By Yuen Chung Kwong

Singapore Press Holdings and Mediacorp are the two major news organizations in Singapore. Mediacorp is a government owned corporation, while SPH is a listed company whose share holdings are widely distributed (a legal requirement forbidding any single shareholding being above a specified limit), but with a special provision for the government to appoint its senior executives, who in turn bring in other trusted appointees – the fact that a number of the editorial staff members have previous experience as national security analysts still raises eyebrows among foreign reporters when they get told for the first time.

News reports in the various SPH papers I personally read, Straits Times, Lianhe Zaobao (United Morning Press – I will explain the name later) and Business Times, occasionally the afternoon tabloid Newpaper and the free morning tabloid Today published by a separate organization (again, will explain later) are comprehensive and generally speaking bland. The news reports are no more biased than, say NY Times, whose staff are more likely to be Democrats. Simply because most of the important activities in Singapore are generated by the government, government linked corporations and other public organizations, most of the big news reports involve current and former government officials.

The weakness of SPH lies in its local commentary items. There is virtually no in depth analysis of public policies and social issues. Perhaps I can illustrate using an example from a different organization, the Institute for Policy Studies, which carried out a survey after the 2006 election to find out what issues the voters regarded as most important. It found that the highest percentages went to

  1. efficient government,
  2. fairness.

Now if you ask people "what liquid you drink most", the answer is probably water, and if you ask "what is your largest foodstuff intake", the answer is probably starch (rice, noodles, pasta, bread, cakes…). The information is correct, but not very useful for the purpose of deciding what drink/food to produce for the market.

The NY Times has a number of regular columnists representing widely varying ideological and experiential backgrounds – both William Safire and Paul Krugman were/are NY Times columnists – to discuss current events and evaluate policies, as do most major papers in US cities – even the Murdoch group NY Post and (till 2010) Unification Church owned Washington Times try to do this, and while we occasionally hear journalists complain about owner interference in editorial policies, the owners would always deny it quickly and repeat various politically correct statements on wanting to accommodate different points of view.

The Straits Times basically does not have local columnists – there are some columns written by various SPH staff in the nature of extended editorials that represent the paper's official stand, but as the official stand is already quite familiar to the public, reading those columns does not usually add much to one's knowledge or understanding. Erudite articles by some prominent local academics and puff pieces by foreign consultants appear now and then, but they do little to alter the overall picture.

The Chinese paper Lianhe reads quite differently; it has many regular columnists that have their particular pet ideas and obsessions. Unfortunately, the one big obsession happens to be the no win subject of poor command of Chinese language shown by the Singapore school children, the root cause being poor curriculum design – efforts to make it more relevant in a largely English language environment like Singapore, different from PRC and Taiwan, are still ongoing. This old chip on the shoulders permeates a great deal of what they have to say, so that my regular reaction as I read the stuff is "there it goes again".

The paper is called United Morning Press because it came from the merger of previously separately owned Sin Chew Daily and Nanyang Commercial Press, after some of the owners/editors got into political/business troubles. That merger was the first step in the eventual consolidation of all newspapers into Singapore Press Holdings, e.g., the afternoon scandal sheet Sin Ming was originally started by Hongkong's Mingbao group in the 60s; today it competes with sister publication Lianhe Wanbao to scoop sensational local events like former Workers Party MP Yao Shing Leong's adultery and expulsion from party membership and doubtful financial dealings of Pastor Kong Hee of City Harvest Church.

The characterization of the situation in Singapore being a "press monopoly" is not exactly officially acknowledged, though there is usually no active attempt to deny it either. Instead, it is argued that foreign press and broadcasting already provide sufficient competition and comprehensive coverage, e.g., a Temasek stable company, Starhub, provides paid overseas news channels like BBC, CNN, Bloomberg, while NY Times's International Herald Tribune and Murdoch group's Wall Street Journal are sold by the larger news stands and book shops; so that SPH and Mediacorp are to be judged more for their social and economic value to Singapore, a kind of PR unit of Singapore Inc, and less by conventional Western press freedom standards.

Attempts to create competition in the main stream media, despite this consolidation, were made sporadically; 30 years ago an afternoon broadsheet called Singapore Monitor was still alive, but not for long – it did not have the thick wads of classified advertisements that produce for Straits Times its dependable income stream, with which it can hire teams of reporters and buy syndicated overseas news and opinion columns.

A subsequent effort was made to generate competition via sibling rivalry, by allowing Mediacorp to start a print press, and SPH to start some broadcast stations. The commercial consequence was a drop in advertising rates as the two sides undercut each other leading to some financial pain on both. After a few years, Mediacorp recovered its broadcast monopoly, while its Today free paper became a joint venture with SPH.

I guess I have not given you a very exciting picture of the press scene, so maybe you hope for improvement out of the blog movement, which actually received the endorsement of Mr Lee Kuan Yew himself once at a public forum in answer to a comment from the floor: if you dont like what you read in Straits Times, why dont you just go and start your own blog? However, with so many blogs out there, one needs to be quite knowledgeable about how to attract the right eyeballs to your offerings. Examples of blogs that once attracted wide audiences were the SPG site with the blogger's nude pictures, which were then withdrawn, and with no new sensational stuff appearing, interest waned, and Mr Brown's pork liver noodle spoof on a 2006 election incident. Subsequently some socio-political blogs, e.g., The Online Citizen and Temasek Review, began to gather a regular audience. Whether they have improved the quality of social and political discourse in Singapore is still to be determined.

To return to my earlier analogy, we already know that people drink water and eat starch, so the additional information people need is about the various other drinks and foods people consume, in diminishing and perhaps unimportant quantities. 100 bloggers can produce 100 different views, but there is only one official view so people who support it would have a hard time finding different things to say. It therefore happens naturally that the majority of the blogs are anti government to one degree or another. If you dont like them, you can always read the Straits Times.

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