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The Harmony Myth: Asian Media’s Radical Past 117 117 6 C H A P T E R The Harmony Myth: Asian Media’s Radical Past When I was working at The Straits Times (ST ), it was not uncommon to hear scorn being expressed in the newsroom for the country’s Chinese newspapers. In covering government news, Lianhe Zaobao was even more likely than ST to choose angles that served the government’s agenda. While we English-language journalists liked to think of ourselves as trying to apply professional news judgment to the coverage of officials’ speeches and press releases, our colleagues in the Chinese media seemed content to report such statements “straight”. The difference extended to the papers’ use of photographs. By the 1990s, ST photojournalists and picture editors were aspiring to the highest international standards of pictorial storytelling, with a preference for compelling, candid and creative human-interest images. We thumbed our noses at the “firing squad” photos that would appear routinely in Lianhe Zaobao: officials standing in a row and smiling stiffly at forgettable media events. We saw the Chinese press — as well as the Malay daily, Berita Harian — as less professional. (The Tamil paper, Tamil Murasu, was so small it barely entered our consciousness .) Signals from the government only served to support such stereotypes about the non-English press. Their coverage would be cited approvingly when officials chided ST. At the 150th anniversary celebrations of The Straits Times, then-premier Goh Chok Tong said affectionately of Lianhe Zaobao and Berita Harian, “Their headlines of important policy speeches appear to come straight from the shoulders Chap6 (117-136) 117 Chap6 (117-136) 117 4/2/12 2:53:43 PM 4/2/12 2:53:43 PM 118 Freedom from the Press of the Ministers.” In contrast, he said, ST went for “human interest”, slipped its own viewpoint into the presentation of stories, and revealed unnecessary “self-doubt about the Singaporean approach to problems”.1 Explicitly or implicitly, the rhetorical question would be asked: if the Chinese and Malay press can get the angle “right”, why can’t you? The government’s interpretation of this regrettable state of affairs was that Singapore’s English press had been colonised by inappropriate Western norms, while its Asian-language media remained steeped in Asian values. “The journalists working in the English medium are particularly buffeted by ideas from the Western world,” Goh said.2 In his memoirs, Lee Kuan Yew said that the English-language press, influenced by first British and then American ideals, was “always sceptical and cynical of authority”. In contrast, the Chinese and Malay newspapers reflected different principles: their “cultural practice is for constructive support of policies they agree with, and criticism in measured terms when they do not”. Lee added: “Chinese-educated readers do not have the same political and social values as the Englisheducated . They place greater emphasis on the interests of the group than those of the individual.”3 Essentialised notions of culture, with their sweeping generalisations , are rightly treated with suspicion by scholars. Yet, the kind of theory pushed by the People’s Action Party has been echoed by many observers. Media studies have been relatively hospitable to the idea that perceived differences in journalistic practices might be explained by differences in culture. One book on normative theories of the media makes this connection in its introduction, attributing Southeast Asian democracies’ “more consensual and less contestatory media policy” to “their underlying religious and cultural consensus”.4 Singapore has been described as something of an archetype of an illiberal “Asian” model of journalism.5 The theory entertained by these Western media scholars is similar to the PAP’s. It basically goes like this: Asian values (harmony and respect for authority) and Western values (confrontation and contestation) compete for influence over journalism; these values explain why Singapore journalism is tamer than Western journalism, and why, within the Singapore press, the more Westernised English-language press is bolder than Asian-language journalism. There is one problem with this orthodox account. History. A cursory look at press and politics of the past challenges the stereotypes and disturbs the lazy consensus of conventional wisdom. History Chap6 (117-136) 118 Chap6 (117-136) 118 4/2/12 2:53:44 PM 4/2/12 2:53:44 PM The Harmony Myth: Asian Media’s Radical Past 119 reveals that for most of the 20th century...


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