Making a mockery of the Prime Minister

By Andrew Loh

lhlAllow me to disabuse you from thinking that this article is about how blogger Roy Ngerng or the support he has received is making a mockery of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

On the contrary, this article is about how the government’s own main mouthpiece – The Straits Times – is making the prime minister look rather inept, childish and unable to stand his own.

In other words, making Lee look like an idiot.

It has been 5 days since Roy started his fundraising campaign for the legal battle he was dragged into by the prime minister over a blog post.

And in all of those 5 days, the Straits Times has chosen to remain completely tight-lipped about the campaign – and how it has garnered an unprecedented show of support – both financial and moral – for Roy.

In an astounding rally-round-Roy display of camaraderie against Lee Hsien Loong, members of the public gave some S$15,000 on the very first day of online campaign to raise funds. The number jumped to S$35,000 on the second day; to S$50,000 on the third, and achieved its targeted S$70,000 by 5pm on the fourth day.

Raising S$70,000 in just 4 days could be a sign of how much the public is fed-up with the highhandedness of how the matter was dealt with by Lee.

First, he demanded the removal of the allegedly offensive blog post.

He also demanded an apology, and that an offer of compensation be made to him.

Roy took down the blog post in question, apologised and requested that Lee not demand damages, or at least to reconsider the demand.

Lee rejected the apology as being “insincere”, repeated his demand for Roy to offer compensation, and – in what was seen as an act of excessiveness and bullying – demanded that Roy also removed 4 other blog articles which had not even mentioned Lee in any way.

The support given to Roy is thus, quite clearly, a repudiation of the way the prime minister went about righting what he perceived as a wrong – the allegation that he had “misappropriated” Singaporeans’ CPF monies – and the demands he made.

The silence from the Straits Times on the successful fundraising effort by Roy adds to the already poor public perception of Lee in this matter.

By any standards of serious and honest journalism, such a show of support by the public against the head of government would be and indeed is newsworthy – unless you’re a state-controlled apparatus – set-up for no other purpose than to propagate the state’s propaganda and to protect its puppet masters on occasions such as the present one.

But the Straits Times has always professed to be “professional”.

So, how does one explain the total silence from the Straits Times on this momentous event where such a huge sum of money is donated in small denominations in support of Roy?

Not too long ago, the former head of the civil service, Ngiam Tong Dow, said:

“[It] started going downhill when we started to raise ministers’ salaries, not even pegging them to the national salary but aligning them with the top ten.

“When you raise ministers’ salaries to the point that they’re earning millions of dollar(s), every minister — no matter how much he wants to turn up and tell (PM Lee) Hsien Loong off or whatever — will hesitate when he thinks of his million-dollar salary.”

Ngiam later retracted his remarks, for no apparent reason – but many believe his words to be an accurate reflection of one of the problems in government, the lack of courage among some to tell it like it is.

The same could be said of the mainstream media, which sees itself as some sort of “nation-building” institution, an euphemism for protecting the failures of the government.

In the age of the Internet, however, such ancient mindsets will fail and is indeed failing as the alternative online and social media fill in the gaps on what the government-controlled media is unable to report, or is prevented from reporting.

In 2012, the editor of the Straits Times, Warren Fernandez, said:

“As professional journalists, we do not see ourselves as cheerleaders for any political party. Our aim is simply to report the news dispassionately and objectively, so that our readers can decide for themselves.”

In the papers today (3 June 2014), both ministers Khaw Boon Wan and Lawrence Wong warned of “cynicism” among Singaporeans.

The caution is not new, even those like Kishore Mahbubani has railed against it, especially pointing the finger at the online community.

But to do so is to fail to see and accept that a lot of such cynicism is self-inflicted, as far as the government is concerned – self-inflicted because of poor policies (which the government itself has admitted), and unfair or biased institutions such as the media.

While the case between Roy and Lee winds through the legal process, the other – perhaps bigger – battle will be fought in the court of public opinion.

And for the public to be able to fairly assess the merits of each side’s case, there has to be fair information presented.

To act like the Straits Times is doing is not only irresponsible because it presents only one side of the story and skews the facts, it is also detrimental to public trust in public institutions and the government.

One hopes that Lee will be able to see that such blind and sychophantic or obsequious self-censorship by its mouthpiece in the age of the Internet will only lead to distrust of not just the media but also towards Lee himself and his government.

Indeed, it will be seen as Lee wielding yet another bully club to unfairly do battle with an ordinary Singaporean.

It is thus time for the mainstream media to stop making a mockery of the prime minister by hiding him behind a protective wall of censorship.

This is Lee’s 30th year in politics, and his 10th as prime minister. He is a grown man, and he can fight his own battle – fairly and squarely.