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Press Muse is an irreverent look at S'pore's press. Spiegel.

Press Muse: Age of extremes

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Press Muse is TOC’s new column which provides an irreverent look at the Singapore press (online and offline).

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I had the (mis)fortune of attending The Straits Times redesign pre-launch event for staff, circa July 2008. It was a little under a lifetime ago; back then, Man plodded the 100m at a ponderous 9.72s, Michael was the only Palin we knew, and Lehman Brothers were a bank.

As an intern journalist, I took my place alongside a docile audience before deputy editor Alan John, who doled out the customary analytical fluff to clarify the rationale for the paper’s cosmetic rejigging - surveys, numbers, graphs et al. Somewhere in the midst of that pablum, he noted, with customary indignance, the prevalent public perception of the Straits Times being a government mouthpiece.

John was quick to brush off such a notion, offering examples of unique insight and salient commentary the paper offered through the expert opinion featured on its Review pages and special reports from foreign correspondents. You might think, if his own staff needed the reassurance (even convincing) that their paper was not a government mouthpiece, something is awfully awry. Not to mention that all that smoke is giving away the fire. But those groping their way up the greasy pole wouldn’t so much as blink if it meant public contrition and consequently career suicide.

But it hardly matters whether he believes that stuff himself or not, and it’s irrelevant for anyone’s purpose. What people think of the Straits Times matters; the public fascination with and succumbing to the allure of superficial simulacra is not something a newspaper editor can dispel or wish away in an infantile denial.

And regardless where his conscience truly lies on the matter, even John must realise that his Forum editor does him little favours with regards to public perception, as the 22 November edition of the paper shows.

A fawning Dr John Ng patently wet himself when he picked up the Straits Times last week to read about his hero, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, and his public act of contrition over his bilingual education policy. But he recovered sufficiently to pen a note to the Straits Times, published on 22 November. Don’t read if you can help it. It’s soaked in dripping saccharine so sugary thick, it ought to have carried a health warning for diabetics. You’d blush, cringe your face into desiccated prune, and die of neurological complications triggered by vicarious shame.

If you would still like to discover the banality of Dr John “Fanboy” Ng for yourself, I may recommend you begin with starters – warm-up acts if you will – from Boon Chin Aun and Mrs Goh Su San.

Yet in all honesty, there is no news here. The Straits Times offering one-sided, trite and embarrassingly positive affirmations for the government? No shit, Sherlock.

But even so, over-eager critics (see: Temasek Review or TRtake the bait (see: “Doc expressed admiration of MM Lee for “admitting” his mistake“). Which is fine really, only if TR had published it as opinion or commentary. But once again, the cardinal sin – to opine and editorialise within the guise of news.

TR writes:

“A doctor by the name of Dr John Ng had written a letter to the Straits Times Forum today expressing his gratitude and admiration for MM Lee Kuan Yew after his recent speech to encourage the study of Chinese language differently.”

I ask for your understanding as I swing into pedantism here. A doctor by the name of Dr John Ng? How does TR know if he’s a medical doctor as opposed to a doctor of philosophy? Assuming he was, why did they have to tell us twice? The title “Dr” is rendered superfluous in this sentence.

TR then goes off into the deep end:

“Singapore’s bilingual education policy was not the only mistake made by Lee during his 25-year tenure as Prime Minister.

“His “stop at two” policy in the 1970s is the main culprit of Singapore’s declining birth rates today and we are still paying the price for it.”

This is not a statement of fact. It’s an opinion, which should have no place in a news article, not supported by empirical evidence. Declining birth rates is a common phenomenon across developed economies. TR’s statement supposes that without the “stop at two” policy, the declining birth rates would not exist, or at the very least will not be pronounced. A problematic assertion to say the very least.

“As a result, the government has to resort to importing foreigners en masse from countries like China and India to boost Singapore’s flagging population at the expense of the locals.”

This is the stuff Daily Mail writers revel in. Paul Dacre would have been so proud. The less charitable lefties call this racism. I just call it bad journalism.

“Dr John Ng’s impression of Lee is probably formed from reading the state-controlled papers, history textbooks and Lee’s memoirs.”

TR calls this news. News! All conjecture, no evidence. Or as Stephen Colbert would have put it: “All heart, no facts.”

And as the saying goes, one abysmally contrived opinion deserves another. The correspondent, now capable of mindreading, babbles on fecklessly:

“Had he read other “censored” sources like the recently launched “The Fajar Generation” by a group of student leaders from the University Socialist Club in the 1950s and 1960s, his views of Lee will change radically.”

Several paragraphs later, we learn that TR’s correspondent is omniscient, and magnanimous to boot.

“Dr John Ng is probably too young to recall the events during the tumultuous period of Singapore’s history and can be forgiven for his ignorance.”

Dear correspondent, if you are reading this, I would love to know how you could have discerned so many “facts” about this Dr John Ng – his profession, the formative historical and political exposure he was subjected to, and his approximate age – from just a simple letter bereft of any revealing details. Who needs to do any real journalistic investigations and legwork if they could divine the truth as effortlessly as you can?

TR exhorts its readers to pick up copies of The Fajar Generation to get a dose of alternate perspectives on modern political history of Singapore. A good idea I would imagine; it should many young ones so good. Some historical revisionism to displace the monopoly of orthodoxy is very welcome.

And if I may return the favour to TR, please pick up copies of the Associated Press Stylebook and Nick Davies’ Flat Earth News. The journalistic profession is in bad enough shape as it is without half-baked bloggers confusing their art for news reporting.

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