It’s time for the government to relax its control on local media, said former editor PN Balji

The time has come for the government to relax some of its rules pertaining to the media, said former journalist and editor of TODAY and The New Paper PN Balji during the Workers’ Party (WP) Youth Wing webinar on 13 June about “Re-Imagining a Post-COVID Singapore”.

During the session, which can be found on the WP YouTube channel, Mr Balji commented, “It’s a wonder how Singapore calls itself a first world country, first world society, (but) doesn’t have a media that fits its first world status.”

Government control of media in several levels of legislation

He explained that this is because the government has control over the media on a primary level, meaning that there are laws that legislate the press such as a newspaper requiring a license in order to publish.

“So if you want to publish a newspaper, you have to get a license from the government and that’s a one-year license,” Mr Balji explained, adding that the government isn’t obliged to provide a reason should it decide not to renew a license.

Another aspect of this control that Mr Balji highlighted is the shareholding of public listed media companies. Specifically, the former-editor talked about Singapore Press Holdings, which is one of the country’s largest media organisations with businesses in print, digital, radio and more.

SPH runs newspapers such as the Straits Times, Lianhe Wanbao, Shin Min Dialy News, and Berita Harian. It also produces over 80 magazine titles in Singapore including Harper’s Bazaar, Marie Claire, and Men’s Health while also running AsiaOne and HardwareZone online.

Back in the 1970s under the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act, the shareholding structure of public listed companies like SPH was changed by the government to ensure that shares were spread out beyond a single person or entity, said Mr Balji.

He elaborated, “But I think is the devil in this detail is that the government introduced a shareholding structure by giving three percent, making the company give three percent of its shares to a group of people who, in my interpretation, would protect the government at all costs.”

Mr Balji added that it’s these people in the three percent who become board members. Of course, the board’s approval is required when appointing an editor of a newspaper.

As to voting rights within the company, Mr Balji said that “the three percent of shareholders have much higher voting rights, powers then the ordinary shareholders,” thus creating a “bottleneck” in local media.

Sweeping government control as many top executives are former civil servants

That’s the first level of control the government has over local media, according to Mr Balji. The second, he noted, was government interference in media beyond legislation. Specifically, the veteran journalist pointed out that many of SPH’s former chairmen were former cabinet ministers, including Mr Lim Kim San and Mr Tony Tan who served as cabinet ministers and Mr SR Nathan who was the 6th President of Singapore.

Even the current Chairman and Non-Executive and Independent Director of SPH now is Dr Lee Boon Yang who has served as Minister for Defence, Minister for Labour and later Minister for Manpower between 1991 to 2003.

Even at that level of having former high-level civil servants as the chairman of SPH, “the government (is) still not happy”, asserted Mr Balji. He added that even at the Chief Executive Officer level (CEO), many have been top civil servants. Currently, SPH’s CEO is Ng Yat Chung who was formerly the Chief of Defence Force in the Singapore Armed Forces.

“The controls are not just, they are not just sweeping but they go even to the extent of who is appointed as chairman,” emphasised Mr Balji, adding “I’m not sure whether we will reach a stage where the editor is also appointed by the government.”

Editors pay a heavy price for stepping out of line

Addressing the question of why the government does this despite already having laws to control the media, Mr Balji said it goes back to late founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and his view of the Western press.

As an example, Mr Balji shared an experience he had involving Mr Lee.

Mr Balji recounted, “And I still remember one occasion where he told editors and he said he was very unhappy with a photograph, his photograph, the photograph that I think the Straits times used. This was many years ago when he was still prime minister. And he said, he asked the editors, ‘what are y’all trying to do? Are y’all trying to bring me down?’ Because that’s what the British press did to Harold Wilson the Prime Minister.”

He added later, “So it’s that’s a lot of distrust despite bringing the media under its fold, despite so many controls.”

Going one rung down to editors in Singapore’s local media, Mr Balji recalled how some editors back in the day would “put their foot down with Lee Kuan Yew” and stood their ground, but still paid a heavy price for it, two of them losing their jobs.

One of these editors, which Mr Balji collectively described as “the Last of the Mohicans”, was Mr Cheong Yip Seng who was editor-in-chief of SPH’s English and Malay Newspapers Division for 43 years from 1987 to 2006.

Mr Balji highlighted Mr Cheong’s book, OB Markers: My Straits Times Story, illustrated instances of government intervention, though that was not what the book was about. Mr Balji noted how Mr Cheong lost his ambassadorship to Chile shortly after the book was published.

“So even people who have done a good job for the government or protecting the government, but even if you if you go against the government for one small thing, which I consider small, you pay a price,” said Mr Balji.

He added, “It’s also partly a lesson to the others.”

In the present media scene, Mr Balji says he thinks it is very different, saying it is “not as good as the media we used to have.”

He said, “My point is, it is very important in a Singapore context that the editors behind closed doors, at least, should put up their point of view. From what I hear, it doesn’t happen at all.”

He said that if it did actually happen, then the kind of media we see now would be quite different.

Mr Balji posited that the reason current editors are not following the footsteps of previous editors could be attributed to one or two reasons.

“One is that is they have been so well, they have taken in the government propaganda so well that they can’t even think of alternative measures. So they accept, they buy the arguments all the time,” he suggested.

“Second point is that they have seen what has happened to editors of the previous generation. Losing of jobs, right? So they said no, I don’t want to be in that position. You know, it’s my livelihood at stake.”

Mr Balji noted that the fundamental point he’s making is that it is time now for some of these rules to be relaxed. He added that this can be done as he doesn’t believe the current editors would “sabotage” Singapore.

He went on to ask, “So why is it that the government cannot relax? Is it because nobody things about it? Is it because nobody agitates against it as your survey showed, nobody cares about media?”

Mr Balji asserted, “But media is such a fundamental part of Singapore society.”

We note that Singapore is ranked 158 on the 2020 World Press Freedom Index, dropping 7 spots from the previous year. As compared to traditional media and other accredited media outlets, TOC is not beholden to the government as there is no press accreditation for the authorities to withdraw nor is there any advertising that they can cut.

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