To PERC and PAP, add the Press

This article, The Singapore Swivel written by Eric Ellis (The Australian, 8 June 2003) is worth another read especially as it relates to the recent controversy about PERC’s findings and how the PAP and press use them.

Walls may not have ears in Singapore, but many locals aren’t fully convinced they don’t. And so they’ve affected this curious idiosyncrasy, which I call the Singapore Swivel.

I’ve seen it constantly in the two years I’ve been based here. It happens when discussions graduate from small talk to opinions. The interviewee goes “off-the-record”, the voice lowers to a whisper, and the head slowly turns left-right-left-centre, scanning the location, checking who’s within earshot. The Swivel speaks to the probably unfounded suspicion that the “wired island” is monitoring your activities.

Some Singaporeans talk of their country’s “climate of fear”, more charitably described as a “contract” with their leaders: keep our economy soaring and we won’t challenge the restrictions imposed on our civil liberties.

Step out of line in Singapore and you will be politely requested by the regime to step back. Do it repeatedly and openly and be prepared for the state machinery to crank into action against you, as it did in 1987 against lawyer Teo Soh Lung and businessman Chew Kheng Chuan. They were among the 22 Singaporeans detained, some beaten and tortured, by Tjong’s ISD for being suspected “Marxists” a charge roundly denied and one from which even the Government has backed away. The Government says it is committed to openness and airing contrary views. But the message seems to be taking its time to sink in at the ST.

Take the way it dealt with a hot local topic recently ministerial salaries. On June 29 last year, Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong (Lee Kuan Yew’s eldest son) announced massive pay rises for cabinet ministers. Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong’s annual salary would jump 14 per cent to $2.25 million, or $187,000 a month, five times that of the US president.

On May 11, six weeks earlier, the independent Hong Kong-based think-tank, the Political and Economic Risk Consultancy, released a survey of expatriate businessmen on political leadership in Asia. The survey ranked Singapore as Asia’s most capable government. The findings were carried by the major wire agencies on May 12, in Hong Kong by Agence France-Presse and by the Reuters bureau in Singapore.

In Singapore the story didn’t appear in the ST until June 26, when it was splashed across the front page headlined “S’pore Govt rated top in Asia”. Three days later the Government announced the ministerial pay increases. That same day, the ST carried another excerpt of the same PERC report, headlined “PERC: Govt’s economic policy makes the difference”.

From June 30 to July 7, as controversy raged in Singapore salons about whether already well-rewarded ministers deserved their increased salaries, the ST evoked PERC’s rosy view of Singapore’s Government another four times. Is it just a coincidence that a six-week-old report became front-page news in Singapore just days before the Singapore Government justified its massive pay rise?

“If you want to arrange the facts in that way, I suppose that you do have a case,” says editor-in-chief Cheong. “But I’m a newspaper and I must accept information that is given to me and then I make a judgment whether I want to use or not use it.”

Other times news judgment can appear downright wacky. In early 1999, Lee Kuan Yew wished to The Wall Street Journal that someone would invent air-conditioned underwear because that way “everyone can then work at his optimum temperature and civilisation can spread across all climates”.

A news editor on a mainstream Australian newspaper might hand the item to a wry columnist. The medical writer might consult some physicians as to whether the nation was in good hands. And the science writer might ring boffins to see if boreal boxers were possible.

Not at the ST, which ran it as a straight story on page one. A month later, it published a 1455-word feature quoting local academics and engineers hot for the idea with an illustration of how a “cold suit” might work.

Part of the challenge, Chua says, of being a journalist and possibly even being a Singaporean is testing boundaries that are “not clearly defined” by the Government, “perhaps on purpose”. “It’s part of our culture, part of our maturing as a nation.”

That means little campaigning journalism and no established culture of investigative reporting. An underground press is virtually non-existent, in large part because of the Government’s restrictive press laws.

The system functions like a big corporation, designed to maximize profit. The Government maintains an upbeat information department, frequently holding press briefings lauding economic achievements but rarely or publicly discusses substantive matters of policy and politics.

“The Government press control might shock one’s liberal western mindset, but this is now a well-entrenched part of national culture,” says Roland Rich, a former Australian ambassador to Laos and co-author of the book Losing Control, which analyses press freedom across Asia. “You get the government you deserve and in Singapore you also get the press you deserve.”

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