My job is to cover you – not fawn over you

It could be a coincidence but Armistice Day or Poppy Day as it’s often called in the UK came one day after the 20th Anniversary of the Today Newspaper, which was the paper which I started writing commentary for. The significance of the anniversary of the Today Newspaper comes from the fact that it is the only newspaper that is not owned by Singapore Press Holdings (SPH), Singapore’s version of the most concentrated form on the Murdoch Empire. The history of papers not owned by SPH is rather grim. SPH regards its stranglehold on the market as a right and has been known to practice …..well, interesting tactics when it comes to maintaining its hold on the market. As a rule of thumb, non-SPH newspapers died in less than half a decade and so, Today stands out in as much as it is a NON-SPH publication that didn’t get crushed (Having said that, SPH did own a 40 percent stake in the Today Paper at one stage).

The significance of Poppy Day and the 20th Anniversary of Today, is tied into one of the basic tenants of what Poppy day is about – which is the fact that the basic civil liberties that are enjoyed by people living in democratic societies was paid for in blood by a generation. It is a duty of citizens in such societies to have an interest in civic life in order to ensure that those liberties are preserved and one of the key fundamentals of preserving such liberties is from a strong and vibrant media scene, which provides citizens with a variety of views.

Today, was what you’d call the first form of “Alternative” media in Singapore. While Today was still held to the same “Responsible” (a phrase often used by government officials when reminding journalist of their role – though admittedly it’s not exactly spelt out who the journalists are responsible to) journalism that is prevalent in Singapore, there was an attempt to reach out to people beyond the usual stable of established writers. When I interviewed with PN Balji, the founding editor, he told me to start out by writing him a commentary piece. I wrote, I was published and I was paid. While he didn’t have the budget to hire me full time, an unemployed nobody was given a platform and dare I say, a chance to make a few pennies on the side.

This move to give the insignificant a voice, gave Today something different and suddenly, there was a semblance of competition. SPH management didn’t approve. As far as they were concerned, it was a sin to even look at a Today distributor in the MRT. However, we, the reading public liked having something else to look at and for those of us trying to pitch stories to the media, it was always good to have someone else to pitch to.

Singapore’s media scene has evolved even further. The heads of the media houses tried to convince he world that competition in the media business was not suitable for Singapore. So, while they did try to restore the duopoly which existed prior to 2000, competition arrived in the media scene anyway. Today, print media which was once regarded as a license to print money, now faces competition from the online media. Big media, which needs lots of advertising dollars to sustain itself is struggling to face competition from blogs and news sites, which are as a rule of thumb are running on nothing more but the owner’s passion. Unfortunately, people are turning to the alternative for their sources of information. To make matters worse, the advertisers have noticed and the results are reflected very clearly in SPH’s balance sheet.

In a way, this was a long time coming. The media, like many of the big local, government-controlled businesses ran as part of the government. In his book, “From Third World to First World,” Lee Kuan Yew, made it clear that he would never allow the media to “set the agenda.” Whenever the topic of control of the media came up, Mr. Lee had one standard reply “NOBODY ELECTED YOU.” This line continued under his successors. I remember attending the fifth anniversary of the Today Newspaper and got treated to a speech by then Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong. The speech was a dressing down for “alternative media.” I remember that Mr. Goh’s speech was very proud of the fact that Singapore, which ranks alongside the Nordics on most surveys of wellbeing,somehow ranked alongside places like Sudan. Mr. Goh also made the idea of the media being the fourth estate did NOT APPLY TO SINGAPORE.

Today was by no means a radical “everything government does is wrong” medium. Yet, its existence irritated the others. Government did make sure that editors knew who was boss and instead of allowing the media to evolve, stifled it. I think of Clement Mesenas, a veteran journalist (over 40-years) who led the last strike of journalist, who once opined at an event that the government solved the strike in such a way that the journalist would never upset the status quo.

I’ve often said that the status quo in Singapore is not bad. Unlike say, the USA, we don’t have major riots because the cops have shot someone. However, in order for the status quo to stay somewhat decent, it needs citizens willing to hold the powerful to account and the only way they can do that is if they are getting the facts from a source they trust.

Sure, Singapore’s editors are “responsible” in that they’re not known for sensationalizing things in ways which say, The Sun in the UK does. However, can it be taken an extreme where editors are so responsible that they are perceived as taking dictation from officialdom rather than reporting facts? The surge in online media as a news source might provide the answer that the powers that be would rather not see.

Sure, there is a reason why libel laws exist and nobody is against combating “fake news.” However, it cannot be at the expense of “covering” the facts. I think of Neil Cavuto of Fox News (a network infamously partisan in favour of the American right wing) who told Donald Trump (who used to be a big fan) that his job was to “cover you – not fawn over you or rip you.” Editors need to be allowed to do this freely without interference from anyone and if all parties were to understand that this is the role of the news media, Singapore would have a far more lively media scene, which in turn a better informed society and in turn a more secure economy that would be based on something other than government planning.



Tang Li

*Although I’ve been based mainly in Singapore for nearly two decades, I’ve had the privilege of being able meet people who have crossed borders and cultures. I’ve befriended ministers and ambassadors and worked on projects involving a former head of state. Yet, at the same time, I’ve had the privilege of befriending migrant labourers and former convicts. All of them have a story to tell. All of them add to the fabric of life. I hope to express the stories that inspire us to create life as it should be.




6 Responses to “My job is to cover you – not fawn over you”

  • oxygen:

    PRAVDA SINKIELAND is PAPpypolitics propaganda mouthpiece worshiping only “White Gods”.

    All others, particularly social media, is vaccine against this virus – the safety of consumption of which, needs close attention and careful scrutiny.

    GD Star Rating
  • TUMASIK Patriot:

    Singapore Newsprint is a NON-News newspaper and under whatever circumstances or position it is Beholden and Secured by the PAP govt… No two ways and the Only Way was The Singapore Herald Closed by the Bastard Lie Con You CLAIMING that it was funded by Foreigners or alternately the Commies…Lies UNLIMITED!!!

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  • xoxo:

    the newspaper here is not *reporting*,it is *PAPagating*?

    No,kissing boots,yes!

    * LOONG live,MA$ter!

    GD Star Rating
  • Suckup journalism memo:

    “We swallow greedily any lie that flatters us, but we sip only little by little at a truth we find bitter… All things must be examined, debated, investigated without exception and without regard for anyone’s feelings.”

    - Denis Diderot, pioneers of the French Enlightenment

    GD Star Rating
  • Harder Truths:

    We have social media. The days of absolute government control and propaganda are over. This is not 1965 anymore. The only use for such newsprint is to collect doggie-poo.

    GD Star Rating
  • Social Media Censors Too:

    We have social media. The days of absolute government control and propaganda are over. This is not 1965 anymore. The only use for such newsprint is to collect doggie-poo.

    Social media can also play a role of censoring and propagating fake news. CCP is using the social media (WeChat, Weibo) to its advantage, brainwashing the Chinese people. In US, social media is also playing a vital role in censoring important truthful news. Not reading the news, we are uninformed. Reading the news, we are misinformed.

    GD Star Rating

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