In the new emerging media scene, the mainstream media is put to the test each time an election is in progress.
PARLIAMENT has been dissolved. After a long and tiresome wait, the 13th general election is upon us.
The polls will almost certainly be the most heated and nasty in living memory (funny, but they say that every time).
For those of you who’ll be watching and experiencing the contest at home (not everyone can be bothered to attend ceramah), the media coverage will define the process.
Indeed, for decades, the battle for the hearts and minds has begun and ended at home with the TV news and the morning newspapers.
Information – the way it flows, is refracted and shaped – has been the key campaign tool with Barisan holding all the keys.
But times have changed.
Technology and social media have flattened old hierarchies, creating a myriad of opportunities, eradicating fears of retribution whilst also baffling the old-style campaigners.
However, in Singapore, the authorities decided to fight back and instead of merely censoring and attacking feisty Internet portals such as Temasek Review Emeritus (now known of as TR Emeritus), they chose to empower the mainstream media (MSM) ahead of the 2011 polls.
Indeed, they encouraged them to compete head-on. As one of the city-state’s establishment figures explained to me later: “It was felt that if we didn’t give the papers the chance to cover local issues boldly, readership would plunge even further and the papers would be totally useless as a communication tool. A media is only as good as the trust people place in it.”
In the case of The Straits Times, two senior journalists were central to this delicate but all-important task: Han Fook Kwang and Zuraidah Ibrahim.
Zuraidah in particular was a strong-willed lady and a paid-up member of the city state’s intellectual elite.
She was, after all, from one of the republic’s most prominent Malay families. One of her brothers is Dr Yaacob Ibrahim, the current Communications and Information Minister and another, Latiff, is a leading corporate lawyer – blue-blooded credentials.
Under the pair, The Straits Times started showing its mettle – covering local politics with ever greater boldness, culminating in the 2011 polls where the newspaper’s approach was remarkably open and fair.
They devoted an enormous amount of space to the opposition Workers’ Party’s most prominent candidates as well as their policies.
I can still remember a full-page spread in The Straits Times on the charismatic and highly qualified international lawyer Chen Show Mao who was a part of the Workers’ Party combo that eventually defeated the PAP team headed by the then Foreign Minister George Yeo in the Aljunied Group Representation Constituency (GRC).
It’s clear to me that The Straits Times chose to give the different political parties due weight in terms of coverage.
Of course, it didn’t take place overnight. As I said, the process was initiated many years before.
Nonetheless, in the 2011 polls, as the crowds deserted PAP events and flooded the opposition’s rallies, The Straits Times – because of its even-handedness – remained part of the public discourse.
“Playing” things straight kept the newspaper relevant (and also influential) as it disproved the sceptics and the naysayers.
However, given the subsequent result (the loss of Aljunied), the paper was to come under attack from the more conservative voices within the city-state.
They sought to limit its free-wheeling coverage, a process which led to Han’s eventual departure from the top job.
While the experiment was to end with a reversal, for a while at least, it shows what can be done with the MSM if authorities have the guts to trust the many reformist voices that exist within their own ranks.
The journey to media freedom isn’t an easy one, especially for those wielding absolute power, but it is absolutely necessary if we wish to return our MSM to the heart of public debate once again.