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Of transparency, investigation and media

Howard Lee /

You would have heard it by now. The recent fracas surrounding Rupert Murdoch's News of the World popped a few Singaporean eyebrows when Murdoch himself made mention of Singapore's transparency in ministerial pay.

Already, various quarters have jumped on that remark, most notably the remarks by Zaqy Mahamad, People’s Action Party Member of Parliament: "It's good that we are recognised for our transparency with regard to remuneration for ministers."

Ouch. Before we fall over ourselves to defend or debunk this claim, it would probably serve us better to take a good look at what Murdoch is trying to say, see if it makes sense to quote Singapore in this way, and perhaps flag out information that is sorely missing.

Put in perspective, Murdoch was using an example of transparency to justify the misdeeds of News of the World. Ergo, if there is no transparency, newspapers are entitled to use whatever means possible to get to the bottom if the matter. Ergo, including illegal means.

But transparency does not equate the acceptance of any means possible to achieve it. Transparency also does not equate to acceptance of the subject of transparency, such that once revealed, the story for journalists without further need of pursuit. The lack of transparency also does not mean that the media cannot continue to press (legally) for it to be realised.

The truth is that for all the transparency we already have in our little island state, Singapore's traditional media has been muted, willingly or not, in voicing disgruntlement on the ground about ministerial pay. This has led to muted resentment, exploding somewhat during the last general election.

Quite evidently, transparency of the government does not equate media quality, much less the media's ability to understand and deliver what its readers are seeking further clarification on.

In retrospect, and with due respect to the media mogul, Murdoch's statement is a no case – un-contextual to the position he is in, and quite off the point to be exact. There are probably many other examples he could have use to substantiate his case, where transparency about ministerial salaries runs alongside good quality investigative journalism, and all the more to delink the two.

It is interesting to note, however, how that tidbit of a quote was picked up here. Perhaps with that slight a mention, by possibly the world’s biggest media czar, it never ran beyond a bleat in traditional media. Or might I be coy enough to suggest that there were reason why this could have deliberately left out.

Conversely, I have seen, mainly online, comments about the accuracy and value of his statement, and rightly so. Singapore's ministerial pay has in some coffee-shop-talk quarters been labeled "legalised corruption", something which Murdoch's comments, at face value, did not address.

What I have barely seen is a true dissection of the difference between transparency and the quality of journalism. Much less discussed also is the media's role in taking the debate beyond a topical fact, to voice it out when what is open is obviously ludicrous. That, I hope to have partly addressed, and I encourage you to discuss freely here.

What I do not hope to see is for the political leadership to use this as an example to sanctify their astronomical pay, and worse yet, for our traditional media to run along the same lines of insane "factual" reporting.

We need to review ministerial pay, we need to keep it transparent, and we need proper mechanisms to raise the alarms when we find it beyond our country's means. And these mechanisms should include good quality and honest journalism, fearless in speaking truth to power.