By Andrew Loh
On 16 April, Singapore’s mainstream media reported that Indonesian Army Chief General Moeldoko had apologised for his country’s naming of a Navy ship after two Indonesian marines.
The frigate would be named Usman Harun, after the two soldiers, Osman Mohamed Ali and Harun Said.
“We have no ill intent whatsoever to stir emotions. Not at all,” the main broadsheet, The Straits Times, reported the general as having said, quoting from Channel Newsasia which had conducted an interview with the Army Chief.
“I apologise,” the two news outlets quoted Moeldoko as having said.
On the same day that the report was published, Singapore Defence Minister, Dr Ng Eng Hen, accepted the reported apology. He said the Singapore Armed Forces “will reciprocate Gen Moeldoko’s positive intentions by resuming bilateral cooperation and activities with the TNI”, as the Indonesian Army is referred to.
But two days later, the general denied making an apology for the naming of the vessel.
Instead, he clarified in a letter which was also copied to several chiefs in the defence force, that he had instead only expressed regret that the decision to name the ship could not be reconsidered.
In his response, Dr Ng said “Singapore will accept Indonesia’s apology over the naming of a new warship at ‘face value’.”
There was little Dr Ng could do and one would empathise with him, that perhaps – for domestic political reasons – the general had decided to change his mind.
However, the episode raises the question of how Singapore conducts its diplomacy with other countries.
It would seem, from how things transpired, that Dr Ng and/or Mindef had only based its statement of acceptance of the apology on Singapore’s mainstream media reports.
Isn’t there a telephone they (Dr Ng and Mindef) could pick up, so to speak, and confirm the apology with the Indonesian side before they issued the statement of acceptance?
Diplomacy through the media is not a good thing to do – as we can see from Dr Ng having to say that he “accepts” the “apology” on “face value”, even though the Indonesians insist they did not apologise.
We could also perhaps spare CNA or the ST from criticisms in this incident, as it is probable that the general was the one who reneged on his words.
But the ST did get it wrong – in another incident last December which prompted a rather curt reaction from another country.
When the Little India riot first broke on 8 December, the Straits Times reported that a Bangladeshi national had been killed in an accident. As it turned out, it was not true.
It prompted the Bangladeshi High Commission to issue a statement to dispel the false or wrong report which, it said, “was not based on facts.”
The person killed was Mr Sakthivel Kumaravelu, an Indian national.
Incidentally, the ST (and other local mainstream media outlets) had also wrongly identified an Indian national as the so-called “Good Samaritan” who tried to stop the rioters during the riot.
Last week, the ST reported that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had said that he was “considering a coalition government.” Evidently, the ST was basing its report on an interview PM Lee had had with the Financial Times.
It was quite unusual for PM Lee to say that, given how he and his party have always preferred and indeed insisted on a one-party government. (See this writer’s reaction to the report then: “PAP considering coalition gov’t? Far from it!”)
Sure enough, Mr Lee later corrected the ST report – on his Facebook page – that he did not in fact say that he was considering a coalition government.
“A coalition government was not on my mind,” he said.
In the latest controversy over the Philippine Independence Day celebration in Singapore, again we see inaccurate reporting by the local mainstream media.
On 16 April, the ST reported:
“The Pilipino Independence Day Council Singapore (PIDCS), a group of Filipino volunteers, put up a post on Facebook about the event last weekend and drew fire almost immediately.
“Negative comments from Singaporeans flooded in, with Facebook page “Say ‘No’ to an overpopulated Singapore” urging locals to protest on the PIDCS page.
“The page, which has 26,000 “likes”, is against the celebration of the Philippine Independence Day here and said that festivities should be confined to the Philippine Embassy compound.
Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan Jin castigated those who opposed the celebratory event.
Referring to the ST report of the protest, Mr Tan said on his Facebook page:
“It was the reported 26,000 ‘likes’ for the page that ‘is against the celebration of the Philippine Independence Day here’ that raised my brows.”
“As it turned out, the reporting was inaccurate. It was actually the post against the activity itself that garnered several hundred ‘likes’. The page that hosted it was the one that had the twenty-over thousand likes.”
In effect, what Mr Tan was apparently saying was that the ST report had given the wrong impression of how much support the post on the protest which was posted on the group’s Facebook page had.
Such inaccurate reporting could stoke emotions which had been running high, no doubt.
The ST later responded to Mr Tan’s accusation:
“The reference to the 26,000 likes was clearly about the page “Say No to an Overpopulated Singapore”. The administrators of this page, which has 26,000 likes, had asked people to join in their protests. We did not say there were 26,000 protesters.”
The ST is being disingenuous here. It could have better distinguished the number of “likes” on the page itself from the number of “likes” on the post against the Pilipino event easily in its report.
Indeed, it admitted as much in its response to Mr Tan:
“Could we have phrased our sentences better so as not to potentially cause confusion? Perhaps.”
“Perhaps”? I think former ST’s associate editor Bertha Henson, said it best in her open letter to the ST forum editor:
“For a subject that is potentially explosive, I believe it behoved ST to be extra vigilant in the accuracy of the information it publishes.”
PM Lee himself also waded into the protest controversy, and said that he was “appalled to read about those who harassed the organisers” of the event.
When asked by the ST if they would make a police report over the threats and harassment, the organisers said they would not.
So, no one really knows what the threats were, or the nature of them. Were they real? Were they instead miscommunication, or misunderstanding?
Did the ST report what the organisers said accurately?
Did PM Lee verify and confirmed that there were in fact such threats?
And incidentally, while the mainstream media was reporting that the celebratory event would be held at Ngee Ann City, the Singapore Police Force revealed that the organisers had in fact not submitted any application for a permit to hold the event. (See here.)
Given how the mainstream media have been failing in reporting accurately on several occasions in recent times – and in fact the past few years – it might be best for our politicians, especially the PM and his ministers, to verify and ascertain the truth or accuracy of news reports from the mainstream media before they react to them publicly.
While the government may continue to insist that the mainstream media are “accurate, timely and balanced”, the simple truth is that they are not.
Their standards have dropped considerably, and you can tell from how they would even re-publish an old Easter article last Sunday, apparently passing it off as an original, or perhaps not even aware that it is a “recycled” article. (See here.)
While the consequences so far of the inaccurate reports are just eggs on the faces of some people (including our politicians), they may not be so trivial if our media get more important things wrong in future.
Recently, the Straits Times portal, STOMP, was also lambasted for its inaccurate use of a photo to disparage an NSman, which then led to a petition to call for the site to be shut down. (See here: “Straits Times portal’s inaccurate report about NSman on train“)
The petition has garnered more than 23,000 signatures so far. (See here.)