The Straits Times (ST) has published a forum letter urging newspapers in Singapore to be “independent and unbiased in reporting the news.”
The letter writer, Dr Thomas Lee Hock Seng, asserted that the news media’s goal should be to ensure that ” a democracy can hold its public servants to account”.
He also pointed to Singapore Press Holdings’ (SPH) English/Malay/Tamil Media Group editor-in-chief, Warren Fernandez’s own reference to the statement that the news media should be the “watchdog for reporting wrongdoing and the platform to articulate views independent of government control.”
Asserting that news organisations like SPH must uphold his primary responsibility if they are to survive as a viable business, Dr Lee said that while such news companies face challenges on generating revenue in the digital age, they must first assure their audience that the coverage they produce is fair and balanced.
Dr Lee said: “Singaporeans must first be convinced that the newspapers are independent and unbiased in reporting the news.”
SPH, Singapore’s largest news media conglomerate, shares close ties with the Government and there is a strong public perception that SPH and ST are the “mouthpiece of the Government”.
There are instances where the ST has failed to cover news about individuals like Lee Wei Ling or Lee Hsien Yang – the estranged siblings of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong – while being the first to cover the Government’s actions against Lee Hsien Yang’s wife and son.
A US diplomatic cable leaked by WikiLeaks several years ago caused a stir after it quoted former ST bureau chief for the US as saying that SPH’s “editors have all been groomed as pro-government supporters and are careful to ensure that reporting of local events adheres closely to the official line”.
Former SPH chief editor Cheong Yip Seng’s famous book ‘OB Markers: My Straits Times Story’ also laid out alarming details of the Government’s interference in SPH’s newsrooms.
Mr Cheong wrote that once, Singapore founding Prime Minister warned him that “If you print this, I will break your neck”. Mr Cheong wrote: “I was taken aback by his thunderbolt…It was my first taste of Lee Kuan Yew’s ways with the media…Thankfully not every encounter would be as bruising as (that)…but there were many occasions when the knuckleduster approach was unmistakeable.”
Mr Cheong also revealed that the Government threatened to install a “GTO (government team of officials)” in the SPH newsroom and eventually placed S. R. Nathan as a monitor to watch whether the “newsroom was beyond control.”
Mr Nathan, Director of the Security and Intelligence Division and later President of Singapore, served as SPH’s Executive chairman from 1982 to 1988.
Mr Nathan is not the only SPH director to have close ties with the Government. SPH’s first President (1994–2002) was Tjong Yik Min, former chief of the Internal Security Department. The immediate former Chairman of SPH, Tony Tan, was Deputy Prime Minister of Singapore from 1994 to 2005 and President of Singapore from 2011 to 2017.
SPH personnel’s relationships with the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) is not something that totally belongs in the past. Mr Cheong revealed that Warren Fernandez, who now oversees most of SPH’s print publications including the ST, was scouted out by the PAP.
Revealing that Mr Fernandez was about to be selected as a PAP candidate during the 2006 General Elections, Mr Cheong wrote that “senior PAP leaders had been impressed with (Warren Fernandez’s) work for us. His columns in particular have been generally supportive of PAP policies.”
Mr Cheong asked the Prime Minister whether Mr Fernandez could be kept at the ST “unless he was earmarked for higher office. But the PM’s response was that he needed Eurasian representation in parliament”.
Mr Lee Kuan Yew apparently agreed to keep Mr Fernandez out of the PAP’s line-up in the end. Mr Fernandez now serves as SPH English/Malay/Tamil Media Group editor-in-chief.
Earlier this month, Mr Fernandez touched on SPH’s ties with the Government as he said: “The Government engages us and we engage them, and we have debates all the time. But I think everyone recognises that the media need room to operate, so that we can be credible. If we lose credibility, it’s in no one’s interests.”