Former SCMP journalist Toh Han Shih stresses need for more press freedom in S’pore for financial information

Speaking at an online roundtable conversation organised by Future of Singapore (FOSG) on Saturday (22 May), Toh Han Shih, a Singaporean journalist living in Hong Kong since 2003, spoke on the extent of press freedom in Singapore and Hong Kong.

Mr Toh was a reporter at Business Times, covering the dotcom boom and bust from 1995 to 2000, and also worked as a business reporter for the South China Morning Post (SCMP) for 10 years. He is currently a chief analyst at Headland Intelligence in Hong Kong.

Living in Hong Kong for 18 years, Mr Toh said that he has “personally witnessed” the contrast in the extent of press freedom between Singapore and Hong Kong.

Mr Toh recalled his time at SCMP, when he was assigned to cover the story of China and Hong Kong signed CEPA [Mainland and Hong Kong Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement] in 2003, which had led 500,000 people to march in protest.

“My editor in SCMP very strictly said, ‘Don’t you write it as a propaganda article, don’t say that it was a wonderful and perfect free trade agreement, point out the problems it has’, which I really did,” he noted.

Later on, Mr Toh told a lawyer from Singapore about the incident, and asked if such reporting is allowed in the lion city.

“I asked the Singapore lawyer: ‘If I was a reporter in Singapore and Singapore strike a free trade agreement with China or America, would I be allowed to write a story saying that this free trade agreement is not perfect but has lots of problems?

“Then the Singapore lawyer sarcastically replied: ‘You can, on TalkingCock, which is a satire website,” he recounted.

Citing the statements made by founding Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew and Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam, Mr Toh pointed out that the leaders’ statements reflected the level of press freedom in both cities.

In October 2019, Lam told reporters that “freedom of speech is a core value of Hong Kong”, and “completely agree” that the media has a role as “the fourth estate in monitoring the Government”.

Whereas in April 1988, the late LKY said: “One value which does not fit Singapore is the theory of the press as the fourth estate. From British Times, the Singapore press was never the fourth estate.

“And in Singapore’s experience, because of our volatile racial and religious mix, the American concept of the marketplace of ideas, instead of producing harmonious enlightenment, has time and again led to riots and bloodshed.”

Mr Toh also cited the World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), which indicated that Hong Kong dropped from number 56 in 2003 to 80 this year, while Singapore fell from number 144 in 2003 to 160 this year.

China, on the other hand, dropped from number 161 in 2003 to 177 this year.

Mr Toh highlighted that the recent developments in Hong Kong – particularly the National Security Law imposed by Beijing last year – will further lower its ranking next year.

He cited the chairman of the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) Chris Yeung, who said that the National Security Law contains clauses that a person shall be charged under the law if found to encourage hatred and unrest against the Chinese Government or Hong Kong Government.

“So according to this head of HKJA, what if a reporter wrote articles in sympathy of the protester? Will he be charged under the National Security Law for inciting riots in Hong Kong with the Chinese Government?” Mr Toh questioned.

Journalists have yet to be charged under the new national security law, except for Hong Kong media tycoon and Beijing critic Jimmy Lai, the owner of Hong Kong’s tabloid-style newspaper Apple Daily, he added.

Mr Lai was sentenced to 14 months in prison for taking part in unauthorised assemblies during anti-government protests in Hong Kong in 2019. He faces three more charges, including collusion with a foreign country.

His shares in Apple Daily and bank accounts belonging to three other companies he owns were frozen.

Mr Toh also cited RTHK, a Hong Kong’s broadcasting agency that followed the model of British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).

“RTHK supposed to be like BBC. Owned by the Government, but it has the freedom to criticize the Government,” he noted.

The recent developments in the news agency have led to “a lot of demoralization”, which caused many of the editors and journalists to resign from RTHK, said Mr Toh.

For example, journalist Nabela Qoser, who is well known for her tough questioning of top government officials during the 2019 protests in Hong Kong, was terminated from RTHK.

It was reported in early May that RTHK has terminated Qoser’s civil service contract, and replaced it with a 120-day contract instead, citing an ongoing internal investigation into complaints about her reporting.

“Recently, RTHK scrap a number of talk shows, but it announced on April onwards that Carrie Lam will have her own special talk show on RTHK,” said Mr Toh.

Following Singapore Press Holdings’ (SPH) announcement to restructure its whole media-related business model to a newly formed Company-Limited-by-Guarantee (CLG), Mr Toh questioned how the SPH media will be structured.

“Will SPH media under the Singapore Government be like BBC? Owned by the Government, funded by the Government but free to criticize the Government? Or will it be like the state media like Apple Daily? Or will it be something in between like RTHK?” he wondered.

The need for press freedom in disseminating financial information

Mr Toh went on to stress the need for more press freedom in Singapore for financial information, such as foreign investments.

“There must be room for more press freedom in Singapore, because right now foreign investors perceived that Hong Kong is becoming more and more like Mainland China. There are reports of some multinationals, or international bankers and lawyers moving from Hong Kong to Singapore,” he noted.

Mr Toh opined that the Hong Kong Government made a wise move to make press freedom a core value of the country, considering that Hong Kong Stock Exchange (SEHK) is one of the world’s top three exchanges, along with London and New York.

“Hong Kong played an important role with this press freedom, by allowing newspapers like the Wall Street Journal, SCMP, Financial Times, Bloomberg, and Reuters to offer objective and investigative an in-depth probing of what’s the real situation with the Chinese economy,” he explained.

Mr Toh believes that Singapore’s local media need to “open up more”, given that the foreign investors want accurate and objective information on the economy, not only of Singapore, but also of China and Asia at large.

He elaborated, “A few years ago, the Monetary Authority of Singapore had what they called a regulatory sandbox for entrepreneurs to experiment with cryptocurrency, without all the burdens of regulations.

“I think the Singapore Government should have a kind of a media sandbox to give the Singapore media measure of freedom to also experiment around with all these new areas.”

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