Press muse – The good, bad and ugly (part one)

Throwing spitballs at others can be very satisfying. Your target is remote, both physically and emotionally. The blow-back effect from your attack barely registers. Not with me anyway.

To this end, I tend to unapologetically target the Straits Times. They are fair game; it is the only English broadsheet in this country, and probably the newspaper blessed with the most material and human resources.

But it is too easy to take the high road where there is none, acting holier-than-thou as if I was a esteemed arbiter of journalistic quality. But if all I did was hurl abuse and ignore instances of valuable journalistic work, I’d be rightly typecast as an angry, insatiable anti-establishment ranter. I’d like to think that I’m not, although deeds will have to speak for themselves. Therefore I’ll risk your ire and begin this week’s column with a plaudit.

The Straits Times on 4 December threw in its Home section three pages worth of pirates. No, not feckless youth plundering from the coffers of musicians and filmmakers. It’s the real McCoy; hard men packing heat and ready to let rip on the high seas, all in the name of making a livelihood.

Piracy is not exactly coffeeshop chat material; remote, unfamiliar and shrouded in Hollywood-tainted legend and mystique. But through several feature stories, Straits Times journalist Mavis Toh opened doors into the world of high-seas buccaneering. Several pirates, past and present, spoke to her at the regional “pirate hub” of Batam about their lives and livelihood; who they are, and why and how they do it. Academic and official voices also offered explanations for the phenomenon off Singaporean waters and difficulties involved in policing.

It would have been so much safer and, more importantly, cheaper to go with the flow and typecast pirates as ruthless mercenaries with nary a scent of decency about them. When Somalian pirates were hitting Western headlines earlier this year, most of the reportage were ostensibly factual; so-and-so ship got hijacked by Somalian pirates, Somalian lawlessness allowing piracy to thrive etc (for a taster, see this BBC News story). Not many ventured beyond this safe, official-source-based reporting to try to discuss the subject more intimately. For every attempt at insight, like that offered by Time magazine, there are far more sensationalised, superficial and atomised reporting.

To the Straits Times’ credit, they spent some money to dig a little deeper into the issue. To Toh’s credit, she came back with tales of the unseen humanity behind the piracy scourge.

Make no mistake about it – journalism costs money. Some of the best journalism was also the most expensive; something certainly true of investigative journalism. The respected former Sunday Times editor Harold Evans, whose Insight team exposed in October 1967 the true identity of Soviet spy and defector Kim Philby as a former top MI6 official, wrote of the Philby investigation:

“Our inquiries were admittedly beset with frustration and they were costly. Yet, if the press will not do this work, who else can?”

The Straits Times is theoretically capable of doing this kind of work; it wields the necessary finances and manpower, and perhaps is the only Singaporean newspaper that does. If anyone in Singapore is going to do it, it’d be them.

But while it is willing to venture into certain subjects that do not stray across OB markers, it displays dispiriting reticence with regards to some of the issues which most Singaporeans really care about. If I may paraphrase James Carville: “It’s local politics, stupid.”

But if the 11 December issue is anything to go by, the Straits Times hasn’t caught on. The broadsheet ran two similar pieces on its front page. The lead story, penned by Cassandra Chew, trumpeted Minister for Law K Shanmugam’s clarion call for Singapore to accept and compete for foreign talent (see the article run-off here). Echoing this sentiment was Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew who, as described by Jeremy Au Yong, told the Japanese Chamber of Commerce and Industry that Japan also needed to embrace immigration as a solution to their long-term economic and demographic woes.

I struggle to think of other instances where “government mouthpiece” was more apt a label. In term of newsworthiness, there is nothing remarkable about these two stories. The government highlighting the importance of foreign talent and soothing public fears on the issue…where is the news in that? 16 September – PM Lee had done so. 17 August – MM Lee had done so. 21 Feb – PM Lee had done so.

The fact that it is now Shanmugam making the case doesn’t make it any more newsworthy. And to be sure, the entire piece about MM Lee’s dialogue with the JCCI is newsworthy insofar as it relates to Singapore’s own issues with immigration and acceptance of foreign talent. So we had two cabinet members making public pitches for their foreign talent policy – two pseudo-events where nothing new happens. And the Straits Times duly give them highly prominent coverage.

Presumably afraid that the message didn’t get maximum exposure from the front page placement, they threw in the next day (12 December) a large excerpt of Shanmugam’s speech into the Review and Forum page.

This might also be an opportune moment for me to highlight the fact that Shanmugam chose to address the Harvard Club of Singapore – not exactly the kind of people most pressured by and concerned with the foreign labour influx.

With my already unfavourable perception of the Straits Times‘ coverage of local politics strengthened, I delved deeper into the paper. I was surprised to see the lead story on page B3 of the Home section asking boldly: “Has PAP rule led to apathy?”

An in-depth study into public attitudes towards PAP rule perhaps? Maybe an opinion poll, survey, or a piece of academic research? It turned out to be nothing quite that exciting, or remotely close to what the headline suggests.

All Zakir Hussain and Rachel Chang did was attend a PAP Youth Wing dialogue, and related what they saw. A “hard-hitting” 22-year-old, Mr Alex Tan, apparently took the opportunity to pummel Mr Sam Tan, parliamentary secretary for the Ministries of Trade and Industry and Information, Communications and the Arts, and Mr Christopher de Souza, MP and vice-chairman of the Youth Wing, with tough questions.

But the glaring issue raised in the headline wasn’t actually answered in the piece. Mr Sam Tan offered his view that Singaporean youth were not apathetic or self-centred – based on personal anecdotal evidence. Not exactly the most compelling argument, is it?

All in all, Hussain and Chang weaved a pleasing account of frank discussions and eventual consensus. They ostensibly offered evidence of PAP engagement with the youth on political issues and their willingness to listen to criticism. In fact, they felt the need to spell that much out for the reader:

[The event] is part of the Youth Wing’s series on social and political issues to better engage a younger, more outspoken generation, with the aim of renewing the party’s ranks and support.

And engage the MPs did.

Maybe they really did, who knows? But that is not my concern per se.

My question is: where is the coverage of opposition party events? I don’t remember similar stories of political engagement efforts by the likes of the Worker’s Party or Singapore Democratic Party, and note that a recent Reform Party political event flew beneath the mainstream media radar. Go figure.

Interestingly, there’s a sequel. The Sunday Times revealed on page 6 of the 13 December issue that the outspoken Alex Tan had been barred from the Young PAP’s Facebook recruitment page. The administrators said that they kicked Tan off their page for “indulging in name-calling and vulgarities.” I suppose that is euphemism for flame baiting.

There is no way to tell from this article whether it is the Young PAP or Alex Tan whose version resides closer to the truth (my guess is neither). But you can visit the Young PAP Facebook page to see for yourself. Then you might be able to judge for yourself whether Tan was there, according to Young PAP Facebook moderator Genesis Shen, not “to engage [the Young PAP], but to undermine us”, and whether Tan might have been removed because his remarks were, suggested MP Zaqy Mohamad, “harsh and malicious”.

Some of you may believe that the Sunday Times ran this piece to discredit Alex Tan, who kind of made a name for himself in the previous story. But the truth is I can’t really decide which party stands to lose more from the exposure of this fracas.

Is it the Young PAP which comes off as intellectually conceited for exercising their freedom, as Mr Sam Tan describes, not to welcome “those who they think do not share their ideologies”? Or would Alex Tan be ostracised for his alleged net trolling?

I don’t really care. I’d just rather see the Straits Times and its Sunday paper pay a bit more attention to the conduct of politics beyond the men and women in white.

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~ by spiegel2071 on December 15, 2009.

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