By: 永久浪客/Forever Vagabond
After the passing of former President S R Nathan last month, Mr Tan Jee Say, a former senior civil servant and 2011 presidential candidate, wrote a short article on his Facebook page yesterday (3 Sep), revealing some of the interactions he had with Nathan when he was with the civil service.
Inside his writings, Jee Say revealed that then PM Lee Kuan Yew had sent Nathan to SPH as its executive chairman to “change” the Straits Times, after PAP’s disastrous defeat at the 1981 Anson by-election (31 Oct 1981). This was the first time PAP lost since Singapore achieved its independence in 1965. Lee Kuan Yew was unhappy with the way ST reported the news during the Anson by-election. Lee Kuan Yew then expressed his unhappiness to the PSC Chairman at a lunch meeting.
Mr Tan revealed, “Apparently the two gentlemen (LKY and PSC Chairman) had a long lunch at which the PM expressed his unhappiness over the way the Straits Times reported the Anson by-election which the PAP lost, its first election defeat in 18 years. He probably expected more losses unless changes were made to the way the media reported on government policies.”
So, soon after Nathan retired from the civil service in Jan 1982, it was announced that he would become the new executive chairman of SPH, with executive power to manage the affairs of SPH directly. Lee Kuan Yew also asked Nathan to rope in Jee Say for the job of transforming SPH.
“I was amused when I received a telephone call from him (Nathan) in his new role. He told me that he had just had lunch with PM Lee Kuan Yew who had suggested that he persuaded me to work with him to transform the Straits Times. He invited me to lunch,” recalled Jee Say.
As disclosed by Nathan to Jee Say at the lunch meeting, Nathan quoted PM as having told him, “It’s like handling a piece of china. If you break it, I will pick up the pieces but it won’t be the same again.”
Apparently, Lee Kuan Yew did not want Nathan to break up the organisation but to work with existing people to change it. That is to say, to “transform” their thinking.
Nathan then asked Jee Say to join him in this new mission as PM had suggested Jee Say’s name.
“He (Nathan) thought I would be impressed… I had told the good chairman that I was more interested in economic development policy work than in promoting political propaganda,” Jee Say recalled in his writings.
In the 6 years from 1982 to 1988, Nathan worked diligently to help transform SPH for Lee Kuan Yew. Jee Say himself left the civil service in 1990 to join the finance industry.
Singapore ranked lowly in World Press Freedom Index
With such executive interference of the media in Singapore, it’s no wonder that Singapore is ranked at the bottom in terms of freedom of the press.
According to Reporters Without Border (RSF), an international non-governmental organization that promotes and defends freedom of the press with consultant status at the United Nations, Singapore is ranked 154th in the 2016 World Press Freedom Index. Singapore’s ranking is not too far from that of Somalia, China and North Korea, all languishing at the bottom of the index.
One of the most fundamental prerequisite for a true democracy is certainly having a free press. Without a free press, voters would not be able to make a truly fair and informed choice when it comes to elections. That was probably why Lee Kuan Yew was so eager to “transform” SPH after PAP lost its first election at Anson in 1981.
Many politicians from the first world agree that having a free press forms the basis of democracy:
“Democracy is impossible without freedom of the press, for freedom of the press is the basis of democracies,” Gerhard Schröder, Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany.
“A free press is a fundamental prerequisite in the implementation of democracy,” Tarja Halonen, President of the Republic of Finland
“Freedom of the press is one of the rights that is fundamental to democracy. No country that systematically interferes with or restricts freedom can be considered fully democratic,” Bertie Ahern T.D., Prime Minister of Ireland
“The people’s Right to Know is a universal principle that secures democracy, and Freedom of the Press is the basic freedom that guarantees this right,” Yoshiro Mori, Former Prime Minister of Japan
“Freedom of the press has remained the condition sine qua non of democracy ever since: every cultural and political development is based on freedom of opinion,” Wolfgang Schüssel, Federal Chancellor of Austria
And the need for every citizens to be informed so that he or she can make a free and transparent choice is succinctly put forward by Thomas Jefferson, the Founding Father of America:
“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be. If we are to guard against ignorance and remain free, it is the responsibility of every American to be informed.”