By Vernon Chan –
IN the era of the New Normal, which started long before Singapore’s press corps and political leaders acknowledged, then proclaimed its existence last year after two almost freak election results, former Straits Times journalist Cherian George is better known for his project of advocating for a fairer and more balanced blogosphere where responsible citizen journalists empowered by an adoption of credible journalistic standards shift towards a full spectrum of views pro-PAP, anti-PAP, and everything in between. With this book, he may be justly remembered for fostering an alternative media practising calibrated, if contentious journalism to challenge a state practising calibrated control of the new media.
It is all too easy to forget that Dr Cherian George is an associate professor at the journalism division of the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information at Nanyang Technological University.
Combining his different hats as social commentator, academic researcher, and home grown journalist, George’s work is equal parts journalistic narrative, popular commentary, and theoretically-informed analysis of how free Singapore’s press is, how it got that way, and how the SPH press corps operates today.
George acknowledges that while one may split hairs over definitions of a free press, authoritarian states, illiberal practices, that the Singapore media is government-controlled is never in doubt. What he is interested in though is to look at how despite strong state control, Singapore’s press maintains high journalistic standards – the Reporters San Frontières and Freedom House indices of Singapore’s press freedom notwithstanding.
To do that, George takes us on a historical tour of state-press relations dating back to the colonial era, and looks at how the state’s controls and levers have been continuously refined over the decades to deal with changing enemies of the state, changing state ideologies, and changing challenges to the prevailing state ideology.
It is no surprise then that the strongest chapters in the book are its illuminating chapter on the inner workings SPH pace the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act, which narrates how the People’s Action Party government stumbled on a winning formula to control the press corps without actually appointing a layer of active censors in the SPH organisation, and a historical chapter accounting the run-ins of the press with the colonial and then the PAP government– mostly sourced from Mary Turnbull’s pro-establishment account of press history in 100 years of The Straits Times. These include the infamous withdrawal of the printing license of the Singapore Monitor, the Emergency era banning of Tan Kah Kee’s Nanyang Siang Pau, and the raid of the Business Times in 1992. One may complain that these chapters rehash existing literature about the history of the Singapore press, yet one is cognizant that never before has this material been offered in a publication whose style of writing caters to the wider public.
Unfortunately, in other chapters, George is sidelined with his own hair-splitting over the nature of freedom and democracy, defending robustly his former profession and colleagues, and by extension, the national press corps and Singapore’s PAP government against popular criticisms from often nameless and faceless critics both from within Singapore and the amorphous West. Using anecdotes from his personal experience as well as interviews with former Straits Times editor Leslie Fong, George devotes much effort to engage with such accusations, offering a nuanced worldview of controlled but not servile, partially unfree scribes but not incompetent journalists, and links that to recent developments in journalism in the west, with an eye on the consensus-building in the press that led to Bush’s Iraq War.
While George’s book is largely a journalistic narrative lacking an overarching theoretical framework or at its best, a sociopolitical commentary engaging with various popular but very few academic theories of the press, the concluding chapter does push for his theory of networked hegemony, explaining the PAP’s stranglehold on power via its leverage of extra-party state and non-state mechanisms. Students of political science and other related disciplines will recognise this analysis of this PAP power system as a restatement of the political economy approach to describing hegemonic party states. Nonetheless, there is value in having an insider recognise and categorise various non-party institutions as part of the power structure legitimising and conferring power to the PAP and stabilising the political structure it sits upon.
As an insider and a former journalist, George’s account seems stuck between wanting to praise the establishment and ripping them, as though he is both horrified and in admiration of what he sees as a beautifully constructed, illiberal but not undemocratic, dominating but not authoritarian control of both the press and by extension, the populace of Singapore.
Yet perhaps by virtue of being an insider and a former journalist, George is loathe to take a closer, more analytic look at Singapore’s semi-free press. Entirely missing in a book by this media theorist and expert is the application of social framing analysis to Singapore’s press. What kind of mass opinion and ideology does Singapore’s semi-free press shape? What sort of consensus in societal discourse does this press mould? What range of opinions and attitudes does it confer legitimacy on and which are excluded from polite conversation and reading? What narrative of the media is the press complicit in setting and refining? How does this fit in with an unfree or freer press? Pertinent questions that one might expect in a book about state controls and press freedom go uncontemplated and unanswered here.
That said, this book by Cherian George is an ideal primer for those unfamiliar with Singapore’s state-press relations.
Cherian's book can be purchased here
Dr Cherian George wishes to clarify in part to this review of the nature of his latest book and his views can be found here.