me to swallow the indignation I feel whenever I see the local media doggedly ignoring its otherwise sharply-honed news sense. Articles and TV programmes are edited to balance out pro-opposition views; awesome camera opportunities - like the opposition rallies - are studiously left out of media coverage; banal and unfair quotes and tactics are highlighted and headlined simply because they are tools of the ruling party.
There are many things journalists see that the eyes of the public are not privy to, and that we would like to report on but can't. Please remember that when you read an article or watch a broadcast that seems particularly, emetically subjective. And help spread the word that a lot of us in the media are sorry that we can't do the job we want to. It may not mean a lot to you, but it sucks for us that for every day that we covered the elections, people's opinions of us plummeted - despite the fact that we worked our asses off in 14-hour days with no breaks on weekends or public holidays to bring you our version of the news.
And for those who think it's as easy as quitting your jobs and following your conscience - grow up. This is a job. It puts food on our tables. We can all up and leave, but it's ridiculously easy to replace us with more party-line-spouting drones. With educated and politically aware journalists in the local media, at least civil society in Singapore stands a fighting chance. So despise and condemn us all you like, but whatever you believe in, it's highly likely we believe in it too. And it's also likely that we're doing something about it, in our own little ways, even if it's as small as writing about and expressing our dissatisfaction with the system from the inside.
Don't give up on us. We haven't given up on our ideals.

The message speaks poignantly for itself, but let's also have some understanding as to its context. From what I have been gathering from people who send me correspondences as well as those I know face to face, SPH and its affiliated organisations are filled with people who are educated, articulate and passionate -- just like the one above -- yet disillusioned by the system. Many in fact, have packed up and left. The problem with the system is who's at the top. We all know that ex-Deputy Prime Minister Tony Tan is the chairman of Singapore Press Holdings. Perhaps less widely known is what is alleged by Pranay Gupte, a foreign journalist who has worked with the Straits Times. He claims that 'the paper is run by editors with virtually no background in journalism' and that his direct editor, Chua Lee Hoong, 'was an intelligence officer'. He also says that '[o]ther key editors are drawn from Singapore's bureaucracies and state security services. They all retain connections to the state's intelligence services, which track everyone and everything'.
Eric Ellis, an Australian journalist, also reports that 'Chua Lee Hoong, the ST's most prominent political columnist..work[ed] with the secret police for nine years. There's Irene Ho on the foreign desk. She was also an "analyst" with Singapore's intelligence services. So, says Cheong [editor-in-chief for the Straits Times], was Susan Sim, his Jakarta correspondent'.
Ellis also talks about 'Cheong's boss, Tjong Yik Min. From 1986 to 1993, Tjong was Singapore's most senior secret policeman, running the much feared Internal Security Department, a relic of colonial Britain's insecurities about communism in its Asian empire. Now Tjong is a media mogul, the executive president of SPH, Singapore's virtual print media giant, which controls all but one of the country's newspapers'.
It is worthwhile to note that Tjong has since left, in June 2002, but was replaced by Alan Chan, former Transport Ministry Permanent Secretary and previously Principal Private Secretary to Senior Minister, who is currently the CEO of Singapore Press Holdings.
You can read the press release about his appointment on the SPH website, which states without shame whatsoever that 'Mr Chan is currently Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Transport. He is also a Director of Singapore Power (since 1 June 2001) and of PowerGas Ltd (since 15 January 2002). Mr Chan was previously Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Communications and Info Technology (1999-2001), Deputy Secretary, Ministry of Foreign Affairs (1997-1999), Principal Private Secretary to Senior Minister (1994-1997) and Director Manpower, MINDEF (1990-1994). He was also a Director of DBS Group Holding Ltd from April 1996 to September 2001, and a Director of PSA Corporation Ltd from September 1999 to September 2001.'



wt said...

Which means that, ultimately, all our news are from the ISD. it goves me the creeps.

Communist China and Russia, Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, all these countries mastered the machinations of a propaganda machine. So has the PAP.

feeblechicken said...

Yes growing up, although I was young, politically naive and ignorant, I probably still am, it was not hard to see that the level of control on the media and the fear that is instilled in us is not dissimilar to Communist China. I feel sad for these journalists, but at the same time grateful to journalists like Susan Long and Catherine Lim (maybe others as well whom I do not know about) who speak their minds.

Anonymous said...

catherine lim is an independent author, not a SPH journalist

SPH is the corporate PR department of Singapore Inc; it is of course different from NYTimes, Washington Post

the news coverage of SPH is actually quite good, but the commentary is useless; the citizens have no example of meaningful political analysis to train minds

Anonymous said...

Very timely piece, AmicaCuriae. Sadly, it's not the first time I've heard this story. Do tell him or her that whatever little resistance they offer from the inside is appreciated. It's always nice to read between the lines they write and sometimes, find quite a different message. :)

Anonymous said...

It all sounds like the system in eastern-european countries during their communist era of 1970s-1980s.

However we know from their experience that the stater-run-country model will not be economically viable on long run.

Until now Singapore was lucky with their trade income, but if this plug is pulled out, the all loss-making government businesses won't be enough.

That will be the time for regime change, but it will be too late, as these regimes tend to sacrifice and spend all the money of their people for trying to keep up the 'high standard of living', to show that they are the sharp people that can provide this to the people.

The governments of eastern-european countries were taking huge loans from World Bank during the 1970s-80s to finance their power, the people whom are living there are still (!) have to pay for these loans.

As far as there is no accountability of the Singaporean government, who can guarantee that they are not burning all the money of their people?

Might think about the CPF funds. Huge resource, no one from the public can check what's going with these.

The last years there were a few economic downturns, which were conquered by the government by pouring money into different parts of the economy. Easiest to recognise that the whole island was renovated.

What if these are not good investments? What if they are making huge loss on HDB for instance?

Then once people of Singapore will try to retire they will see that there is no CPF left anymore...

Anonymous said...

And we jailed communists for up to 40 years? Who are the real communists? Shouldn't they be detained as well?
It's a shame when there are no more communist threat in the world, the ISD has not revealed the evidence that put away all of these 'dangerous' men. Surely such evidence does not pose a threat anymore.

Anonymous said...

In next 8 years you will see large numbers of political prisoners, without trial. SGP will have multi party system, WP being the majority. Imagine, it could come true. All singaporean will suddenly go richer by five fold figure(means $100000+) This will be called "denied progress package" of the past.

Anonymous said...

Singaporeans are just too nieve to be true. They believe what they read in the local newspapers, and watch on locala television news.

From where I come from the average Singapore voter is nothing more than ga ga ie stupid.

However, there is a very old saying, a countgry deserves the governmentent they have voted for. Singapore is as perfect example.

I suggest dear peoplle, you visit the local,library and find na copy of George Orwells 1984.

Historians said that evfer happened in Orwells book could never happen.

Llook at Singapore now, Big Brother is alive and kicking.

To find the meaning of this, read the book., it will shock you to discover that fiction has become reality.

Any comments on this I would like to read them.

Anonymous said...

If you told the average Singaporean to read 1984, and that it was a fitting description of Singapore's current situation, they'd probably agree with you, thinking that Winston Smith is in fact LHL.

B said...

Hello to the fellow anonymous voices here. I'm quite a novice at this whole Singapore politics thing, only sat up and started noticing things when I saw the televised forum with LKY. (I never really cared anyway, since I get to vote only in like, what, TEN WHOLE YEARS' time, considering they even contest my constituency then.)Observing the whole hype and political furores involved in this season's elections, I've got a couple of questions (quite possibly reflective of my ignorance). Being the greenhorn at all these politicking (plus being guilty of not reading/following the papers all that closely, please excuse me if I've gotten my facts wrong.)

Firstly, I don't get this whole notion of self-censorship in the media. Are the journos toe-ing the PAP line simply because they don't want to be sued for defamation (like Susan Long and Chee and a whole long list of 'martyrs')? But then again, isn't the media by itself an institution of considerable influence? I mean, look at the NKF saga; Durai sued Susan Long, and SPH fought back. They dug up more dirt on NKF, and the whole board ultimately crumbled. I find this very reflective of the influence and power an independent media has. So why are the journos so afraid of crossing the PAP boundary? They are the ones with all the inside dirt, releasing it all to the public. The PAP should be under their mercy, not the other way round.

Secondly, I'm pretty puzzled why the Hougang/Potong Pasir lot didn't fall for the carrot-stick dangled by the PAP. I mean, I do believe there's some truth in the generalisation of Singaporeans being a practical-minded lot. So then why did they refuse to fall for a $80 million carrot? Is it just plain loyalty to the 2 incumbents, or just that Singaporeans (in those 2 constituencies) are more idealistic rather than practical-minded? Or did the PAP's blatant bribery/threat just backfire and portray them as the villians (that they really are anyway)? Why not just take the $80 million worth of new lifts and upgrading, instead of supporting an old man with trickling funds? (Sorry for the rather harsh description, I actually rather like him.) There're prolly a whole lot of factors involved here, but, what really is the main reason for this?

I appreciate those who bother to read this extremely long comment-question and who'd care to explain/clarify/enlighten me from my ignorance. (:

antipathy said...

i have no sympathy for SPH journalist, no matter how sad they make their plight out to be. you compromise your own values, don't blame others for it. You are still a running dog and a lackey..

Anonymous said...

What do you suggest them to do then? Please don't say quit and find another job, all the media channels in Singapore are essentially subjected to the same scrutiny by the government. The journalists still have to bring home the bacon.

batuz said...


All the newspapers published in Singapore are published by SPH. And SPH is owned by the government, with government designated people (especially high positions like the CEO, senior editors) in charge. So there is no freedom of the press. Just think of SPH as the public relations arm of Singapore and you will get the idea. Will a PR department smear its company with undisclosed dirt and cause the consumers to lose confidence?

Anonymous said...


u can't compare the PAP to the NKF. it doesn't even come close.

the PAP is the party that has been ruling the country for more than 40 years. the NKF is not.

the PAP controls the local media. the NKF does not.

the NKF is just a very big well-known charity organisation, but in terms of socio-political power, it doesn't even come close to the power of the PAP.

it doesn't wield even a fraction of the socio-political power that the PAP does.

the journalists are afraid of crossing the PAP boundaries, because if they try to, they will get fired. yes, fired, and probably blacklisted, not just sued for defamation. and what they write won't be accepted for publication, so it won't even get published. criticising a big charity organisation is one thing, criticising the political party that controls the organisation u work for is another.

"Or did the PAP's blatant bribery/threat just backfire and portray them as the villians (that they really are anyway)?"

yes, that was pretty much one of the reasons for Low and Chiam's successes in Hougang and Potong Pasir.

another reason is that Chiam is not just "an old man with trickling funds". Chiam is regarded as an honest and hardworking man, a veteran politician who has done well both in parliament and in his constituency. in fact he has probably had to work even harder because of the lack of PAP money, and he deserves much credit for keeping Potong Pasir of a decent respectable standard despite the PAP starving the constituency of money.

money is one thing, but it is not a substitute for a person's own character and attributes. the PAP man who contested Potong Pasir may have had the PAP's money behind him, but what about his own character? u need more than money to be a good MP. he didn't convince voters that he would be as good & able an MP as Chiam.

similar case for Low in Hougang. Low is an intelligent speaker and good astute politician who has done well despite the odds, and he deserves much credit for that.

and i wouldn't say that the Hougand and Potong Pasir voters "idealistic-minded" and not "practical-minded". the fact that the residents have continued keeping Chiam and Low in their seats for the so many years probably suggests that Chiam and Low have actually kept their contituencies at standards that are acceptable to most of the residents.

Anonymous said...

"i have no sympathy for SPH journalist, no matter how sad they make their plight out to be. you compromise your own values, don't blame others for it. You are still a running dog and a lackey.."

Noone's asking you to read the local media. So, why don't you tell us how you've been trying to fight what you think is a flawed system?

And for the upteenth time, 1984 does not reflect Singapore. There are as many similarities as there are differences. Please do not generalise.

The problem with us, is we like to gripe, but at the end of the day, we sit back and do nothing.

So, what have you done with your Progress Package?

- Impassioned Singaporean

Matilah_Singapura said...

I spent some of mine on getting myself and my friends drunk at a titty bar.

The rest I spent on XXX DVD's and my drunk friends and I had an orgy in my hotel room with some of the gals from the titty bar.

Thank you, Lee Hsien Loong. I hope you, sir, had as much fun spending your progress package.

Aridewa said...

Singaporeans do not have the courage to stand up for ourselves. We only know how to stand up for singapore.

Day in day out we still have millions of readers and audiences for media and the news despite that hidden notion that some of us have, perhaps more than some, about questionable 'truth' in our local media with regards to political scandals and issues.

We cannot rely on opposition parties, political sites or blogs like this or independant papers alone to voice our rights in having to swallow the downtrodden news.

We have to start standing up for ourselves. Ourselves first before country. As what we should learn from political parties' names or mottos, People's action... Power to the people... S'pore People's party... Workers' Party...

Everything seemed people oriented but we ourselves are not looking into this big hint. Instead, we are looking into our wallets, our homes, our government's so-called system.

It's not about what we are going to have, it's about what we want! Because we are the people.

Anonymous said...

The problem doesn't lies much on the journalist but on the editors.

Even some journalist willingly to report the truth, the editors will throw back to them and asked them to re-draft it.

With such self-censorship practice going on, it will be tough to change from the inside.

Young Journalist might fight for their ideals but sooner or later, they will just give up. They will realised the road is tough and the fight is worthless as an individual.

And they will just become the next censorship editor and exert their authorities on the next young journalists.

The cycle continues.
the gripe of the young journalists carry on.