Press muse – K. Shanmugam, literary gymnast

•November 9, 2010 • 1 Comment

So newly minted Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam (who is concurrently Law Minister) has been hitting the lecture circuit again, sharing with the world finer intricacies of running Singapore Inc.

You may recall his earlier venture in October 2009, when he memorably told lawyers at a New York State Bar Association International Section’s meeting that “[Singapore is] different. We are a city. We are not a country.” It was classic politically expedient semantics; an act of verbalised realpolitik rightly mythologised in the Singapore blogosphere.

Photo: Straits Times

A year on, Shanmugam took on bigger game at Columbia University’s inaugural forum series “A Free Press for a Global Society,” where he explained: “The Role of the Media: Singapore’s Perspective“. His oratorical arsenal remains well-stocked on the evidence of last week’s speech, already the subject of a detailed critique here. As a latecomer to this party, I shan’t replicate that effort, instead focusing on points dealing specifically with Singapore media.

His talk began on rather agreeable terms:

The question of what role the media can play in a society, has to be considered in the context of how that society has structured its political framework – the media does not operate in a vacuum.

The game plan is obvious as it is predictable: why Singapore’s unique circumstances necessitates a particular media model. After setting out the “traditional liberal theory of media” that posits the media as watchdog and a clearinghouse of debate contributing to better social outcomes, Shanmugam proceeds to describe the reality:

(1) Journalists, like the rest of us, are human, and subject to the same influences and vices. They can be biased, unfair and prejudiced, as much as any of us can be.

(2) Media companies are often profit-driven, like other commercial entities. It is not uncommon for journalistic values to be sacrificed in pursuit of profit.

(3) Media companies and journalists, like other entities and people, can be bought, suborned and corrupted – particularly in developing countries.

(4) Competition and the need for the advertising dollar can compromise ethics.

(5) There has also been a trend towards tabloidization to appeal to the lowest common denominator.

(6) The media can have tremendous influence in the political process. It can set the agenda for discussion, it can shape public opinion about Government and government policies, and it can make or break politicians. As the Fourth Estate, it is an active participant in the political process. Yet it is the only institution in the political process that is often not subject to any checks or balances. The answer that the public provides the check and balance is really a non answer.

These are all fair points, although Shanmugam’s pithy précis is hardly revolutionary. Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky did the hard work back in 1988 of describing the political economy of the mass media in their book “Manufacturing Consent.” Still, Shanmugam provides a baseline against which to assess his later prescriptions. These he puts forth with three points, summarising the government’s view on the role of the media:

(1) It should be a neutral medium for conveying news – with commentary clearly separate from news;

Sure, if by some extraordinary literary contorting he finesses “neutral medium” to mean newspaper companies whose “management” shareholders must be approved by the government, and that each of those “management shares” give the shareholder 200 times the voting power of an ordinary share on issues concerning the “appointment or dismissal of a director or any member of the staff” of the company.

Or a media corporation led by career civil servants and politicians, like the Singapore Press Holdings, which counts among its chairmen – past and present – President S R Nathan, the late former cabinet minister Lim Kim San, and ex-deputy prime minister Dr Tony Tan, the incumbent chair.

Or one that boasts in its ranks ex-intelligence services types, including former Internal Security Department director and ex-communications ministry permanent secretary Tjong Yik Min, who served as SPH group president and executive director from 1995 to 2002, and Straits Times’ political editor Chua Lee Hoong.

Or, in the words of Straits Times editor Han Fook Kwang, a newspaper that is “a living, breathing, active member of the community” and not “a passive provider” of news.

It’s hard to pick the greater marvel here – Shanmugam’s capacity for cognitive dissonance, or his giftedness in verbal gymnastics worthy of Orwellian Oceania. But I jest.

(2) It should report fully and fairly what goes on. It can probe, ask inconvenient questions, and expose wrong-doing;

How can an intrinsically biased media be expected to “report fully and fairly” as a “neutral medium”? After all, one of the most strident criticisms of the news media (see: Herman and Chomsky) is made against its systemic subordination to political and corporate power. Or perhaps the “living, breathing, active” Singapore press the minister imagines is also a sagely, omniscient entity. Even so, there are things it shouldn’t do, like…

(3) But it should not join the political fray and become a political actor. It should not campaign for or against a policy position. The media can and should convey the views of opposing political actors – and people can judge for themselves the validity of any particular point of view. If a journalist or a newspaper owner wants to take part in the political process, then he or she should join a political party, and not use the privileged access to the media to push a political perspective.

Forceful rhetoric, sir! Would you like to personally inform Dr Tan and Ms Chua of an impending career switch? Or would you prefer the time-honoured and, in your case, well-deserved politician’s accolade of pathological hypocrisy?

The answer to my unasked question comes when Shanmugam quotes former British prime minister Tony Blair on the nature of the modern corporate media. Ah, who better to speak on the subject than the charismatic face of New Labour, who understood better than most how to co-opt the supposedly adversarial British news media into his own agenda, peddling outrageously sensational falsehoods in the 2002 September Dossier and 2003 Dodgy Dossier about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that the press dutifully repeated?

Channeling the master, disciple Shanmugam proceeds with a rhetorical sleight of hand – a Bliar Blair favourite – by citing the United States as notional alternative to the Singapore model; the classic false dilemma, better known as the either-or fallacy. I shan’t bore you with details but suffice to say, departing from our status quo doesn’t necessitate diving recklessly into the American media quagmire.

His straw arguments are nonetheless good for some snicks and giggles. Take this gem, for instance, where he flatters his hosts:

The basic point is a simple one. Your society has in-built stability. There can be fringe lunatic behaviour, but mainstream Americans are sensible, rational, and extremist sentiment will not threaten the very fabric of society.

So by implication, Singapore doesn’t have built-in stability, because there is lunatic behaviour and mainstream Singaporeans can’t be relied upon to be sensible, rational, and extremist sentiment will threaten the very fabric of society. Comforting, though not as much as our collective faith in our media, as Shanmugam boasts in riposte to Reporters Sans Frontières’ annual press freedom index (see: shame parade):

In 2005 and 2006, Gallup asked residents in 128 countries whether they had confidence in the quality and integrity of their media. 69% of Singaporeans polled answered in the affirmative…. Singaporeans trust our media.

Is that so? It is a claim similar to one made earlier this year (discussed here), when then acting information minister Lui Tuck Yew (he has since been appointed on a permanent basis) cited in parliament the 2010 Edelman Trust Barometer, which said that 68 percent of Singaporeans polled regarded newspapers as their most trusted source of information – a proportion higher than the global average of 34 percent.

Flunking Shanmugam’s “full and fair reporting” test, Straits Times reporter Zakir Hussain, in his report on Lui’s remarks, had elided the fact that Edelman’s Singapore study involved only 200 people that are college-educated; with household income in the top quartile for their age in their country; read or watch business/news media at least several times a week; and follow public policy issues in the news at least several times a week. Hardly a representative sample of the Singapore population.

Funnily enough, a day later the Straits Times reported the findings of a Reader’s Digest online poll that ranked 40 professions on how trusted they are by Singaporeans, based on responses from 760 residents. It placed journalists at 30th and politicians at 39th. Charming.

Even the Straits Times’ Han was coy enough to admit in May that “We’re aware people say we’re a government mouthpiece or that we are biased,” adding “the test is if our readers believe in the paper and continue to buy it.”

How do they fare then? From 2000 to 2009, the Straits Times’ circulation fell by four percent. Detailed figures aren’t available, but the net readership trend in the same period, provided in the 2009 SPH annual report, indicates only modest growth for SPH’s English-language newspapers. In the same period, Singapore’s total population grew by 24 percent, while the resident population grew by 14 percent. While potential readership rose rapidly, circulation actually fell and net readership grew only modestly.

So much for SPH’s flagship newspaper that despite having free rein to corral its market in the absence of an equivalent domestic competitor, has had to step up bulk sales to schools to keep up circulation numbers. Result.

What of the Gallup poll? Gallup discusses it on its website, reveals their methodology and makes a couple of tentative observations: “While a country’s press may be considered free, it may not be widely respected by the residents who live there. Further, media considered to have relatively limited press freedom may have the support of their people.” What the results reflect on each society is not clear, but interestingly Singapore’s performance puts it alongside Botswana, Costa Rica and Tanzania, while trailing the likes of Nepal, Cambodia, Laos and table-topping Rwanda.

But bollocks and yah boo sucks to them, right? Only one audience really counts, as Shanmugam reassured us:

Our approach has been to ignore criticisms that make no sense – and we continue to do better. The people of Singapore also know better. 66% voted for the Government at the last general elections on our policy platform.

Or in “fuller” and “fairer” terms, 56.6% out of a total registered electorate of 2.16 million in 2006.

Mind you – Singaporeans are now well-educated, sophisticated, and know their rights. And as stated earlier, they also trust their media.

Only minutes before, some of us were lunatics and the rest of us aren’t really sensible and rational. Bravo sir, a perfect volte-face. Comăneci would be proud.


Press muse – The numbers tell no story

•November 2, 2010 • 2 Comments

UPDATE – 3 November, 2100hrs Singapore time

Wednesday’s (3 November) print edition of the Straits Times’ story provides some basic details on the survey that was missing from the online version published Tuesday evening.

In a infobox placed with the story (on page A8), the Straits Times reported: “This year, the Education Ministry polled 74,000 students in Primary 4 and 6, Secondary 2 and 4, and Year 2 junior college.” However, the Straits Times didn’t provide similar background for the 2008 survey of students. It also didn’t provide details for the surveys of National Servicemen. (Read full story here and here).

As of Wednesday evening, the Channel NewsAsia story “95% of students say they are proud to be Singaporean: survey” has not been updated – it still lacks any background information on the surveys.


Remember when I said the Singapore media is a tad too dependent on official sources for authority and convenience? Well, seems that they’ve been at it again.

In the wake of Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong’s pithy response last Friday (29 October) to an undergraduate’s poser on the dilution of national identity, Channel NewsAsia was kind enough to indulge me on Tuesday with this report by Sharon See.

95% of students say they are proud to be Singaporean: survey

SINGAPORE : The Education Minister and Second Minister for Defence, Ng Eng Hen said he is upbeat about Singapore youth and their sense of belonging to their country.

He said two National Education surveys on students conducted in 2008 and 2010 showed that over 95 per cent were proud to be Singaporeans.

Emphatic headline. And 95 percent sure is a nice, grandiose figure. But when nosy me wants to find out a bit more about this survey, Ms See disappointed me. Nowhere else in her 443-word piece does she say anything of note about these surveys.

Then numerate me starts to get a little bothered. Doesn’t Ms See realise Dr Ng’s claims are virtually meaningless? 95 percent of what? 100 people? 1,000? Details, Sharon, details! The devil’s in there somewhere.

By now the inquisitive me has kicked in, bolstered with some understanding of the vagaries of polling (lucidly explained here by the legendary Sir Humphrey Appleby). I wanted to know, among others: Who commissioned it and what did it seek to investigate or test? How was the survey designed? What were the methodology and sampling process? How was the data collected and who conducted the surveys on the ground – teachers, MOE officials, or pollsters? Who were surveyed – which schools, what age, what stream of education, what family backgrounds, etc.? Were the findings statistically significant?

Of course, for the sake of brevity and ease of understanding, Ms See didn’t have to explain all that to give readers an idea of the reliability of the surveys. But if nothing else, we at the very least can handle something as arithmetically basic as sample size, can’t we?

Not really. For she goes on to share this gem, woefully bereft of numbers or context:

Similar surveys on National Servicemen have also consistently shown that a majority feel they belong here and would defend Singapore should it come under threat.

Ah, yes. Now, wouldn’t we be worried if the majority of our armed servicemen hadn’t polled this way, especially if Encik was around…not that we’d know if he was or not.

It thus seems like neither Dr Ng nor Ms See thought we proles and common folk could handle the…um, ah…information (insert stale “A Few Good Men” reference) on these surveys. Sad if it’s true – a lamentable commentary on the state of our education system, something we ought to raise with the relevant minister…hang on.

Then again, maybe it’s just CNA that were so cavalier with context and dispensed with the details. So I turned to the Straits Times, which offered this report by Amelia Tan:

S’poreans will defend nation

MOST Singaporeans feel a sense of belonging to their country and will step forward to defend the nation if it is under threat.

Education Minister Ng Eng Hen said this strong sense of patriotism has been borne out in surveys of National Servicemen and the public in recent years.

More than 90 per cent of the respondents said they would defend Singapore when it comes to the crunch.

Funnily enough for a story fashioned around survey findings, there is only one figure to hand – a smashingly meaningless 90 percent. I can see the thought process behind it now: Never mind the minutiae, here’s the sexiest number (the right people will get this).

So faithfully have Channel NewsAsia and the Straits Times bought into the government’s nationalist narrative, jumping in to fight the troubling fires set last week by a Mr Lim Zi Rui and SM Goh, and perishing the scandalous thought that Singapore’s youth are less than patriotically inspired.

Or maybe Ms See and Ms Tan simply didn’t see it within their journalistic purview to examine or question Dr Ng’s claims and took him at face value. Tsk, tsk, Dr Ng wouldn’t be pleased with that. Especially with Ms Tan, who with no small amount of irony went on to quote him as follows:

Speaking to reporters on the sidelines of a National Education seminar on Tuesday, Dr Ng also said criticism and questioning are natural and essential to ensure that National Education messages are internalised.

He has told NE practitioners that criticism and negative sentiments should not be discouraged.

‘Just because you have articulated those messages, it is not the end point. In fact I would be very worried if people said I believe you straight away because this process requires you to reflect on what has been said,’ he said.

‘Examine it, question it and even test it, and then internalise it. This takes time and different experiences,’ he said.

Alas, his very interlocutors had failed at every hurdle but the last.

Singapore’s Youth Olympics and the impotence of being disearnest

•September 30, 2010 • 1 Comment

The Youth Olympics have come and gone, with a month’s worth of dust collected in our collective wake. Yet the recriminations still fly. Just this past week, it turns out that the organisers couldn’t get either a print job or a mail delivery right.

Pah, some might say dismissively, arguing these are minor mishaps in the grander scheme of things.

Not quite. One of the YOG’s key selling points, business-wise, is the global media exposure it brings for Singapore, its people and, of course, the sponsors. Yet some of those partners have come out of the bargain more philanthropist than investor, with a bitter taste in their mouths.

The Straits Times reported Thursday (30 September):

There were some who were disappointed with what they felt was meagre international coverage of the Games.

Said Lim Keng Boon, assistant general manager of Crocodile International: “We are extremely disappointed with the organiser and the scale of advertising and promotion done by them.

“It is a joke to the world and a shame to the YOG and Singaporeans, and a shock to first-tier sponsors like us who had spent close to a retail value of $10 million worth of apparel.”

The organisers offered this in defence:

But Singapore Youth Olympic Games Organising Committee (Syogoc) chairman Ng Ser Miang disagreed, insisting that the Games had plenty of coverage.

“Of course some countries didn’t get it but, overall worldwide, it was huge,” said Ng, who is also vice-president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and Singapore National Olympic Committee.

He pointed out that there were 166 rights holders, 26 live telecasts and “fantastic coverage” of the YOG Flame’s journey. He added that the IOC is compiling statistics about the Games coverage.

So Ng rests his case on a couple of numbers and some weasel words. And they are so convincing too, if you don’t think about it.

Consider the numbers. What do “166 rights holders” and “26 live telecasts” mean? Not a lot.

Starting with the latter, which I understand Ng to mean all 26 sports enjoyed some form of live broadcast (he can’t be talking about each competitive session as a discrete entity – the number would be far higher). Big news then. I would imagine the full summer Olympiads to boast 26 live telecasts too. What can this tell us about how popular the YOG broadcasts were globally? Zilch. Nadah. Nothing.

Moving on. The “166 rights holders” refer to the number of official broadcasters, each holding rights for an individual country, or in some cases, region. It appears to be a reasonably big number and, lacking official viewership data, a good measure for judging the scale of coverage.

By a way of comparison, let’s look at the broadcast data for the main Olympic Games (on pages 22-32 of the Olympic Marketing Fact File). In terms of number of countries/territories that received broadcasts, in 2008 some 220 aired the Beijing Olympiad. The 2010 Winter Games, with reduced appeal to countries lacking temperate or continental climates, attracted less – 200 countries/territories.

I hear you, number of rights holders isn’t the same as number of territories. So what I’ll use for comparison is an official Olympic list of YOG broadcasting countries (updated 13 August, the day before the YOG started), which shows just 185 territories – well short of that of the full Olympics.

That was just the warm-up. The number of broadcasters/territories isn’t very meaningful as we have no idea how many viewers there were in each territory. Without this data, one way to gauge popular enthusiasm is to look at the Games’ broadcast revenues – networks shell out for rights in anticipation of enthusiastic advertisers and sponsors, who in turn expect high viewership ratings.

In a simplistic metric, the more the broadcasters paid, the more confident they were about pulling in viewers. Of course, you’d have to factor in other considerations like the level of competition and the type of bidding process in each country/region, inflation, etc. Nonetheless, fundamentally, Olympics is big business; the bottom line counts, and where networks are willing to draw that bottom line can tell us something.

The 2008 Beijing Games commanded a whopping US$1.7 billion in global broadcast revenues. Its sister event, the 2006 Turin Winter Olympics, took in for the IOC US$831 million worldwide. For the 2010 and 2012 Olympiads, NBC alone is paying US$2 billion for exclusive US rights.

How much did the YOG take in? Consider these statements, taken from a SYOGOC press release (emphasis mine).

…the IOC has informed all existing official Olympic broadcast partners (in territories outside Singapore) that they have the opportunity to acquire the right to broadcast the Youth Olympic Games within their territory without charge, if they guarantee certain levels of exposure across all media platforms.

The official IOC and Singapore 2010 web sites will also broadcast the Games online (live and on demand) to viewers around the world free of charge.

Basically, the IOC was peddling YOG rights for free, in return for ensuring the Games received a minimum amount of media exposure. If the YOG was anything of a business bonanza, would such a caveat be necessary?

In the full Olympiads, internet broadcasts are part of the rights package purchased by networks, which then restrict viewership by territory to adhere by licensing agreements and, more importantly from the IOC’s perspective, prevent free-loading (think the strict policing on YouTube, where sports highlights are hunted down vigorously and removed). But in the case of the YOG, the IOC didn’t dare monetise internet broadcast rights.

Is this the kind of huge worldwide coverage you speak of, Mr Ng?

Press muse – Servility to higher powers

•September 10, 2010 • 1 Comment

The Christian Post Singapore published on its website Tuesday (7 September) an intriguing article titled “NCCS Workshop Prepares Churches to Engage Press“. It covered an event organised by the National Council of Churches of Singapore to “help churches publicise their work and respond to press inquiries.”

NCCS General Secretary Lim K Tham explained: “The press seem to be interested in the activities of the church (of late).” He presumably referred to media reports on local megachurches, probing their finances, business dealings and alleged fiscal impropriety.

The NCCS therefore sought expert guidance to educate members on the finer points of public relations and media management. They brought in an experienced PR professional, as the story indicated:

“Speaker Iain Ewing, 65…taught 300 pastors and church communications personnel to ‘sell their message to the media’.”

“The Canadian communications trainer encouraged his audience to make a checklist of possible stories to ‘sell’ to the media.”

“Ewing revealed one simple rule to getting a story published in the media: personal relationships with journalists. Knowing journalists has enabled the expert to have some media writing about him every month, he said.”

You may already know this if you’re a media observer, a PR professional, or a layperson who’s read Ben Goldacre’s or Nick Davies’ musings on the pernicious presence of PR in journalism. In any case, Ewing’s advice is no bombshell – PR in its modern guise has been big business for decades.

The more salient part of the workshop came from George Joseph, a Business Times assistant news editor and the Singapore Press Club’s honorary secretary – apparently an experienced and respected mainstream journalist. The article described his input:

The event also helped dispel suspicions many Christians had about a certain newspaper. This happened during the question-and-answer session at the end of the workshop.

Joseph, a veteran Singapore journalist, stressed that the particular newspaper is neither government-censored nor pro-homosexuality nor anti-Christian.

Which newspaper, you ask? There are clues later in the story, when the Aware saga was discussed at length. So no prizes for guessing the Straits Times. After all, it led media coverage on the affair and threaded on the most toes.

Joseph’s comments on that “certain newspaper” comprise familiar refrains, but nonetheless are worth scrutinising.

“There is absolutely no censorship in Singapore in the sense that you don’t have a censor sitting in the offices of the newspapers,” he said. It was a response to a question from Ewing.

That newspaper practices what is known as ‘developmental journalism’, Joseph added.

This is a system whereby ministers hold meetings with editors and journalists to ensure that they understand government objectives.

Ewing’s PR advice had anticipated Joseph’s comments. Overt censorship is superfluous when having personal relationships with journalists is sufficient to win favourable coverage. Why bother with sticks when the carrots work fine?

The fundamental point on censorship, which escaped Joseph, is not if the proverbial sword of Damocles really hangs over local newsrooms, but whether the state wields influence over journalists and, if so, how much. He acknowledges this influence, but, as his responses suggest, denies the implied aspersion that the mainstream press is biased.

Joseph – or any journalist for that matter – may not explicitly state it, but the ‘objectivity’ peddled by the news media is a mirage. Media bias is organic (or endemic). Perhaps the late historian Howard Zinn described it best:

I understood early that what is presented as “history” or as “news” is inevitably a selection out of an infinite amount of information, and that what is selected depends on what the selector thinks is important.

…behind any presented fact, I had come to believe, is a judgement – the judgement that this fact is important to put forward (and, by implication, other facts may be ignored). And any such judgement reflects the beliefs, the values of the historian, however he or she pretends to “objectivity”.[1]

However, Joseph’s inability (or conscious choice not) to see his logical inconsistency is expected, and there is a theoretical framework that explains why. Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman described it as the ‘propaganda model‘ in their 1988 book “Manufacturing Consent“. Five factors, they argue, influence news output: ownership of the medium, its funding sources, sourcing of information, criticism of their work, and ideology (or anti-ideology).

Chomsky explained the concept to British journalist Andrew Marr (then of the Independent newspaper) in a 1996 interview (watch interview as aired on BBC2):

Chomsky: The institutional structure of the media is quite straightforward – we’re talking about the United States, it’s not very different elsewhere – there are sectors, but the agenda-setting media, the ones that set the framework for everyone else (like the New York Times and the Washington Post, and so on), these are the major corporations, parts of even bigger conglomerates.

Like other corporate institutions, they have a product and a market: Their market is advertisers, that is, other businesses; their product is relatively privileged audiences, more or less..

Marr: So they’re selling audiences to…

C: They’re selling privileged audiences – these are big corporations selling privileged audiences to other corporations.

The news media isn’t concerned with selling journalism to an audience, but with selling an audience to other businesses, which then have access to a tailor-made consumer market. As the saying goes, there’s no such thing as a free…press.

In such a model, journalism is shaped by owners’ priorities and commercial pressures, which evolve alongside political and social realities. These realities also shape the paradigm of acceptable journalistic values. Journalists who accept (not necessarily believe) this paradigm will make it through the system.

M: This is what I don’t get, because (the propaganda model) suggests – I mean, I’m a journalist – people like me are “self-censoring”…

C: No – not self-censoring. There’s a filtering system that starts in kindergarten and goes all the way through and – it doesn’t work a hundred percent, but it’s pretty effective – it selects for obedience and subordination, and especially…

M: So, stroppy people won’t make it to positions of influence…

C: There’ll be “behaviour problems” or… if you read applications to a graduate school, you see that people will tell you “he doesn’t get along too well with his colleagues” – you know how to interpret those things.

A short while later, Marr returned to the question of self-censorship.

M: How can you know that I’m self-censoring? How can you know that journalists are…

C: I don’t say you’re self-censoring – I’m sure you believe everything you’re saying; but what I’m saying is, if you believed something different, you wouldn’t be sitting where you’re sitting.

In the case of Singapore, the five factors described in the propaganda model manifest as follows:

  • Firstly, the matter of newspaper company ownership is controlled by the government, under the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act (the effects of which are explained by Press-pedia at
  • Secondly, both the Singapore Press Holdings and MediaCorp are major corporations driven by the profit motive.
  • Thirdly, mainstream journalism tend to defer to official sources for authority and perceived authenticity.
  • Fourthly, the government has limited avenues for public criticism (although the advent of the Internet has changed this), while its criticism of newspaper actions – backed by strong libel laws – have been effective at shaping behaviour and eliminating elements of dissent.
  • Fifthly, the developmental, nation-building ideology (or the anti-ideology against communism, left-wing politics, instability, etc.) remains fashionable in the intellectual mainstream, because fundamental geopolitical realities that underpin the ideology persist.

The system isn’t foolproof but is highly effective. Some journalists genuinely believe in their work. Some see through the system and try to game it, while trying not to jeopardise their careers. Some are cognisant but cynically exploit their awareness for self-benefit. Others don’t care, so long as it pays the bills.  But all of them pass muster. It is those who reject the system in its entirety that get filtered out.

Joseph – a successful senior journalist publicly defending the integrity of his organisation – probably believes in his work. Critics may question on him on his integrity or lack of conscience – as many have of other journalists over gross bias in their work – but such accusations are likely misdirected. In the minds of those journalists, they are following their conscience.

If they believed something different, they wouldn’t be sitting where they are sitting.

[1] Zinn, Howard, The Zinn Reader: Writings on Disobedience and Democracy (New York: Seven Stories Press, 1997), p. 16.

A penny for your scorn (Part deux)

•August 20, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Remember when Haiti suffered a terrible plight in January this year, following a calamitous earthquake? When it needed much foreign assistance in cash and kind to fuel its disaster response and recovery?

I wrote about Singapore’s response to that humanitarian disaster…rather disapprovingly. US$50,000 isn’t much to shout about.

Half a year on, Pakistan too fell victim. This time the disaster came from above; torrential rains, leading to destructive flash floods. Initial reports, however, didn’t quite reveal the eventual scale of the problem.

Singapore made its move a week later.

MFA Press Statement: Singapore’s Humanitarian Assistance to Pakistan

In response to an appeal by the Government of Pakistan, the Singapore Government will contribute US$50,000 to aid relief efforts for the victims of the heavy floods. This contribution will be used by the Singaporean humanitarian organisation Mercy Relief, which has sent a three-member team to Peshawar to undertake relief and assistance work in and around Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province.

Mercy Relief will distribute tents, food, water filtration units for drinking water and medicines. It will also set up shelters for some of the homeless survivors of the flash floods.

The Singapore Red Cross has donated US$100,000 to the International Federation of Red Cross (IFRC) to bring humanitarian aid to the victims of the flood.

President S R Nathan earlier conveyed condolences on behalf of the people of Singapore to Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari.

Intriguingly, even the Singapore Red Cross was sufficiently concerned to put up double the amount of aid the government was offering. Perhaps the early reports from Pakistan might not have channeled sufficient sense of urgency and scale, least not enough for Singapore to be moved…much.

That ought to have changed days later, after the United Nations illustrated its concern with the use of stark comparison. UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs spokesman Maurizio Giuliano said: “This disaster is worse than the tsunami, the 2005 Pakistan earthquake and the Haiti earthquake.

Even so, four weeks after the disaster broke, less than half of the UN’s foreign aid target of US$460 million have been raised. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon didn’t mince his words when appealing for more help:

“Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, Pakistan is facing a slow-motion tsunami. Its destructive power can accumulate and grow with time,” he said.

He called the flooding a “global disaster” that was “one of the greatest tests of global solidarity”.

Singapore then upped its aid, perhaps suitably chastened.

MFA Press Statement: Singapore’s Humanitarian Assistance to Pakistan

The Singapore Government is contributing a second tranche of US$50,000 in humanitarian assistance to Pakistan for relief efforts following the devastating floods. This follows an earlier contribution of US$50,000, and comes in the wake of reports of the massive scale of the disaster.

The additional contribution will be used by Singaporean humanitarian organisation Mercy Relief to restock its supplies of water treatment systems, food and medicines for the flood victims. The first Mercy Relief aid relief team has returned from Pakistan, and a second team will leave for Pakistan within the next two weeks.

The Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) has deployed two officers under the auspices of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) to help on-site teams in Pakistan to assess the needs of flood victims and coordinate relief activities.

The grand old lady of Singapore press tried its best to put a positive spin, exclaiming “Singapore Doubles Aid“. How very generous indeed.

But surely not as charitable as troubled Afghanistan, which offered its neighbour US$1 million and an admission that “this aid amount is far less than what is really needed by the flood victims”.

Certainly nowhere close to the Singapore government’s generosity with its two-week, multimillion-dollar celebration of Singaporean modernity. Yes, that S$387 million (US$285 million) extravaganza that was only supposed to cost US$75.5 million, which received the additional US$210 million in funding without so much as a batted eyelid (or public consultation).

Yes, that sporting fiesta – the Youth Olympic Games – that has captured the imagination fascination sycophantic adulation of the Straits Times.

Sadly the ST is somewhat caught up with merry flag waving and hasn’t the temerity to get Chua Mui Hoong to do a redux, thus denying us the joy of witnessing the MFA re-employ its celebrated ‘Sudesh Maniar’ riposte – a guilt-free trip to the moral highground. This time, perhaps, he could emphasise the saving grace (of a very perverse order) that many other countries also haven’t been very forthcoming with funds.

But maybe I’ve missed a trick here. This YOG gig is about our little red dot standing tall amongst the big boys, isn’t it? I see it now. So we’ve got to stay with the major league consensus; if the big-timers aren’t hitting home runs, why should we?

Ivory tower irony

•July 27, 2010 • 1 Comment

The Straits Times yesterday (26 July) ran a curious little piece on its review pages. Tucked into a bottom left, quarter-page slot, an NUS academic asked in an op-ed, with discomfiting earnestness: “The YOG is coming. Are you excited yet?

Yes, we’ve gotten to that point. Hard to miss the grinding screeches of barrel bottom scraping when even custodians of our lauded ivory towers have been roped in to grease palms and man pumps.

(By the way, I know it’s copy editors who pen the headlines.)

For Associate Professor Ang Swee Hoon, this is a familiar gig. In May she exhorted via the Today newspaper: “YOG needs more marketing ‘oomph’“. With just under three months to go to the Games, the marketing expert called out the organisers on their promotional strategy, criticised the lack of visible YOG landmarks and thought the mascots were underutilised, before driving a stake through their PR team:

“An inspirational event like the YOG needs an inspiring campaign. While this would require resources, it is not too late to furnish a compact, but impactful, campaign between now and August, one that will make Singaporeans truly feel they have a stake in the success of the YOG.”

But even the best-laid plans often turn rat shit. Turns out this little summer picnic will cost us three times more money than previously thought, ticket sales are piss poorfew can be arsed to even watch it on TV, and the official cheer was a dud.

So yesterday Prof Ang drew on her proverbial pen and threw the last roll of the dice.

“Next month, Singapore will host the first Youth Olympic Games (YOG)…This is no mean feat. Kudos goes to the committee that fought hard to convince the IOC that Singapore has the resources…Being the first of its kind, the YOG is like a new animal species…”

So far so good. The elephant in the room – namely why she had to write this article in the first place – glibly ignored.

“…the Games will be competing with the National Day celebrations. However, such seemingly poor timing need not necessarily be so. There are opportunities for synergy here…we should look forward to not only celebrating our national birthday, but also to a post-National Day party of sorts in the YOG.”

Cheap marketing tips, check. Remind us, why it had to fall to you to tell us this stuff? Doesn’t the YOG organising committee have their own PR?

“Yet another another reason why we should be proud of hosting the YOG: It outperforms the SEA, Asian and Commonwealth Games in terms of the countries participating…Truly this is an international sporting extravaganza.”

Oh yes, like how hundreds of millions adore the World Cup finals for its offering of a grandiose 32 teams, not so much the top talent and quality of football.

“The time is now for the general public to respond and show support for the Games…we need organic buzz.”

Oh, so it’s our fault, really, for not having our interest piqued. For my abject apathy, I’m truly apologetic.

“Singaporeans should spontaneously be generating more excitement for the Games.”

Woah, slow down Harvard…I mean British Columbia. How is it spontaneous if we simply do as you tell us?

“We should be telling friends about the sporting events we are buying tickets for, educating our children about the significance of hosting the Games, and buying souvenirs to commemorate it.”

Psst. You giving your game away, Prof. Isn’t good marketing and advertising supposed to be a little more…subtle? You know, like those geeky sciency myths about subliminal messages, or stuff like harnessing star power, herd behaviour, peer pressure or some such. Try using the subjunctive next time?

“More importantly, we should feel in our hearts a sense of awe that our country has been chosen to initiate this new series of games.”

More importantly, we should be paying a visit to the psychiatrist sharpish if we still feel anything for an underwhelming decision the International Olympic Committee made over two years ago.

“Are we one people? Are we proud of Singapore and what we have achieved? If so, we should rally behind the YOG.”

I always thought the nationalism/patriotism card was well underrated. Maybe because it turns out so flaccidly banal in the hands of anyone other than the most mesmerising of demagogues (There, I stopped just a step short of invoking Godwin’s Law).

“Be part of this history making. Be part of this legacy.”

Pretty dire stuff. Then again, she could consider moonlighting writing narration for ESPN adverts.

Almost in spite of that performance, Prof Ang’s bio blurb read: “The writer…specialises in advertising, consumer behaviour (my emphasis) and branding.” She can’t possibly think insipid tabloid-style guff buried in one of the least read sections of a newspaper could actually mould consumer behaviour, can she? If she doesn’t, as she ought to, why bother wasting those column inches with a fistful of stock PR gags?

Curious indeed.

Oh what a tangled Web

•July 22, 2010 • 1 Comment

Eons ago, an Invisible Magic Friend raised some luscious, fertile trees yet thought it inappropriate to share their goodness. So he told his young ‘uns to lay off, or risk death.

But seriously, who could turn down something so expressedly forbidden?

Centuries ago, an Infallible One leered at foul literature that warped the minds of children and weakened the resolve of congregations. So he commissioned what became the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, or the ‘List of Prohibited Books’.

But seriously, who could pass up on reading Bacon, Descartes, Galileo, Hugo, Kant, Locke, Rousseau, Sartre, or Voltaire?

Years ago, a Diva scorned a website’s publishing of an aerial photograph of her luxurious seaside mansion. So she sued the offending site and photographer to get them to remove the image.

But seriously, who gave a damn about her house before she inadvertently kicked up an Internet maelstrom?

Now, well into the 21st century and cognisant of earlier follies of the forbidden fruit, the grandfather of all bestsellers lists and the Streisand effect, Singapore’s Minitrue (officially the Media Development Authority) ought to know better, right?

Not on evidence from the past fortnight.

Last Monday (12 July), they banned a YouTube video of ex-political detainee Dr Lim Hock Siew delivering a speech, shot by local filmmaker Martyn See, claiming it was “against the public interest”.

They then asked local bookshops to pull from their shelves a book by British author Alan Shadrake, which discusses Singapore’s implementation of the death penalty. But the book was not officially banned.

On Friday (17 July), they filed a police report against Shadrake, which led on Sunday to his arrest on charges on criminal defamation and contempt of court.

But each move to remove ‘offending’ literature from the official canon would be met by an opposite, although not equal, force.

While See has complied with MDA’s orders, his film has garnered thousands of additional views and found refuge on other video sharing sites like Vimeo. Bloggers and activists cried foul over the ban, and one even transcribed Dr Lim’s speech. Mainstream news coverage in all likelihood raised more awareness. Similarly, Shadrake and his book now has a worldwide audience (albeit fleeting as always), as foreign news media – British press among them – caught on and obliged with bad press.

Maybe the government is insecure and losing control – another blogger thinks so – following its troubles over foreign workers, inflation and floods. Perhaps the local media authority is abysmally feckless at grasping the dynamics of the Internet. These views may be gratifying, even mildly amusing. But there is another side to the looking glass.

Ask not why the government is recently so error-prone; ask why they are so eagerly cracking the whip, despite the backlash.

Lacking a “Great Firewall”, blowbacks were bound to happen – as John Gilmore scoffed nearly two decades ago: “The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.” They must know that.

The bad timing – two major moves in two weeks – could just be coincidence. The strength of the gestures, however, is quite deliberate. Charging someone with criminal defamation, as pointed out by others, is a severe move – the political and media interest it would elicit must have been considered. Banning a film that is merely an unadulterated record of a speech is peculiar – since Dr Lim himself was not rapped – but the circumnavigation of the ban must have been foreseen.

Oversight? Mistakes? Probably not. Rather, this past fortnight marked demonstrations by the government of its confidence in withstanding, even disarming, disaggregated dissent.

Political censorship in the Internet age may seem arcane. But is it? Turn this view on its head and ask, for example, what has WikiLeaks – much lauded for its aspirations and good work in promoting freedom of information – achieved in terms actual political change? Not a whole lot, it seems.

Guantánamo Bay standard operating procedures? Obama still can’t shut that damn place down.

Sarah Palin’s email messages? Ok, she lost the election. But since then she’s established herself as a leading right-wing rabble-rouser, secured a segment on Fox News, and penned a New York Times #1 bestseller.

Trafigura’s Minton report? Carter Ruck’s super-injunction was eventually modified only because of public uproar in response to the Guardian’s revelation of the gag order. The BBC eventually retracted its allegations that Trafigura’s toxic waste dumping had caused deaths. The 30,000 Ivorian victims received a measly US$1,547 each in compensation (the oil trader already paid US$200 million to the Côte d’Ivoire government in 2007).

The Baghdad Apache airstrike video? Cathartic uproar, no inquiry to date, and a suspected whistleblower arrested.

Behold the power of the Internet?

The Web in itself cannot effect major political change. It doesn’t level a uneven political playing field. It doesn’t negate martial power. It is blind, lending its potential to the orthodox and the radical. If it were the messianic force some imagine it to be, the likes of the Green Movement, the pro-Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions drive and even Project Chanology – all heavily reliant on Web-based mobilisation and PR – would have had far more joy by now.

The Singapore government is well aware of this. They’re not making “mistakes”. They do it because they can get away with it.

Then again, I may be wrong. The MDA could well be perpetually – in Def Leppard parlance – “two steps behind“.

It was certainly disconnected enough in 2007 to think a viral video – innocuously titled ‘MDA Upper Management Rap‘ – might do it some favours. A Guardian reviewer recovered sufficiently to pass pithy comment:

13 MDA Upper Management ‘Rap’
Singapore’s Media Development Authority makes a completely cringe-worthy rap video – complete with CEO – extolling its virtues. Read the (YouTube) postings.

Go on. It only takes four minutes of your precious time…to remind you, that they’ll be two steps behind.