Singapore Media Watch

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Firing up the post-65ers - TODAY 28 Sept 2006

PM wants them to make noise but they are just finding their voice
Christie Loh
News analysis

Review by the Editorial Team

In the above article, TODAY's journalist Christie Loh wrote approvingly of PM Lee's forward thinking and openness in engaging the young.

The selective and clever choice of words used in the article seek to impress and convince readers that PM Lee is an approachable, warm and sincere leader whose thinking and mindset are in sync with young Singaporeans:

1. "This evening, I have been trying to get people to put their hands up to speak." quipped Mr Lee.

2. This was the 12th time a PM of the country had held a dialogue with young Singaporeans.

3. Mr Lee wanted more crossfire.

4. No issue was taboo.

5. The openness impressed participants...

6. ...applauded Mr Lee for his "warmth"....and being "not condescending".

Journalists are aware that most readers will browse through papers without probing deeper into the writers' intentions and the influence it will exert on their perception.

Selective and repeated use of certain words or group of words will invariably create a positive or negative impression in readers' mind of a certain person or event covered by the article.

If is often repeated and reinforced, readers will be led to believe it is the "truth" which seldom reflects reality. We all know there are no clear-cut "whites" and "blacks", "rights" or "wrongs" in life.

This positive appraisal and endorsement of PM Lee by the media has been gaining momentum since he took over the reins of government from Mr Goh Chok Tong in 2004.

Though not quite similar to the cult cultivation practiced by China's Xinhua agency of Chairman Mao during the Cultural Revolution, the methodology used is the same. The imprints it has left on Singaporeans' mind of PM Lee is a caring leader who understands the aspirations of young Singaporeans.

Does PM Lee really want Singaporeans to "make a nuisance"?

My mother used to tell me when I was young not to trust people easily. One can only determine who are one's real friends after years of observation. Similarly, we can only make a reasonable and objective judgment of PM Lee based on his words and actions as a Prime Minister so far.

In his augural speech as PM in 2004, Mr Lee calls for Singaporeans to build an "open and inclusive society." Let us refresh some of PM Lee's government handling of citizens' "making noises" over the past one year to assess for ourselves whether he does indeed practice what he preaches. These are widely reported in the Straits Times and TODAY. We leave you to make your own judgment on whether PM Lee truly deserves the accolades bestowed on him by the media or perhaps, it doesn't quite match his deeds in real life.

1. On 11 August 2005, 4 unarmed civilians planted themselves outside the CPF building to protest against the lack of transparency and accountability in certain institutions such as NKF, GIC, CPF and HDB. They were promptly wrisked away by a squad of fully armed riot police of 30.

2. Local flim-maker Martyn See was hauled up by the Police for producing a "political film" on opposition politician Dr Chee Soon Juan entitled "Singapore Rebel". The film was withdrawn from the Singapore Flim Festival on 10 May 2005 and was seized by the police. See was questioned several times by the Police, together with his acquaintances. He was eventually not charged with any offence and was given a "severe warning" for producing the film.

3. On 12 September 2005, 3 bloggers were charged under the Sedition Act for posting derogatory remarks on Malays and Islam on their personal blogs. Two were sentenced to terms in prisons while one 17- year old was sentenced to 180 hours of community service with the Malay community.

4. Buangkok MRT had remained close since its completion in 2003 as authorities believed it is not commercially viable to do so. Residents' repeated appeals and petitions were not successful and the end consequence was eight cardboard cartoons of white elephants lined a road to greet a minister on his visit to the area. When the long awaited station was opened in January 2006, a group of students from Raffles Girls Secondary School decided to raise funds for their commuity project by selling T-shirts emblazoned with white elephants at the station. They were later warned by the Police that "such acts may be misconstrued as mischief".

5. The Singapore Democratic Party was sued by PM Lee for defamation for alleging the government knows about the misgovernance of NKF and yet remained quiet about it. PM Lee argued that the reputation and credibility of his government will be undermined if such allegations are not rebutted. 6 out of 8 CEC members of the SDP have since apologized and retracted their statements. The remaining two plaintiffs, Dr Chee Soon Juan and Ms Chee Siok Chin chose to fight against the suit. A summary judgment was awarded against them by the High Court

6. In a most glaring blunder, PM Lee said during a lunch-time pre-election rally at Raffles place that "should there be 10 to 15 opposition members in Parliament, he has to spend time thinking how to "fix" his opponents by buy his supporters' votes". Channel NewsAsia had initially moderate his speech to "counter the opposition" on its website, but with the original transcripts widely spread on the internet, the Straits Times publish a full account of the speech together with PM Lee's apology the day after.

7. In July 2006, Mr Brown, a guest writer for TODAY, was reprimanded by the government for his satire on the uncanny coincidental timing of price hikes after the General Election. In an unusually harsh rebuttal to Mr Brown (and indirectly to TODAY), Ms K Bhavani, press secretary to Ministry of Information, Communication and Arts criticised Mr Brown for "distorting the truth and offered no solutions". Ms Bhavani added that opinions widely circulated in a regular column in a serious newspaper should meet higher standards. Her parting words: "It is not the role of journalists or newspapers in Singapore to champion issues, or campaign for or against the Government." Mr Brown's regular column in TODAY was subsequently suspended "indefinitely". In the following week, 30 Singaporeans wearing brown T-shirts gathered at City Hall MRT in a show of solidarity for the beleaguered writer had their NRIC numbers taken down by plain-cloth Police though they are not causing any disruption to the traffic.

8. Mr Seelan Peelai, a Singapore artist, was arrested by the Police for starting a "400 frowns" campaign on the internet to counter the government's 4 million smiles project in a coordinated effort to welcome delegates of the IMF-WB meeting. His fate remains unknown.

Make noise, but make the right one

Is PM Lee's continued exhortations to young Singaporeans to speak up really his real intentions or is it merely a facade put up to attract young voters? One interesting observation is that PM Lee has chosen to engage only the Post-65ers so far, and not the middle-aged working class or the elderly. Don't the voices of these people matter too?

Young Singaporeans with limited experience in working life are easily impressionable. Given the "depoliticalizing" of Singaporeans over the years by the state and media, young people are generally less radical and extreme politically and even if they are, they have few resources or connections to seriously mount a threat and "rock the boat".

These post-65ers will form a critical bulk of voters by the next GE in 2011. It is therefore crucial for the ruling party to prepare the battleground early by winning their hearts and minds. By speaking on terms with them, appearing to be understanding and accommodating to their concerns and aspirations and constant engaging them, PM Lee is effectively wooing the young over to his side.

In a country where the government is perceived to be almost faultless, it is little wonder how "making noises" by citizens will have any influence on policy-making and thereby Singapore's future. Ironically, the only way to do so is through the ballot and it is strange and baffling that PM Lee did not encourage young Singaporeans to join alternative political parties to make the "right noises" through the "right medium".

Thou shalt not speak

The message PM Lee is sending to Singaporeans seems to be mixed: You are encourage to speak up but not on issues which will irritate us. It is not hard to discern where the OB markers are based on speeches given by key cabinet leaders.

1. Political leaders: In a country reputed for its clean squeaky image, it is surprising that its leaders are seldom subjected to close scrutiny for their performance by the media and citizens. Long a taboo topic in Singapore, self-censorship is rampant and prevailing when it comes to questioning our leaders' words and actions. Journalists are only allowed to report or endorse what the leaders say without adding their own views, analysis or criticism.

2. Political system: MM Lee's recent remarks on maintaining the present system of government which has served the nation well since independence is a timely reminder to Singaporeans to maintain the status quo. However, what defines the "system" is open to debate. Does it refer to the present political system where one party dominates the Parliament, the control of the media by the governing authorities or its unique multi-racial meritocracy? For whatever reasons, MM Lee chose not to elaborate on what "system" he had put into place and how he wants the present crop of leaders to perpetuate its existence.

3. Government policies: The lack of a politically conscious civil society and a free media in Singapore means that ordinary citizens have no recourse to feedback or influence government policies. While they are allowed to vent their unhappiness and frustrations in a controlled manner through the mainstream media, attempts to influence public perception are often quickly clamped down hard and fast as evident in the recent Mr Brown's saga.

4. Media: In an interview last year on Singapore's 140th ranking in the World Press Freedom index conducted by international media watchdog Reporters without Borders, SM Goh remarked he is not too concerned with the ranking, further adding that western-style journalism is incompatible with the national interests of an ethnically diverse country like Singapore. His view was reiterated repeatedly by MM Lee, PM Lee and other ministers who continued to emphasize the anointed role of the media as a compliant partner in the nation-building process, following obediently the agenda set by the government and not the other way round.

5. Race and religion: The government has often recounted the racial riots of the 1960s as the prime reason for prosecuting citizens who make insensitive remarks on race and religion as exemplified by the incarceration of 2 bloggers who made "seditious" remarks on Malays and Islam last year. The mainstream media has also threaded carefully on issues involving race and religion by keeping sensitive issues out of the ambit of public discussion.

6. Judiciary: The decisions of the judiciary were seldomed questioned in public. Any efforts made to "undermine" the integrity and independence of the judiciary are countered swiftly with serious repercussions for the "offender".

In October 2005, Frank Lavin, the out-going U.S. ambassador to Singapore criticized the government's restrictions on free speech in a rare public rebuttal. Mr Levin said it was "surprising to find constraints on discussions here" given Singapore's strong international links in the economic sector. "In this era of Weblogs and Webcams, how much sense does it make to limit political expression?"

The urge to young Singaporeans to speak up may be a first sign of the government's acknowledgement of the proliferation of alternative media in today's IT age. How far it will relax its restrictions on free and open speech remains to be seen. So far, the signs are not encouraging. If PM Lee is serious and sincere about "building an open and inclusive society" he should do some introspection on why it is so difficult to get Singaporeans to speak up. For the time-being, most Singaporeans will rather err on the side of caution than to say the "wrong" thing in a moment of folly and regret for life.


  • Brilliant commentary. *Standing ovation*

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:44 AM  

  • Brilliant commentary. *Standing ovation*

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:44 AM  

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