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SPH

Singapore Press Holdings and Mediacorp are the two major news organizations in Singapore. Mediacorp is a government owned corporation, while SPH is a listed company whose share holdings are widely distributed (a legal requirement forbidding any single shareholding being above a specified limit), but with a special provision for the government to appoint its senior executives, who in turn bring in other trusted appointees - the fact that a number of the editorial staff members have previous experience as security analysts still raises eyebrows among foreign reporters when they get told for the first time.

News reports in the various SPH papers I personally read, Straits Times, Lianhe Zaobao (United Morning Press - I will explain the name later) and Business Times, occasionally the afternoon tabloid Newpaper and the free morning tabloid Today published by a separate organization (again, will explain later) are comprehensive and generally speaking bland. The news reports are no more biased than, say NYTimes, whose staff are more likely to be Democrats (and Jewish). Simply because most of the important activities in Singapore are generated by the government, government linked corporations and other public organizations, most of the big news reports involve current and former government officials.

The weakness of SPH lies in its commentary sections. There is virtually no in depth analysis of public policies and social issues. Perhaps I can illustrate using an example from a different organization, the Institute for Policy Studies, which carried out a survey after the recent election to find out what issues the voters regarded as most important, and found that the highest percentages went to (a) efficient government (b) fairness. Now if you ask people "what liquid you drink most", the answer is probably water, and if you ask what is your largest foodstuff intake, the answer is probably starch (rice and bread). The information is correct, but not very useful for the purpose of deciding what drink/food to produce for the market.

The NYTimes has a number of regular columnists representing widely varying ideological and experiential backgrounds to discuss current events, as do most major papers in US cities - even the Murdoch group NYPost and (my information may be out of date) Unification Church owned Washington Times try to do this, and while we occasionally hear about journalists complaining about owner interference in editorial policies, the owners would always deny it quickly and repeat various politcally correct statements on wanting to accommodate different points of view. The Straits Times basically does not have local columnists - the one person that comes anywhere near this status would be Janadas Devan, the son of the former President of Singapore Devan Nair, but he lives in Austin Texas and writes mostly about foreign policy matters. There are some columns written by various SPH staff in the nature of extended editorials that represent the paper's official stand, but as the official stand is already quite familiar to the public, reading those columns does not usually add to one's knowledge or understanding.

The Chinese paper reads quite differently; it has many regular columnists that have their particular pet ideas and obsessions. Unfortunately, the one big obsession happens to be the no win subject of poor command of Chinese language shown by the Singapore school children, the root cause being poor curriculum design, which is just starting to be fixed after the current Education Minister took office. He happens to be non-Chinese and so was able to take a fresh look at this sacred cow, only to discover that the solution was not, as the previous educational experts kept recommending, to pile even more material into the curriculum, but to reduce it and make it more relevant in a largely English language environment. In brief, most of the columnists, letter writers and readers kept arguing for the wrong solutions and blaming the wrong people for the problem (the biggest chip on the shoulder being that "the government", which includes both the British who left in the early sixties, and the various generations of PAP leaders, were all anti-Chinese, whereas they were merely listening to the wrong experts. The paper is called United Morning Press because it came from the merger of previously privately owned Sin Chew Daily and Nanyang Commercial Press after some of the owners/editors got into political/business troubles, the first step in the eventual consolidation of all newspapers into Singapore Press Holdings - another chip on shoulder).

The characterization of the situation in Singapore being a "press monopoly" is not exactly officially acknowledged, though there is usually no active attempt to deny it either. Instead, it is argued that foreign press and broadcasting already provide sufficient competition and comprehensive coverage, so that SPH and Mediacorp are to be judged more for their social and economic value to Singapore, a kind of PR units of Singapore Inc. There was actually a previous attempt to create competition (more like sibling rivalry) by allowing Mediacorp to start a print press, and SPH to start broadcast stations. The commercial consequence was a drop in advertising rates as the two sides undercut each other leading to some financial pain on both. After a few years, Mediacorp recovered its broadcast monopoly, while its Today free paper became a joint venture with SPH.

I guess I have not given you a very promising picture of the press scene, so maybe you hope for improvement out of the blog movement, which actually received the endorsement of Lee Kuan Yew himself once at a public forum in answer to a question from the floor: if you dont like what you read in Straits Times, why dont you just go and start your own blog? However, with so many blogs out there, one need to be quite knowledgeable about how to attract the right eyeballs to a column. The two blogs that recently attracted wide audience were the SPG column with the blogger's nude pictures (which were then withdrawn, and with no new sensational stuff appearing, interest soon waned), and Mr Brown's recent noodle/pork liver spoof, while during the election campaigns pictures of election rallies on some websites were widely viewed. I am not aware of indepth social and policy analysis attracting the same attention, without which it is hard to imagine many authors taking the trouble to produce blogs containing such analysis. If a blogger merely wants a chance to rant and relieve his/her feelings, no doubt he/she would still write the blog even if no one reads it, but most people would choose differently.

It therefore struck me as curious that after the last election, some members of parliament actually compained that some news reports were too positive about the opposition, that the majority of the blogs are anti PAP. As I said before, we already know that people drink water and eat starch, that they want efficient and fair government. The additional information people need is about the various other drinks and foods people consume, in diminishing and perhaps unimportant quantities. Given 100 bloggers, they would talk about 100 different things; if you dont like them, you can always read the Straits Times.

Today - Singapore's Second English Morning Paper

I previously commented on the press situation; this time it is specifically about Today because of the just announced management changes, in which the previous editor Mano Sabnani was shown the exit (rumoured to be because of the Mr Brown affair, in which Today took action only after an article received an official reprimind from Ministry of Information and Arts, but the details would be virtually impossible to confirm; for a comment on Mr Brown, see

http://blog.360.yahoo.com/blog-XIIfDzQobqO5oCYM9UTvZzgKHH4Org--?cq=1&p=182 ).

Today is given away free to readers, unlike Straits Times which costs 80c a copy; there are various distribution points such as MRT stations and it is relatively easy to obtain a copy if one cares to make an effort, though I myself do not. The Today website is also free access, unlike the ST website which requires a subscription though part of the content is available on the free site asia1.com. I used to read the Today web content regularly but a few months ago suffered a decrease of interest in Singapore affairs so that I stopped reading either free site. (I still quickly glance at the hardcopy papers and read additional content of the Chinese paper website zaobao.com)

Today does not have the income ST gets from the thick stack of classified ads (the lack of per copy income is actually a lesser factor), and cannot afford the competitor's large journalistc and editorial establishment. Its news coverage is less complete and there is virtually no commentary sections. It is therefore much cheaper to produce, especially as it can tap into the broadcast news resources of its parent. Financially it has not been burdensome to Mediacorp. It existence provides an element of "competition", actually little more than sibling rivalry, to SPH. As the junior sibling, it is expected to be a bit more "naughty", and this may have been taken too seriously, and there may have been problem even before Mr Brown.

Singapore is a company town, the headquarters of Singapore Inc; the press media are all supposed to promote the economic well being of the employer organization, but with multiple papers meeting the same objective in different ways. How different one can afford to be is an issue of delicate judgement.

Just read in ST that Newpaper will in the future be published in the morning; in other words, it will be directly competing with Today, another chapter in the media sibling rivalry.

Today and Newpaper are both tabloids, while ST, BT, Zaobao, Wanbao and Sinming are broadsheets, but the kind of sensational reporting (Rupert Murdoch, we miss you here... ) that the word "tabloid" reminds us of is actually not done with either - it is actually the Chinese evening papers that carry the more sensational stuff that would not be tolerated in ST - a communal differentiation I guess; Newpaper does have a "body" orientation: sports, food, beauty contests, some sop stories; Today's attempt at differentiation led it into Mr Brown type problems, and since then it has taken a low profile both in the material it carries and in its circulation promotional efforts.