In his speech at the Asian-European Editors’ Forum on 6 October, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong set out the Singapore Government’s prescription on the role of the media in society. (An excerpt of the speech is attached below.) As expected, PM Lee pointed out the pitfalls of the American model of an “unfettered and rambunctious” press. He made a veiled swipe at other Asian countries (read: Philippines, Thailand, Taiwan) which have adopted this media model and have not been as “successful at improving the lives of their people” as others with a less aggressive and adversarial press (read: Singapore, of course).
Notably, he commended the Japanese media model for being “less adversarial”, and putting “more emphasis on consensus building”. If, as PM Lee said, the Japanese media has “contributed to Japan’s success”, then the Singapore Government may have a thing or two to learn from Japan’s media.
Unlike the Singapore media, the Japanese press provides its readers a wide range of political viewpoints, from the centre-right Yomiuri Shimbun to the left-wing Asahi Shimbun. Readership is evenly split between the conservative and liberal newspapers. Singapore, in contrast, has just two national media companies, both of which are owned by the government and whose board and editors consist mostly of government or ex-government people, ensuring the media companies’ compliance with the government line at all times.
If the Singapore media can even come close to Japan’s in terms of political independence and the presentation of differing political viewpoints, we would not continue to be ranked 140th in the world by Reporters Sans Frontiers for press freedom, or be scored 38 out of 100 by the World Bank for “voice and accountability” in governance.
The New Media
PM Lee also gave his views about the Internet, or “new media”. He declared that while the traditional or mainstream media is “reliable, verified and insightful”, the new media is “full of clever propaganda, inflammatory opinions, half-truths and untruths” which are “not always easily countered by rational refutation or factual explanation”.
This belittlement of the new media is a government line which has been repeated so often that many Singaporeans have started believing and internalising it. Some journalists, in particular, love to cite this in their commentaries about the new media without substantiating it with evidence.
Due to its fewer political constraints, the new media contains many more diverse viewpoints than the government-linked media. However, it is wrong to refer to the new media as a single, monolithic entity which is all bad. The new media ranges from no-holds barred forums for Netizens to just vent, to much better thought out op-eds found in websites like SingaporeAngle.com and blogs by academics like Cherian George. Some websites like IntelligentSingaporean and MyAppleMenu provide a useful public service by aggregating and summarising quality local postings for the day.
In just the last few months, many more local blogs have been gaining prominence for their hard hitting commentaries on public policies and international relations, and for providing new insights into issues that the government-linked media does not dare to report on. A good example was the coverage of the protest by opposition activist Chee Soon Juan during the IMF/World Bank Meetings in September. While the government-linked media had orders to ignore the protest despite it being an issue of public interest, many political bloggers took it upon themselves to snap photos of the protest and post it on their blogs. Popular blogger Gayle Goh even conducted a very informative on-site interview with one of the protestors.
It is also not true that all Internet content is unfiltered, unprocessed and unverified. For example, SingaporeAngle’s editorial policy requires every post to be approved by a panel of editors before publication. Articles containing obscenities or hate speech are automatically rejected. If there is no editorial consensus on a submitted article, but it is deemed to contain “redeeming features”, the article is returned to the writer for revisions.
Furthermore, blog readers are free to post their comments and criticisms –– anonymously if they wish –– about the post. This provides a form of peer review that is absent in traditional newspapers. If one wishes to criticise an article in the newspapers, a letter to the forum page is the only option. But that letter needs to be carefully crafted and its publication is entirely at the discretion of the forum editor.
From broadsheets to blogs
The Government has recognised that the local media scene is set for some drastic changes ahead thanks to the Internet. Recently, a New Media Unit was set up within the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts to monitor Internet content and help formulate the Government’s policies on engaging citizenry through the Internet. The government-linked media will have to adapt fast to the changing media landscape. Already many young Singaporeans are shunning traditional broadsheets for blogs. As the quality and quantity of these citizen journalists’ products improve, SPH and Mediacorp can expect to lose a larger and larger market share to these new media entrants if the Government continues its stranglehold on the mainstream media.
EXCERPTS OF SPEECH BY PRIME MINISTER LEE HSIEN LOONG AT THE 6th ASIAN-EUROPEAN EDITORS’ FORUM, 6 OCTOBER 2006
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ROLE OF MEDIA
27. Good government delivers economic growth and progress, and builds a resilient and inclusive society. Responsible journalism, which understands and furthers the larger national interest, supports both of these goals. Ultimately, both exist for the people they serve.
28. In every country, the media occupies a position of power and responsibility. It is the source of news and views, accessible to all. It informs, educates and entertains. It influences and shapes public opinion. However, the media operates differently across countries. In some, media players consciously seek to uphold their responsibility to society and further the broader national interest. In others, the media reports and publishes stories based on what sells, or pushes particular ideological views, on the theory that the marketplace of ideas will automatically sort out the good from the bad.
29. The Western, particularly the American, model is an unfettered and rambunctious press, championing issues, competing to set the agenda, holding the elected government to account, and subject to minimal legal restraints. In Asia, some countries approximate this Western model of the media more closely than others. But the countries which have been most successful at improving the lives of their people do not always have the most aggressive media. For example, the Japanese media are less adversarial, and put more emphasis on consensus building. Their approach is different from the Western one, but it suits Japan’s culture and circumstances and has contributed to Japan’s success.
30. As with the political system, each country will have to evolve its own model of the media that works for it. Here too the situation is dynamic, not least because the internet is changing everything.
31. The internet is enabling ordinary citizens to post news and views on the web, making information available more quickly and plentifully than ever. The conventional wisdom is that the free flow of information on the internet is universally a good thing. It is undoubtedly very difficult to control information flow. But as we find terrorist groups using the internet to plan m
urderous attacks, and paedophiles using it to prey on defenceless children, we are learning that while the internet is a great boon to mankind, it is not an unmitigated one.
32. In the pre-internet age, newspapers and television stations not only reported news and opinions, they also filtered, processed and verified the information, in order to present coherent perspectives which shape the public debate and the public’s collective understanding of the world around us. The internet short circuits and undercuts this model.
33. Even in the internet age, there will still be a role for serious journalism, whether in print or on the web, because people will still seek out information sources which are reliable, verified and insightful. But it will not be easy to keep the public debate on this high plane, especially on controversial issues. For the internet also enables clever propaganda, inflammatory opinions, half-truths and untruths to circulate freely and gain currency through viral distribution, and these are not always easily countered by rational refutation or factual explanation. How to deal with this is something which every newspaper, and indeed every society, is grappling with.
34. Singapore regulates the internet with a light touch. But the same laws of sedition and defamation apply whether on the internet or in print, and we have prosecuted persons who have incited racial and religious hatred on blogs. Our mainstream media – television and newspapers – have kept their credibility and followings, though they are constantly tracking developments in cyberspace. We cannot say what the position will be in 10 or even 5 years’ time, with new technology continually emerging and a new internet generation growing up. Our position will evolve as we feel our way forward, but we do not believe that we should just drift with the tide. We still need anchor points that reflect our values, our vulnerabilities and our ambitions. The media in Singapore must adapt to these changes, do their best to stay relevant, and continue to contribute constructively to nation building.