Sunday, April 30, 2006


The appetite for new media is partly a function of how well traditional media fulfill people’s needs. So, what can be said about the performance of the mainstream mass media in the Singapore elections?

I have heard and read many complaints, mostly to do with inadequate or skewed coverage of the opposition and overly flattering coverage of the PAP. Nothing new here. Or is there? My own impressionistic assessment is that there has been a subtle but significant easing up on the media, allowing journalists more room than in previous elections to do their job with some professionalism. Why do I say this? Here are some observations.

First, compared especially with GE 1988, the coverage has reflected more honestly the level of interest in the polls and in particular contests. In 1988-89, I did my undergraduate thesis on government-press relations, focusing on press coverage of that GE. The most remarkable feature of it was that the all the local media, clearly under instructions from the government, treated the polls as a non-issue, devoting just a few pages daily to the campaign. Eunos GRC, being contested by Francis Seow and the Workers’ Party, was the battle to watch, but coverage was minimal. Not quite a news blackout, but close to it. Eighteen years later, there is no evidence of such media (mis)management. The only complaint I’ve heard about the volume of election coverage is that there’s too much (“why go on and on about the elections when the outcome is predictable?”) which is a good problem to have compared with 1988. Furthermore, the hot seats, notably Aljunied GRC, have been explicitly recognised and covered as such, very different from Eunos 1988. If the PAP is concerned that all the talk of hot seats will over-excite the electorate, it is not showing it – it has refrained from fixing the coverage as crudely as it did in 1988.

Second, there is less use of the news media as a campaign vehicle to run down the Opposition. Of course, in any election, when a party chooses to make its opponents’ character and ability an election issue, the media will report it because it’s news. If such attacks are the most interesting (even if not necessarily the most important) developments of the day, they will receive the most coverage. (Therefore, there’s nothing particularly exceptional about, say, the space or prominence given to the James Gomez controversy. The ruling party’s top leaders chose to make it a major issue, and it is worth reporting as such. Readers can then decide whether to accept the PAP’s conclusions, or Mr Low Thia Khiang’s that the PAP is making a mountain out of a molehill. It is customary for newspaper editors everywhere to refrain from pre-judging.) Compared with past GEs, the big difference this time is that the ST has stopped there. In the past, it would have “added value”, to put it euphemistically: with columns and graphics to ram home, in a crudely caricatured way, the “lessons” that the PAP wanted the electorate to draw. For example, the ST of old might have accompanied the James Gomez news story with a half-page graphic on opposition deceptions and dishonesty by opposition candidates over the years. Fortunately, most of us have forgotten the amplificatory journalism that used to accompany past GEs.

Another story that caught my eye for personal reasons was the Insight feature on Potong Pasir and Hougang some weeks ago. In the run-up to the 1991 GE, when I was a reporter at ST, I was assigned to write a similar Insight feature on life in what was then the only opposition-held town council, Potong Pasir. The piece was spiked, one of only a couple of articles in my 10 years at the ST to have been killed by editors after completion. The article that came out this year was not very different in substance or in its bottom line. It has taken 15 years, but I guess that is the time scale over which change happens in Singapore.

Why might this change be happening?

First, the government probably appreciates that it cannot afford to intervene so much in the press that the press loses all credibility. It would have learnt from events across the Causeway, where the crudely propagandistic mainstream press lost up to one-third of its audience during the Reformasi period. Malaysians rejected the government-controlled media in favour of alternative media, mainly less-regulated, more critical sources on the internet. Thus, while the Singapore government maintains that it has the authority to set the agenda for the press, it also knows that it has to be quite selective and self-restrained in exercising its powers.

Second, the government is probably more self-confident than before. It knows that the mathematical result is secure. It can therefore focus on the quality of its victory. It may have learnt from recent elections, when its victories were tainted by the perception that it did not fight fair. (Note, for example, the Roundtable’s critical assessment of the PAP victory in GE 1997, by Simon Tay and Zulkifli Baharudin, soon after the polls.) I suspect PM Lee Hsien Loong is keen to minimise allegations of unfairness. Hence, perhaps, the stability in the electoral boundaries, and Temasek Polytechnic’s timely change of rules allowing WP chairman Sylvia Lim to keep her job. If this analysis is correct, it would make sense for the PAP not to open itself to the criticism that, under its management, the press is hopelessly one-sided.

Of course, there continues to be unhappiness about media coverage. The most commonly heard complaint has to do with the relative space given to the parties. If you think about it, though, this is really a complaint about the PAP’s near-monopoly of power rather than media coverage. Mainstream journalism takes the world as it is, not as what journalists think it ought to be. In the world as it is, the PAP is the dominant party, the party whose people and policies will have the greatest impact on the lives of Singaporeans into the foreseeable future. As such, it is the PAP that is the most “newsworthy”. When comparing with the press in liberal democracies, the coverage of, say, the opposition Democrats in the US or the opposition Tories in Britain is hardly the right benchmark. These are parties that have already and will be again parties of government. They are rightly given substantial space in election coverage in those countries. To compare apples and apples, we might want to look at coverage of Ralph Nader’s Green Party in the US or the Liberal Democrats in Britain. These secondary players are not given equal coverage by the American or British media, because, in the world as it is, they are not likely to challenge seriously the dominance of the major parties. Singapore opposition parties’ realistic prospects are probably somewhere between the Greens and the LibDems. It would not be unprofessional for editors to treat them accordingly in their coverage.

This of course raises the question of whether professional mainstream journalism’s news values, and even their holy grail of objectivity – taking the world as it is – are necessarily good things. Some would argue that there’s a need for journalists to take a stand for democracy, and even discriminate positively in favour of pro-democratic and progressive causes. This is not, however, a position that most professional journalists worldwide are comfortable with. This more activist, cause-driven approach is therefore left to radical alternative media operating on the margins. Thus, in the US, Ralph Nader relies mostly on alternative media, and not the mainstream press. In Singapore, similarly, the opposition will continue to need alternative media, even if the government eased up on political control of the mainstream press. Mainstream journalism is organically and structurally linked to the status quo, even in free societies.


A.J. Lim said...

It’s less about the media opening up than about press reporting evolving alongside a better educated and informed public. It's about subtle manipulation of facts, glossing over the substantive, over-representing the minutia and regurgitating the ruling regime’s press releases and accusations.

I was at the WP Hougang rally on May 1 and the turn-out was tremendous. But the next day, none of the official media reported on this, instead focusing on the Gomez scandal. More telling was how the TV reporters waited for the rally to be over before broadcasting in front of an empty field. Sins of omission is today’s equivalent of a news blackout.

Anonymous said...

We have seen the PAP exploit its power to an embarassing degree; and the leopard has yet to change its spots. I wonder why you cannot see that? I guess we all have our own agenda, ya?

lzydata said...

Nice post, but I wonder if you were just a little too quick with your analysis. It seems Gomezgate has more legs than any of us thought. Or at least that's the impression the PAP is giving.

Praveen said...

I would advise against the proliferation and the normalization of labels such as 'Gomezgate'. This suffix is cathected to its own unique set of histories and prejudices. It may begin innocently, but eventually, almost certainly it is repeated and reproduced discursively for obscurantist purposes.

But I think AJ Lim is quite right. The last time I caught the news a few nights ago, CNA reported how the PAP acted quickly in the face of inclement weather and moved indoors. Large chunks of the PM's speech was aired but all the opposition got was a reporter holding a brolly and summarizing what was said at the Opposition rally.

In an election atmosphere, it is not for the press to be the arbiter of what is news. A democracy presupposes a well informed electorate. Therefore, the business of the press is to inform and not decide for everybody else what is information and what is not.

Praveen said...

At the end of the day, the News shouldn't be what's left at the end of a long line of discretions.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this blog and your article. I have read "Airconditioned Nation", and more to the point the "Freedom from the Press" chapter. It is hard not to believe that your views have moderated since your return to Singapore. That is probably unduly cynical and unfair, however I can not accept that the press is any less biased or controlled than in previous elections. It is just more sophisticated in its techniques.

The fact remains that throughout this election the press has worked to de-legitimise the opposition parties, and thier candidates. Only PAP policies are legitimate, only PAP candidates have integrity, only the PAP has the interests of Singapore at heart.

Take 2 issues as an example - the opposition policy launch and the WP rally.

The Straits Times spend much more space on deriding the opposition policy launch by parroting the minister's "timebomb" comment (complete with childish bomb graphics) than on reporting on the launch itself. That is not an issue of the breadth of the PAP versus the breadth of the opposition. That was a deliberate de-legitimisation of opposition policies.

We are constantly plied with images of PAP rallies, but where are the images of the WP rally ? Those images were in today's Financial Times - and they certainly conveyed a real and legitimate opposition force.

In a similar vein any images deprecating to the PAP or its candidates dont make it - again it was the FT that published images of Thai protesters burning pictures of the PM and Ms Ho - surely a huge story in Singapore - but not in the Straits Times.

The PM says it is critical not to demean politicians in Singapore. Interesting it is that "PAP-smear" is carried as fact by the press, while relatively mild opposition smear politics is carried as near criminal activity, righteously being dealt with by the Courts.

These are not the actions of a press which is changing for the better. You could argue that the traditional crude blackouts and bans are in fact a less insidious form of censorship than today's polished "psyops" by your former employer, and the press as a whole.

Anonymous said...

"Under section 21A(2) of the Parliamentary Elections Act, no person who obtains any information recorded in any register of electors shall reproduce, store or transmit any part of the information by electronic or any other means for any purpose. Any person who knowingly contravenes the above shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding $1,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 6 months or to both. "

You have just read warning message carried in official web page of the election office.

Voters from my neighbourhood received card send by PAP, with voter's name, address and actual official polling serial number.

Does PAP violate the section 21A(2) of the Parliamentary Elections Act, any comment?

Praveen said...

ST, TNP, CNA...are you guys the Fox Network in disguise?

mingyeow said...

Wrote some commentary on the final Worker’s Party Rally in Serangoon Stadium

Anonymous said...

Did you catch Chua Mui Hoong in Sunday Times slipping in a comment that the PAP candidates improve generally on their 1997 performance? Yes not saying that they dropped versus 2001! Having followed this election more closely than previously, I had a double take. But I am sure this would sneak pass most casual observers as an improvement.

ILJ said...

How valid would it be to compare the Worker's party with the Green Party or Liberal Democrats? Statistics on how the PAP earned X number of total votes polled are unsound simply because not all parties contested across all constituencies. If we compare within constituencies, you see Low Thia Khiang winning Hougang comfortably and providing credible challenges to Aljunied (and perhaps Ang Mo Kio). On this basis, the opposition should be getting far more coverage than it does.

Either way, we certainly don't see the opposition getting anywhere near 33.4% of the coverage (their total votes share).

Anonymous said...

It should also be pointed out that in the US and UK, the 'third parties' do not get as much coverage during elections simply because the central contest in the elections is between the 2 main parties. The elections is a contest. In the case of Singapore, the central contest is between the PAP and the opposition parties. So the main contest does in fact involve the opposition, unlike in the case of the green party or the liberal democrats. If the media's job is to report on the contest, then it would be unfair to report disproportionately on only 1 party. The job of the papers is to report on what's important and relevant and that is why the third paries in the US and UK are reported less - they are not as important and relevant as the contest between the two main parties. In Singapore, the role of the opposition parties in the elections is extremely relevant and important to the contest.

Secondly, in proper democracies, there are usually many different newspapers, all reputed to have slightly different leanings in the political spectrum. The natural tendency towards biasedness is therefore negated by the fact that so many newspapers will be reporting on different sides of the issues, each giving coverage to what they deem to be more important, resulting in all likelihood, in a more holistic reflection of the important issues affecting people on from both ends of the political spectrum. Thus for instance, the ST may report more on what it deems to be important and relevant to its readers - coverage on the more conservative, authoritarian party. An altnerative newspaper may report more on what it deemds to be important and relevant to its readers - coverage on more liberal, pro-democratic parties and so on. Ultimately, people still have the choice of reading both papers and thereby getting to see arguments from both sides more effectively.

Thirdly, prominent newspapers in proper democracies don't just report; they also have many journalists and political commentators analyze and comment on current issues, expressing their opinions on important and relevant issues. This plays an important role in shaping public opinion and in allowing the journalistic intelligentsia to scrutinize and act as a check on government policies. Therefore, if something as ridiculous as the Gomez Saga were to become an issue on these democracies, the unfounded nature of the accusations against Gomez would almost certainly be exposed by the intelligentsia, analysts and commentators. As part of the intellectual elite in the country, these people also play a role in assisting the masses from discerning truth from fiction. However, in the case of the ST and CNA, the only opinions that are ever expressed, if any, are obviously pro-pap ones. If there is ever any expression of alternative opinions, it is only expressed in a vague and superficial manner.


Anonymous said...

I have serious problems with describing local mainstream media performance as 'objective'. How can anyone assess the media's 'objectivity' except by bringing in one's own ideological bias? For eg, to say as you do that "Mainstream journalism takes the world as it is," and to define that reality in terms of PAP being "the party whose people and policies will have the greatest impact on the lives of Singaporeans into the foreseeable future," thereby justifying heavy coverage of the PAP, is problematic. Sept 11 gives the lie to the concept of a "foreseeable future." We can't predict anything with certainty. Certainly, I wouldn't have predicted that PAP wouldn't return to power on Nomination Day. But the media, with its power to influence opinion, can help to CREATE the world to fit the size of its own biased expectations. This is where media ethics and responsibility has to come in--to balance reportage so as to allow a diversity of outcomes.

Another problem I see with this discourse about the objectivity of local mainstream media is at an institutional level. The media is fertile ground for PAP recruitment. PAP leaders themselves have admitted that the local media is not as free as in the West, because it is apparently 'Asian'. How can we not conclude then that the quest for political favour probably impacts on media coverage?

Also, wouldn't this situation itself be part of the 'reality' that would colour the way the mainstream media "sees the world as it is"?

Anonymous said...

The local media still hasnt change with their biased reporting. Remember the Gomez saga was splashed all over as the PAP had wanted it. Now that no charge has been prefered on Gomez, it makes them look kind of silly in the public eyes.
Wonder why CNA call themselves channel news ASIA when they can't even present the local news OBJECTIVELY!

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Independent Analyst said...

The 'mainstream' media is biased beyond the coverage of the elections. It may be more obvious that the coverage is skewed during the elections, but it is more insidious between elections.

For example, much coverage was given to the benefits of the Progress Package, and even more to Ministers and other ruling party MPs who denied any association between the package and the upcoming elections. Not a single paper carried the challenge by Mr Low Thia Kiang in parliament on the $2.8b budget deficit (probably the largest ever) that had to be run in order to finance the package.

The PAP has always touted a balanced budget policy, and had in fact used this as a reason why GST had to be raised even in the midst of the 2003 recession. If the government were so concerned with the plight of the people, and if the Progress Package had nothing to do with the election, why didn't they propose this package in 2003? It would certainly have helped many families and eased a lot of suffering.

Independent Analyst

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