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

That the political coverage in the Straits Times doesn’t find me well is now well established. Plainly disappointing as it is, however, they do manage the occasional curveball.

And this they did in the 11 December issue, when they ran something somewhat beyond my expectations, with a smidge of international flavour. A full page inside the main section was devoted to John Kampfner, chief executive of Index on Censorship and former editor of the New Statesman.

He may be more familiar to you as the British journalist who, back in July 2008, famously baited our High Commissioner to the UK, Michael Teo, into penning a public missive in the Guardian (disclaimer: the comments that follow his piece are far more interesting reads). In his original blog post, Kampfner had argued that many societies, even the supposedly liberal democracies of the West, were entering into pacts with their governments, trading their “freedom for wealth or security”. Singapore, where he was born, was cited as a leading example.

In this light, featuring him prominently appeared to be an interesting editorial decision.

Kampfner had dropped by on 30 November to discuss his views and his book, Freedom for Sale, in a seminar at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. A week later, Rachel Chang presented readers, on page A26, with a book review/seminar report/interview.

At this point, I should clarify that what I am about to offer is less criticism of her journalism than critique of her views. Reviews and commentary are by nature partial and their quality resides with their coherence and substantiation – so while I disagree, I’m not saying it is bad or invalid.

Chang laid down some background information on Kampfner and his views, before proceeding to elaborate on them. Nonetheless she doesn’t seem bothered by the social implications of his thesis about this “pact” between governments and the governed. After giving his arguments a hearing, she seemed to dismiss him as a caricature of a liberal disconnected with political realities and pushed his views into inconsequential anonymity.

…in demonstrating how millions of people seem content to go without those freedoms, his is ultimately a lonely cry, of a liberal watching a world grow unrecognisable.

He is caught between the proverbial rock and hard place. Once the pact is in place, it is hard to shake loose.

What may undermine it, he says, would be the state not fulfilling its side of the bargain, that is, failing to deliver prosperity or security.

Responding to that supposition, she finished with a revealing rhetorical question:

Then there may be democracy. But at what cost?

Now, if I may digress and throw it back at her: we have economic prosperity, but at what cost? It is probably safe to say that she stands on the conservative side of this philosophical divide; she signs up to the pact.

The feature ends as such, but we’re not done with Kampfner just yet. Two pages later (straddling a full-page Canon advert, more on that in my next column), we get to read excerpts from his book. I have yet to read the book – it apparently is available in bookstores now – so I can’t comment comprehensive or entirely fairly on whether the choice of excerpts are slanted in any way.

The first excerpt is quite disarming; it contains much unflattering commentary about PAP governance.

From his earliest days, [Lee Kuan Yew] saw public criticism as an impediment. He brought the media under control of two state companies, Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) and MediaCorp (Editor’s note: SPH is a public-listed company). Elections are held every five years and opposition parties are theoretically allowed to compete. However, any politician or journalist who says anything controversial about those in power is open to arrest and the subsequent charge of defamation. If they run out of money, they are declared bankrupt and may be sent to jail.

For interest of clarification, the editor’s note is inserted by the Straits Times and not myself, and that correction is technically true. In any case, Kampfner didn’t mince his words much as he continued:

Even the minimalist democratic procedures have been “modified” to the advantage of Lee’s PAP. Constituencies that vote significantly for opposition candidates tend to disappear at the next elections, subsumed into existing seats. When they do opt for the wrong candidate, the voters are reminded of the errors of their ways.

To be sure, there wasn’t anything in there which many Straits Times readers don’t already know. So perhaps even this was considered reasonably safe ground to tread. But the next excerpt suggests why they let the first part slide.

But more revealing than the choice of excerpts was how the Straits Times chose to label this excerpt. It was given the sub-heading “Potong Pasir a curious case of democracy at work”. Quite possibly the best spin that could be given a passage that ends saying: “Usually [Singapore] is not a democracy, but very occasionally it is.”

The following 300 words or so was essentially the Straits Times channeling Kishore Mahbubani through Kampfner’s prose. Mahbubani, as the editor was very helpful to add, is dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. Presumably Kampfner was citing Mahbubani to present an official perspective on PAP governance and its rationale. But most of us have heard it all before – the primacy of meritocracy, how the opposition could ruin us in five years, etc. But this is Kampfner’s book – what does HE think?

To add insult to injury, the title for this excerpt was a quote from Mahbubani – “I promise, I deliver, you vote for me.” A neat maxim for Singapore’s “report card” elections, and the “trusteeship” system of democracy.

The third excerpt was perhaps the least offensive to Singaporean sensibilities. It noted the “pact” being made in West, even in countries which pride themselves on their liberal democratic traditions. It observed that in this respect the West is not that different from Singapore.

Perhaps Kampfner isn’t just an angry liberal picking on our little red dot for easy royalty cheques, and his observation about the spreading of the Singaporean model can be construed as an affirmation of the PAP’s methods; therefore he is reasonably SFST – Safe for Straits Times.

My initial intrigue now seems less remarkable. Kampfner has been blunted and made safe; his book repackaged into something less hostile, perhaps even positive, towards establishment sensibilities.

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~ by spiegel2071 on December 17, 2009.

2 Responses to “Press muse – The good, bad and ugly (part two)”

  1. We can has economic prosperity?

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