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A local hero deserving of a National Day award

The following article is inspired by Mr Anand A. Vathiyar’s letter to the Straits Times on 8 June 2010 (please see below).

Kirsten Han

Singapore's main English language newspaper has been praised as being a "local hero".

The proclamation, made in a letter printed in the Forum section of The Straits Times on 8 June 2010, praised the newspaper for its high-quality reporting despite having a “limited role in Singapore’s political arena”.

The Straits Times was praised for reporting on topics, issues and events that everyone “in coffee shops, cocktail parties and golf clubs” had already been talking about, thus proving that it has “its finger on the pulse of the people”.

The letter made me personally reflect on my island nation’s broadsheet, leading me to conclude that the Straits Times is long overdue for a National Day award.

In 2009, Singapore was ranked 133rd in the Press Freedom Index, above much larger countries such as Iraq, North Korea, China and Eritrea. In 2010, Freedom House ranked it 151 out of 196 countries.

Despite being grouped together with countries with dubious records of press freedom such as Niger, Bahrain, and Gabon in the index, the Straits Times is undeterred and continues to be steadfast and responsible in its reporting. Since Singapore’s independence it has run many interesting and relevant local and international stories without once being sued by members of the People’s Action Party (PAP), which is no mean feat, as many would attest. Indeed, even internationally respected publications like the Wall Street Journal and The Economist were unable to avoid running afoul of the PAP’s penchant for blood in the courts; and the well-respected Far Eastern Economic Review had to close down after it was sued by the PAP for irresponsible and untruthful reporting.

The Straits Times has shown remarkable discretion in selecting only the most engaging and relevant stories of interest to Singaporeans, forfeiting issues like those faced by homeless folks, the questions and issues involving the mandatory death penalty, the independence  of the judiciary, the losses of  the GIC and Temasek Holdings, the political biases of the civil service, etc. Instead, the Straits Times casts its spotlight on stories about casino levies, charity scandals and local celebrity Jack Neo’s infidelity. It even gave Ris Low, our local beauty queen, generous airtime on its very popular Razor TV when Singaporeans were criticizing her and cringing at her every remark. Indeed, instead of boring article after boring article on important, serious issues, the Straits Times consistently provides its devoted readers with entertainment and fodder for daily discourse, bringing together Singaporeans of all demographics.

The work of the Straits Times has also extended far beyond the print media. The Straits Times Online Mobile Print (STOMP), its flagship online portal, has “unparalleled reach into the hearts of Singaporeans and the resources to tailor-make approaches to maximise your brand”, demonstrating the Straits Times’ unique brand of citizen journalism. It is not only able to get Singaporeans involved in local issues but it helps sell products and promote businesses as well. In fact, as Singapore’s only bona fide citizen journalism website, STOMP is a creative and forward-looking initiative by the Straits Times, especially with its focus on mundane but relevant stories, such as cockroaches in our public buses and teenagers kissing in public areas.

Han Fook Kwong, the editor of the Straits Times, steadfastly defended the paper from criticisms and explained how his paper is resilient to the mumblings and mutterings of naysayers. At the annual gathering of Forum letter writers in 2010, he said, “We're aware people say we're a government mouthpiece or that we are biased. But the test is if our readers believe in the paper and continue to buy it.” And the numbers prove Fook Kwang right. Sale of the Straits Times has been extremely healthy and continues to grow, as the paper itself revealed recently. As Singapore’s only English-language broadsheet, the paper has had to fight a tough battle to win such an impressive readership. Such strength and determination to persist in its good work is admirable.

With such conviction, professionalism and dedication to the craft of journalism it is no surprise that the paper has bagged numerous awards. At the annual awards ceremony held by the Singapore Press Holdings’ English & Malay Newspapers Division (EMND), reporters from the Straits Times swept a large number of awards in the categories for Journalist of the Year, Young Journalist of the Year, Story of the Year, Feature of the Year, Commentary/Analysis of the Year, Infographics of the Year, Layout/Page Design of the Year, News Picture of the Year, Feature Picture of the Year and the Special Awards of the Year for Excellence… almost every category! It is a shame that there are no awards for Editor of the Year. Else, we would certainly throw our support behind Fook Kwang.

If you think the Straits Times is only able to win local awards, you’d be wrong. It has also won accolades from the Best of News Design international competition, which was proudly announced in its 21 February 2010 issue under the headline, “ST wins big at competition”. Indeed. “Big” is what you’d think of when it comes to the Straits Times.

With such an array of awards and recognition both locally and internationally, it is no surprise that government ministers have been singing the praises of the broadsheet and the local media.

Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts (Mica), Mr Lui Tuck Yew, was almost delirious with praise. “The mainstream media is accurate, timely and balanced in their reporting,” he said in February 2010.

The Prime Minister himself said, in his 2006 National Day Rally speech: “[If] you read something in the Straits Times or on CNA, you must know that it’s real.” It is unheard of for government ministers anywhere in the world to heap such explicit praises on a newspaper. The Straits Times clearly is a class act all by itself.

Indeed, what is real, to use the PM’s words, is that the Straits Times has been a partner in Singapore’s progress for more than 150 years. It is a proud nation-building partner with the government and shamelessly continues to be so, in spite of all the brickbats it has thus far received.

And in helping to build this nation, the Straits Times has been thoroughly committed in pointing out to Singaporeans certain evils which, if left unchecked, would bring Singapore down. Evils such as the Internet, and in particular, bloggers. To prevent Singapore from disintegrating because of citizens’ exposure to alternative voices and ideas, the Straits Times has been relentless in its attacks on netizens, especially socio-political bloggers who provide alternative viewpoints, much to the chagrin of the government – and the Straits Times itself.

“There are many unfounded snide comments [on the Internet] and even YouTube videos about government inadequacy,” Chua Mui Hoong, the ST’s political desk editor, said in 2008. Her colleague, Chua Lee Hoong, was just as incensed. “Reading Internet postings often makes my blood boil,” she said. “[Too many netizens] seem to feed on one another’s vitriol, and try to outdo themselves..”

Political editor Chua urges Singaporeans not to believe what is written online. “The problem with the Internet is reliability: To what extent can you trust what you read online?” she said. “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."

Singaporeans should depend on the reliable Straits Times for truthful news, as the ministers have advised. [Please click here and here for further reasons.]

It is high time that the valiant efforts of the Straits Times are recognized in the form of a National Day award. .

In fact, a national recognition of its contributions to nation building would be the perfect honour for the esteemed chairman of Singapore Press Holdings, former Deputy Prime Minister, Dr Tony Tan. In the five years that he has been at the helm at SPH, the Straits Times has gained the respect and admiration of many around the world in raising the standard of journalism in our little country, if not regionally and internationally as well.

In the words of EMND’s editor-in-chief, Patrick Daniel:

“[Our] competitive landscape has never been tougher… The only way to meet these challenges is to maintain high standards across the board and never allow ourselves to slide into mediocrity. I’m confident we have what it takes to remain one of the best-performing newspaper groups in the world.”

The Straits Times must not, as letter-writer Mr Anand said, “waver in [its] role as a local hero,” or Singapore would be the worse for it. It would be unthinkable if the Straits Times faltered.

While National Day awards are presented to individuals, we ask the government to make an exception this year. After all, the award is given as "a means of recognising various forms of merit and service to Singapore." [PMO] The Straits Times' achievements certainly fall within this definition. A National Day award will spur the Straits Times to even greater heights and assure Singapore’s continued success for many years to come!

We therefore urge the government to bestow the highest possible honour on the Straits Times this National Day.

Additional reporting by Andrew Loh.

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Mr Anand’s letter to the Straits Times

8 June 2010

ST no slouch in covering social issues

ONE OF the gripes of my overseas friends is the issue of 'state-controlled media' here in Singapore, specifically The Straits Times.

Having come from the United States, Europe, India and Australia, these friends refuse to read ST because they feel it does not 'do its job' compared with the main papers in their respective countries.

I used to be apologetic about the fact, but as I have grown older, I must say I disagree with my friends more and more.

Sure, ST has a limited role in Singapore's political arena. But in recent years, it has proven it is no slouch when it comes to social issues.

Like going toe-to-toe with the old National Kidney Foundation (NKF) leadership, championing domestic helper or blue collar worker issues, tackling thorny subjects like foreign talent integration, casting the spotlight on the Association of Women for Action and Research's (Aware) sexual education programme and so on.

The most impressive to date has to be how ST has not shrugged off its responsibilities in covering the City Harvest Church investigation.

I dare say it's like ST has its finger on the pulse of the people and is seeking answers for questions asked in coffee shops, cocktail parties and golf clubs - the latest being the issue of mega churches and the privatisation of the pulpit.

I can see my friends giving me grief for sticking up for ST, but I am happy to say: You are more than a good read, ST. Please don't waver in your role as a local hero.

Anand A. Vathiyar