Chapter 2. Journalism Tamed: The Mechanics of Media Control
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Journalism Tamed: The Mechanics of Media Control 23 23 2 C H A P T E R Journalism Tamed: The Mechanics of Media Control The People’s Action Party government of Singapore has never been bashful about its determination to discipline the press. It believes that media freedom cannot be allowed to obstruct the government in its mission to secure better lives for Singaporeans. However, while PAP rhetoric is familiar to most observers, the actual mechanisms with which it controls the media are less well understood. The knowledge void is filled most enthusiastically by critics of Singapore’s mainstream press. One eloquent informant was a foreign journalist who worked for The Straits Times for some nine months in 2004. Leaving the company on a sour note, he penned a damning critique of the paper. It was widely circulated on the internet and continues to be quoted by others: The paper is run by editors with virtually no background in journalism . For example, my direct editor … was an intelligence officer. Other key editors are drawn from Singapore’s bureaucracies and state security services. They all retain connections to the state’s intelligence services, which track everyone and everything.1 Days before he was to leave the country, I happened to meet the writer at a party and asked him about this statement. He replied that it was common knowledge that the editors were tied to the state’s intelligence services. I knew that the direct supervisor he mentioned, who was then the editor of the op-ed pages, was an Oxford-educated Chap2 (23-45) 23 Chap2 (23-45) 23 4/2/12 2:52:38 PM 4/2/12 2:52:38 PM 24 Freedom from the Press scholar who had indeed been recruited from the Internal Security Department (ISD). And, yes, the editor of The Straits Times and the group’s managing editor had each spent ten years in the administrative service. However, they had worked in economic-related ministries, not the security apparatus. By that year, they had each chalked up at least 15 years of journalism experience. The editor-in-chief at the time, Cheong Yip Seng, had been a journalist since 1963, when my interlocutor was probably still in high school. Other key editors, including the deputy editor, night editor, news editor, political editor, money editor and foreign editor were career journalists who had spent practically all of their adult lives in the newspaper business. The statement that editors had “virtually no background in journalism” did not square with the facts. However, the writer stuck to his position. With the condescending air of someone whose adult musings are being interrupted by a naïve child, he irritably swept aside my inconvenient questions . His final word on the subject was that the editors are all part of the System, so they might as well be intelligence agents. He may have felt that he was entitled to some poetic licence after an unhappy stint at Singapore’s national newspaper. So, apparently, did those who gleefully circulated his insider view. Many critics of Singapore’s political system do not want to miss the wood for the trees — nor, to borrow an expression from the newspaper trade, to let the facts get in the way of a good story. The obvious objection to the allegation that editors are nonprofessionals with intelligence agency links is that it is unfair to the journalists who have been so defamed. More importantly for our task at hand, they underestimate the sophistication and resilience of the PAP model of press control. It is quite possible that Singapore newsrooms are under both electronic and human surveillance by the ISD. But, it would be simplistic to believe that the ISD relies on plants with ISD written on their resumés. The induction of several former civil servants into the newsroom from the late 1980s was not prompted by the need for state surveillance or control. The trend was instead part of the national newspapers’ effort to keep up with both establishment newsmakers and the public by hiring better-educated journalists. Increasingly, the press looked to the same pool of talent as the civil service, which had a policy of creaming off the brightest young Singaporeans through its bonded scholarships to top universities overseas. The media launched their own scholarship schemes to compete for young talent, and also hired mid-career civil servants to speed up the Chap2 (23-45) 24 Chap2 (23-45) 24 4...