COMMENT: That letter from the MOH to the Straits Times

P N Balji
COMMENT: That letter from the MOH to the Straits Times

Those with long memories of the Singapore government’s celebrated fights with journalists will tell you that the combative letter from the Ministry of Health to The Straits Times a week ago shows that its media policy is still stuck in the quagmire of the Lee Kuan Yew era.

And all this talk of a light-touch media policy is just that: Talk.

The government could have said in its response to ST assistant political editor Rachel Chang that it was premature to hint of a cover-up because an inquiry into the Hepatitis C scandal was on-going.

Instead, in language reminiscent of the days of bruising encounters with journalists, the ministry said it was “irresponsible” of Chang to insinuate that ministry officials had “improper motives” when she questioned the gap between when the director of medical services was told of the Hepatitis C scare and when the Minister of Health was informed. From Sept 3 to Sept 18, there was a delay of 15 long days.

Sept 11 was the date when GE 2015 was called and it came smack in the centre of these 15 days. And so the obvious question: Did the delay have anything to do with the election date? It was not something that a government that has portrayed its very existence and survival on clean politics was going to let go without a sharp response.

Its reaction was not just intended for the journalists of ST. It wanted to send a signal to everybody that this is an OB marker that cannot be crossed. This government continues to be obsessed with media control. In fact, it has brought about reforms in nearly every government policy, but has kept its
media policy untouched.

Suspicion of media’s motives continues to run deep even to this day. And if anybody had even
the slightest belief that with the swing back in votes in GE 2015, the government would relax its hardline stand, then the MOH letter is a stark reminder that nothing has really changed.

You can bite at the fringes, but don’t dare to even hint of a government cover-up – that is the message. ST could have just published the letter and left the matter at that. But it went on its bended knees and apologised. It might have wanted to stave off further official or unofficial action from the government.

The editors of an earlier era were no angels. But the book OB Markers by former editor in chief Cheong Yip Seng showed some bright spots in an otherwise dark age. The revelations turned out to be an embarrassment for the government after its most trusted media boss listed in a breathless fashion the instances of government interference in what and how media should report certain events and who should be appointed to the top positions in the newsroom.

But there were also instances when the editor in chief had showed his independent hand when calls
came from masters at the Istana. And, don’t forget, that was during a time when Lee Kuan Yew was at his rogue best.

Today’s editors, who should be more independent in serving a society that seeks a plurality of views,
seem to be stuck in that dark age of Singapore journalism.  The worry is that censorship and self-censorship is so embedded in Singapore journalism’s DNA that even if the shackles are removed, I doubt they will know how to exercise their new-found freedom.

How sad.