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Reflecting on journalism in Singapore in the week of World Press Freedom Day

Kirsten Han
Kirsten Han
8 min read
Reflecting on journalism in Singapore in the week of World Press Freedom Day

On World Press Freedom Day, I shared some experiences I and other journalists have had while trying to get information or answers from various Singapore government ministries, agencies, and state organs. They ranged from annoying bureaucracy to obstructionism to the outright absurd, including examples such as:

The idea that government agencies should address media queries as openly as possibly, as a matter of transparency and accountability, is alien to Singapore. Instead, getting information out of various state bodies can feel like trying to extract blood from a stone. There is no Freedom of Information Act that journalists can use to make data requests. Instead of the onus being on the government to explain why certain things can’t be disclosed, journalists have to persuade civil servants to part with information. And this often isn’t even sensitive stuff pertaining to national security or anything like that; it could be questions about government subsidies for hawker stalls, the way government agencies handle appeals or complaints, or the thinking behind the decision to legally require domestic workers to live in their employers’ homes.

Most journalists in Singapore have to deal with this sort of nonsense, but there’s clearly differentiated treatment depending on the publication (and sometimes, the journalist). Not all outlets are invited to, or even told about, press conferences, even if their reporters have official media accreditation granted by the Ministry of Communications and Information. When Heng Swee Keat announced that he was stepping down as leader of the PAP 4G, for instance, the press conference was only open to MediaCorp and Singapore Press Holdings outlets, and Mothership.

(For those of us who don’t have MCI accreditation, we can forget about it; we’re usually not even on mailing lists for government press releases, and can’t sit in the press gallery in court or in Parliament. I’ve even been kicked out of a media huddle at the State Courts—literally where journalists were just standing in a circle around a government official for a quick briefing—because I didn’t have government-approved accreditation.)

Fighting for press freedom… or not

The press freedom situation in Singapore is multi-faceted and can be difficult to explain to people who aren’t already inside this dysfunctional media circle. There are few clear outward-facing indicators of oppression and threats against journalists; it’s not like we’re getting disappeared off the streets, hunted by cartels, or brutalised by state violence. Yet the problems are deeply entrenched, and signs of resistance are rare.

Unlike other countries, there's no collective organising by journalists for press freedom. When a friend and I put together a journalists’ open letter against the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill (POFMA), we struggled to get Singapore-based journalists to sign the letter. (Those who worked in mainstream media were worried about repercussions at work, while some who worked for foreign publications cited company policy about not signing petitions so as to preserve “objectivity”—not because these publications never participated in collective action for press freedom, but because a place like Singapore was not a place that they’d break their general company policy for.) We have a Press Club, which also appears to have a golf league, but it's framed as a "networking organisation" and I've not seen them say much about press freedom. We also have a Foreign Correspondents’ Association, but it’s not very active on issues like press freedom either. I’m not surprised by this, though; if the FCA become more activist, I suspect quite a number of foreign reporters would not be able to renew their work visas. That can be a scary prospect; if you’re a (fairly well-paid) foreign journalist with a family, Singapore is a comfortable, well-run environment, with good schools for your kids. It’s not something people would be willing to throw away. I’ve had non-citizen journalist friends tell me about stories they’d love to do but can’t due to concerns about the right to remain, or seen journalists only pick up a more hard-hitting story when they’re already on their way out (and sometimes even then they make sure the piece only gets published after they’ve left).

It can be difficult to draw a line between journalists and journalists; it’s not as simple as local mainstream media journalists on one side, and (more) independent journalists on the other. While there are those who will openly, even proudly, say that they’re producing propaganda and have no interest in being a watchdog of the powerful—and who are therefore a big part of the problem—the majority of my interactions with mainstream media reporters are with those who are highly aware and scornful of the nonsense that goes on in their newsrooms. I have to caveat this by saying that the mainstream media journos I meet are often the younger, on-the-ground ones; perhaps higher-ranking senior reporters and editors might think and feel differently. These reporters talk about having to push and fight for some stories or angles, down to the quotes used. Some express frustration with editors who gatekeep or censor (prompted or otherwise) on behalf of the ruling party; others wake up one morning to find that chunks were cut out of their story without their knowledge. Some stick with their jobs because a steady paycheque is better than nothing, while others are stuck because they have to serve five-year bonds after having completed their tertiary education on scholarship. (I’ve met multiple Singapore Press Holdings scholars who were just counting down the days to the end of their bond.)

Across both local or foreign journalists, I’ve found that most are willing to help a colleague out. I’ve had reporters from different accredited outlets, mainstream media and otherwise, forward me statements/press releases/other tips that I wouldn’t otherwise have been able to access. Lots of journalists I know are also voracious gossips—or, at the very least, love to suggest that we “have sources” and “know things”, we are in the information dissemination business after all—so there’s quite a lot of venting and sharing going around. (A lot of it’s unfortunately not fit to print… but oh look, here I am doing what I just described about “knowing things”! 😅) And so we muddle on in this way, even if our employers might sometimes be competitors, or even if we’ve sometimes taken aim at one another’s stories or turns of phrases on social media. There’s private sympathy, but we’re a long way from collective organising and public demonstrations of solidarity.

Doing journalism in Singapore

Due to the press freedom conditions and overall working environment in Singapore, the practice of journalism can also look quite different here compared to other (freer) contexts. Sometimes it because of Singapore’s general political climate and the low level of political education (yes, even among journalists), like when government pronouncements and statements are treated with great credulity, as if everyone in Singapore needs to be fact-checked, except the most powerful. There’s also the habit of sources—government or otherwise—wanting a list of questions ahead of interviews. Sometimes it’s because the person wants to be well-prepared, especially if they might have to look up statistics or the exact wording of particular legislation (which I can understand); at other times it’s the kiasi demand of a PR person intending to coach the individual (which I cannot stand). If it’s a source that only wants to do an interview by email, or if I just have a few quick questions (that I know I might never get an answer to), I’ll send the questions over. But if it’s an actual interview, I usually just provide general talking points instead of a detailed list.

Another common practice is to show sources their quotes before the story goes to print. I’ve known some foreign reporters to express horror and scorn at this, but my own position is more complex; I chafe at doing it when it’s the government or corporate actors asking for this, because it’s a sign of them wanting to have more control over the story (although I sometimes bo pian have to send). But I also actively offer to run quotes past sources when speaking to individuals or communities with less power, because people do face repercussion and retaliation for things that they say to the press, even if the comment might seem quite innocuous to the reporter. There are also people, including the already marginalised and disadvantaged, who have been burned by the media (misquoted, misrepresented, or exposed to unfair public shaming or harassment); for them, the act of allowing them to check their quotes can build trust and ensure that I’ve got informed consent from them to use their words or experiences in my stories.

I often write about power and how it permeates and affects systems, society, and people; it informs the way I go about my work too. While I do my best to verify information regardless of source, marginalised communities can’t be treated in the same way as the ruling elite or other members of a powerful establishment. While I would be unwilling to, say, let a government agency retract a quote they’d already given on-the-record (I don’t think I’ve actually encountered this, though, since I’m more likely not to have got much of a comment in the first place), there have been a few times (not many) where I let those with less power withdraw their comments, because it’s important to me that they know and actively participate in whatever they’re getting themselves into. People who are vulnerable need to be informed, respected, and protected, because they're often taking risks speaking out, especially if they’re saying things that will put the powerful in a bad light. These people also don’t owe journalists anything; their lives and their traumas are their own, and they have the right not to want to make it a matter of public record. The government, on the other hand, should have a duty of transparency and accountability to the public; they have a duty to be responsive to journalists, unless there are clear reasons why information cannot be disclosed. (I once made this argument to two civil servants working in the corp comms department of a government ministry and they looked at me with the cautious politeness of two aunties realising they’d just sat down at the same table as a tyre-burning radical.)

Almost all my experience of journalism comes from working in and writing independently about Singapore. I’ve learnt a lot on the job, and grown a lot as a person because of my journalistic work, too. I’m also aware that where I am as a journalist today has a lot to do with the smallness and closeness of Singapore and its political environment; things would be very different for me if I were suddenly transplanted to another context and expected to work there. As I wrote in this piece about parachute journalism, I used to want to be an international/foreign correspondent, flying around the world to be present at the biggest events. But I’ve since changed my mind; today, I don’t feel like there’s anything wrong or less than in staying local, and I’m proud of the experience and expertise I’ve accumulated over my years of working here.

What I hope for now is more organising for press freedom in Singapore. As Hugh Laurie famously sang in his protest song, “All we gotta do is… mmmfashjdahfj… 😬 😬 😬”

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Kirsten Han

A Singaporean independent journalist, activist, and cat slave.