“The man who reads nothing at all is better than the man who reads nothing but newspapers.” (Thomas Jefferson) To what extent is the statement a reflection of journalism in Singapore?

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Breaking down the quote by Thomas Jefferson, we see that the implications of his statement is that if you read newspapers alone, you are misinformed and this has dangerous consequences for yourself and society. While I agree with this part of the quote, I feel that his assertion that one should choose not to read newspapers at all rather than read solely newspapers is too extreme and simplistic. While journalism in Singapore undoubtedly has its faults, misinforming us through its pro-government stance, I feel that this does not warrant Jefferson’s derisive sweeping aside of the usefulness of newspapers in general. Therefore I feel that the statement is a reflection of journalism in Singapore only to a small extent.

Journalism in Singapore deserves the readership of Singaporeans because it does provide a wealth of information – both local and international, which helps to broaden our minds. The commentaries and opinion pages by the Straits Times “Insight” and “Review” sections also deepen our thoughts by introducing us to a vast array of perspectives that provide us with a more balanced point of view on issues. For instance, the past few days have been rife with the discussions about giving skilled foreign immigrants easier access into Singapore. Instead of merely stating the government’s intentions and measures, The Straits Times has aired perspectives from welcoming as well as hostile Singaporeans and even the thoughts and anecdotes of foreigners already residing here. Such a spectrum of perspectives would have been lost had one decided to read “nothing at all”, perhaps even leading (in extreme cases) to bigoted, unsympathetic and unbalanced views about the issue. As for international views, the manner of writing by journalists here does nothing to erode their credibility in providing us with a true picture of events in the world. Having regularly read international journals and newspapers like The Economist and the International Tribune, I have found it reassuring that the reports by our journalists are as (if not more) balanced than theirs. As such, we see that majority of the reports by journalists in Singapore are unbiased and accurate, and thus are worthy of our time.

Moreover, journalists pride themselves on the accuracy of their work and do not deliberately try to sensationalise the news or push their own agendas. This is especially apparent when we juxtapose our journalists besides those in more extreme countries like China or even liberal countries like America whose First Amendment of the Constitution prides itself on the freedom of the press. For instance, Chinese newspapers are explicitly the mouthpiece of the communist government and unabashedly produce propaganda. Even at the other end of the spectrum, America’s press is often biased towards corporations or political parties. For example, Fox News has a clearly conservative slant, making it difficult to fully trust the news it presents. In contrast, Singapore’s press tries to a large extent to maintain neutrality. Singapore’s Press Holdings (SPH) also avoids sensationalizing the news in its more serious newspapers, tabloids not included. This is clear from the objective tone of its reports, void of any opinions by the journalists.

However, I must concede that the small but admittedly present slant towards the government is a fault of Singapore’s press. Many have griped at the incomplete picture the press presents due to its wariness of offending the government. The chummy nature of the relationship between SPH and the People’s Action Party (PAP) is apparent from the regular dialogues they have together, dialogues which are meant to help the heads of SPH understand the crucial nature of PAP’s policies and the great care they must take to ensure that everything is said in a nice tone and presented in just the right manner. Along with this is the carrot of government funding. Careful not to bite the hand that feeds it, SPH may forgo journalism ethics in order to operate according to what business sense deems fit. This careful following of the will of the government may also stem from the early days of Singapore’s independence, when the press was bluntly against the PAP. It could now be trying to maintain its favour by providing so much more election coverage during the recent General Elections and painting the government in a good light. Then again, while that seems undeniable, we must accept that it is only a minor part of our newspapers which does not merit our complete forgoing of useful information from the large proportion of it.

Then again, besides the obligation to conduct self-censorship described above, newspapers in Singapore are threatened with the stick of government censorship too. The extent of this is evident from our ranking by Journalists without Borden, in which we were placed just one rank above Iraq. Most recently, a satirist by the moniker of Mr. Brown had his column in the Today newspaper suspended on charges that he was undermining respect for the government. A survey by the blogger bulletin tomorrow.sg found that 76% of the respondents felt that the government was “oversensitive”. Thus, it is apparent that censorship chips away the credibility of our newspapers, causing some to feel that they should not even be read. However, it is reassuring to note that such cutting away of unwelcome information is and will continue improving with the advent of participatory media where “citizen journalists” can hold the press accountable for its omissions, thus implying that the censorship knife would be severely blunted and that the government may have to give the press freer reign in the face of such new developments, or risk alienating its population and especially its youths.

From the discussion above, we see too clearly the faults of our press, especially its fear of offending the government. This might give readers a false sense of security when actually they are taking in a skewed perspective. However, this is not severe to the extent that one should completely forgo reading newspapers, because the merits of being informed outweigh its limitations. To alleviate some of the problems of the pro-government stance, we as readers should take responsibility by becoming more discerning and by supplementing the news presented in the various local newspapers with that of international publications. Hopefully, the revolution of new media will further improve the scales by blunting the tools of censorship and the more insidious self-censorship.


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