Media censorship: us versus them?



September 11th, 2011

Singapore was presented with a double bill feature on censorship this month. There was the Wikileaked diplomatic cable reporting that young reporters felt frustrated by newsroom gatekeepers. And there was Tan Tarn How’s play, Fear Of Writing, staged by TheatreWorks. Between the two, I found Tan’s work of fiction truer and more illuminating.

Although many were gleefully scandalised by the leaked cable, it’s hard to figure out what the fuss was about. I guess the overreaction is partly down to the fact that most people are in workplaces where you can’t criticise your bosses and get away with it; they are not familiar with newsroom culture, where employees speak their mind.

Perhaps it’s also because some Singaporeans haven’t been paying attention for the last 40 years. That’s how long it has been official and explicit government policy that press freedom in Singapore must be subordinate to the government’s priorities. Under this system – as one of my editors put it simply – news media have to balance political as well as professional journalistic judgments.

So the only choice for a Singapore newspaper is who must carry out that balancing act, not whether it must be done.

When I was at ST in the 1990s, the working arrangement was clear. Reporters and columnists like me were to focus on being good journalists, write for our readers, and not try to second-guess what would make the government happy. Instead, our editors would shoulder the burden of making those difficult political judgment calls.

There were of course times when I thought my editors were too conservative in those judgments, and I regularly joined my peers in that universal pastime of griping about our bosses. The public would routinely pillory the press (“Us Singaporeans love democracy, them journalists don’t.”) and within the press we minions would absolve ourselves of blame by passing the buck (“Us reporters are fine, them editors are the problem.”).

In more honest moments, though, I admitted to myself that my editors were actually sparing me from the thankless task of appeasing an impossible-to-please government. Yes, to keep within OB markers, they would repair some of my stories. But at least they never tried to repair me. In 10 years at SPH, despite several run-ins with government, not once did an editor tell me that I should take up less of his time and energy than I did.

The Wikileaked cable, if it is an accurate report of what the journalists intimated, is perhaps a healthy sign that that old division of labour still persists. Reporters report, columnists opine – and editors edit, trying to find that elusive balance between serving a demanding audience and keeping an even more demanding government at bay.

Given that the PAP government is not going to revise its philosophy on managing the media, the only other politically viable alternative formula would be for the entire newsroom to internalise the PAP’s thinking. That would be the only way to get rid of the frustration in the newsroom, but it would also kill what’s left of journalism.

On my last day at ST, I told my editor that people would probably speculate that I was leaving because Singapore journalism was too controlled. I wanted him to hear it from me that this was not the case: I was leaving for personal reasons.

I don’t know if this message registered with my editor, or if he cared. It didn’t matter to me either way, because I brought this up not for his sake but for mine: I felt it was important to be honest with myself and not indulge in a self-constructed myth of martyrdom. I had not liked, but accepted, that the controls were part of the territory: the downside that comes with the privilege of being paid to do something one loves, and in the national newspaper to boot.

Twelve years on, I’ve tried to capture the nuances and contradictions of the Singapore press system in an academic book that I hope will be published soon. But I have to say that a book that tries to stick to facts and reasoned argument cannot capture the true essence of censorship and self-censorship in a society.

This is why I think Tan Tarn How’s Fear Of Writing is such an important contribution. He is uncompromisingly critical of government mind-control but also, and more importantly, demands that we take a collective, unflinching gaze into the mirror. We have lost the keys to the empty spaces in our own hearts, he charges.

It’s unlikely that any other writer could have pulled off this masterly work. Tan has had a uniquely comprehensive tour of duty through the Singapore media: he has been as a reporter, columnist, foreign correspondent and editor with the Straits Times, a scriptwriter for national television, an award-winning playwright, a leading activist with the ArtsEngage movement for artistic freedom, and a media researcher. He is intimately familiar with ways of thinking about media and politics, and how Singaporeans both resist and rationalise the status quo.

This year’s other big political play, Cooling Off Day by Alfian Saat, was more entertaining and more marketable, milking the immediate post-GE mood. The Wikileaks on the press were good for gossip. But it is Tan’s play that will pass the test of time. He doesn’t cop out by framing the political as us versus them. Ultimately, it is always and only about us.

Originally posted at

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