Publish and Perish

In Tan Tarn How's new play, Press Gang, journalists at Singapore's largest newspaper grapple with their approach to reporting an incident indicative of abuse of power within the prime minister's family. Outside the newsroom, the editor of an independent news website sniffs around for information and collects stories blocked by the powerful. The scenarios sound familiar, the characters drop names that remind Singaporeans (those who follow such issues, anyway) of actual cases and journalists, and the state of journalism in Singapore is performed for all to see.

As an independent journalist in Singapore, it was incredibly satisfying to see these scenes play out on stage, knowing that they were coming from Tarn How and his own experiences within The Straits Times. It was also very depressing (although not surprising) to find that even though Tarn How left ST over a decade ago, the experiences he put into his play still ring true.

After watching the matinee performance on 8 July, I joined Tarn How and Terry Xu, editor of The Online Citizen on the panel Publish and Perish: The Perils of Singapore Journalism, moderated by Alfian Sa'at. I doubt my memory is good enough to provide a blow-by-blow account of what we talked about, but I'm going to try to lay out the main points of discussion, mixed in with further thoughts I've had since the panel.

In 1971, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew gave a speech in Helsinki, in which he explained his attitude toward the press. He argued that he curbed the press to preserve peace in Singapore and to protect Singaporeans from foreign political meddling.

Close to 50 years later, Lee's arguments should still be familiar to Singaporeans. He spoke of the Maria Hertogh riots and accused the press of having stoked racial tensions, leading to violence; today, the PAP government points to "fake news" that exploits social divisions and argues for the need for further regulation. Lee spoke of "foreign agencies" using "local proxies to set up or buy into newspapers, not to make money but to make political gains by shaping opinions and attitudes"; today, the PAP talks about "foreign influence" and keeping Singaporean politics for Singaporeans. The utility of bogeymen is evergreen.

In some countries, journalists have to worry about their physical safety. They have to worry about being arrested, detained, beaten or even killed. Singapore does things differently. In Singapore, there is, as Tarn How described it, "psychological violence". Self-censorship is rife, among the media and ordinary citizens alike. Key positions in the newsrooms, such as editors, are appointed by the government. These individuals are then in regular contact with government officials and ministers; selecting people who understand the bottom-line to gatekeep for you is much more efficient than pre-censoring or vetting stories. The government then only needs to take action against the odd case here and there—based on their own cost/benefit analysis, likely based on the individual or publication's reach and reputation—to remind others who might be thinking of stepping out of line. It's a much more sophisticated system than direct threats and imprisonment; those situations tend to grab headlines, whereas this one leaves the powerful with plenty of plausible deniability.

The system is so ingenious that we've somehow ended up with a mainstream press that won't talk about the lack of press freedom in the country. It's a question that has long bugged me, and I was glad I got to ask Tarn How for his thoughts during the panel. In response, he pointed out that, since the top levels of the newspapers are government appointees, they're hardly going to say that they aren't fit for the positions they're in, or that the way in which they got to where they are was inappropriate. They then take care of those working below them, making it difficult for any public protest, much less revolt.

Photo: W!LD RICE

Photo: W!LD RICE

Is investigative journalism possible in such a context? A question from the floor had to do with whether Singapore would ever see investigative journalism such as the likes of Sarawak Report on the 1MDB scandal. Tarn How pointed out that investigative journalism does exist in Singapore, but only when it comes to stories that don't threaten the political order. Terry highlighted the cost and lack of resources, particularly when Singaporeans aren't willing to pay for (expensive) investigative work.

My sense was that 1MDB-type investigative journalism in Singapore is difficult because of the entire ecosystem; the lack of access to information and data (especially with no Freedom of Information Act), coupled with the lack of whistleblower protections that make people unlikely to want to take the risk to make things known—one thing that I didn't add was the lack of solidarity and networks among the press. When Sarawak Report and The Edge got in trouble, there were other Malaysian publications that were willing to stand with them, voice support and continue reporting. If someone were to undertake investigative reporting and get rapped, would any other publication or journalist stand with them? Would anyone continue pushing the boundaries and pushing for answers? Or would obedient publications be turned against the dissenting voice to smear and discredit and bury? That makes a difference too, and extends beyond just the journalism industry; as one member of the audience pointed out, citizens need to step up to support such journalism.

Perhaps, if younger generations of Singapore develop greater expectations of the political system, of democracy and of the media, things might change. Yet self-censorship and anxiety can be passed down from one generation to the next, even among those who wouldn't think of themselves as "political". I've met young people who had never heard of Operation Spectrum and didn't read the news, but who had a sense that certain things couldn't be said. It's something that worries me; a sense of disempowerment and fear so entrenched that people might not even realise that they're carrying it with them.

Singapore isn't a totalitarian state (and please let it not get to that point!) Independent journalists like myself are still able to work and write. But that doesn't mean we're free, or that we don't self-censor.

One thing that struck me as I watched Press Gang was how this caution and self-policing can become second nature; as characters read out their copy on stage, I found myself silently editing the lines. "No, you shouldn't say it this way. Oh you're courting danger if you say it like that! Maybe less categorical, maybe more caveats, leave yourself a way out."

It's not always a bad thing, if it means more meticulous writing. But we have to think about what gets lost when journalists operate in a climate of fear that makes them fret over every single word and worry about danger more than about truth. To borrow Tarn How's phrase, that's psychological violence.

Kirsten Han