Don’t like the mainstream media? Support the alternative then

On 26 April, my friend, colleague and fellow editor at publichouse.sg, Elaine Ee, wrote this piece in response to the government’s call for a code of conduct for the Internet: “Forget code of ethics, free up mainstream media“.

Dismissing the call, she wrote:

“What we need instead is a new journalistic environment, where the mainstream media are as free to tackle issues and make opinions as new media. Mainstream media needs to be allowed to move with the times, and be released from its public relations role of helping with “nation building” and social cohesion, which should never have been its job in the first place.”

For the longest time, Singaporeans have been calling for a new media landscape. One where, as Elaine said, journalists are free to report the news without fear or favour, without having to put up with unnecessarily cautious editors, or who self-censor because a particular issue is sensitive to the powers-that-be. 

The government, on the other hand, is perfectly fine with such a media, which it lauds for its “nation-building” and “social cohesion” effort. Indeed, the government is so awed by how our media has turned out that ministers describe them as “accurate, timely and balanced” – even as Singaporeans continue to view the media with suspicion.

It is, to me, another example of how out of touch the government has become.

Incidentally, here is an article published in the Straits Times on 28 April 2012. It is written by Leslie Fong, the former Chief Editor of the Straits Times: “Traditional media still the best platform for national debate“, picture courtesy of Lee Kin Mun’s Facebook page:

I know of no other paper which trumpets itself so regularly and highly than the Straits Times or our local media.

But of course this is all about politics and the preservation of political power. And I don’t expect any freeing up of the media as long as the media is expected to be a “nation building” one – a euphemistic term which is code for preserving the status quo, one which helps preserve the ruling party’s political power – unless the media itself loses credibility.

And this is where new media comes in.

New media, in my opinion, is still in its nascent stage in Singapore. We hardly have an independent, alternative media company to challenge SPH or Mediacorp. It is thus with much admiration that I view the bloggers who do what they do even as there are no tangible compensation to be had. It is a tough job to do it day and night, everyday of the year, year after year.

But it is also a necessary one, and I do believe the bloggers know this.

Yet, not all mainstream reporters and journalists are government mouthpieces. I do interact with some of them and you can at times see the disappointment (and even shame, really) when some of these reporters are chastised for their reports. But they are at the mercy of their editors. That is no excuse, of course. If bloggers stick their necks out to do what they do everyday, I don’t think any less should be expected of mainstream, professional journalists.

But as I said, not all of them are bad or do not do good work.

I’d like to highlight an example – the Straits Times’ Kor Kian Beng.

I’d spoken to Kian Beng some times, though not in any real depth. Met him now and then at events, the last time during the General Elections last year. Kian Beng was assigned by the ST to cover the Workers’ Party then. It is only fair to say that he did a good job. I am sure the WP will agree. He was always there speaking to WP members, especially Mr Low Thia Khiang. Kian Beng became almost a shadow of Mr Low, following him virtually everywhere. You could see that Mr Low had opened up to him.

This pre-GE report in April 2011 confirmed this. It was a full-page report by Kian Beng on Mr Low, something one would not have expected, given how giving such publicity to the opposition is anathema to our mainstream papers.

And after the GE, Kian Beng did another full-page interview and report with Mr Low.

Sadly, Kian Beng, I am told, has been posted out to the ST’s Beijing bureau, to team up with Peh Shing Huei. You can read some of his reports here and here.

It is a little strange to me that at a time when Singapore is facing political changes – with more opposition MPs in Parliament, and the ruling party having lost a GRC for the first time, for example – that one of its most experienced political reporters has been posted out of the country.

This has given rise to murmurs of political manoeuvres at the paper at the behest of the powers upstairs.

Kian Beng can take some comfort, if he needs any, that at least one new reporter said to me when I asked about where he is: “We all really respect Kian Beng a lot,” the reporter said.

[UPDATE: 1 May 2012: I understand that Kian Beng had asked to be assigned as a foreign correspondent. So, I stand corrected.]

Since the GE, several changes have also taken place at the company – Singapore Press Holdings – which owns the Straits Times. Its chairman, Tony Tan, is now the president of Singapore. In his place is the former Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts, Lee Boon Yang. The ST has also changed its chief editor. Han Fook Kwang has stepped down, and Warren Fernandez has assumed the position, along with the political desk position. Fernandez is both chief editor and political desk editor. Quite curiously, Fernandez was given the job although he had spent the prior 3 years 8 months with petroleum company Shell as Global Manager, Future Energy project.

One wonders why Han’s deputy, Zuraidah Ibrahim, was not given the job as chief. But that is another matter.

So, it looks like nothing much is gonna change, either with the Straits Times or the media as a whole. Ministers can and will, as new Mica Minister Yaacob Ibrahim showed recently, continue to praise the mainstream media for its brand of “nation-building”  journalism.

So, I don’t really see any opening up for the foreseeable future.

I do hope that members of the public will step up and support the alternative, no matter how small each of them may be – the bloggers, the citizen journalists who are doing their best to offer this alternative.

It is very hard work, I can tell you with all sincerity. Support does not have to come from money. It can come from a simple email, a simple comment on Facebook, or Twitter, or on the blogs or websites.

If we see a need for an alternative, then we can all chip in to support this. For at the end of the day, we are really talking of sampans trying to take on one giant of a tanker. But if there are many sampans, the task is not so difficult. Each show of support is like an oar which thrusts the little boat further.

So, while we may criticise the mainstream media or the government for sticking to old habits and old anachronistic practices, what would be more effective is to lend support to the alternative.

In the meantime, I do support Elaine’s call for the government to free up the mainstream media – else it will continue to lose its best reporters, not just through attrition but also through its own political hang-ups. And this does our country no good at all.

And as Elaine said, Singapore desperately needs a new journalistic environment. And it needs it badly.

As for Kian Beng, he should be here in Singapore in this time when our country is going through momentous political changes.

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