Reflections on journalism education in Singapore



The current journalism curriculum tries to achieve the above objectives through multiple prongs.

  1.    Skills training. Several courses focus on the reporting, writing, editing, management and technical craft skills required for entry level jobs. Students get to do journalism for newspapers, magazines, television, radio and the web. Increasingly, students and teachers are experimenting with multimedia, “converged” journalism. The six-month internship is another key opportunity to develop skills.
  2.    Journalism in society. A freshman course on media professions and a final year course on media law and ethics focus on journalism’s role in society, critically assessing media practices and policies against journalism’s responsibilities. Students are taught the government’s position on the role of the press [22] including Singapore law, and other responsibilities to the public that are enshrined in various professional codes of ethics.
  3.    Breadth knowledge. Most of the courses that a journalism student does are not journalism courses. They are instead non-journalism courses within the wider Communication Studies major, ranging from communication research to advertising and film studies, and general electives taken at other Schools. This is in line with the University’s emphasis on broadening the education of our undergraduates.
  4.    Depth knowledge. The main innovation in our new journalism curriculum in the last few years has been the emphasis on specialised domain knowledge as a key requirement for journalists, who are increasingly expected to make sense of a complex world. The new regular specialised courses cover Business and Economics, Science and Technology, the Short Overseas Journalism Experience, and Going Overseas For Advanced Reporting. All are content-intensive practical journalism courses.[23]
  5.    Experiential learning. The various limbs of journalism education – the how, what and why – come together in opportunities for experiential learning: the Newspaper Practicum which produces the Nanyang Chronicle, Professional Internship, the Final Year Project, Short Overseas Journalism Experience and Going Overseas For Advanced Reporting.[24]


Above: GO-FAR 2008 students reporting on the farming crisis in southern India.

It is not enough to get the curriculum right. It is equally important to have the right teachers. All journalism faculty – fulltime, adjunct and part-time – have industry experience as working journalists, bringing to the classroom more than textbook knowledge. Given the importance of teaching local context, as discussed above, it is noteworthy that most of the instructors engaged in teaching practical journalism courses have local industry experience.[25] In the current semester, for example, nine out of ten practical journalism courses offered are taught or co-taught by lecturers with many years’ experience working as reporters or editors in Singapore.[26]  (The exception is a News Reporting and Writing in Chinese, taught by a colleague from mainland China.)

In addition, most fulltime faculty are PhDs actively engaged in media research in areas such as comparative media systems, media law and media policy. This helps to ensure that teaching is not informed exclusively by industry perspectives.


There has been no formal and comprehensive independent assessment of the School’s journalism programme. However, the School keeps a constant eye on several indicators to gauge if we are on the right track.

The job placement aspect of our role is the easiest to measure and gives us the greatest reason for satisfaction. We stay in close touch with our main employers and we know that our graduates are sought after. Our top journalism students are usually courted by more than one media employer, including international media organisations.[27]

Criticism is more valuable to us than kudos, so we make sure we read between the lines even when employers are largely complimentary. The reservations most consistently expressed are that some of our graduates are not intelligently questioning enough (a major flaw for a profession that is depended on to ask questions on the public’s behalf) and, even when they are hardworking and motivated, may lack initiative and street-smarts. This underlines the need to emphasise critical thinking skills as well as internship experience in our programme.

It was also through our constant communication with employers that we received hints that our graduates might lose out in the long run to colleagues with non-media degrees. Non-media graduates may take longer to pick up the craft, but can then count on a depth of domain knowledge in economics, political science and so on. Once you know how to write, it’s what you write that distinguishes you as a journalist. This is was one key impetus in developing our specialised journalism courses and encouraging our students to pursue minors.

Our performance in areas other than job placement is much harder to measure. It is difficult to say if our students have adequately absorbed good professional values such as social responsibility and ethics, and enough understanding of local context. These qualities, or their lack thereof, only surface over time. When they do, it is not possible to attribute them entirely to what they learnt in the School.

However, there are several overlapping signals telling us that we cannot afford to neglect these aspects of journalism education. Members of the public and newsmakers, including the government, are quick to voice their unhappiness over any less-than-professional performance that they see in the media. Working journalists themselves are certainly not uncritical of their profession. Finally, our journalism educators are simultaneously media researchers or consumers or both, and feel deeply the need to produce graduates who can make a positive difference.

Above: Photo by SAM KANG LI from a Final Year Project on the contest for land in Singapore:

One meaningful indicator of students’ state of mind near the end of their studies is their choice of Final Year Project topics.[28]  It is gratifying to note that most journalism students pick FYP topics that are of high social relevance, often with the explicit intention of helping a worthy cause.[29]  The social value of their work frequently receives external validation in the form of grants such as the Young Changemakers scheme of the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sport and other forms of support from foundations and non-profits.

A final touchstone that we pay close attention to is the guidance provided by comparable programmes and especially credible reports on journalism education reform.[30]  Two recent reports stand out for their depth, detail and their inclusion of what non-industry stakeholders require of journalism education. The first is UNESCO’s Model Curricula for Journalism Education for Developing Countries & Emerging Democracies, which was launched in Singapore at the World Journalism Education Congress in 2007. The second is Journalism School Curriculum Enrichment, a 2008 report from the Carnegie-Knight Task Force on the Future of Journalism Education, involving the top journalism and communication programmes in the US. These reports suggest that our School’s philosophy and approach are closely aligned with international best practices – particulary in the way we emphasise not just the “how” but also the “what” and “why” of journalism.[31]

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22. As part of their introductory course on media professions, all students are taught the Singapore government’s position on press freedom as articulated by Lee Kuan Yew in 1971: “freedom of the press, freedom of the news media, must be subordinated to the overriding needs of the integrity of Singapore, and to the primacy of purpose of an elected government”. Students are not expected to accept the government’s position unquestioningly. While the best possible case is made for it, students are also expected to understand the strongest possible case against it, mainly from a liberal democratic perspective. Emphasis is placed on understanding the arguments on either side and being able to articulate intelligently a justification for one’s preferred position. This approach, in keeping with our status as a university, is deliberately different from, say, the Chinese Communist Party Propaganda Department’s regular licensing tests for journalists, in which they are expected regurgitate party ideology.
23. Two types of learning go on in these specialised courses. At one level, students are set on the path of becoming specialists in the chosen field. At a deeper level, however, students are learning how to learn. The real takeaways from these courses are that complex topics require knowledgeable and nuanced handling; judicious identification and assessment of relevant sources; and skill in writing stories simply but not simplistically. 24. For Go-Far, the point is not to turn students into experts in the chosen country, but to help them  to discover their own values, biases and stereotypes by jarring them out of their intellectual and emotional comfort zones; to understand the effort needed to understand others; and to thus make them more sensitive reporters even back in Singapore. Thus, when returning from Bangladesh just before National Day this year, one Go-Far student remarked on realising his own class background and his life of privilege: “It made me wonder, what in the world I did to deserve being born in Singapore.” 25. This is particularly valuable considering that there is no local or Asian journalism textbook. Local practitioners have the knowledge and confidence to adapt foreign (mainly American) teaching materials to the local context. They are also able to relate their teaching to local media policies and practices. 26. Four of our staff, including the head of division, have played gatekeeping roles in Singapore’s national media: they are able to tap direct experience in making editorial judgments in a field of opposing interests. 27. Furthermore, employers trust our qualitative judgments about our students: SPH and others have taken to soliciting directly from faculty the names of those whom we consider our best students, in order to invite them to apply. This is a strong endorsement of our programme as being closely aligned to the needs of industry.
28. Students choose their own topics for their FYPs, which are their biggest single investment of time and effort in the programme.
29. For example, the four FYP groups that I am supervising this year are covering palliative care, teenage mums, food wastage and creativity education. These are not topics that students who lack a sense of social responsibility would embark on willingly.
30. Not all journalism programmes are worthy of emulation. Within Asia, there has been a boom in post-graduate vocational training for media jobs. Although popular, their focus on practical skills is not in line with our vision for the School.
31. Although developed independently, our thrust into specialised journalism matches the main emphasis of the Carnegie Project. The main difference is that we are offering to our undergraduates what these top American universities are attempting only at the Masters level.

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