Reporting 2014
One’s not enough
May sound corny, but busier, over-crowded Singapore could actually do with another serious “objective” daily. By Seah Chiang Nee
Jan 4, 2014

(Synopsis: Like it or not, we are stepping away from our boring scheduled news-gathering past to enter an uncertain age where anything can happen.)

WITH a palpitating heart, the average Singaporean has moved into the New Year with a prayer that things will be better.

This is because 2013 had been – for one of the world’s densest-populated cities – a very news-active year that’s less than perfect.

Mr And Mrs Singapore actually got some good breaks and a bagful of bad ones.

But for these festive times, people are savouring the tail-end of a holiday mood.

With the help of glittering lights and maybe a glass of wine, beautiful people are happily spending their bonuses.

But soon these happy days will be over and life will revert back to its daily grind.

Before that happens, I thought I might write on a lighter subject this week. There had been too many serious stories lately.

As the city unexpectedly ended the year with its first horrid mass riot in 44 years, I was reflecting on another subject – reporting Singapore.

Earlier local dissidents had hacked into – or defaced – government websites for the first time to protest against action against the new media.

There was also a series of high-profile sex-corruption scandals and for a modern city, a number of deaths from dengue fever.

I thought that for any Singapore journalist who wanted to cover his country objectively, working life had changed rather significantly.

In the last 30 years between 1983 and 2013, for example, the number of people here grew from 2.7 million to 5.4 million.

So in quantity, the doubling of Singapore’s population by itself alone would have meant a big increase in the public demand for news.

That, in turn, must surely mean “more readable” pages and higher profits for any daily – particularly a monopolised one.

When the population was very small, it was easy for the government to argue that the Republic could not sustain more than one newspaper.

And Lee Kuan Yew used that argument for decades to stop the granting of more printing permits.

So one main morning broadsheet it was, monopoly or not, and so it remains.

“We have only two million people. How can the small market survive the competition of two rivals?” he would ask.

One of his media officials put it another way when I broached the subject.

How could this tiny population generate enough news for two dailies without them publishing the same news, albeit written differently?

Since no readers would buy two similar products that churned out the same news, one must surely die eventually?

Frankly, the small market that worked against open newspaper competition was hard to dispel three decades ago.

Adding to the market consideration was the political environment of news control created by Lee. This was, of course, unspoken.

The worldwide web wasn’t born then and Lee’s bureaucrats often decided what news to release every day, how much of it and when to release it.

Competition was allowed but not “exclusive stories” regarding government policies.

There had, in fact, been instances when over-zealous pressmen who forgot this rule ended up banished from news-reporting.

Reporters could, of course, compete by writing exclusive stories on the private sector.

Speeches by Lee on important occasions were sometimes delayed for several days and split up in parts to achieve the most favourable impact.

No wonder they talked of identical news.

In the news rooms, some of us journalists would refer to government news releases as “pennies from heaven”.

They made journalism an easy task. Many ended up writing up the government’s prepared texts, which would form the next day’s headlines.

More often than not, interviews or reactions were not required (even discouraged) together with it, just a straight rewrite.

Quite often I would sit in the two daily editorial meetings – one in the morning and the other, the final one at around 4pm.

This would be decisive in deciding what went into the next morning’s paper and how the stories would be played.

In real-life, however, that decision could often be made in the morning planning sessions without waiting for the day to unfold.

The reason was that in those days, most news came straight from diary government events – a parliament session, a seminar, police releases, a minister’s press conference, and so on.

That was why the editors would know just by looking at the morning diary, what tomorrow’s paper would be like.

It was unlike in Hong Kong or Bangkok and other cities where I had worked.

In these places headline news were mostly sudden and unscheduled, not from diary events – like a sudden labour strike, a daring hold-up or a multiple car accident.

This is why many visitors find Singapore morning papers predictable and less than exciting.

That’s the stuff you read if you want to know what the government says and thinks.

Today Singapore has moved a little away from the scheduled news-gathering past to enter an uncertain age where anything can happen.

Current news has come to include a fair amount of non-diary events, like the riots, the discovery of another dead body.

This has effectively ended the days of near complete government control on the distribution or news.

This means that, forced by circumstances, newspapers today carry an increasing amount of news-breaks that is beyond the authority’s ability to control.

In recent days alone, non-diary events included stories like how three pretty models got whacked at 2pm after a late supper, heavy furniture thrown from high-rise flats and more high-profile men having paid sex with underaged girls.

There’s no indication that 2014 will be much different.

(This article was first published in The Star)