During SWF, among the most frank discussions were the ones highlighting the role of mass media in societies generally, and Singapore in particular
Kevin Tan, adjunct professor of law at the National University of Singapore, while speaking during the session - Hard truths: writing about politics, argued that Singapore's political reporting has evolved over the years coinciding with the change in prime ministership and added, “Also, there is a clear distinction between writing in academic journals and mass media outlets such as The Strait Times, because you can take a much critical view of government policies in academic journals.”
“During Lee Kuan Yew era of pre-1990s, the attitude was 'with us or against us', which changed to much more openness during Goh Chok Tong's times post-1990. In the current set-up, we are not quite sure. The government now wants to engage more and more. That's why you see every minister is on Facebook, interacting with citizens and sharing their take on government policies. But at the same time, you also keep seeing examples of the old tendencies of high-handedness,” said Tan.
“So while its true that past events have led to Singaporean society becoming cynical and apathetic towards politics, you see more and more engagement now, which is a good sign for our future. I will rather have engagement than apathy.”
Rachel Chang, a young political correspondent with The Strait Times, supported this view. “Our generation has always been very politicised. We realise that politics permeates every sphere of our lives so apathy is not an option any more.”
P N Balji, editor of digital newspaper The Independent Singapore, who moderated the panel - The role of the journalist in society, also shared candidly his experiences of working in all the three major English dailies in Singapore. “There had been times when we needed to make sacrifices in our reporting duties due to external pressures. But there were also times when we resisted and didn't relent, as also detailed in Cheong Yip Seng's [former editor-in-chief of the The Straits Times] recently released memoirs, OB Markers: My Straits Times Story.”
Michael Vatikiotis, former chief editor of Far Eastern Economic Review and regional director (Asia) at the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, elaborated on the role media should play in a modern progressive society. “Facing challenges from citizen journalists, professional journalists should be more stringent with their fact-checking, and be ready to set the agenda. In a nutshell, be it Singapore or some place else, journalism is always a reflection of the society it is practised in.” Long-form journalism such as the Reuters enterprise articles are the future of print mass media, Vatikiotis further added.
On the role of civil society in Singapore, Tan who has also been the president of Singapore Heritage Society from 2001 to 2011 said, “Most of the civil society groups here are pro-Singapore and work towards making the country a better place to live in. The government must also realise that advocacy is not always anti-government.”
Tavleen Singh, columnist with a Indian newspaper Indian Express, shared her experiences of political reporting during the height of terrorism in the Indian states of Punjab, and Jammu and Kashmir. “Even the lives of my children were threatened but we stuck it out. My advise to all young and budding journalists will be – if you are frightened easily, don't get into this profession.”
The last word belonged to Mohsin Hamid, Pakistani author of the novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist, who while arguing that “mass media being unbiased is a misnomer as it is not even humanly possible” said, “It's also a kind of censorship when we box ourselves into one nationalistic colour or the other, which affects our views and reporting. The thing is to remember that we are all human beings who happen to share the same planet Earth.”