People’s Action Party’s Secretary General, Lee Hsien Loong congratulated The Straits Times (ST) on its 175th anniversary today (15 Jul).
In his message, he said ST’s enduring legacy is a testimony to the trust that generations of Singaporeans have placed in it. He also said that he has fond memories of poring over the pages of ST getting his fingers “blackened with the ink”, when he was growing up reading ST.
Following is the message he sent congratulating ST:
“Ever since the ink was printed on its very first issue on 15 July 1845, The Straits Times has unwaveringly told the story of Singapore for nearly two centuries. Today, it is Singapore’s most-read newspaper, and makes a profound impact on our society.
I have fond memories of poring over the pages of The Straits Times, getting my fingers blackened with the ink, when I was growing up. These days, readers are just as likely to get their news by simply swiping on a screen. The format may have changed, but The Straits Times remains true to its mission: Delivering the latest news and in-depth analysis on the region and the world. It also provides a key platform to discuss the interests of our community.
The enduring legacy of The Straits Times testifies to the trust that generations of Singaporeans have placed in it. Under the watchful stewardship of its editors, journalists and photographers, The Straits Times must continue to adapt and modernise itself, to remain relevant to readers who now have multiple sources of news, views and entertainment, online and offline.
We have many more chapters to write in our Singapore Story. May The Straits Times live on to be read and enjoyed by generations of Singaporeans to come.
Happy 175th Anniversary!”
ST put under PAP government’s control
ST was actually established on July 15, 1845 by Armenian merchant Catchick Moses as an eight-page weekly. But by 1982, the PAP government decided that ST needs to be “changed”.
Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) candidate Tan Jee Say who recently contested at Holland-Bukit Timah GRC was formerly a senior civil servant with the government. After the passing of former President S R Nathan in Aug 2016, Jee Say wrote a short article on his Facebook page, recounting how Nathan was sent by Lee’s father to Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) to “change” ST.
Jee Say revealed that after PAP’s disastrous defeat at the 1981 Anson by-election (31 Oct 1981), then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew personally sent Nathan to SPH as its executive chairman in an attempt to “change” ST. The election loss was the first for PAP since Singapore achieved its independence in 1965.
Late Lee Kuan Yew was unhappy with the way ST reported the news during the Anson by-election. He expressed his unhappiness to the PSC Chairman at a lunch meeting.
Jee Say revealed, “Apparently the two gentlemen (LKY and PSC Chairman) had a long lunch at which the PM expressed his unhappiness over the way the Straits Times reported the Anson by-election which the PAP lost, its first election defeat in 18 years. He probably expected more losses unless changes were made to the way the media reported on government policies.”
So, soon after Nathan retired from the civil service in Jan 1982, it was announced that he would become the new executive chairman of SPH, with executive power to manage the affairs of SPH directly. Lee Kuan Yew also asked Nathan to rope in Jee Say for the job of transforming SPH.
“I was amused when I received a telephone call from him (Nathan) in his new role. He told me that he had just had lunch with Lee Kuan Yew who had suggested that he persuaded me to work with him to transform the Straits Times. He invited me to lunch,” recalled Jee Say.
“He (Nathan) thought I would be impressed… I had told the good chairman that I was more interested in economic development policy work than in promoting political propaganda.”
Jee Say did not join Nathan. In the 6 years from 1982 to 1988, Nathan worked diligently to help transform SPH for the PAP government. Jee Say himself would later leave the civil service in 1990 to join the private sector in the finance industry.
Since Nathan’s time, the executive chairman position of SPH would inevitably be held by people linked to PAP. The current executive chairman of SPH is Lee Boon Yang, a former PAP Cabinet Minister. He took over from Tony Tan in 2011, who is, of course, also a former PAP Cabinet Minister.
Former ST Editor-in-Chief reveals non-independence of ST
Even retired Editor-in-Chief Cheong Yip Seng acknowledged publicly that the PAP government has a habit of “manipulating” public opinions through ST in his own memoir, “OB Markers: My Straits Times Story”, published in 2012 (‘ST total circulation trending downwards in last 8 years‘).
In his book, Mr Cheong talked about how the PAP government would systematically controlled and meddled with the press.
One of the episodes was when Peter Lim, Mr Cheong’s predecessor, resisted Lee Kuan Yew’s pressure to print the full ‘O’ level results of opposition politician Chiam See Tong during the 1984 election. Lee wanted to show to voters that Chiam did not have the academic credentials to be a capable MP. Lim resisted because he felt it would backfire on the newspaper.
Mr Cheong also related how Peter Lim, then his boss, had tried to run the newsroom with some form of independence and paid the price by having to resign in 1987. Mr Cheong himself was careful to make sure that he was not going to face that kind of fate. He knew when to give in, when to remain stoic and when to argue — gently, that is — when the “notorious phone calls” came.
And among the many “notorious phone calls” Mr Cheong had to deal with, he revealed one call he got during the 1988 GE when former Solicitor General Francis Seow was contesting as an opposition candidate under Workers’ Party banner in Eunos GRC. With that one phone call, ST immediately stopped covering the election campaign of Francis Seow overnight.
Mr Cheong’s memoir also described the many interventions in Singapore’s media by the government – from appointments of editors to shaping coverage of political and foreign events and even to minor stories like stamp-collecting, carpet-buying and MSG, which the government deemed important for the citizens to know. These were matters Mr Cheong had to deal with regularly in his times as Editor-in-Chief in SPH.
Singapore ranked lowly in World Press Freedom Index
With such executive interference of media in Singapore by the PAP government, it’s no wonder that Singapore has always ranked consistently at the bottom in terms of freedom of the press.
According to Reporters Without Border (RSF), an international non-governmental organization that promotes and defends freedom of the press with consultant status at the United Nations, Singapore is currently ranked 158th in the 2020 World Press Freedom Index out of 180 countries.
Singapore’s ranking is not too far from that of North Korea (180th), which is at the bottom of the ranking. At 158th, Singapore has been ranked among some of the most under-developed third world countries:
People from first world countries would readily agree that having a free press forms the basis of democracy.
The need for every citizens to be informed so that he or she can make a free and transparent choice was succinctly put forward by Thomas Jefferson, one of the Founding Fathers of America:
“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be. If we are to guard against ignorance and remain free, it is the responsibility of every American to be informed.”