On 14 June, renowned veteran journalist PN Balji launched his book Reluctant Editor in which he shares stories from his time as editor of The New Paper and Today with a look behind the scenes on the relationship between the government and mainstream media.
Nicholas Yong of Yahoo! News Singapore says the 70-year old “paints a portrait of a thin-skinned government that often reacted defensively to negative coverage and was unafraid to resort to strong arm-tactics”. One example of a story recounted in the book was in 1981 when senior editors at Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) were called to a press conference with then-Transport Minister Ong Teng Cheong who demanded that the editors reveal their sources for a story that Straits Times ran about impending bus fare hikes.
Stories like these don’t often see the light of day as many members of the media are reluctant to get on the government’s bad side. In fact, at the launch of the book, Mr Balji noted that “Singapore journalists hardly write stories about journalism. Many take these stories to the grave.”
Spurred on by Mr Balji’s words, Mr Yong decided to share some of his experience from his 12 years as a journalist in Singapore, shining a light on the state of journalistic affairs on the island.
Mr Yong said that even decades with the proliferation of social media and alternative news sites, the Singapore government hasn’t altered its approach to the media – “it has simply gotten smarter and much more sophisticated about it”.
The first story Mr Yong shared was about press access in Singapore which he describes as a ‘caste system’. Specifically, Mr Yong notes that SPH and Mediacorp outlets – Channel NewsAsia, Today, Straits Times – are given priority for important press releases, speeches and event invites.
“It is not unusual for accredited outlets like Yahoo News Singapore to be sent press releases hours after the MSM outlets have broken a story, or to be told that certain high-profile events are reserved for “local media only”,” says Mr Yong.
He tells of one occasion when Yahoo was given the run-around by senior government officials on their request for an advanced copy of the National Day Rally speech. The excuse given was that they don’t have it while at the same time, other mainstream media reporters had already obtained the speech the day before.
“In this day and age, why is the MSM [mainstream media] still accorded first-mover advantage over other media outlets, thus enabling it to shape the narrative first?”
Avoiding requests is a recurring theme by the Singapore government, according to Mr Yong. Another story highlights this rather well. Earlier this year when Yahoo was working on a story about maid abuse in Singapore, they had reached out to the Ministry of Manpower to request for facts and figures on the issue. However, they merely received a one-liner reply that said, “we’re unable to facilitate your queries”.
The lack of an equivalent to the US Freedom of Information Act means that the government is often less than forthcoming, particularly on topic that are ‘sensitive’ such as maid abuse. And there’s no way for members of the media or public to official demand for those information.
No freedom of information
Then there’s the fact that the government seems to have a strong distrust of the media, apparently fearing some sort of hidden agenda. So a media outlet can go from having limited access to being cut off entirely from receiving information from the government.
Mr Yong recounted how he had reached out to the police for a quote when he was working on a follow-up story on the incident where PM Lee’s oldest son was filmed by a stranger who gave him a lift. The police have revealed the man’s prior brushes with the law.
Mr Yong reached out to the police with quotes from lawyers who has questioned the police’s revelation of the driver’s record which could potentially prejudice any case against him. The police spokesperson, however, asked Mr Yong’s editor, “what is your agenda?”
“After giving the assurance that our “agenda” was only to practise good journalism, we were promised an official response, and therefore held back our story. Two days went by without word from the police,” explained Mr Yong.
He added, “When Yahoo informed the police that we were going ahead with the story, we received a bizarre request: could we not mention that we had asked the police for a response?”
Shortly after publishing the story, Yahoo stopped receiving police press releases about impending court cases. When asked, the police merely said that Yahoo had been taken out of the mailing list following an ‘internal annual review’ of access for media outlets.
These few stories Mr Yong shared clearly paints a picture of the contentious relationship between the Singapore government and the press. But the mainstream media doesn’t always have to be strong-armed, says Mr Yong, as it sometimes practices self-censorship.
None of the mainstream media outlets reported on the news that Li Huanwu, on of Lee Kuan Yew’s grandson, married his male partner in South Africa. The mainstream media also barely covered PM Lee’s recent comments that Vietnam had invaded Cambodia, on how it triggered a rush of criticisms from the two ASEAN countries.
Mr Yong posits that the self-censorship is a result of an ever present fear of reprisal thanks to the government’s use of various laws to silence the press. The Official Secrets Act – used against a Straits Times over a leak of a confidential HDB project – and now the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act that grants ministers broad powers to determine what constitutes a falsehood means that journalists have to tread more carefully than before.
“If the journalists themselves are afraid of doing their jobs, how is the public being served?” asks Mr Yong.
“If the journalists do not speak up, then who will? In a country whose institutions are so thoroughly dominated by the ruling party, where will the checks and balances come from?”