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Free press vital to S’pore’s survival

Posted by theonlinecitizen on April 17, 2008

Does Singapore’s press measure up? Is it the voice of the people? Does it champion the people’s rights? Does it ask the questions that need to be asked? Does it examine public policies and issues critically?

By Lee Weijia

This article is in reference to the report Press freedom a double-edge (sic) sword” in the April 5 copy of Weekend TODAY.

This report on Ms Anson Chan’s interview with Weekend Today only served to show once again the sad state of our local press, albeit by implication.

Chan is Hong Kong‘s most famous female legislator and has held the second-highest governmental position as the head of the Civil Service. Despite being a high-ranking official in the Hong Kong government, Chan has publicly expressed views different from the previous Chief Executive of Hong Kong, Mr Tung Chee Hwa. This has earned her the reputation of being “Hong Kong‘s Conscience”. She is an active supporter of democracy and a fervent defender of press freedom.

During the hour-long interview, she expressed her views on press freedom, including the importance of up-to-date, accurate and timely information. She also stated that the media plays an important role as a protector of public interest and as the voice of the ordinary citizen. This is something that I am sure we all agree with.

The press has an important role in “keeping both politicians and the community at large honest, by constantly pushing for greater transparency and accountability in the conduct of public affairs and by exposing, when necessary, injustice, abuse of power and corruption,” said Chan.

Examining our local press

How then, does our own press measure up? Is it the voice of the people? Does it champion the people’s rights? Does it ask the questions that need to be asked? Does it examine public policies and issues critically? From selective and inadequate reporting during GE 2006 to the ministers’ pay rise, to the issue of inflation to Mas Selamat’s escape, our newspapers have shown the nation that they are adept at trumpeting the good and hushing up the bad.

But perhaps we should be less quick to put the blame on the press. Could it be that we, the public, do not actually deserve critical reporting? Mr P N Balji, Mediacorp’s editorial director, asked rhetorically:

“Ideally, the public should be putting the pressure on the media, but do we have a perceptive and sophisticated community generally who can tell the difference between good and not-so-good journalism?”

Balji may be implying that we are an imperceptive and unsophisticated community and we deserve what we get since we continue to stomach the pre-digested news spouting from the maws of our newspapers.

Our own shortcomings aside, it is such thinking by the high-ranking managers of Singapore‘s media companies that prompts them to continue to dance and sing to the Government’s tune, fuelled by their conviction that the citizens of Singapore are too stupid and that our government knows best.

In addition, section 10(2) of the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act gives the Government control of the management shares and allows the Government control of the board of directors of every newspaper company in Singapore.

(Section 10(11) gives every management share 200 votes as compared to an ordinary share when it comes to any resolution relating to the appointment or dismissal of a director.)

Is it then not crystal clear why and how our local press produces one-sided news?

The reason behind the state of our press

There appears to be two main reasons for the Government’s control of the newspapers. First, the Government wants to ensure the media remains sensitive to national interests and protects racial and religious harmony. Second, it sees the media playing a complementary, rather than adversarial role to the Government, where the former explains the latter’s decisions and policies to the people.

While this has its merits and can be lauded for helping Singapore achieve what it has today, this system of operation has become warped; instead of working as partners, the press has internalised the idea that it must look to the Government for directions, while the Government has come to take it for granted that the press is the Government’s voice.

The press has simply become another branch of the Government.

This is a disgrace to the whole idea of press freedom and is no longer tenable in today’s society where the citizens are increasingly disillusioned by the lack of critical analysis and reporting in the news. The pointed questions over the Government Investment Corporation’s investments, the grossly-inaccurate Budget forecast and Mas Selamat’s escape that begged to be asked were repeatedly glossed over. The press is increasingly used to discourage investigation into Government activities. Unfortunately, the people are not as stupid and gullible as the press would have you believe.

There are no good reasons why the Government should continue to hold the press on a short leash. While the newspapers should be sensitive of religious and racial issues, there are other ways to ensure this other than through Government control. Any respectable paper will have this in mind.

With regards to the newspapers being the voice of the Government, it should be clear that this is a lose-lose proposition when the Internet is a ready source of alternate information – both the government and the press loses credibility; the former for not having enough faith in the people’s ability to discern the merits of policies, and the latter for not being neutral, as the press ought to be. For the benefit of the nation, the newspapers should be given free rein in their reporting. This will encourage the Government to act with greater responsibility as it knows that its actions will be examined in the press.

The importance of the press

So why, in this day and age, are newspapers still so important? Isn’t the Internet enough? It’s because despite the advancement and availability of the Internet, newspapers continue to be the source of information of choice for the majority who are either unable or unwilling to access alternate sources of reporting on the web. Because of this, newspapers continue to be able to influence citizens’ opinion on many issues, and with one-sided reporting, people may more easily arrive at the conclusion that the owners of the newspapers want.

Without newspapers pushing for transparency and accountability, and helping citizens make informed decisions, the possibility of corruption in all areas of society increases.

Having a free press is vital to the survival of our nation.

The Government must find the willpower to place the interests of the country first and release control of the press. The editors and journalists of Singapore must be courageous and true to their conscience, and take up the sacred duty of reporting the truth. Only then can they begin to regain the respect of the citizens which is slowly but surely being eroded.

We, too, as the citizens of Singapore must also band together and insist on our right to unfiltered information.

Until then, we shall continue to have one of the most restricted presses in the world, ranked alongside Zimbabwe, Liberia and Iran.

NOTE: A group of bloggers will be submitting a paper to the Government, detailing the changes they would like to see made to our laws and regulations of the Internet. This paper is into its final revisions and will be out in a matter of days. Stay tuned for more information on The Bloggers’ Feedback to the Government.


21 Responses to “Free press vital to S’pore’s survival”

  1. cx said

    “Does it examine public policies and issues critically? From selective and inadequate reporting during GE 2006 to the ministers’ pay rise, to the issue of inflation to Mas Selamat’s escape, our newspapers have shown the nation that they are adept at trumpeting the good and hushing up the bad”

    That’s probably true but you didn’t give any examples, nor suggest any other way or story angles a newspaper could give.

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  3. Tikus said

    If Singapore does not have a perceptive and sophisticated enough community to accommodate a free press, does that not mean our education system is not as good as often trumpeted by the Government?

    Is this is a tacit concession that our education system is only capable of producing a bunch of gullible, uncritical sheep?

  4. Robert HO said


    1. I am always alarmed and dismayed every April 2nd when I read any media and find out that, once again, an April Fool’s joke story, usually a very tall story, had been swallowed by all of us without anyone catching onto the totally false story.

    2. Mind you, some of the April Fool’s stories are quite unbelievable when the joke is revealed. But we never caught on on April 1st.

    3. We are all gullible and swallow even 100% fictitious stories without knowing. So the rest of the PAPaganda stories, laced with some ‘true facts’ and even ‘true statistics’ are being, and have for decades, swallowed wholesale.

    4. This is just another reason why we are the stupidest city in the world. Tyrants create docile, obedient, loyal, frightened citizenry and usually, this means STUPID PEOPLE. Hence, Singapore being a 49-year dictatorship, is full of stupid people, many generations already. It is a vicious circle. First, they make us stupid with doctored news, like my doctored medicine tablets being laced with virulent viruses so I am now suffering yet another bad cough that threatens to cough my hernia back up again, then, because we have become stupid, this justifies even more doctored, patronising, news. The Spiral of Stupidity.

    5. The irony is, we are not the only 1s being made and kept stupid. Even the Ministers have become stupid because stupid Ministers are also the most docile, obedient, loyal, frightened, and since they read the PAPaganda media even more than we do, they, too, are brainwashed by the very PAPaganda they put out. Sort of like believing or being taken in, by their very own PAPaganda. The result is that no Minister can really think or analyse, or even blog since blogging requires thinking. This is 1 reason for the spate of STUPENDID policies and words and actions of our genius Ministers and govt.

    6. There is a kind of divine retribution in this. When you create a culture of Lies, even your own immediate subordinates swallow them wholesale, just like us, since they live and breathe in this same culture of Lies, too. Furthermore, they are all handpicked as nepotees and cronies, and being such, they cannot think or perform. It is a sorry story worthy of April 1st except that the Joke’s on Them.

  5. Weijia said

    Hi CX,

    for reasons of brevity, this was not fleshed out as mush as it could have been. but to answer your question, i shall just offer some suggestions here. Once again, i won’t seek to touch on everything, but hopefully it’ll be enough to illustrate my point 🙂

    GE 2006:
    1. If you can think back (i may be wrong), all press coverage was focused more or less on the PAP. soundbites of opposition speech consists of either inane remarks, or mistakes, instead of their views on key issues. Pictures of opposition’s rallies doesn’t show the huge turn outs. The internet showed us how different the things were.

    2007 Budget:
    1. No questions asked about the HOW, and WHY, there was such a huge discrepancy in the forecast and the actual budget. all it does is parrot the minister’s explanations.
    2. and since the forecasted budget was used as a justification for the GST increase, no questions asked, whether the GST increase is actually necessary.

    Mas Selamat’s escape:
    1. the press conspicuously failed to ask the WHY and HOW. Even now there’s no media pressure on the disclosure of the COI report. I fear this issue will fade from memories soon.
    2. No reporting on the composition and independence of the COI. Isn’t there something inherently wrong with having deputy secretary at the Home Affairs Ministry, Choong May Ling, on the committee?
    3. Where was our Prime minister?
    4. This case provided a great opportunity to look at the controversial ISA, but the press chose not to.

    In general, a quick peruse of articles on the internet will show the many different angles and views that the press can offer to the public. but it almost inevitably choose one that protects and champions the government’s views. it’s not about being rebellious and arguing for the sake of, but about offering alternative views, because all views have their justifications and drawbacks, and this helps readers make informed decisions. but the lack of alternative reporting inevitably dampens any public thoughts on the issues.

    Like that, how to become a perceptive and sophisticated community generally who can tell the difference between good and not-so-good journalism? 🙂

  6. Junyuan said

    I read this article a few weeks back and I thought that the idea of free press in this article was subtly overpowered by the disadvantages towards a free press.

    Given an uninitiated reader who has no or little knowledge of free press, he or she would be rather adversely influenced by drawing the representation that free press is all about Edison Chan and his exploits. Moving on from this point, the article begins to criticize the case for free speech and remains its perceived balanced point of view.

    As always, the important premises are left out as usual. Premises such as how Singapore rates in terms of free press, or empirical evidence that free press is a cause and consequence of development in first world countries. These are strong counter arguments which tilt towards the pros of free press.

    Such is the irony of an article which purports to evaluate the idea of free press.

  7. free poo want a not said

    free press ??? free singapore first lah !!! siao ah you all. freedom in singapore??? — only make me think of sanitary pad.

  8. joker said

    Call of the sheep in Animal Farm by George Orwell:

    four legs good, two legs baaaaad… four legs good, two legs baaaaad…

    Call of the sheep in Singapore:

    gravamen good, oppo baaaaad…

    heartlanders good, cosmopolitan baaaad…

    chase money good, chase human rights baaaad…

    scholars good, managers with experience and track record baaad,

    Security in Whitley detention barracks good – complacent Singaporeans allow Mas Selamat to excape baaad

    Singaporeans say how high when I ask them to jump good, Singaporeans with innovative and creative thinking able to compete the PRC, India, Westerners, bad..

    Pls add more!

  9. joker said

    More on “call of the wild” by George Orwell:

    chase money good, chase democracy [okay, I bankrupt you, understand!] baaaad…

    chase money good, chase democracy [okay, I put you under ISA, understand!] baaaaad…

    Minor members of Ly family express opinions about SAF, about biotech industry good – Singaporeans express opinions baaad.

    Major members of Ly family control country’s purse strings good, Singaporeans knowing how their reserves are spent baaaad.

    Echo chamber good, opinions bad…

  10. joker said

    Aiyah, think so much for what?

    Anything i say good, anything you say baaad…


  11. joker said

    More call of the wild, by Junyuan, number 6 above:

    Junyuan able to express opinions on internet blogs, good, Junyuan echo chamber of PAP also good,

    Other Singaporeans want to express opnions on blogs, good, other Singaporeans want to express opinions through free press,,, bad!

    bad boy, you bad bad bad, boy! Go sit in your litter and don’t come out again until I give you permission…


  12. guojun said

    Well, this IS an opinion piece. It doesn’t make the argument any less convincing or any less lacking in conviction. Using statistics can actually undermine your perceived conviction because people think you are using statistics to cover up (which our other press members, and a particular columnist uses and misuses all the time.)

    You want evidence? Internet everywhere also got. Find it yourself!

  13. Daniel said

    “Given an uninitiated reader who has no or little knowledge of free press, he or she would be rather adversely influenced by drawing the representation that free press is all about Edison Chan and his exploits. ”

    I will rather let the people train to think critically for themselves at early age to learn to survive in the harsh environment then to be regretted later when someone controlling your asset and wellbeing suddenly tell you to wake up from the make-believe world he has created for the republic in the midst of crisis.

    Why should everyone be interested only in Edison Chen when the free press OFFER MORE INTERESTING FRESH NEWS EVERYDAY ? Tell what is the probability of the citizen that obsess with only news of Edison Chen but not others ? LEt be realistic and please don’t take worse and make-believe case to augment your opinion. Everyone is sick of such example. Even a caring foreigner could point out such hubris, so why can’t Singapore be board mind rather than narrow mind.
    Singaporean look pathetic as it need foreigner to refute and open-up their mind ?

    Where every school is a “military” school

    If Singaporean is capable of surviving on their own, why they can’t survive with free press ?

    Did anybody not notice when it’s about contribution to the country economics and PayAndPay schemes, the government says Singapore is understanding, intelligent and hard-working. And when it’s time to ask government on accountability and responsibility and politicial issue, suddenly the government says we are immature and not intelligent enough ?

    Gov say what they want and do what they want but in the end, who are the one that suffer under their follies ? Not the gahmen but the pathetic citizen…

  14. Weijia said

    Which is why the press needs to be free! we need a vocal press to galvanize the people such that we will stop accepting treatment! sure, it is probably possible without involving the press, but with it, change can happen much faster.

  15. Self-Freed said

    In reality, there is no such a thing as free press.

    Every mass media is controlled by the purse string. Whoever controls that purse string controls the media, whether it is Western or Eastern media. Everyone of them has an agenda. The only difference is that some are more sophisticated and others are so crude that you can easily discover it.

    The only thing that can be free is your own mind. Yes, free your own mind. Start to let your mind go free – take everything with a pinch of salt and never swallow everything wholesale without questioning, and then think of of the box. If one can do that, no amount of propaganda or indoctrination can affect him.

    So use what is within your control and don’t ask for things that are controlled by others for their own selfish interests.

    If the education system does not provide that, you as parents or future parents can teach your own off-springs.

    So is the problem insurmountable?

  16. Self-Freed said

    Sorry, typo: “think out of the box”, not “think of of the box”.

  17. pisces said

    I agree with Self-Freed.

    All forms of media and communications (whether newspapers or internet blogs) carry with them vested interests and hidden agendas.

    Instead of asking the government for more freedom (which further deepens our dependency on the government), we as individuals should be critical of whatever information we come across everyday and translate that into practice. In this way, we free ourselves.

  18. singaporean said

    Mr P N Balji, Mediacorp’s editorial director, asked rhetorically:

    “Ideally, the public should be putting the pressure on the media, but do we have a perceptive and sophisticated community generally who can tell the difference between good and not-so-good journalism?”

    The ball is in your court and it is you, the national press / media, which has the advantage of setting the tone. How to be a perceptive and sophisticated community if the menu and subtleties of news is selective in nature to perpetuate certain interested agenda / viewpoints. 40+ years already and still the same strong criticism on our national press freedom, both by our own people and at international level, and it is not without good reasons.

    The question should be pushed back to those in our national press / media, are we in fact being short-changed by you. Bear in mind, without the internet, do you think those in the national media would even be bothered to tackle this “uneasy” issue.

    Stop parrying the blame onto the general Singapore citizenry. Perceptiveness and sophistication comes from constant sparring / cross-learning of ideas / viewpoints and not from being fed by one-sided stream of news / ideas.

    The national press (being part of our national resources) should be employed in enhancing perceptiveness and sophistication of the community without even having the need to be pressured. They owe it to the citizens of Singapore because the citizens own it.

  19. Fever Guy said

    Only watch CNA to see any more crap policies.

    Latest from CNA, cheaper medical bills overseas by singaporeans (malaysia, indonesia) maybe paid by medisave and MOH looking at policy to allow the use of medisave for such bills. Why are singaporeans going overseas to look for hospital and medical facilities? Does it make sense? What happen to our medical HUB we are trumpeting about? Do patients able to endure long distance travel at the expense of their health be it at a cheaper price put forward a better alternative. Why has it become other country ‘s problems to solve our ever increasing shortages in medical care? I hope the MOH has some good explanation about such “inventive” policy. Stop or reduced Foreign Rich Patient Tourist to our shore that will solve our problem.

  20. panter92 said

    There is nothing much to say about this article. But it is obvious that it is false to believe that a free press is needed. The press should only give news and not insights on sensitive political issues. This form of media is most susceptible to radicalism and if Singapore allows all forms of publications, it will soon be the end of a safe country. We may have our neighbours turning radical or our sons going kidnapping. Of course, I may be exaggerating things a little here, but as I always say, it’s better to exaggerate and prepare for the worst than to limit my words and be less prepared. remember, prevention is better than cure, so more preparation is better than less. For example, a free press will instill in the people more curiosity to know more about governmental affairs. This will soon lead to everyone insisting on his or her rights to know everything about the country’s affairs, even what’s inside our national reserves. We have to put a stop to such issues or rather, put an end to such inquisitive feelings. We should just let the government do their job since we all know that they may either be doing their best, or they may be lacking the capability to do their best. So what’s to say?

    Sorry, I forgot to paragraph my posting.

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