Singapore media still faces government curbs on reporting: ex-ST editor Tan Tarn How

Wong Casandra
·Senior Reporter
Festival Artistic Director Ivan Heng (left) in discussion with former journalist and <em>Press Gang</em> playwright Tan Tarn How. (PHOTO: W!ld Rice)
Festival Artistic Director Ivan Heng (left) in discussion with former journalist and Press Gang playwright Tan Tarn How. (PHOTO: W!ld Rice)

Singapore’s media industry remains largely controlled by the government despite the prevalence of the Internet for over two decades, said former journalist Tan Tarn How, ahead of the premiere of a play inspired by his 15-year-career in The Straits Times.

While the playwright of Press Gang acknowledged that the Internet has led to the expression of diverse political opinions, it has not heralded “sweeping changes” as envisioned by observers.

A case in point, “all one needs to do is to compare a copy of a newspaper today to that of 20 or more years ago”, said the 58-year-old in a recent email interview with Yahoo News Singapore.

“The print and broadcast media continue to be controlled by the government. The way in which the ministers perceive and deal with the media has also not changed. Some journalists fight against this regime, but the odds are stacked hugely against them,” added Tan.

When asked about the reasons for the government’s paranoia over its portrayal in local media, he replied, “You have to ask them.”

Nonetheless, Tan described his stint at The Straits Times as “exciting and challenging, frightening and inspiring, frustrating and rewarding all rolled into one”, where he served in various capacities at the national broadsheet from 1987 to 1996 and 1999 to 2005. Some of his roles include being the deputy editor of the News Desk and Life!, a senior political correspondent and a foreign correspondent based in Beijing and Hong Kong.

The “highs and lows” of the career, including covering the controversial Operation Spectrum, had served as inspiration for his satirical play Press Gang, set to premiere at the upcoming Singapore Theatre Festival.

Operation Spectrum, which was carried out by the security agencies against an alleged Marxist conspiracy on 21 May, 1987, led to the arrests of 16 people. The following month, another six were arrested. Among the detainees were Catholic lay workers, theatre practitioners and social workers.

Press Gang follows the adventures of a former civil servant turned reporter at fictional newspaper The Singapore Times, just as its long-time editor is sent on indefinite leave for an inflammatory commentary and a rumour that could potentially ruin the government.

“Even in the past, there has always been the occasional Han Fook Kwang (Editor-at-large at The Straits Times) and a tiny number of critical articles or reports that the government did not approve of,” explained Tan. “Except perhaps for short-lived blips when the TODAY paper was first launched and again after the 2011 election, there has therefore not been much progress. Press Gang is partly about that.”

Han has come under fire from the government for several newspaper commentaries that he wrote. In June last year, he questioned the need for a Ministerial Committee to look into the fate of 38 Oxley Road, the residence of the late Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. The commentary prompted a rebuttal from Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean, who heads the committee.

Poster for Press Gang. (PHOTO: W!LD RICE)

Challenging the official narrative

On the proposed law to combat fake news, Tan referred to the recent debate on Operation Coldstore, calling the operation a “part of our nation’s foundational myth”. As such, it was unsurprising that those “who rely on this myth feel threatened when it is questioned” by the likes of academic Dr Thum Ping Tjin, Tan said. While fake news is a concern, “making it unlawful is as much a concern”, he added.

The final day of the Select Committee hearings on Deliberate Online Falsehoods in March culminated in a close to six-hour, and often testy, session where Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam and Dr Thum sparred over the extent of the communist threat in Singapore and Malaysia in the 1950s and 1960s.

Tan said, “If the government says with one side of its mouth that it welcomes naysayers and those with alternative views but chews up the people who step forward, which message will people remember?”

To transform and improve the media landscape, Tan called for sweeping legislative changes, such as repealing the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act to remove the need for licensing of newspapers and the Internet Code of Practice.

The changes also have to go beyond media laws, Tan said, citing social activists and theatre players who have been questioned by the authorities for their beliefs.

“(The repealing of certain media laws) is part of a wider web of legal and other restrictions on political and artistic expression that have ensnared people such as Jolovan Wham, Seelan Palay, Roy Payamal, Alex Au and Roy Ngerng,” said Tan.

Tan is not the only former Straits Times journalist involved with Press Gang – Cultural Medallion recipient T. Sasitharan will also grace the stage as one of the actors.

“Sasi and I also have a lot of fun recalling the wonderful times we had when we were together in Life! section in the early 1990s, a time when the politicians accused Life! of being a liberal hotbed – which to be fair, was not far from the truth,” said Tan. “Sasi has also been a critical check for me that Press Gang is real.”

Press Gang director and Festival Artistic Director Ivan Heng hoped that viewers will think hard about the workings of the press, and the impact it has on ordinary citizens and the country.

“We placed 151st on the 2018 World Press Freedom Index. So we know our press isn’t free. That brings to mind important questions like, ‘how much self-censorship goes on in our newsrooms? How much of our press freedom is taken away and how much is given away?’” he said.

The sixth Singapore Theatre Festival runs from 5 to 22 July at the LASALLE College of the Arts. Tickets range from $45 and above at Sistic.com.

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