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Tan Tarn How


It was an opportunity that Singapore Press Holdings was unlikely to let pass without its own journalistic and corporate public relations and other machinery revving into full gear. After all it had invested seven years of three of its best journalists into producing the tome. But how should one put this launch in the context of the other occasions in which the SPH covers itself?

My fate is to be entangled somehow with The Straits Times. I worked there over three periods for sixteen years. So my views about my former employer is coloured, both by rose as well as darker tints. I also know the writers of MIW. When Richard Lim was the editor of Life! I was his deputy editor for a period, a very good period for the arts and arts journalism, if I may say so myself.

I know Sonny Yap and Weng Kam when I was in the political desk in the beginning of the 2000s. Weng Kam at that time was already working part time on the book, and starting to turn some of the interviews with the Chinese educated politicians of the past – interviews that are source material for the Men In White – into articles published in The Straits Times. Before he also worked on the book full-time, Sonny Yap was my deputy editor in the political desk, if I recall, where I was a reporter. He was one of the few journalists who dare to criticise the government in their columns. He had an independent mind. So I had asked him whether he would be given the freedom to write what he wanted for Men In White, and he said that he was given that promise. He has said the same thing in the publicity for the book. If there is anyone who would give this book a good chance, it would be Sonny.

I know for many that The Straits Times is a paper they love to hate, and that some would like me to help them bury it. But this presentation is not really a criticism of The Straits Times, but first an attempt to understand its role, its evolving role, in the journalism on history, and secondly to use that as a starting point for further reflections on the nature of narratives – I hesitate to use the word history – the nature of narrative about our past and present, and also of the relation between these narratives intellectual life in Singapore.

In this presentation, I am not looking at what is in the book, or talking about the writers of the book, but the media round the book, and the media round history books about Singapore. Hence I will not be talking about the history (is it the untold story, how correct is that history, and how fair in the interpretation?)

The Coverage

More than 50,000 words were written in the SPH papers about the book, including its launch. Here arethe numbers of articles published by the newspapers according to an online database search:

o Straits Times (SPH) 17
o Zaobao (SPH) 14
o Shin Min (SPH) 4
o New Paper (SPH) 2
o MyPaper (SPH) 2
o Business Times (SPH) 1
o TODAY (MediaCorp) 2

Today’s coverage included but two stories, one a book launch story and another on the report about Mr Yoong Siew Wah pointing out the error about him.

We have to consider two issues in the coverage by SPH. First, it is how SPH covers SPH. Articles on these type includes Nielsen surveys of readership, the Straits Times Pocket Money Fund, SPH papers getting Asia Pacific Newspaper Awards, and Jessica Cheam winning the earth journalism award last November at Copenhagen given by the World Bank and Internews. It is wrong, intellectually at least, to start from the point of view that the victors’ supporters are writing the story that it would be biased. We must examine the evidence. It is also wrong to assume that just because the newspaper is covering itself it will be biased, or completely biased. When SPH covers SPH, or Straits Times covers Straits Times – it is not necessarily not journalism – that is words to which you could attach the adjectives fair, accurate, balanced. I would say for instance, the coverage of Jessica Cheam being conferred the World Bank award qualifies. But quite often Straits Times on Straits Times, SPH on SPH, is unfortunately, mere public relations. It is an exercise in making yourself looking good.

Second is the issue of SPH covering history. Let’s look at how Straits Times covered the following historical books:

o Fajar Generation: The University Socialist Club and the politics on postwar Malaya and Singapore (published in Malaysia)
o Our Thoughts Are Free: Poems and Prose on Imprisonment and Exile, edited by Tan Jing Quee, Teo Soh Lung and Koh Kay Yew, Ethos Books (2009), by five former detainees who were imprisoned in different periods in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.)
o That We May Dream Again, by ex-detainees of the Marxist arrests in 1987 by the Internal Security Department and edited by the intrepid Fong Hoe Fang, publisher of Ethos Books.

There was a pre-launch story about Fajar Generation. There was joint review in Straits Times about Our Thoughts are Free and That We May Dream Again. There is an omnibus article ‘Return of the left?’ which starts: ‘This is the year when history made news and a generation of young Singaporeans scratched their heads and asked Fong who? Poh who? Today, we take a look at what happened when the past revisits the present.’ This approach – or ‘angle’ – is a bit enigmatic to me.

The title of the today’s forum states that this book ‘has created a sensation in the mass media’. It would be more accurately described as ‘the parts of the mass media which created this book have created a sensation in the parts of the mass media which created this book.’ How can the SPH, in particular the Straits Times, coverage be described? It certainly was ‘extensive’ – like its coverage of the AWARE controversy last year, just to borrow the words of a Cabinet Minister. The 50,000 words are like a novel of the book launch, if you will. And like the AWARE coverage – I borrow the words from the same minister – it was ‘even breathless’, hence the three exclamation marks in the rather breathless title of this talk.

Overall there was fuzzy warmness to the Straits Times coverage; everyone was happy it would seem with the book and the launch. Of course there were the minor party-pooping incidents:

o The posts by Martyn See, and the swarm of online doubters, including a very long commentary by some students studying in the US, I believe.
o Yoong Siew Wah’s pointing out the error about him.
o There too is also the interview with Dr Poh Soo Kai, the ex-17-year-detainee (we have so many of these people, so it’s good to have a shorthand way to describe their tribulations), the ex-detainee who won’t shake Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s hand. The article sprinkles some watch water on the notice that everyone is reconciled about the past: We don’t appreciate it enough when Straits Times does the right thing.

If Straits Times was to do a narrative of the book launch, these would be cast as but little hiccups in an otherwise great success story, all told.

The Straits Times is a two-faced creature. One face is that of the seven samurai, not always the most thinking or reflective, but still fierceless and I would say fair, balanced, accurate and just in a way that a good newspaper should be. This side if allowed – the key word here – if allowed to show itself can be quite formidable, as a group of marauding moralists were last April and May made painfully aware of. The other face is a dubidao (独臂刀), a one-armed swordsman with a blunt Swiss knife, the face it shows to the big man in town, the face it usually shows because well the big man with his big howitzer is practically all over town. Sometimes, that blunt Swiss knife does inflict damage, mind you – and the big man is in mortal fear of having its carotid or femoral artery nicked – and sometimes the injury it is not just inadvertently but even intended.

In many ways, if left to do its job, without interference from big man or big business, it can be a surprisingly good paper. Indeed I have said so on other occasions. (You can read my report on the IPS website on the media AWARE coverage, which attempts to show the difference in coverage when big man is standing by the side and when he enters the fray: pdf file) One may have hopes of how it could have been, but ultimately could one have expected the coverage to have unfolded otherwise than it did? First there is the sheer investment, so many journalists and other stafff over so many years. Then there is the larger reality of the media. Even SPH’s rival the Today newspaper would hesitate to find fault with the project: Discreet silence seems to have largely been its strategy. Perhaps a bit too much for Straits Times to become non-Straits Times in its coverage of an Straits Times event? 35,000 copies of the book has been sold as of yesterday. This is quite an incredible number.

We also need to look at how non-SPH media covered the book. As I said it was not too unfriendly. We also have to look at how the Internet covered the book and history in general. The Internet includes not just news sites such Temasek Review, The Online Citizen, Yawning Bread and other blogs such as journalism.sg and Think Centre’s, but also history sites such as the alternative Singapore studies site s/pores and the few blogs of historians such as Loh Kah Seng’s lkshistory.wordpress.com. Then there are the personal blogs such as Martyn See’s and Seelan Palay’s. Then there are the other iterations: How the Internet covered how SPH covered the book; how SPH covered how the Internet covered the book, though there isn’t too much of that; how SPH covered how the Internet covered how SPH covered the book. Not quite ad infinitum, and for reasons which I will address later, definitely not ad nauseum.

Internet Coverage of the Book and History

It is said the Internet has opened up new spaces for the alternative. This is a huge still largely unoccupied space in Singapore. The Internet, as an alternative media, as new media, as not so easily unregulable media – of course government wants to regulate it, and the host of Internet specific and general laws on the Internet in Singapore attests to that desire – can do several things:

o It is capable of setting the agenda by bringing into view and under scrutiny issues that mainstream/old media avoid or miss.
o It can also provide alternative discourses to the mainstream and received ones.
o It can provide new information, sometimes towards the end whistle-blowing, sometimes by rounding up an incomplete picture by giving voice to those whom mainstream media avoid, do not deign to ask or fail to think of asking. The new information may feed to agenda setting and alternative discourses.

The internet also has not just functional, instrumental effects, but also psychological ones. This comes from the fact that once you put something up online, it is instantly accessible everyone who knows where to look, and thanks to the search engines, to those who don’t know where to find you. Unless you are lucky or quick, there is no delete button on the Internet. So unlike coffee shop talk or most conversations, the Internet is sticky. How many people think like you? With conversations it is hard to tell? They are gone with the wind. With the Internet you can find out whether people think like you and how many. For those who are afraid, there is safety in numbers.

So you have all the articles written online about not just the MIW book but also the little stream of other books, Fajar Generation, Our Thoughts are Free, That We May Dream Again.

Power to the digital! But then what are we to make of the 36,557 views on Youtube alone of Dr Lim Hock Siew’s sad, moving and quietly stirring speech about his long detention at the launch of Fajar Generation. He was speaking for the first time publicly since 1982 release. ‘Present political situation here is immoral – ex-political detainee!’ could have been an Straits Times headline, only the event was not covered by Straits Times.

But this is no time yet to be sanguine about the impact of the online world. I don’t think the Internet can help sell 35,000 books in Singapore, especially a tome like the Men In White. The Internet is still a blip in the media scene in many ways.

The larger context of the book and the media coverage of it is that there is a parallel between the media situation and the political situation.

First, the situation of the dominant voice of the mass media duopoly of SPH and Mediacorp against the extremely attenuated voice of alternative (and exclusively new) media (note that alternative need not be new, here meaning, online media, because you can see mainstream versus alternative as lying along say, the y-axis of the graph, and old versus new/online media on the y-axis, so you have four quadrants if you will, with one of the quadrants alternative AND old being empty of examples, except maybe at a stretch IS magazine and FHM). Alternative by definition would be weaker than mainstream, but the blank quadrants speaks of an especially weakness that is peculiar to media environments in economically well-off societies of which Singapore is one. The Internet does change that imbalance – to some extent but insufficiently. The difficulty is that as far as the mass media is concerned, there is only one singer in town, the Straits Times, or if you include Mediacorp, two choirs singing the same tune. Today newspaper – the edgy alternative to Straits Times. It is completely defanged now, post the Mr Brown episode, and now does pretty well these days out-Straits Times-ing the Straits Times.

The second situation is that of the dominant voice of the PAP regime against the extremely attenuated voice of the, in want of a better word, the alternative forces. Here again, the alternative voices would by definition be weaker than the mainstream, but its weakness is especially glaring compared to the alternative voices in the other cosmopolitan and ‘open’ societies – one hesitates to use the word advanced – societies that Singapore sees itself also to be.

That parallel is not incidental. Indeed the situations are mutually-reinforcing.

The Internet makes the alternative sticky. But does it make things ‘thick’? By thinness, I mean sparseness, a lack of critical mass, drops of water in a desert which dry out because there are an insufficient number of them. Thickness on the other hand is critical mass, sufficiency of volume, the jostling of one against the other amidst the many, enough drops of water to form a river or lake that doesn’t evaporate. Thickness is richness, of information, of ideas of knowledge, of experience of thought. It is not just quantity but also quality, not just amount of one thing but also variety of different things. It is the beginning to truth and understanding.

o Where are the reviews of the books? Where are the commentaries – and I don’t mean commentaries by Chua Mui Hoong. This forum is a start but where are the views from the academics, the public intellectuals. How about the views of the participants of the events that the book describes. Where are all these drops both in the mainstream media? There are a few online, but drops here and there.
o So much of the national archives are not publicly accessible.
o I wish SPH would put all the interviews online, the recordings and the transcripts.
o Lee Siew Choh biography is in the works. I am not sure Michael Fernandez’s. Yoong Siew Wah, I am not sure if he is here today, has a blog. I hope he writes about his years in the ISD and CPIB and the rest of his time. It needn’t even be a printed book. The Internet is a marvellous thing.

We can see a thickening, but it is not yet thick. Perhaps that is the fate of a small country which will always be a footnote in global history.

So this is about what is said, but also about what is not said. It is about silences in the media and absences in politics and society, commissions and omissions, in deed and in writing.


Tan Tarn How is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies.


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One Response to “What a Book! What a Launch! What a Story!”

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