Disgrace – The life and times of Chua Lee Hoong*


To pose Chua Lee Hoong’s question back to herself: The problem with the Straits Times is reliability: To what extent can you trust what you read in print?

One of the characteristics of the esteemed novelist J.M. Coetzee’s prose style is his use of the rhetorical question. Rather, questions – in the plural – posed where he wishes to provoke thought, to cast doubt, to suspend his reader’s initial prejudice, and to hint, only just, at what his own predilections might be. Questions leading questions, leading the reader, and no answer in sight, until the reader realises that an answer is neither the point nor destination – the question is.

Questions, when posed skillfully, artfully, are like a chessmaster’s move of pieces across the checkered maze, each move a question, each question an answer, though the question is the answer. And before your eyes, Coetzee’s last question in his novel would have manoeuvred you into his delicate checkmate, leading you no other way but to his final sentence – an exquisite master’s piece – a laurel written just for you. 

While Chua Lee Hoong of the Straits Times is nowhere near being a prose stylist, nor is she a seasoned chess player, she does harbour pretensions to be court advisor to the ruling regime. But subtlety is not her forte; subterfuge is. Thus when she pours scorn on the Internet only yet again, it reminds one that journalism is merely a gambit for her more duplicitous ambitions. Chua Lee Hoong is not a journalist; certainly not of a class of the more respectable newspapers, but rather like a pawn columnist of a party newsletter. Pity her subordinates.

But when Chua Lee Hoong releases a frenetic spray of questions about the Internet – and nine at one go, no least, it looks as if she is sweeping her hand across the chess board and sending those pieces – Kings, Queens, Bishops and Knights – scattering onto the ground before her opponent can move into awaiting victory. It is as if a caught and cornered spy had desperately held onto her pistol for that one last rackling into the indifferent sky, before being engulfed by the advancing night. And you begin to suspect that she is more worried about what is left of her ignominious career as the Straits Times’ doyenne of propaganda and regime apologia than the yearly maturity and vindication of the Singaporean blogosphere:

What proportion of Singaporeans turn to it for news and views? How much of an influence does the Internet have on their lives? How much does it affect their thinking? How is the local blogosphere evolving? What impact does it have on national discourse? Five to 10 years from now, what will it be like? Will the Internet’s reach attain some kind of equilibrium and stabilise? Under what circumstances or in what kind of societies will the Internet be at its most influential, and what least?

There are no answers to all of Chua Lee Hoong’s questions above. The answers will only bear out on hindsight with the passing of time, chance, and technology, and with empirical research. But they do appear to portend the imminent demise, if not an attenuated influence, of the printed newspaper. So, more importantly, there are no answers to her questions because hers are not questions. They are flares of SOS to her masters, and entreaties for the containment of online socio-political commentary.

Subtlety is not her forte; subterfuge is. Especially when night is settling in fast.

* * *

Chua Lee Hoong had one more question, however. It was actually her first: 

The problem with the Internet is reliability: To what extent can you trust what you read online? Whether due to ignorance, mischief or sheer absence of quality control, much of what is written online has to be taken with a pinch of salt.

This is a genuine question, and well worth thinking about. And the answers are multiple. The Internet is reliable, and it is not. It can be reliable, and it can not. Rather, its reliability is not that important. Writings on the Internet require the discerning eye as much as the Straits Times needs similar scrutiny – the latter all the more so. Discerning eyes are just what this country needs. What are indispensable are the Internet and the Singaporean bloggers’ ability to break the monopoly of information control, debate-framing, and the manufacturing of consent, and to expose the spin, hype, and chicanery of venal scribes and fawners from the mainstream media.

The Internet is not the perfect mass medium, and it need not be. Being an excellent one is enough for its purpose. Its inconsistency, unpredictability, and dilettantism are precisely its strengths. Its excellence and political potency cease only when individuals no longer blog, participate in forum discussions, forward that incriminating email, access a plethora of info-news websites – professional and amateur, local and foreign – and continually comment, debate, and quarrel, post pictures and put up videos and form communities. Its potential for political change is anywhere and everywhere.

But political activism is neutered at its heart when individuals forget that change comes not just from the arena of parliament and street protests, but also from the sitting and thinking individual. The personal is the political, and the political is in the quotidian and in the everyday. Action originates from one’s thought, conscience, and consciousness. An impassioned thought is in itself activism.

Taken together, they constitute the truer citizen, one that perpetually questions received wisdom, rips up underlying assumptions, and resists and unmasks the artifice, injustice, and sophistry emanating from those enthroned in the white chambers of power.

Taken together, you rebuff the vacuous regurgitation of propaganda by those indoctrinated ones, and you expose their shallow, hollow, and spurious patriotism.

But politics, conscience, and activism are numbed when one receives news and information solely from the mainstream media. The Ugly Singaporean has come to be one of the enduring appellations of the country’s citizenry, and one suspects that the numerous unbecoming, even mortifying traits, of the average Singaporean are precisely cultivated by a daily imbibing of those craven, mediocre, and less than hounourable newspapers. It breeds an infantile Singaporean society that constantly needs a PAP government to, in Chua Lee Hoong’s ominously revealing words, educate a new generation of Singaporeans on what governing Singapore entails. Do we need any more propaganda? And from which other national paper can one find a journalist of Chua Lee Hoong’s ilk that holds such a condescending view of her compatriots? 

While the Straits Times need not strive to be the perfect national daily, a stratospheric aspiration, given its current pedestrian standards and dictated modus operandi, it need not be pathetic either. At least it should not be a national disgrace.

Since the Straits Times has abdicated its role as the paramount purveyor and conduit of critical, independent thought, then the Internet should attempt that role. As long as you have something original to say, the keyboard is yours.

The alternative is the perpetuation of the illusion that the Straits Times is the model example of an objective newspaper and the epitome of truthful reporting. Illusion, because these are non-existent standards that Singaporeans have been duped into believing.

There is no such thing as an objective viewpoint, a balanced opinion, or a non-partisan position, just as there exists no fiery ice, or for that matter, icy fire. There is only a voice that is yours and yours only – better still an enlightened one – and whether or not it will be quashed.

You, the subject; You, the subjective. And You should never be subjected.

There is no letting of facts to speak for themselves. Facts do not speak for themselves – you do. And truth is what you make of it. This is why there must be a proliferation of objectives, viewpoints, and objecting viewpoints, unbalanced opinions and partisan positions, to demolish the innumerable half-truths in here, and to debate the many-multiple truths out there. This is why freedom of speech is a fundamental birthright and not a conferred reward. And this is how Singaporeans can then begin to grow a mind of their own, abandon their puerile diapers, and finally grow up. This is why the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act has first to go.. This is why our nation-building media has failed.

The alternative is the one-dimensional drivel that you get from the Straits Times every morning.

The alternative is the dumbed-down Singaporean citizen that receives its daily insult without even realising it.

The alternative is the Internet. But you have to make it so, because You are in the Net. This space is yours – from cyberspace, to actual space.

* * *

So to pose Chua Lee Hoong’s question back to herself: The problem with the Straits Times is reliability: To what extent can you trust what you read in print?

I believe Reporters sans Frontieres has a few answers dating from 2003, each year a damning echo to the Straits Times, each ranking – take your pick, 144th? 147th? 140th? 146th? 141st? or the latest 154th? – a plangent riposte to Chua Lee Hoong. They make a mockery of every word that she types.

The problem with the Straits Times is precisely one of reliability, in addition to its sub-par journalism, in prose, style, and substance. Prose style is what separates a merely excellent argument from an absolutely brilliant one. Writing is always a tribute to poetry, and an argument for the splendour of literature – but when it comes to the Straits Times, what style, what substance, and what argument? Beyond its incessant self-glorification and vanity revamps of adding more vibrant colours and tweaking trivial typefaces, what quality sentence and thought can be found flowing from the Straits Times? Its newsroom is bereft of courage, critical minds, and an affinity with the English language – a microcosm of the embarrassing Singaporean society that it has been complicit in moulding. A press that is cloying and not free is an unreliable press, a shackled Chua Lee Hoong is an unreliable witness, and dignity slips from the totem poles of both.

To what extent can you trust what the Straits Times prints?

I may be no Coetzee, and this may be no rhetorical question. Following the RSF’s rankings, I’ll hazard an easy answer: To the extent that you trust what Sudan, Afghanistan, Iraq, and China print.

Or if I may take the liberty for a more graceful conclusion: To the extent that Chua Lee Hoong and fellow sycophants at the Straits Times will continue to move their substandard, groveling, and gutless pieces of ‘journalism’ through the square tiles of international opinion and press rankings, blocked by the stubborn Kings on their right, and mocked by the Net Rookies on their left, until they have nowhere and no way but to fall into their deserved, divined, and rightful tomb, that is their laurelled checkmate at the end.


Read also: Demonising the Internet – and bloggers and Big Brother in cyberspace – anonymously.

*The title is inspired by the two Booker Prize-winning novels of Nobel Laureate J.M. Coetzee: Disgrace, and The Life & Times of Michael K. The characters in the novels bear no resemblance to Ms Chua Lee Hoong. 


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