By Fang Zhi Yuan and Lim Siow Kuan on 5 Feb 2009
In a recent article ‘Malaysiakini at vanguard of media revolution’, political analyst James Chin from the Kuala Lumpur campus of Australia’s Monash University, said Malaysiakini could only have existed in places like Malaysia, Singapore or Burma, simply because the mainstream press have no credibility.
While it is true that Malaysiakini was able to establish itself as a credible alternative to the mainstream media precisely because of the latter’s overt pro-government stance, the same reasoning cannot be ascribed to Singapore where the mainstream media still retains a sizeable audience from both the intelligentsia and masses.
Both Singapore and Malaysia have draconian laws governing the printing press. Singapore introduced the Newspaper and Printing Act in 1975 to control the ownership of newspaper firms while Malaysia has a similar law requiring media owners to obtain, and annually renew, publishing licences.
In Singapore, all the print media in the four languages of English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil are under the ownership of one single government-linked company - the Singapore Press Holdings whose chairman is almost always an ex-PAP (People’s Action Party) minister (its current chairman is ex-deputy prime minister Dr Tony Tan).
The circulation of foreign papers is severely restricted and those who went afoul of the government’s censorship like Far Eastern Economic Review and Wall Street Journal were subjected to heavy fines and subsequently banned from Singapore altogether.
Distinguishing between truths and spins
Singaporeans, especially those born after independence, have grown up knowing only the pro-government state press which explains why they are seldom able to distinguish between truths and spins inherent in the reports unlike an astute reader from a developed country like United States or United Kingdom.
Though the major dailies like Utusan Malaysia and New Straits Times are controlled by the Malaysian government, the newspapers with smaller circulations and the Chinese broadsheets such as Sin Chew Daily still retains a certain degree of independence and flair to provide contrarian views to the government’s mouthpiece.
Malaysians who have long been skeptical of the mainstream media’s coverage of political affairs take an instant liking to Malaysiakini’s independent streak almost immediately, facilitating its eventual ascension to the pinnacle of Malaysian journalism.
Though the initial years were challenging, Malaysiakini was able to survive largely because of the low operating costs and wages in Malaysia. A fresh graduate journalist commands a monthly pay of only RM1,500 in contrast to Singapore which ranges from S$2,800 to S$3,500.
Malaysiakini is able to attain such national prominence in the journalistic landscape of Malaysia partly because Malaysia is able to provide it with a large readership in the first place. Its daily readership of 100,000 unique visitors amounts to only 0.37% of Malaysia’s population of 27 million people. Applying the same percentage to Singapore’s 4.7 million people will only yield 17,390 readers a day.
Malaysiakini is founded by Steven Gan, an ex-journalist with The Sun. Being a professional journalist himself with the relevant knowledge and experience, he is able to form a team and build up a credible online news daily in a short period of time. Gan is also willing to risk his livelihood and personal freedom to write the truth - he was jailed for a week in 1995 over an East Timor conference.
On the other hand, Singapore journalists have too much to lose by going against the wishes of the government. Junior journalists are subjected to close supervision and frequent assessments before they are allowed to write on political matters. Senior editors are too well-paid to allow any lapses of judgement to occur which may break their rice bowls.
The political bureau is run by journalists with links to the Internal Security Department (similar to Malaysia’s Special Branch). Is there little wonder that we have not seen a Steven Gan emerging from the Singapore journalistic circles yet?
Are Singapore journalists devoid of ideas and passion for their profession? Why are they contented to be government’s ‘reporters’ and not real journalists to seek out and report the truth fearlessly?
‘Liberals’ within the profession like Cherian George (left) and PN Balji have left the profession to focus on academic research.Young promising journalists like Melanie Lee have opted to ply their trade with foreign news agencies like Reuters rather than to betray their own conscience by working for SPH (Singapore Press Holdings).
Online dailies are agents of change
Is there a need Singapore to have its own ‘Malaysiakini’ to serve as an alternative to the print media? Judging from the rising readership of news blogs like The Online Citizen, Singapore Enquirer and Wayang Party Club run entirely by self-funded part-time amateurs, it does appear that there is a sizable group of readers out there who are tired of the government-friendly mainstream media and are early seeking alternative news sources.
For a ‘Singaporekini’ to establish itself as a credible online news daily like its counterpart across the causeway, it should be helmed by a team of full-time journalists with the relevant training and experience in journalism. There must also be an external agency which is willing to fund the project for a foreseeable future till it takes off.
We have seen how Malaysiakini and subsequently other influential online dailies like Malaysia Today and The Malaysian Insider have served as agents of change in ending 50 years of unbroken one-party hegemony in Malaysia. There can be no free elections without a free press.
Perhaps this yet-to-be-founded ‘Singaporekini’ will be our sole hope of freeing ourselves eventually from the shackles of one-party rule.