Reflections on journalism education in Singapore



Journalism and journalism education everywhere is challenged by the need to strike the right balance between the global and the local. On the one hand, evolving global norms defining what “good journalism” is can help to improve quality and raise ethical standards as part of a process of professionalisation. In journalism, like any other profession, standards improve when local practitioners see themselves as part of a global community of professional practice.

On the other hand, on an uneven playing field, legitimate local priorities for journalism can be overwhelmed by powerful external influences. This is a key problem not only internationally but also within large countries. For example, the human development needs of poor rural communities are largely ignored by the commercial metropolitan media serving the urban middle classes.[8] At the international level, there has long been concern about the unevenness of the world information and communication order, skewing the global journalistic agenda in favour of political and economic powers.[9]

Identifying a truly universal core of professional journalism is an ongoing intellectual process to which cutting edge academic research is contributing. On the educational front, the leading forum for this dialogue is the World Journalism Education Council, which had its first congress in Singapore in 2007. Through AMIC, based here at the School, as well as other international academic associations, our faculty continue to play an active part in this process. We will be represented at the Second Congress in South Africa in 2010.[10]

Within Singapore, a key stakeholder in the global/local debate has been the Singapore Government, which has its own firm views on journalism’s mission. The PAP’s press system is neither modeled on the American First Amendment tradition, nor does it follow the Communist template, in which the official role of the press is to serve as the propaganda mouthpiece of the party. PAP leaders have stated the press must be “subordinate” but not “subservient”.[11]

The government’s views have been articulated mainly in negative terms (the kind of press Singapore should not have). Furthermore, most government statements and regulations focus on the relationship between the press and the government, saying little or nothing about the media’s ethical responsibilities outside of politics.[12] Therefore, even professionals and educators who wish (or are compelled) to take the PAP philosophy as a starting point are not spared the intellectual and moral challenge of articulating a positive vision for Singapore journalism that is adequate to their respective tasks.

In dealing with the global-local dilemma, some believe that there may be an “Asian” model of journalism to which Singapore subscribes. This theory continues to be the subject of research within the School and elsewhere.[13]

Although this is rarely made explicit, there are two very different types of claim made about “Asian” journalism:

  1.    The more far-reaching claim is that “Asian” journalism arises from a paradigm or worldview that is distinct from the West, with fundamentally different standards for judging what “good journalism” is – and thus requiring its own separate curricula.[14]
  2.    The more limited claim for “Asian” journalism is that it is fundamentally similar to the global norm in terms of its professional values and quality benchmarks, but that it is applied differently on the ground, adapting to local contexts. Journalism curricula would conform to the global norm, but (like journalism education everywhere) students would be taught to apply universal methods in ways that are appropriate to local context.[15]

When we talk about a Singaporean or Asian approach to journalism, it’s important to be clear about whether we are contemplating the first or second type of claim. The first, more far-reaching claim remains the subject of some theoretical inquiry, but decades of such research has not provided any persuasive justification for a paradigmatic shift of journalism curricula. Furthermore, looking at the issue in purely pragmatic terms, the case for a distinctly “Asian” way of teaching journalists looks even weaker, as there is no demand – even from Asian media organisations – for such journalists.Instead, employers here have fundamentally similar benchmarks for good journalism and good journalists.[16]

Journalism education in Singapore should therefore aspire to the highest global professional standards, sensitively applied to the local context. The fundamental principles are the same as elsewhere, but the needs being served are different.[17]


What, then, is the universal norm? It was already mentioned in the introduction:

Professional journalism is today understood to be a particular kind of storytelling and commentary, based on factual reporting, focused on current affairs, and dedicated to serving members of the public. It is also widely accepted that fulfiling this public role requires journalists to rise above their private biases and to stay independent of those whom they cover.

The global standard recognises that journalists will never make all people happy all the time; indeed, almost every piece of news that the public needs to know will discomfit someone somewhere, including newsmakers with the power to punish journalists for reporting the truth. This does not mean that journalists should have a reflexive oppositional stance against those in power – collaboration with government is widely accepted as warranted in many circumstances, even in liberal societies. However, the principle of independence does mean that journalists serve their society best when their professional judgments are insulated from possible subversion by the rich and powerful.[18]

Next, what is the local context to which Singapore journalism must adapt? The most obvious is the country’s multicultural make-up: promoting tolerance and respect among the various ethnic communities is a much higher priority for Singapore journalism than it is for countries that are more homogeneous (or that have a high tolerance for ethnic strife). Another feature of the Singapore condition is the openness of its economy, requiring special effort in educating and informing the public about the economic realities of earning a living in a globalised world.

The most controversial aspect of the local context is Singapore’s unique brand of politics. In many societies, journalists and citizens operate on the assumption that their politicians are crooks – because experience has shown that many indeed are. Such cynicism is probably misplaced in Singapore, where the government has a 50-year track record of zero tolerance for financial corruption and of keeping promises.

Therefore, the government can be said to have earned more than a little benefit of doubt with regards to the motives behind its policies. At the same time, politicians are not infallible; a sceptical, questioning press is still required. For this reason, the government has said that it does not want “subservient” journalists, because “an unthinking press is not good for Singapore”.[19]

Similarly, Public Service Commission chairman Eddie Teo has said that trying to be politically correct by mouthing the government position would suggest a lack of integrity.  “It is all right to be critical, even sceptical,” he said of potential public servants. “Being critical means you care about our nation and want to improve things and correct what you think is wrong. Being sceptical means you are not naïve and do not accept everything you read or hear.”[20]

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8. In China and India, for example, the boom in newspapers and television is  occurring almost entirely within market segments of value to advertisers: the urban middle class with disposable income. The information and communication needs of the rural masses continue to be neglected.
9. See, for example, the MacBride Report, Many Voices One World (UNESCO, 1980).
10. See
11. Lee Kuan Yew, Address to the General Assembly of the International Press Institute, 9 June 1971; Goh Chok Tong, Speech at the 5th Anniversary Dinner of Today Newspaper, 31 October 2005.
12. As a result, Singapore media are relatively under-regulated in areas concerning taste, decency and consumer protection.
13. Wee Kim Wee School faculty member Xu Xiaoge is an authority on  this debate. He is the author of Demystifying Asian Values in Journalism (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Academic, 2005) and wrote the section on “development journalism” in the The Handbook of Journalism Studies published by Routledge in 2008.
14. An analogy can be drawn with other, more established, professions. Within medicine, architecture and so on, we can find practitioners operating within completely different paradigms. In healthcare, for example, there is not only Western medicine but also traditional Chinese medicine and Indian ayurvedic medicine. In architecture, there are modern designers as well as feng shui experts, approaching their work from entirely different philosophical starting points. “Asian” in this far-reaching sense refers to worldviews and systems of training and accreditation that are quite distinct from the modern “Western” professions.
15. To continue with the analogy: Within each modern profession there is always local adaptation. Professionals operating within a globally-recognised paradigm must still adapt to local conditions, including local needs and local regulations. Two doctors trained in modern medicine may end up with different priorities depending on where they practise – geriatric medicine in Norway, malaria in Nigeria. Yet, the two doctors would speak the same professional language, uphold the same ethics,  and be able to recognise quality in each other’s work. “Asian” in this limited sense refers to adaptation to local context without sacrificing universally recognised professional principles.
16. For example, Singaporean news media choose to compete for (and regularly win) international and regional journalism awards alongside other “Western” and “Asian” media, implicitly recognising the existence of universally applicable benchmarks of “good journalism”. These are market signals from our employers that journalism educators cannot ignore. Even in communist China and Vietnam, global standards of journalism education are taking root, although lipservice continues to be paid to official doctrine about the role of the press.
17. The difference we are talking about here is not like the difference between Western architecture and feng shui, but the difference between Frank Lloyd Wright’s prairie architecture and Tay Kheng Soon’s tropical architecture: both marry modern (originally Western but now global) architectural training with a profound respect for their respective local environments.
18. “Being independent of power of any kind (not just that of government) should be one of the core values. That is universally normative,” says Xu Xiaoge, author of Demystifying Asian Values in Journalism. “In reality, however, this core value may be contextual or situational as it may be subordinated to emerging national priorities.” Eric Loo, editor of the journal Asia Pacific Media Educator and author of Best Practices of Journalism in Asia (Konrad Adenaur Stiftung, 2009), is similarly convinced that there are universal norms: “the normative functions of journalism – to serve people, to scrutinise governments, and so forth – should be the referent points for all journalists regardless of socio-political and cultural environments”. At the same time, he says, “best” practices are always a function of context. 19. Goh Chok Tong, Speech at the 5th Anniversary Dinner of Today Newspaper, 31 October 2005. 20. Eddie Teo, Chairman Public Service Commission, “An Open Letter from the Chairman: The PSC Interview” (24 July 2009). Available from:

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