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From government to media: More and more public officers are becoming journalists

The relationship between media and the government – especially independent and alternative media – is oftentimes in most countries rather strained. A country like the United States where ‘freedom of the press’ is a constitutional right which is so staunchly guarded sees a media that can be brutally honest and sometimes just brutal. Such is the price of free speech.

But in other countries such as authoritarian China, this issue is dealt with via a firm hand from the government which strictly controls the media, censors the internet, and filters the news that gets down to its citizens to match up with the state’s policies and agenda. It is Orwellian.

The examples above are like two opposite ends of the spectrum of government control in media. Where does Singapore lie on that spectrum? Singapore isn’t a totalitarian state. But while it is a democratic country, the laws on freedom of speech and media are rather limiting in how it is used to silence reporters and press that are more critical of the government.

But perhaps more importantly than that, the media in Singapore has been used time and time again by the ruling party to cement their political power. One only has to look at the mainstream media to understand how.

The osmosis of staff between the public sector and mainstream media companies in Singapore is not a new occurrence and this movement of staff across the two bodies explains a lot about the state of media in this country.

Some examples of former government officers turned media personnel include the managing director of Mothership.sg, Martino Tan who had worked as a senior manager in Online Communications under the Prime Minister’s Office as well as having a career in the armed forces.

Then there’s the executive director of digital news at Channel NewsAsia, Ms Lin Suling who spent seven years in the public service – one year with the Ministry of Finance and six years with the Ministry of Defence.

On top of that, you have the Chief Corporate Development Officer at Mediacorp, Ms Angeline Poh. She served 12 years with the Singapore Economic Development Board and over three years with the Infocomms and Media Development Authority (2 years with MDA) before her gig with Mediacorp.

Last but certainly not least, there’s Jason Tan who worked as a journalist for four years with SPH before moving to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for eight years. After that, he turned back to media, serving now as Executive Editor at TODAY under Mediacorp.

This movement of personnel between the government and mainstream media works both ways. There have been many cases of journalists, reports and editors trading in their media passes for a government pass.

One such person is Chua Lee Hong, a member of the Public Transport Council. Ms Chua is also the Senior Director Resilience Policy and Research Centre, and Senior Director of the National Security Research Centre, in the Prime Minister’s Office.

But prior putting on those government hats, Ms Chua was with Straits Times for 17 years including two years as a Features Editor, four years as Political editor and six years as Review Editor.

Even when she was with Straits Times, Ms Chua wrote strong articles against the Internet or rise of internet news. As a journalist, she slammed the internet for being an unreliable source for news, claiming that there’s no way to trust what you read online due to ‘ignorance, mischief or sheer absence of quality control’.

Ms Chua asserts that print media such as newspapers are a far more reliable source of news that anything you can find online. Of course, Ms Chua was, at the time, referring to the rising popularity of independent news sites that were cropping up, providing an alternative narrative to the ones peddled by print media which were and still largely are pro-government.

Another example is PAP politician Irene Ng who was MP for Tampines GRC from 2001 to 2015. Before entering politics, Ms Ng has an illustrious career as a journalist with Straits Time, servings as Senior Political Correspondent for a time.

What Ms Ng’s story in particular highlights is that journalists have a similar option as military generals to get a ticket into parliament, though not of the same travel class.