Netizens are saying that a recent Straits Times (ST) article that covered how a gay couple celebrates Singapore’s National Day is a step in the right direction.
Officially, sex between mutually consenting men is criminalised in Singapore. While Section 377A of the Singapore Penal Code – a British colonial-era legislation – is very rarely enforced here, a man found to have committed an act of “gross indecency” with another man could be jailed for up to two years under Section 377A.
Despite this, the Straits Times – which has links to the Government – featured a gay couple in an article published today. The article covers how Singapore’s National Day is celebrated around the world and features an interview with Singaporean Cliff Tan, an architect who lives in London with his male partner.
32-year-old Mr Tan, who has lived in London for nearly a decade, talked about how he recreates classic Singaporean dishes and celebrates National Day with his Hungarian partner Bela Soltesz and other friends. The ST article even featured a cover photo of Mr Tan and his partner.
The feature is being welcomed by many online, especially given that the Singapore Press Holdings – Singapore’s largest news media conglomerate, which publishes the ST – shares close ties with the Government.
There is a strong public perception that SPH and ST are the “mouthpiece of the Government” and there have been accounts that the Government intervenes in the media company’s coverage of local news.
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”.
Veteran journalist and editor PN Balji suggested , in his recent book ‘The Reluctant Editor’, that the Government uses “fear, intimidation and the force of law to get the media to tell every nuance of the Government’s side of the story and downplay dissenting views.”
He recalled incidents that irked the Government and described off-the-record briefings ministers and civil servants would have with senior editors. Fellow ex-mainstream media heavyweight Bertha Henson recalled that she has “had the same experience too many times both as a reporter and an editor” in her review of Mr Balji’s book.
Former SPH chief editor Cheong Yip Seng’s famous book ‘OB Markers: My Straits Times Story’ is perhaps the most revelatory work that explains how the Government exerted its authority on the media.
Setting out alarming details of the Government’s interference in SPH’s newsrooms, Mr Cheong wrote that once, Singapore founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew 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 needs room to operate, so that we can be credible. If we lose credibility, it’s in no one’s interests.”
Although the paper is still reluctant to cover news about individuals like Lee Wei Ling or Lee Hsien Yang while being the first to cover the Government’s actions against them, ST’s feature of Mr Tan and his partner could be a sign that it has been given more room to operate.
Alternatively, it could be a sign that the Government is more tolerant of LGBTQ issues now. While the authorities remain reluctant to strike down Section 377A, prominent ruling party politicians like Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam and Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin were recognised as being among the top political leaders who have championed LGBTQ issues.