On Friday (25 May), Anwar Ibrahim called on the press to do away with the practice of flattering government leaders by painting rosy stories about them, urging the media to take seriously its role of providing checks and balances in the country.
Anwar has been designated by the current PM Mahathir to take over from him in 1 to 2 years’ time. The Pakatan Harapan coalition won a landslide victory in the recent general election in Malaysia on 9 May, enabling it to form the new government.
Speaking at Seberang Jaya in Penang, he said, “It is thanks to the media’s ‘ampu’ culture that (BN) leaders have become spoiled.”
‘Ampu culture’ refers to ‘carrying balls’ or being sycophantic.
Anwar then invites the media to be critical of the government, “In the current euphoria, all the media outlets are supporting Pakatan Harapan (PH). Once we have settled down, the media has the right to criticise both the federal and state governments of PH.”
He said politicians in turn must accept the criticism instead of hitting out at the press.
Anwar said some examples of how the media had flattered leaders in the past was the way in which news outlets had falsely boasted about issues such as education and the economy.
“We used to get news like this: Malaysia has the best leader in the world, the best economy in the world, the best education in the world, the best healthcare in the world. Agriculture, factories, and even the best pay in the world, too,” he said.
“This is all nonsense and lies. We expect the media to air the people’s views, and the people should not be afraid to criticise.”
“And leaders should not complain about the criticism like Umno leaders. They must be able to accept it,” he added.
Media need to thread carefully in Singapore
While the new Malaysian leaders are inviting its media to be critical of the government so as to spur the leaders to do better for Malaysians, the same cannot be said about the Singapore side.
A Wikileak document from the US State Department some years ago has revealed that Singapore’s leaders are particularly sensitive to criticism.
Some Singapore journalists have told officials stationed at US Embassy in Singapore that they are increasingly “frustrated with the obstacles” they face in reporting on sensitive domestic issues. Reporters have to be careful in their coverage, as “Singapore’s leaders will likely come down hard on anyone who reports negative stories about the government or its leadership”.
Apparently, Chua Chin Hon, the ST Bureau Chief of US at the time, told a Mr Poloff in the Embassy that there is a growing disconnect between ST’s reporters and its editors, with the reporters wanting to do more investigative and critical stories than the editors will allow.
Chua lamented that the ST editors have all been groomed as pro-government supporters and are careful to ensure that reporting of local events adheres closely to the official line. He said that none of the editors has the courage to publish any stories critical of the government.
He said that ST would only dare to buck the government’s line if it was clear that the majority of Singaporeans were already opposed to the government’s policy. Even then, the media would tread carefully as the government has an established track record of using the press, the ST in particular, to shape public opinion.
Singapore government won’t hesitate to sue journalists
Separately, Reporters Without Border (RSF), an international NGO that promotes and defends freedom of information and the press, has also criticised the Singapore government.
“Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s government reacts quickly to criticism from journalists and does not hesitate to sue them, apply pressure to make them unemployable, or even force them to leave the country,” RSF noted.
“Defamation suits are common in the city-state and may sometimes be accompanied by a charge of sedition, which is punishable by up to 21 years in prison.”
“As in many southeast Asian countries, governmental plans to legislate against ‘fake news’ are seen as a threat to the freedom to inform. A proposed law that would allow the police to search homes and electronic devices without a warrant poses a grave threat to the confidentiality of journalists’ sources,” it added.
It is perhaps quite understandable that why incumbent governments like Malaysia’s BN or Singapore’s PAP would want the media to always paint a positive picture of themselves, so as to garner more votes during elections.
RSF ranked Singapore in 151st position for its 2018 World Press Freedom Index.
But the BN’s loss in recent Malaysia general election has shown that no amount of ‘ampu’ by the state-controlled media would help if the people are angry.