Media reform perhaps is the most important political change we need. Andrew Loh.

Political changes – what about the media?

Andrew Loh

Singaporeans wait with bated breath the announcement of changes to the political system in Singapore. According to a Straits Times report, SM Goh mentioned three considerations before such changes will be made:

“One, they must be fair to all political parties; two, they should result in a strong, effective Government after an election; and three, they must ensure diverse views are represented in Parliament.” (Source)

While Parliament debates the proposed changes as expected, the government should also consider one more element which needs a review. One which, perhaps, will have a far greater and more meaningful consequence than any of the changes which might be proposed.

The media in Singapore, which undoubtedly plays a political role, needs to be reformed too.

Currently, a government –controlled media in 21st Century Singapore is an anachronism.  With the country aiming to be a media and information hub, these controls do not sit well with such ambitions. But more importantly, being completely in the hands of the government, the media is in danger of abdicating its role as a watchdog over government policies and actions, if it has not succumbed to such a danger already.

Of course, the current People’s Action Party (PAP) government does not want the media to play such a role. Indeed, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew has several times in the past disabused such a notion. However, it can be argued that with Parliament currently consisting of an overwhelming majority of ruling party MPs, and with the opposition unable to put up any meaningful challenges in the House, an independent and fearless media is indispensable for public accountability of the government.

Any media which is so utterly controlled by its government, first and foremost, will result in self-censorship by its editors and journalists, alternatives views ignored and important issues avoided – or if not, these will be reported with a slant to present a distorted view, one which, inevitably, seeks to put the government in a better light than it deserves to be, perhaps. Effectively, the government has editorial influence in how the media is run. Indeed, this is what some Singaporeans have said has happened with the Singapore media. A case in point would be the losses by Temasek Holdings.

These then perpetuate a veneer or a façade in place of the reality, resulting in a people being fed either wrong and distorted views, or being given half-truths and skewed information.  It allows a government to cover up mis-doings while at the same time use the media to paint the picture which it, the government, wants the people to see. Real problems faced by the people are not highlighted if they reflect unfavourably on the government, as is the case of the PAP town council’s investment losses earlier this year.

Why would all these matter?

A rogue government, with full and complete control of the media, could hold on to power longer than it would deserve, as is seen in some countries around the world. With information, which is skewed and even concocted, given to the masses, a people might not know better. If such information was in the guise of a rosier picture than it really is, complacency and apathy would set in. This is dangerous. It’s like a blindfolded person inching towards the edge of a cliff without even knowing it, all the while thinking that he is on solid ground. The fall, when it comes, will be a hard one.

A freer media would generate more insightful and incisive debates from citizens, journalists are able to write what they feel and generate more discussions, a diversity of views would emerge leading to less apathy and complacency over time. If the government gives the media a freer rein, it will be sending a positive signal about its receptivity to public opinion.

The government thus, needs to divest itself from the media. While such a move may not result in substantial or meaningful change immediately, it is, however, a necessary step towards a more active and participatory society.

So, while the government contemplates changes to the political system, and may even tweak it to allow for more representation of alternative views in Parliament or reduce the size of the Group Representation Constituencies (GRCs), as some expect, it still comes back to how information is disseminated to the people. The changes to the electoral system, or the political system, while welcome, should not be taken as the only necessary changes.

For no matter how “fair” these are, if there are no improvements to how the local media presents information – truthfully, impartially and fearlessly – especially during the general elections, such changes would best be described as cosmetic.

And this, certainly, would not fulfill the three criterias which the Senior Minister wants to see.

What Mr Lee Kuan Yew said in 1956 still holds true and it is something we must guard against.

“Then an intimidated press and the government-controlled radio together can regularly sing your praises, and slowly and steadily the people are made to forget the evil things that have already been done, or if these things are referred to again they’re conveniently distorted and distorted with impunity, because there will be no opposition to contradict.