“If it is determined there was only one weak link, at junior escort level, then the people should stop carping about why it is usually small fish that get fried.”
– Straits Times, April 24, Page 23, “Were failings systemic?”.
The term ‘wag the dog’ was introduced into popular political discourse by a 1997 American film starring Robert DeNiro. In it, he plays a Washington Hollywood director turned spin doctor charged with rehabilitating the flagging ratings of a President caught in the midst of a sex scandal. To do this, our protagonist manufactures a fake war with Albania.
Our national newspaper, the Straits Times (ST), seems to have taken a page out of DeNiro’s book of tricks.
Before the dust has settled on one of the most shocking security oversights and incompetent post-debacle information bottlenecks in our nation’s history, the ST has chosen to banish their coverage of the Mas Selamat backlash to the inner pages of the Home page. The front page story: a resurgence in hand, foot and mouth disease.
TOC almost wishes the ST’s editors were Hollywood directors turned spin doctors. At least the distraction from the most important issue of the day would be entertaining.
The ST’s selective coverage and equivocal editorial position risks damaging its own credibility in the long run. As we wrote yesterday, many Singaporeans will have to now tolerate a government it perceives as out of touch and overbearing in light of the unsatisfactory responses given in Parliament.
The ST should not make matters worse by forcing us to live with a similarly disconnected press.
ST Editorial: the paper’s flimsy position
The mark of a good newspaper is its ability to find the broader issues of national relevance in simple events. The publication’s inclination and ability to do this is distilled in its editorial, which represents the opinion of the paper. Looking at today’s ST editorial, it is worrying to see the converse occurring: a deliberate obfuscation of important issues hidden behind a surplus of nitpicking questions.
The editorial opens with what seems to be a grim warning that the government might yet suffer from the debacle: ‘Singaporeans will be unforgiving’ if Mas Selamat carries out a ‘ruinous attack’.
In fencing, such an opening is called a feint.
This opener sets the Singaporean threshold of tolerance unrealistically high. It suggests that anything short of a ‘ruinous attack’ will not warrant Singaporeans being unforgiving.
This subtly downplays the level of anger many Singaporeans currently feel at the cumulative weight of the initial bungle, the opaque and confusing flow of information, the summary exoneration of the highest echelons of authority, and the gross conflicts of interest that have pervaded this whole episode. Its suggestion boils down to this: Singaporeans are a tolerant bunch, it will take a terrorist attack to make us outraged.
Instead of highlighting the broader issues of national importance, it then goes on to do the opposite: narrow the issue to the point of banality by asking a series of questions. These include such gems as: ‘How frequently were operational audits made, drills and refreshers for camp staff conducted? What has been the quality of the training?’.
The editorial’s bald assertion that ‘No level in the hierarchy should be immune from censure that deserves it’ is completely undermined for the same reason Wong’s statements in Parliament lack credibility: by narrowing the scope of inquiry down to the operational procedure, they are insulating the political leadership from command responsibility.
This is an uncanny echo of Deputy Prime Minister Wong’s statement to Parliament. Henceforth, the area of liability is to be limited to what went on in Whitley Road Detention Centre (WRDC).
Could it be that Singaporeans have stopped caring about Mas Selamat and the government’s response to the debacle?
Unlikely. Over the last few days, site managers TOC have spoken to have reported an exponential spike in their readership. This corroborates the anecdotal interest in the issue expressed beyond cyberspace in almost every single conversation.
There seems to be a hunger for further discussion that the mainstream press is simply not satisfying.
The mainstream press, to hide the consequences of their political timidity, then utilizes another fencing maxim: the best defense is a good offense.
When all else fails, blame the bloggers/kopitiam patrons
The tactics are simple: dismiss the expressions of anger as the rantings of vocal netizens, the educated elite, or those too uneducated to think for themselves. Paint them as unpatriotic, borderline traitors out to muddy the country’s reputation at any expense.
Chua Mui Hoong, senior writer of the ST, described the outrage as that of ‘anonymous bloggers and grandstanding kopitiam rabble rousers’, members of the ‘cocktail and kopitiam circuit’.
When the Mas Selamat debacle first occurred, Deputy Political Editor Paul Jacob characterized the outrage on the internet as ‘rants that demand ministerial resignations; and sarcastic comments about how paying officials a million dollars more will perhaps better incentivise them to capture the culprit’ and ‘rants in cyberspace [that] take pleasure in knocking Singapore’s firm and no-nonsense reputation’.
The response online was indeed visceral. But to see ordinary bloggers or kopitiam patrons as an isolated source of dissatisfaction would be willfully shutting one’s eyes to reality. If anything, the dissatisfaction is part of a deeper malaise. Last we checked, Mui Hoong, the kopitiam crowd made up the majority of the country.
Unfortunately, the only crowd the ST editorial team seems attuned to is our political leadership. The rest of us are the rabbles that rant.
The Chinese proverb, ‘When drinking water, look to the source’, seems ironically applicable. The press regularly reminds Singaporeans of the government’s successes. Yet, when something goes wrong, the finger is pointed at the people who are characterized as the fountain of irrational anger: the logical connection to the source of the outrage is not made.
These tactics of “scapegoating” and understatement can only last that long. It is precisely the propagandizing of the Malaysian press that has led national newspapers in Malaysia to lose credibility with the country, so much so that Malaysian bloggers designated April 1st a nationwide Boycott Malaysian Media Day.
The state of the Malaysian media’s infamy is such that senior journalists have left it for the freer fields of online journalism. Ahirudin Attan, a former President of the National Press Club of Malaysia and editor of the New ST Press, set up a popular personal blog. By far the most prominent Malaysian example of mainstream journalists entering the online fray is Malaysiakini.com, which has a readership comparable with mainstream publications.
How long will it be before good journalists in the ST decide that they’ve had enough of the paper’s timidity and borderline culpability in propagandizing? How long is it before the fig leaf of credibility falls from the ST, and journalists, writers and citizens start taking the news into our own hands?
To whom much is given, much is expected (revisited)
The lessons we hope the government will learn from the Mas Selamat debacle equally apply to the ST. To whom much is given, much is expected. Singapore Press Holdings has been given a near-monopoly of Singapore’s print news market. With alternative news sources still in their infancy, it is imperative upon the ST to accurately reflect sentiment on the ground.
Our message to the government yesterday was simple: you cannot have your cake and eat it too. You cannot claim to be a hands-on government of strong leadership and disclaim command responsibility when it matters.
Our message to the national press today is similar: you cannot keep your monopoly on the minds of Singaporeans and insult their intelligence at the same time.