SINGAPORE: Would Western Values Really Have Worked?

Journalism takes on many different forms in the modern world. Western nations boastfully tout a free press system, while some countries have a media system controlled by the government. Other states lie somewhere in between the two, inclining toward a system of privately held media corporations that are still required to answer to the government. Such a press system must skillfully (if not fearfully) maneuver between reporting credible news to the public – while remaining within the journalistic boundaries set by the government. Cheong Yip Seng, former editor-in-chief of the English/Malay Division at Singapore Press Holdings, offers considerable first-hand experience in the difficult practice of developmental journalism, the central subject of his provocative and unapologetic: OB Markers: My Straits Times Story. The book will be published this Fall by The Straits Times Press. Here are edited excerpts of our interview with this noted Southeast Asian newspaper journalist on why developmental journalism apparently worked well for Singapore – but how its media might now evolve.

Stephanie Garcia: What are “OB Markers” and how did they affect your work during your 43 years at The Straits Times?

Cheong Yip Seng: OB markers, or out-of-bounds markers, is a term used in golf to indicate boundaries on the golf course your ball must not stray beyond without incurring a penalty. In Singapore, it is also commonly used to lay out the limits to the freedom of expression, some of them mandated by law. Singapore’s political leaders are convinced that OB markers are necessary for effective governance. Hence, they have strong regulatory powers over the media. Newspapers, for instance, have to apply annually to renew their publishing license, a law introduced during British colonial days.

The fairways are narrowest for debate on race and religion. Journalists, and the general public, accept the need for restraint. Indeed, it is against the law for anyone, layman or religious leader, to vilify another religion. Singaporeans suffered grievously from racial riots in the 1960s, and want no repeat of such deadly violence.

Otherwise, the fairways are broad enough to practice purposeful, credible journalism. However, disputes over how broad the fairways should be are a permanent bone of contention. The reason is that the OB markers are not fixed, and shift constantly to keep pace with the changing political environment. With every passing year, and the widespread use of the Internet, public pressure grows for more political space, and more critical coverage. Journalists have to respond to these demands, and are forced to constantly test the boundaries.

Editors have to play gatekeeper, negotiate the OB markers, and find the right balance between what journalists feel is acceptable coverage and what the government sees as legitimate restraint.

A major challenge for me was dealing with the introduction of controversial policies. Invariably, they attracted strong public reaction before and during implementation. Policy makers believed successful implementation would bring Singapore long-term benefits. But there would be short-term pain for many people.

The challenge for us was accurate, balanced presentation of fact without neglecting public opinion, which posed risks to eroding public support for the policies. Often disputes would arise over whether coverage helped or hindered policy implementation.

In the process, we had to deal with accusations that we had breached the OB markers.

I have tried to explain in my book how The Straits Times coped with these pressures on the press.

Today, I believe that the fairways have broadened and will continue to, however stringent the regulatory regime may be on paper.

SG: In your book, you explain that media systems operate differently in each country based on needs from their history as a nation. What in Singapore’s history requires the media system it has?

CYS: When Singapore became independent in 1965, it was only a tiny speck on the map, all of 225 square miles in size. It still is a small island, slightly enlarged through land reclamation. It was largely a resource-poor trading port without a sufficiently diversified economy to generate enough work for a population with one of the world’s highest birth rates at the time. It is located in a tough neighborhood with neighbors that were more hostile than friendly in the early years of independence. Internally, it had to deal with a powerful leftwing opposition with considerable influence over many trades unions. Industrial strife was common. It had inherited from the British an inadequate education system that did not provide every child with a place in school, and a severe housing shortage. Its financial resources were also meager.

Many people thought multi-racial Singapore could not survive. Therefore, its political leadership had an acute sense of vulnerability, and was firm in its view that only with strong government, and minimal dissent, could it overcome the considerable odds. It believed in tough love.

It also believed that the interests of the press must be subordinate to what it deemed to be the interests of the nation. It believed Western-style journalism hampered, rather than helped, economic development, making policy implementation more difficult than it would otherwise be. The medicine might have been too bitter for the more liberal-minded, but strongman rule had the support of the vast majority of the citizens.

SG: In what ways did you see the Straits Times change and evolve while you were there?

CYS: When I started, management was in largely British hands. The paper’s orientation was British. Independence changed all of that. Singapore editors’ focus was on Singapore; above all, on economic development. But from the start, we had to deal with the OB markers. The fairways were very narrow at the beginning. But as Singapore prospered, and fears that it could not survive receded, the fairways broadened. The government increasingly tolerated more critical coverage.

And with Singaporean control of management, the paper invested a great deal more in manpower to raise editorial quality. We were fortunate that Singapore took off, and years of high economic performance gave us the financial resources to upgrade the newsroom. We could afford to build an extensive network of correspondents across Asia, so we could better tell the Asian story. We could also afford to invest heavily in wider and deeper local coverage.

This was the most significant development for the paper. With spectacular economic growth, ample financial resources were available to invest in the paper. The linkage between the wellbeing of the paper and the country’s economic performance was obvious. It made sense for the paper to support policies that promoted strong growth.

SG: Founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who was especially controversial in Western eyes, was successful in developing Singapore after its independence, but you had a unique opportunity to see many different sides of him over the years. What was Singapore’s first prime minister really like?

CYS: He is a politician from top to toe. He is a political leader with deeply held beliefs. He is against state welfarism, and believes that self-reliance, rather than over-generous state aid, is the answer. This does not mean the state should not provide. It does, in ensuring – for example — that every child is entitled to a good education that will give him or her the means to get a job, decent housing and affordable health care.

He prized political stability because he believed that without it, Singapore could not attract enough capital and talent to make economic progress possible.

He believes in strong, clean government.

He is a great communicator, and spent enormous energy persuading his voters to accept tough policies, such as making English the working language when three quarters of the population were ethnic Chinese and were largely Chinese-educated, as well as accepting laws to maintain law and order and policies to control the car population and prevent gridlock on the streets.

He did not believe in governing according to opinion polls. Government’s job is to govern and deliver what it promised, even if some policies were unpopular. Voters can then decide whether he had delivered at election time every five years.

He travelled and read widely. He built an extensive network of influential friends in politics, business, the media, and leading thinkers. He was always on the lookout for ideas that could benefit Singapore.

He did not suffer fools gladly.

SG: Is it unrealistic for the government to continue to restrict the press in the new Internet Age?

CYS: The Internet age will broaden the fairways. The Singapore government has no choice but to learn to govern in this noisier, more robust environment. I believe they are realists, and will adapt, and accept more diversity of opinion. They will calibrate their response and feel their way forward, taking care that in broadening the fairways, a free-wheeling Western-style press will not be the outcome.

But I do not think they will fundamentally change their basic thinking on media management. They will not concede fourth estate status to the media, however much its regulatory regime is eroded by the digital revolution and growing public pressure for more political

space. They will not concede their right to the last word in any debate on fundamental policies.

SG: Lee Kuan Yew believed it was necessary to have control over the media to govern effectively. Do you really think this is true?

CYS: I believe that without control, his policies would have been much harder to implement. He would have had to give greater weight to popular opinion. Singapore would have probably taken much longer to develop, and to reach First World status.

Of course, the problem is what should be an appropriate degree of control. Those who believe that it could have been less tight could well be right. But who knows?

SG: Western press outlets have always been critical of Straits Times journalists, but what do you really think about the American press?

CYS: The best of American journalism is admirable. The New York Times, for example, is a liberal-minded newspaper with high journalistic standards. I find it a valuable source of news and analysis of American affairs. I value its coverage of world news, although I also know it views the world through American lenses, believing that American values should be universally adopted.

But the US media is very diverse, with a wide range of products across the entire political spectrum. I respect their need to cater to different constituencies, but I would not depend on Fox News for a reading of America or the world.

SG: Where do you see Straits Times in 20 years considering changes in technology and the political climate?

CYS: Twenty years is a very long time! More so when the world is moving at Internet speed. It is foolhardy to predict what will happen. But it would probably be safe to bet that rapid advances in technology will change our lives, and impact our reading habits. How that will eventually affect the media’s business model is hard to say.

But one thing I think will not change is this: news will continue to be the lifeblood, the lubricant of the modern economy. No one can do without it.

If The Straits Times continues to provide information worth paying for, it will continue to be read. If politics in Singapore becomes more pluralistic, the paper will play an even more important role in the national discourse. In this noisier environment, it can be a platform for calm debate on national issues.

SG: How do you envision the foreseeable future of politics in Singapore? How would a change in government, such as a multiparty system, affect Straits Times?

CYS: If present trends continue, the multi-racial electorate will be even more diversified, according to income, education, nationality, age, and perhaps even gender. It would probably be even harder to govern. Would this lead to a change of government, or a multi-party system? It is hard to say. A great deal depends on how effectively the ruling party occupies the middle ground. It depends on how the Opposition parties play their cards. Most importantly, it depends on what the voters want.

The Straits Times will have to cater to this more diversified readership, both online and offline. I do not believe they will no longer need to worry about OB markers. I believe whichever political party is in charge will continue to have them, though they could well have to move the boundaries to suit the changed political circumstances.

I also do not expect much change to the basic features of the regulatory regime, like licensing and the ban on foreign ownership of the media.

SG: Thank you very much indeed.

One Reply to “SINGAPORE: Would Western Values Really Have Worked?”

  1. If we have more like-minded Singaporean like Mr Cheong Yip Seng (journalists, retired diplomats, retired politicians) then The Straits Times will be an interesting newspaper. I hope Mr Zainul Abidin Rasheed will give us the benefit of his views on the subject of OB markers.

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