On The Mic: 5 things about veteran journalist Bertha Henson

(PHOTO: Epigram)
(PHOTO: Epigram)

LISTEN: Use the above player to hear our full interview with veteran journalist Bertha Henson

SINGAPORE — Veteran journalist Bertha Henson doesn’t shy away from confronting tough issues in her commentaries. She’s also not above apologising when she’s in the wrong.

“I don’t have a problem saying sorry, whereas I think a lot of commentators tend to be very self-righteous. And that I think is part of them getting stuck in a groove...

“As far as I’m concerned, I view everything on its merits or demerits. So people always ask me, ‘Are you pro-establishment, anti-establishment, or whatever’ and I say, ‘You read me and you tell me lah’,” she said during her appearance on Yahoo News Singapore’s “On The Mic” podcast.

During the interview, Henson also talked about her new book, “GE2020: Fair Or Foul?”, her teaching experience and the current state of the media.

Here are five things we learnt about Henson from our conversation:

1. She wants to see fairer politics

Henson’s new book takes a deep dive into the processes and conduct of Singapore’s recent general election.

“I’m trying to see if the rules can be made fairer not just for all political parties, but also to fit in with the aspirations of citizens for more political participation,” she said.

Henson added that she hopes the current generation of political leaders will pay attention to some of the recommendations she makes in the book on how to improve the country’s electoral system.

Asked if she thought they would heed the advice, she said, “Whether they do or they don’t, I think the main thing is I’ve put it down. If somehow somewhere someone picks it up and thinks it’s worth acting on, I would be very gratified.”

2. Why she took up journalism

While many seasoned journalists tell grand stories of how they were inspired to join the profession, Henson’s own reason for taking it up was more pragmatic.

“I went with journalism for the money. In the 80s it paid extremely well... So I’m afraid I don’t have a great story to tell about how I wanted to change things and all that. It was purely mercenary. And it was a good accident that I happened to like it,” she said.

On why she stayed on for long at the job, Henson added, “It’s the tremendous power for the media to mould opinions, that would be one... Information is power, you know.

“And if you can dissect information and come up with conclusions, that’s a very fascinating thing in my opinion.”

3. She’s big on transparency

Asked about the issues that motivate her to write these days, Henson pointed to transparency as the biggest reason.

“I get pretty upset when information is lacking for some reason. Maybe because the media didn’t ask or newsmakers won’t tell. I dislike the view that citizens should be protected from too much information. I think it’s condescending,” she said.

“So when I see that some things are not reported, or that some things have been withheld, I do speak out... As a citizen, I do want to be informed and that’s one of the reasons I wrote the book,” she added.

4. She’s concerned about ‘wokeness’

During the interview, Henson also raised her concerns over the degree of “wokeness” – a term used to describe the perceived awareness of social justice issues – being expressed among younger Singaporeans today.

“Slogans are very easy to spout. So maybe let’s say you want to see more equality among the races. Nice slogan right? But then you must also be clear about where the inequalities lie and what exactly you’re referring to.

“So all that is more difficult to do than spouting a slogan. Being woke can’t just mean that. It must mean that you also know the facts and are not just being part of a trend,” she said.

5. Pandemic was a missed opportunity

Regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, Henson expressed her disappointment over how Singapore’s leaders appear to have missed a chance to examine some of the more pressing issues affecting the country.

“My honest feeling is that Singapore has missed a very, very big chance to use the pandemic to look at several fundamental issues.

“So I think we should have used it to look at things like whether we need to make some changes to labour policy, whether we need to change some things.

“But then, no, it seems to me that it's going to be business as usual. In fact, the whole (2020 General Election) was not about change, it was about continuity,” she lamented.

“GE2020: Fair Or Foul?” is available at local bookstores and online from Epigram.

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