By Andrew Loh
In July, in the midst of what was the worst haze situation Singapore has had to face to date, the government accused “some mischievous individuals” of spreading rumours and for causing “unnecessary anxiety” during those weeks.
The government-controlled mainstream media lapped up the accusations and went to town with it – for weeks after that. In particular, blogger and social worker, Ravi Philemon, was singled out for mention, particularly in the Straits Times, TODAY, and The New Paper. He was accused of spreading rumours about the availability of N95 masks after he reposted what a friend had told him – that the masks were not meant for the public.
The Minister for Communications and Information, Yaacob Ibrahim, even criticised Mr Philemon in Parliament, where Mr Philemon could not rebut or respond to the minister. Dr Yaacob later explained why he did so, after some members of the public accused him of taking cheap shots at Mr Philemon.
The assault on Mr Philemon was a concerted effort by the government and the media to discredit the online community through the alleged misdemeanour of Mr Philemon. Indeed, it was an over-the-top character assassination exercise by the authorities and especially the mainstream newspapers, particularly the Straits Times broadsheet which reported that “many observers agreed it was right to call out such behaviour.”
Members of Parliament (MP) of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) too were quick to condemn those like Mr Philemon. For example, as the Straits Times reported:
“In a national crisis, to put out false rumours is as severe as a bomb hoax: it can cause public panic,” said MP Zaqy Mohamad, chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee (GPC) for Communications and Information.
But what happens when it is the mainstream media which “cause anxiety by spreading rumours”?
Total silence from the likes of Dr Yaacob Ibrahim and Mr Zaqy Mohamad, and the Straits Times.
Let’s look at some recent examples.
On 10 October, the Straits Times carried a report which said:
“The KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital (KKH) has debunked rumours circulating online that the hospital is charging parents an additional $15 to ensure they bring the right baby home.
“These claims, posted on Singapore-based forums and websites, cited a Tuesday report by Lianhe Wanbao which suggested that KKH was charging patients for the use of the radio frequency identification (RFID) system that matches mother to child.”
While it pointed the fingers at “rumours circulating online”, what the Straits Times report failed to mention was that the Lianhe Wanbao report, which started the misunderstanding, had this as its headline:
The words in the headline in bold blue say, literally: “Pay more S$15 assured correct baby”.
The words highlighted in the black box read: “Interviewed public: Should not include/require additional charges“
While the report itself may have mentioned that the hospital was not charging $15 for the service, anyone reading the headline would have gone away with the wrong impression, as indeed many apparently had.
Why did the Straits Times not mention this? More importantly, where were the likes of Dr Yaacob and Mr Zaqy to bring Lianhe Wanbao to task?
On 9 October, news portal Xin.msn carried a report about Workers’ Party member, Ms Glenda Han. In it, reporter Joyce J. Chansingh wrote: “Mixed-race families are no longer a rarity in Singapore with more marrying outside their ethnic groups… Even Workers’ Party member Glenda Han recently jumped on the mixed-race wagon when she married her South African husband…”
While the remarks by the reporter were distasteful – describing Ms Han’s decision to marry Mr Matheu Kieswetter as her having “jumped on the mixed-race wagon” – what followed later was more nauseating.
According to a posting on Ms Han’s Facebook page, she wrote:
What would possess any professional reporter to falsely attribute comments to a newsmaker is quite puzzling.
Was there even a squeak from the authorities about the apparent lack of journalistic integrity on the part of Shin Min?
On 1 October 2013, Mediacorp’s TODAY newspaper carried the report above, headlined, “On healthcare, F1 and politicians”. It is a republishing of a transcript of an interview which the former head of the civil service, Mr Ngiam Tong Dow, had given to the Singapore Medical Association (SMA) earlier. The interview was published in the SMA News newsletter.
In that interview, Mr Ngiam made some controversial remarks about ministers which he later retracted, saying that “his recent comments on ministers [were] unfair and illogical.”
In a report on 14 October, the Straits Times’ Robin Chan reported: “The interview in the September edition of SMA News focused on health care, but was widely circulated online for the comments on politics and the civil service.”
What the paper failed to mention was that it was TODAY which had republished the interview in full online, causing Mr Ngiam’s remarks to, as it were, go viral.
In light of how the authorities and ministers such as Dr Yaacob had attacked Mr Philemon for reposting alleged false information, one wonders if TODAY’s republishing of Mr Ngiam’s potentially defamatory and apparently false claims falls into the same category of rumour-mongering, and if TODAY/Mediacorp should be taken to task in the same way Mr Philemon was.
If it was a blog site which had reproduced the interview, one would not be surprised if legal action was taken against that blog for “spreading falsehoods” or for defamation.
Yet there was, once again, total silence from the government on TODAY’s action.
On 20 September, MP for Nee Soon GRC, Ms Lee Bee Wah, was reported to have fingered the Government’s “tightening of foreign workers policy” as a potential “factor” in the ceiling collapse of the JEM shopping mall in Jurong.
It was an alarming remark by Ms Lee, given the weight of authority she carries as the Chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee for National Development and as an engineer herself.
Her parliamentary colleague, Mr Ang Wei Neng, who is also MP for Jurong GRC, also made some alarming remarks about the incident.
“I am concerned that there was some rush to open the mall. They may have taken some short cuts.’
While it is unclear who the “some” Mr Ang was referring to were, his remarks – like Ms Lee’s – are nonetheless quite disconcerting, coming as they were from a parliamentarian.
Yet, there were no clarification or confirmation from the authorities about what the two MPs had said.
If indeed the Government’s tightening of the foreign workers numbers may cause such incidents – ceilings collapsing – or could lead to “some” people taking “short cuts” which could endanger the safety of and lead to disastrous consequences for the public, surely this requires some serious attention.
Otherwise, Ms Lee and Mr Ang would be guilty of what Mr Philemon was accused of – rumour-mongering. Except that theirs would be much more serious, given the weight of official authority they carry in their capacities as MPs.
Yet, there was not a single word from the authorities.
Again, there was total silence.
On 14 September, the Straits Times and the TODAY newspapers carried reports on the statement by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) criticising the family of deceased inmate, Dinesh Raman Chinnaiah, of wanting ““substantial windfall amounts” as compensation for Mr Dinesh Raman’s death while in the custody of the Singapore Prisons Service.
In both reports, the views of the family were either not sought or not published along with the reports on the MHA’s statement, leaving unaware readers to form the impression that the family was a “money-grabbing” one.
In fact, as this report by The Online Citizen, which spoke to the mother of Dinesh Raman, shows, the family rejects the accusations by the MHA.
But this was never carried or reported by the two newspapers, as far as this writer is aware.
Again, it would seem that misinformation – or at least, partial information – has been perpetuated by the mainstream press.
Were there any reactions from the authorities to this?
The final example of how the mainstream media is just as guilty of what the authorities accuse the online media of – rumour-mongering, disseminating false information, etc – comes from abroad.
On 21 September, the Malaysian Chinese paper, Sin Chew Jit Poh (SCJP), reported that Mr Tan Wah Piow had sent a wreath to the funeral of Mr Chin Peng, the former head of the Malayan Communist Party (MCP).
Mr Tan is a former student leader at the National University of Singapore who now lives in exile in London.
Following the SCJP report, Mr Tan issued a statement to say that he had not in fact sent any wreaths to the wake of Mr Chin Peng.
Mr Tan said he took “immediate action to issue my denial and clarification” on the 27th of September when he heard about the report.
Mr Tan said the paper “had generously provided me a space larger than the original offending news story, and placed it prominently as the first news item in the appropriate inside page. Sin Chew had ensured that the reporting of my denial was noticed by their readers.”
The Singapore Chinese paper, Lianhe Wanbao, had apparently lifted from the SCJP article and reported the incident in its own newspaper on the 23rd of September.
[The headline says: “TAN WAH PIOW sent wreath of condolence.”
When Mr Tan contacted the paper to inform them of the mistake, he was told that the paper would publish a “clarification.”
‘I was elated,” Mr Tan said. “At least something has changed in Singapore, I thought to myself.”
As it turned out, the “clarification” was “a tiny innocuous announcement of less than 70 characters tucked at the bottom right hand corner of a very crowded and gaudy page of news reports and advertisements.”
“As pointed out to me by friends who saw the denial in Wan Bao,” Mr Tan said, “it was not a sincere effort on the part of the newspaper to rectify a colossal error of publishing a piece of untruth to their 412,000 readers.”
What do these examples tell us?
That when it comes to propaganda through its control of the media, the PAP Government is unable to rid itself of this. It is too valuable a tool to control information for it to let go. But in doing so, it lowers the media to nothing more than a mouthpiece of the Government, which indeed it is seen as.
But just as increasingly, such media will lose, and in fact is continuing to lose, credibility.
If what Mr Philemon had allegedly done is considered nothing short of seditious (given the vitriol and attacks from the likes of Dr Yaacob), then the twisting of facts by the mainstream media is nothing short of the same, surely.
If the Government continues to belief and think that such a media is one worthy of a first-world country, it will one day realise that it is in fact wrong about this – and will pay a bigger price.
Here is a truism, as reported by the Straits Times’ Tessa Wong:
If the mainstream media can live up to the same standards expected of the online media, perhaps then we will grant it more credibility and respect.
Until then, it is seen and will continue to be seen – rightly so – as nothing more than a Government mouthpiece.