Local journalists frustrated by self-censorship at Singapore’s flagship paper, with many seeing overseas reporting as an escape from a stifling environment at home.
By Terence Lee
A stunning Wikileaks document released three days ago highlighted what appear to be the private views of a few Straits Times journalists, all of whom expressed frustration at the control of the press exerted by the Singapore government in the media.
The diplomatic cable appears to have originated from the Singapore Embassy and was transmitted to the American Secretary of State. The cable was created in January 2009, expressing the state of affairs around that time.
Three people were named. Two were Straits Times reporters and one was a student. First was the paper’s US correspondent Chua Chin Hon, who lamented that editors in the paper are groomed to be pro-government and ensure that the story in the papers generally fall in line with what the ruling party wants.
“None of them has the courage to publish any stories critical of the government,” said the report.
Government ministers frequently apply pressure on the newsroom to ensure that the stories come out favorably. This is because the new crop of government ministers want to “burnish their credentials” and show that they can be “tough with the media”.
The cable added: “Several current ministers and second ministers (Chua did not say which ones) routinely call ST editors to ensure that media coverage of an issue comes out the way they want it.”
Chin Hon further stated that the media could open up once Lee Kuan Yew passes away, and only if the majority of Singaporeans oppose the government.
Faced with this restriction at home, he noted that overseas reporting has become a coveted job among Straits Times journalists because they are given a wide latitude to report as they like.
Lynn Lee, then a Indonesian correspondent at the Straits Times, agreed with Chin Hon’s views. In addition, she expressed frustration at life as a Singapore journalist, noting that her stint in Indonesia would be a gauge of whether she would stay on as a reporter at the paper.
She has since left the paper (Lynn has also recently written a note refuting the cable’s assertions).
Last but not least, Chong Zi Liang, now a Straits Times reporter, talked about how Singapore’s journalism students “think twice about building careers at home.” His views were expressed while he was still a student.
He saw himself spending one or two years at home at most before venturing abroad to do journalism. That is a view echoed by many of his classmates.
Wikileaks has exposed what had been an open secret about the Straits Times newsroom all along. Despite the perceived opening up of the media space in Singapore, the government routinely checks on the newsroom to keep it in line, especially when it comes to sensitive stories.
The Straits Times now has the delicate task of explaining the Wikileaks cable to the public, as well as keeping their rank-and-file happy. If poorly managed, it could significantly affect the morale of the reporters.