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Clutching at Straws: Shanmugam’s hollow defence of PAP media myths

This article was first published in The Online Citizen on 8 Nov 2010:’s-hollow-defence-of-pap-media-myths

In a talk entitled “The Role of the Media: Singapore’s Perspective” delivered at Columbia University on 4 Nov 2010, Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam perpetuated the same well-rehearsed myths that justify the PAP’s ironclad grip on the mainstream media in Singapore. The Minister was spot-on about one thing though – the arguments he raised were a function of PAP paranoia.

Myth Number 1: It is in the interests of Singapore (or the PAP?)

The Singapore media scene is dominated by two government-linked publishers, Singapore Press Holdings and Mediacorp. In the years after independence in 1965, Singapore hosted a vibrant media scene comprising various English and vernacular presses that ran a wide range of views on issues of national interest. Shanmugam argued that today’s PAP was not going to be an irresponsible government and gamble with the lives of Singaporeans by hosting a free media. Going by Shanmugam’s argument, was the PAP of the late 1960s and early 1970s “gambling with the lives” of Singaporeans in allowing numerous independent and privately controlled newspapers to operate? Was it an irresponsible government? Surely not. With men like Goh Keng Swee, Hon Sui Sen and S. Rajaratnam helming the fort, such a suggestion is ludicrous.

Until the Newspapers and Printing Presses Act 1974, the first-generation PAP leaders not only survived and lifted an entire generation of Singaporeans out of poverty, they also set the foundations for extraordinary growth in the face of a flourishing media environment immediately after independence. The logic follows that the current crop of PAP leaders, unlike their predecessors, are incapable of handling the real-world realities of the competitive media environment. This is in spite of the million-dollar annual salaries that Goh Keng Swee would have been loathe to pay today’s PAP ministers.

Myth Number 2: The media will exploit race and religion

The history of mankind has shown that race and religion can be exploited for political purposes – in fact, Singapore’s experience with the 1964 riots makes this point out. Never mind for a moment that the predominant catalyst of those riots resided in the political tension between the PAP and UMNO, and not with the media.

What Shanmugam conveniently left out is the positive role the media can play, and has played, in bridging and bringing differences between different racial communities together.  Sometime in 1992, in an extremely sad episode in modern India’s recent history, a country that gained independence slightly more than 15 years before Singapore, Hindu zealots destroyed the Babri mosque in the town of Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh. The rabid act of Hindu religious violence was rooted in contested claims to the land on which the mosque was built. In late September 2010, the High Court of Uttar Pradesh delivered its judgment with an order to divide the disputed land three ways.

The role of the media in the run-up to the judgment was noteworthy. In response to the government’s request to the hyper-competitive Indian media to exercise restraint in reporting the Ayodhya verdict, the country’s media responded by coalescing opinion from faith, business, industry and political leaders, amongst others, restating India’s commitment to secularism, diversity, tolerance and respect for religious minorities. Even though India hosts a very significant minority of 150 million Muslims, the verdict was dissected and argued over vigorously. Yet, no violence ensued and the media’s positive influence had equally positive knock-on effects on Indian society and economy.

In his tiresome justification on the dangers of racial and religious strife, Shanmugam seems to have conveniently ignored the giant strides made by Singaporeans in building a multiracial society. National Service for one, has been an incredible adhesive.

While one can portend the possible existence of a radical and lunatic fringe that is racially chauvinistic – there simply isn’t a multiracial utopia anywhere in the world. Yet, larger and far more complex multiracial polities in the developed and developing world have accommodated a free media in the name of an informed citizenry. In fact, in appealing to paranoia as the foundation of the PAP’s media policy, Shanmugam effectively put the brakes on the organic development of a tolerant Singaporean society.

Myth Number 3: Singapore is a small country with a small population and short common shared history

Shanmugam’s points about Singapore’s population size, physical size and short common history were curious defences that were left intellectually unsubstantiated.  What the new Minister of Home Affairs must acknowledge is that size is paradoxically one of Singapore’s greatest strengths in dealing with racial and religious disharmony. Possible racial tension is nipped in the bud and the support of grassroots leaders can be quickly canvassed to return a potentially fractious situation to a state of normalcy. In fact, when the tudung issue of 2003 blew up, causing some consternation within some elements in the Malay community, the government was quickly able to bring Malay leaders to dialogue and diffuse the situation.

It appears that as far as Singapore’s short common history is concerned, this was yet another red herring that Shanmugam is quickly earning a reputation for invoking. If true, it must mean that other multiracial countries that secured independence in the two decades after World War 2 – not very much older than Singapore – would equally have too short a common history to accommodate a free media. The absurdity of this argument speaks for itself.

In keeping the media under the purview of the government so as to determine the boundaries of any public discourse in the media, the PAP has shrewdly ensured that Singaporeans end up looking to the government for answers to even the most fundamental aspects of their existence. This is the same PAP government that ironically insists Singaporeans cannot expect the PAP to have all the answers to public grievances!

As for Singapore’s small population, this writer certainly does not hope the Minister was alluding to the cerebral incapacity of Singaporeans to decide on what type of Singapore Singaporeans want for themselves and their children.  Although given the elitist and eugenically inspired mindset of not a small number of PAP leaders, it would be surprising if the Minister was indeed of the opinion that only the elite in Singapore can deal with a free media. If true however, the arrogance and conceit of this position is very much in line with the PAP’s elitist belief system.

Myth Number 4: Journalists are biased and subject to vices, media companies sacrifice journalistic values at the alter of profit, both journalists and media companies can be bought, and the advertising dollar compromises ethics

In casting doubts about the professional integrity of journalists, Shanmugam seemed to be suffering from an irrational fear of the media. But his fears were misplaced and unreasonable. He ought to know better that rotten apples are found in any profession, not just journalism.

Only two years ago, the fat cats in a number of Wall Street banks proved equally, if not more susceptible, to vice, greed and ethical compromise as compared to journalists. As a reputable lawyer himself, the Minister must be acutely aware of the not insignificant number of Singaporean lawyers running away with clients’ monies over the last decade. In fact, in 2005 a lawyer and member of his own party was found guilty of “grossly improper” unprofessional conduct.

In singling out journalists while overlooking their vitally important mission of educating the mass public of the ongoings in society, Shanmugam gratuitously cast journalism in bad light. This unusual fear of journalism is perhaps a classic symptom of a paranoia complex. This is why mature and rational politicians in many developed countries speak of codes of conduct for the media, in addition to the prospect of legal penalties in cases of egregious violations. Even light regulation for any profession can go a long way to reduce the temptation of unethical conduct.

Myth Number 5: Singapore does not want to be like the US

Shanmugam shrewdly predicated his defence of the PAP’s media policy by claiming Singapore did not want to mirror the US media. When Singaporeans cajole the government for greater press freedoms, no one is specifically identifying one media model for the country to follow. Most Singaporeans would be rather proud if Singapore Press Holdings could report and detail issues of national interest with the same vigour and relative objectivity as the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) or even Malaysiakini, an online Malaysian news publisher that has even been complimented by Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, no less.

In fact, Singapore is in a great position to select best practices from media the world over and adapt a system that works best for Singapore’s needs. The current editor of the Straits Times, Han Fook Kwang, was once quoted as saying, “We’re aware people say we’re a government mouthpiece or that we are biased.” It is publicly known that the SPH’s group president from 1995-2002 was a former director of the Internal Security Department under the auspices of the Ministry of Home Affairs. The current political editor of The Straits Times is a former Internal Security Department officer. Rather than claim that Singaporeans reject a US-style media scene (yet another red herring reeled in to obfuscate the substantive issue), Shanmugam should focus on removing the wanton perception in Singapore of a mainstream media that is manipulated behind the scenes by the PAP.

Whichever way any Singaporean looks at things, a government-managed media scene will only provide one shade of the truth for its people. Alternate sources of news and information that are factually unimpeachable and evince a very high quality of journalism play an incredibly important educative role in any society. There is no reason to posit that Singapore society will descend into chaos should Singapore choose to amend the Newspapers and Printing Presses Act and open up its media scene to private publishers that are subject to the rule of law.


In concluding his speech to his American audience, Shanmugam compared Singapore with US cities like San Francisco where the incumbent political party has remained in power for a long time. Even though his speech was about the media, Shanmugam seemed to conveniently forget that San Francisco hosts a free media where the political opposition is not politically hamstrung by obstacles put in place by the incumbents. More pertinently, in San Francisco, politicians do not live in glass houses but can cope with and shake off personal attacks with comprehensive political proposals, and critically, without resort to defamation suits.

In the final analysis, Shanmugam’s ill-advised remarks – like the attempts of many politicians throughout history to justify press-control and manipulation in favour of the incumbent leadership, authoritarian regimes and to minify alternative views – confirmed an unhealthy PAP paranoia that is effectively retarding the evolution of a tolerant and socially attuned Singapore society. Taken to its logical end, this paranoia and irrational fear of the media can cloud good judgment and may end up irreversibly inhibiting the intellectual development of the very society the PAP claims to protect.


Comment posted by Pritam Singh to this article on 9 Nov 2010 at:’s-hollow-defence-of-pap-media-myths

Dear Traveller,

Thank you for your inputs and my apologies for this late reply. There is a political dimension that you do not account for in your defence of the PAP media policy. Please bear with me and allow me to explain.

I would advise you to visit the Internal Security Department (ISD) Heritage Museum at Onraet Rd. You have to write in for permission, and I understand you have to go as a group. You could potentially arrange for a visit with your Community Centre, town council, RC, CCC, school, or with a registered Singapore society of which you are a member etc. From the briefing given by retired ISD officers, I was informed that about 40,000 Singaporeans have visited the ISD Heritage Museum since it opened in 2002.

Once there you will realise that racial incidents DO occur in Singapore, in fact, more often than you think. George Yeo himself alluded to this some years ago when he recounted an episode where a hawker carrying bak kut teh (or some pork dish, maybe it was wanton mee, can’t remember) accidentally spilt the dish on a Muslim and a couple of people got involved leading to a rather ugly incident. Fortunately, the matter was resolved (go to the National Library [or any of its branches] and search the online archives for a fuller narration of this incident). There have also been other episodes best left for you to find out more about with a visit to the ISD museum.

Many Singaporeans think Singapore is heaven on earth and nothing actually goes wrong here because of the sterling work of the PAP. This is not wholly correct. Things DO go wrong, and the state-managed media almost always does not report many of these issues, except when they become very public (I don’t think the mainstream media mean ill when they don’t report the issues – but their decision making calculus/mandate is rather curious – they cannot understand that reportage actually goes a long way to educate Singaporeans, heals rifts and builds bridges).

One copy of any police report that reports on or details a racial or religious incident in Singapore, I understand goes to the ISD for their follow up. This simple procedure informs us that there is a mechanism in place to deal with race and religious problems should they take on an endemic, organized or externally manipulated (foreigner) dimension. I am quite sure there are other macro and micro measures in place that we the public are not privy to.

Shanmugam’s paternalism viz. the local media denies Singaporeans a look into the reality of Singapore society, and more pertinently, to learn and appreciate what we must do collectively to improve race relations in Singapore. Wong Kan Seng not inaccurately observed today that Singaporeans are complacent about security.

But has he asked himself why and how it has come to this? Perhaps it could be because Singaporeans have been fed on a diet of omissions, no thanks to the government-managed media, from which we hear only good things about the PAP and everyone who supports them.

It is important to realise that a freer press environment doesnt mean the rule book is thrown out of the window. On the contrary, the rules remain and the government or an independent body (preferred) can censure publishers who engage in inaccurate or irresponsible reportage. Foreigners who play with religious fire can have their views firmly rebutted not just by the government, but ordinary Singaporeans as well (who ultimately count more than any government of the day).

Even so, the “market” will decide. Any newspaper whose content is suspect, simply cannot survive, especially in a market that hosts a well-educated population. You probably have a fear that the damage to Singapore will already be done before the “market” makes a decision. Traveller, this is not a concern I want to wish away for it is a relevant concern – but it is my belief is that Singapore is better served by a media that educates our population about the realities of Singapore – that means having a more investigative media that seeks out the truth, and indeed its various shades, only for the purpose of better policy responses, in addition to providing a check on the quality of the government of the day.

More pertinently, I am convinced we have the structures and systems in place to tackle racial and religious problems. I cannot promise you that there will no racial or religious incidents if the government loosens up on our media policy. But as my visit to the ISD Heritage Museum informed me, even a controlled media environment cannot guarantee a Singapore without racial or religious incidents.

There is much more Singapore and Singaporeans stand to gain from a free media. We have got to have faith in our people, and if 45 odd years of nation-building have not done it, then I fear we already have the “divided” society you speak of.

I believe that the liberal elements in the PAP also want a substantively free media. However, I would opine that the conservative elements of the PAP are more interested in retaining a firm grip on the public discourse so as to determine its exact contours for the foreseeable future. Allowing the media a free rein would fundamentally take power (evinced through information dissemination and providing solutions) out of the PAP’s hands and into the hands of Singaporeans. This position politically benefits the PAP of course, as it has for the last 30-over years.

But it does Singapore and Singaporeans a huge disservice with regard to our growth as a people, and evolution as a society.


Written by singapore 2025

15/11/2010 at 4:52 am

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