By Augustine Low
The novelist and playwright Samuel Beckett had one of his characters proclaim, “Habit is a great deadener.”
This came to mind when a telling detail emerged – or more aptly, re-surfaced – in The Straits Times. Last Friday, the paper ran a full-page article on the government’s multi-layered approach to tackling poverty in Singapore.
The introduction read:
“Blue, green and red pen markers in hand, Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing drew up a chart on a big sheet of paper, like an economics professor explaining a concept to his class. He had called for the interview at the office of his ministry last Friday in the hope of resolving once and for all a contentious debate over how best to help the needy.”
Here is a highly touted Minister, and contender for Prime Minister, whose instinct, when faced with questioning and opposing views, is to turn to The Straits Times. It is a habit passed down from one generation of leaders to the next. The habit of getting Singapore’s dominant daily to settle the score – in this case, to resolve “once and for all a contentious debate” about poverty.
And, as is habitual, The Straits Times duly obliged, giving the Minister full rein to elaborate on tackling poverty the “kuih lapis” way. The Minister was in his element, signing off with petulant flourish: “So I hope people don’t ask, ‘Are you hiding (poverty), do you not dare to define it? No, what’s there to hide? You want to know, I will tell you everything.”
How expedient. As if in one fell swoop, the Minister can score a home run through one article and a contentious debate weighed in by scores of thoughtful and well-meaning institutions and individuals, can be resolved “once and for all”.
Except that we are living in the Internet age and GE 2011 did take place. So for the government and mainstream media like The Straits Times to conduct business as usual simply goes against the grain of a more enlightened, more engaged society with more choices for news consumption.
The Straits Times, celebrating its 170th anniversary in 2015, is still a staple read for many. But the signs are not good when, increasingly, readers have to turn to social media and online news sites for a fuller, richer picture of what’s truly happening. It’s just not true that half-truths are only perpetuated on the Internet; the mainstream media is equally capable of that, so I go to diverse sources and often when in doubt, I take it that the truth is somewhere in the middle.
Here is a case in point. Last week, The Straits Times ran two articles on the festering resentment of Hougang Mall shopkeepers who petitioned the Workers Party-run town council against frequent trade fairs hurting their businesses. It had the makings of Chapter Two of the hawker centre cleaning saga earlier this year which became highly politicised.
There were some ominous aspects of the new breaking stories, like this quote from a shopkeeper: “Politics is one thing, but this is about the life of us common citizens. The town council should take care of all the interests in the area. Even Mr Low (Thia Kiang, WP chief and MP for the area) has said it is their responsibility”.
Wow! And this is from the mouth of an ordinary shopkeeper!
I checked out Internet discourse on the matter and there were reports about key players in this case (as in the hawker centre cleaning saga) being grassroots leaders and active PAP members. There was also talk about how such trade fairs are common all over the island, from Ang Mo Kio and Bedok to Tampines and Toa Payoh, so what differentiates the one in Hougang from all the others?
I still did not have a definitive picture, but I was able to arrive at a better understanding of the situation by turning to alternative sources. This is bad news for mainstream media like The Straits Times. As one netizen put it: “The whole episode smacks of plasters with the letters ‘PAP’ everywhere … No shyness to conceal their affiliations this time.” Sylvia Lim, who runs the town council, has promised to look at the trade fair schedule for 2014.
If pillar institutions like Singapore Press Holdings (and the media titles it owns) are resolute in being staunch defenders of the status quo, and shy away from asking the tough questions of the Establishment, then readers will continue to turn away and a new generation cannot be won over.
Newsrooms have been quick to make the print-to-digital transition but at the end of the day, content is king.
Augustine Low is a communications strategist.