February 2nd, 2008
The PAP came to power at the high noon of media modernity. In the 1950s and 60s, the power of radio was already well established and television was arriving. Newspapers were strong, and getting stronger with rising literacy. It would have appeared that the only media that mattered were large, industrial entitites. Symbolic power was concentrated in a few centralised institutions. These mass media were the key to the minds of mass society. Through them, a leader could command the attention of most of the people, most of the time.
Or so it must have seemed. Politicians at the time could not have known that the media environment they considered natural and immutable was in fact historically exceptional. Today, the PAP has yet to come to terms with the fact that its policies and instincts for managing symbolic power were honed in an anomalous context that is increasingly no more real than Second Life. It is no longer realistic to count on commanding the attention of most people even some of the time.
This change is not only – and perhaps not even mainly – due to the internet. Broadcasting went through a revolution that has arguably been even more impactful, though less commented on. Like most other countries, the Singapore government in the 1980s decided that radio and television – originally introduced as propaganda vehicles – should be treated primarily as commercial entertainment media. What happened next was an explosion of consumer choice, with a proliferation of FM music channels and cable television stations.
Choosing a national cable network instead of removing the ban on private satellite dishes enabled the government to cut into all TV channels if necessary, such as for armed forces mobilisation exercises and national emergencies. However, the fragmenting of the broadcast audience has meant that the government can no longer count on reaching the majority of television viewers for its public communication campaigns and key agenda setting messages, such as the Prime Minister’s National Day Rally Speech. In 1989, before cable TV and the world wide web, half of Singapore’s adult population tuned in to watch the National Day Parade on channels 5 and 8. In 2007, less than one-third did so.
Print media have also undergone a transformation. As in all other industries, the periodicals business has seen greater market segmentation, by gender, age, lifestyle, interests, social class and spending power. This has been most visible in women’s magazines, but it is also the case with more serious genres such as business and finance. In the early 1970s – when the PAP set its media philosophy in stone – the business reader in Singapore had nothing other than The Straits Times’ business pages. Its sister paper, The Business Times, was launched in 1976. Today, the national newspapers’ business and financial pages compete on a daily basis with the Wall Street Journal, Financial Times and International Herald Tribune. There are also weeklies such as The Economist and The Edge and monthlies such as Smart Investor. These are merely the more familiar newsstand titles in a diverse industry that includes specialised titles for specific sectors, such as The Asian Banker.
The trend towards niche media has been hugely accelerated by digital technologies, which make it economically feasible to create and distribute special-interest media products serving the “long tail” of demand, instead of catering only to the mass market peaks. The internet has not only fragmented the consuming audience. Its more profound impact has been to challenge what had seemed like a natural division of labour between consumer and producer. The power of the old mass media was not just a function of its reach, but was also buttressed by the popularly held assumption that inequality of media access was legitimate. Publics in modern society took for granted that their main stories and images should come to them via a small and exclusive set of media institutions. It is this assumption that is being shattered by various participatory forms of media, largely on the internet.
If the PAP’s model of media management was mainly directed at the negative – prohibiting the undesirable – the transformations that are underway would be worrisome enough. At least, it would have plenty of company: every government is troubled by the difficulty of policing cyberspace. However, the bigger concern for the PAP is the positive thrust of its media strategy – its insistence that the media not only conform with the law, but also play an active, supportive role in nation-building.
PAP ideology posits that, as a small and vulnerable nation state, Singapore’s survival requires a collective, consensual response to national challenges, with its elected goverment – and no other institution – having the mandate to take the lead. Accordingly, the PAP rejects the Fourth Estate role of the press as conceived by liberal-democratic minds. The government alone has the obligation and the right to shape the national agenda. While it sees some value in debate, this should precede the point of decision, after which the media are expected to help rally the nation behind what needs to be done. In the 1970s, the PAP translated this philosophy into a media system dominated by establishment news organisations, with independent alternative media virtually eliminated.
As a result, PAP leaders have grown utterly unused to operating in the kind of contentious media environment that politicians in most other countries consider normal. To the PAP, this is not a weakness but a strength of the Singapore system, for it allows policies to be formulated on a long-term and rational basis, without holding governance hostage to the vagaries of a public opinion misled by irresponsible media.
The problem that the PAP now faces is that its tried and trusted operating system software, to use a computing metaphor, is incompatible with the emerging media environment. The 1970s PAP believed it could achieve mass attention-on-demand through the mass media. If this was ever true, it ceased to be the case by the late 1990s. Singapore’s mass media are still powerful agents for the construction of social reality, but their dominance is waning. The core they occupy is shrinking, while the fringe is exploding.
As attention dissipates into niche media, constantly murmuring with myriad unregulated voices, officials feel – rightly – that the mass media have an undiminished responsibility to serve as a unifying national forum and as a source of reliable, trustworthy information.
Appreciation of this fact, however, provokes in the government two contradictory impulses. The first is to hold on jealously to what remains of its instruments of ideological domination. Just as families are supposed to stick together and accept a father’s authority in times of crisis, so too the national media must stand by the government in what is turning out to be an interminable informational and cultural war. This strategy, however, may be counterproductive, hastening the perceived irrelevance of the national media in the eyes of the public.
Therefore, the second, opposing, impulse is to invest in the credibility of the national media by being scrupulously hands-off in their operations. Media professionals must be allowed to get much closer to their audiences – even, or especially, when this means distancing themselves from government. Only then can the press hope to retain and strengthen its influence, and effectively play its social role.
Investment in the credibility of the press is a necessary long-term strategy for the state. However, expediency may win out in the short term. Officials wishing to defend their cherished policies and to avert potentially embarrassing public scrutiny of their mistakes have been able to count on a subordinate and cooperative press. Whether such a press system is an indispensible part of Singapore’s much vaunted governance model is an open question, but it is certainly true that officials have had no practical experience of dealing with anything other than a crippled press. Thus, short-term rationality dictates that officials continue to exploit whatever leverage can be obtained from their inherited press system, pressuring editors to slant coverage this way or that, despite the long-term cost to both the press and the state.
While the government has been giving the press more room, the pace of change has not kept up with the segments of the public that have been drifting into cyberspace. Largely because of their fundamental distrust of the people, officials continue to hold on jealously to the security of a compliant press. Breaking this addiction requires a strength of will on the part of the government’s seniormost leaders that has not, so far, been evident. It does not help that the PAP’s media philosophy has hardened into dogma, impervious to critique and insensitive to a dramatically changed media environment.
This article is an extract from the draft of a book chapter I’m working on.
(1) Thanks to the comment below from Istanologist for highlighting this recent example of how the national press frames the news in ways that are helpful to the government. On 31 January, the Ministry of Manpower came out with a press release on the 2007 job figures. Straits Times Online initially angled the story on the fact that more new jobs going to foreigners than to locals. The updated version, however, tweaked the lead of the story to downplay the earlier angle. See both versions at mrbrown.com.
The example is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, it illustrates that media’s compressed publication cycle – with the press feeling competitive pressure to use the internet to release news quickly – short-circuits their internal checks. Stories seem to be rushed out before thorough editing, then edited later. Second, online news flashes may actually play into officials’ hands. The national newspapers do not have to clear their proposed story angles with government newsmakers. However, newspapers may be inadvertently giving officials early sight of their stories by flashing them on their websites, allowing officials the opportunity to react before the stories are printed. We don’t know if that happened in this particular case, but it is certainly a possibility.
Third, the example is a good illustration of the kind of cooperation that the press gives the government. Note that in both versions of the story, the facts within the press release were accurately reported. The difference is one of framing or spin: whether to see the glass as half empty or half full. As PAP leaders have said before, they do not expect journalists to lie for them. The propaganda of spin is in general far more effective in the long term than the propaganda of lies. However, with bloggers playing an active media watch role, as they have done in this case, it will get increasingly difficult to sustain even a policy of spin.
Another example of mainstream media, this time Channel News Asia, putting out different versions of a news report, each more massaged than the last, is here.
(2) See Ringisei’s comments in Singapore Angle.