Doughnut reporting

I was speechless after reading the Straits Times’ version of the story about a protest note being lodged at the Singapore High Commission in Kuala Lumpur. It told readers about all the stuff peripheral to the main issue but said not a word about Mourthi Vasu’s demand that Singapore acknowledge with contrition committing a miscarriage of justice when his son was hanged in 2003.

The story was covered in a timely manner in The Online Citizen yesterday (10 August 2010). Headlined “I want my son’s name back”, the web story made clear that the chief issue was the way the trial of Vignes Mourthi was conducted, leading to his conviction for trafficking in 27.65g of heroin and subsequent hanging.

Below is the ‘doughnut story’ in the print edition of our main English-language newspaper — I call it ‘doughnut’ because the centre is missing. You will notice that

  • the headline describes the rally as against the death penalty in general;
  • it does not mention Mourthi Vasu, the father of the hanged Vignes Mourthi;
  • only mentions euphemistically the accusation of miscarriage of justice, with the words “shed new light” that really tell the reader nothing;
  • it commits a factual error when it wrote that Alan Shadrake “faces charges of criminal defamation and contempt of court”. This is plain incorrect. Shadarake currently faces contempt of court proceedings, but no criminal defamation charges have been filed.
  • closes by asserting that Malaysia too has capital punishment for drug trafficking — a kind of “pot calling the kettle black” taunt.

Here is the story in full:

11 August 2010
Straits Times

NGO rally in KL against S’pore death penalty

KUALA LUMPUR: A group of activists from Malaysian non-governmental organisation Lawyers for Liberty held a protest outside the Singapore High Commission yesterday against the Republic’s death penalty, Malaysian media reported.

In a protest memorandum addressed to the Singapore High Commission, the group of about 10 activists, led by lawyer N. Surendran, requested the abolition of the death penalty and the pardoning of Malaysian Yong Vui Kong, who faces the gallows for drug trafficking, online news site Malaysiakini reported.

Yong, 22, was convicted by the High Court on Nov 14, 2008, of trafficking in 47.27g of heroin. The death penalty is mandatory for trafficking 15g or more of the drug.

The Court of Appeal turned down his appeal in May, and he has till Aug 26 to file a plea for presidential clemency.

The memorandum also demanded that the Singapore Government withdraw all charges against Alan Shadrake, the author of Once A Jolly Hangman: Singapore Justice In The Dock, for which the British writer faces charges of criminal defamation and contempt of court.

The activists and the Civil Rights Committee of the Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall submitted the memorandum to the High Commission’s first secretary, Mr Walter Chia, yesterday, in which they urged the Singapore Government to commute death sentences to imprisonment, Free Malaysia Today reported.

Mr N. Surendran also said Shadrake’s book had shed new light on the case of Malaysian M. Vignes, who was found guilty of giving 27.65g of heroin to an undercover police officer in September 2001, according to court documents. He was hanged in Changi Prison on Sept 26, 2003.

Malaysia also imposes the death penalty for drug trafficking.

Now, read for yourself the actual text of the memorandum of protest lodged with the High Commission, as obtained from The Online Citizen. Note its headline and initial few points and how they relate primarily to the question of miscarriage of justice, this constituting the weighty centre of the issue:

MEMORANDUM OF PROTEST

Wrongful execution of M’sian Vignes Mourthi and malicious prosecution of Alan Shadrake

Vignes Mourthi

1. On 26 September 2003, Vignes Mourthi was hanged in Changi prison for alleged  drug trafficking.

2. The key testimony on which he was convicted was the evidence of one Sgt Rajkumar who arrested Vignes.

3. Alan Shadrake in his book ” The Jolly Hangman” reveals the shocking truth about the trial and conviction of Vignes. At the time Sgt Rajkumar gave the sworn testimony in court which convicted Vignes, Rajkumar was under investigation for rape, sodomy and bribery!  Subsequently he was convicted of corruption and sent to prison for 15 months. Vignes was hanged by the neck until he died on the testimony of this man.

4. In a breathtakingly malcious act, Singapore police and authorities concealed this crucial fact from Vignes’ lawyer M.Ravi. Vignes went to the gallows bitterly denying to the end that he had ever trafficked in drugs. He was only 21 years old when arrested.

5. The callousness and indifference to human life by the Singapore government and judiciary is shown by the now notorious remarks of Chief  Justice Yong Pung How. When asked by lawyer M.Ravi whether the innocent Vignes can be hanged due to merely procedural matters, the Chief Justice replied ” Yes, the answer is yes.”

Alan Shadrake

1. On 19 July 2010, a day after Alan launched his book in Singapore, police arrested him for Criminal Defamation and Contempt of Court.

2. Alan was interrogated by police 8 to 10 hours a day despite a weak heart, and now faces  trials which may may send him to prison for years. He remains resolute and has said ” I will not be cowed.” His only crime is revealing the truth to the people of Singapore and the world.

We the undersigned demand that the Singapore government:

a. acknowledges the enormous miscarriage of justice that happened in Vignes’ case;

b. clears the sullied name of Vignes Mourthi and make amends to his suffering family;

c. institute immediate reforms in the Singapore judiciary to ensure Singaporean judges appreciate and respect human life and freedom;

d. take appropriate action according to the Constitution against Chief Justice Yong Pung How ;

e. halt all pending executions in Singapore and commute death sentences to imprisonment;

f. cease immediately the malicious persecution of British author Alan Shadrake.

Signed: LAWYERS FOR LIBERTY

Civil Rights Committee KUALA LUMPUR AND SELANGOR CHINESE ASSEMBLY HALL

Next, look at this video taken at the gate to the Singapore High Commission. It’s hardly a “rally” as the Straits Times reported. Secondly, it reinforces the point that the case of Vignes Mourthi was central to the issue. You can also see the prominent position of Mourthi Vasu, the father, in the proceedings.

* * * * *

Why the doughnut? The first possible reason is the Straits Times’ fear of repeating the allegations, which Justice Quentin Loh had warned the media against on the first day’s hearing of the Shadrake case. This is censorship in all but name. Even so, good journalism will be able to report fairly despite such draconian rules. However, I believe that more than incompetent journalism was at work here from the way the chief issue (possible miscarriage of justice) was relegated to the third from last sentence.

The protest note’s key demand was qualitatively different from the peripheral demands. The latter could be presented by the newspaper as opinion versus opinion. For example, the protest wanted pending executions halted; presumably the Singapore government wants the conveyor belt to proceed at full speed. There is no absolute right or wrong answer, one view could be as valid as the other. Reporting such issues allows the Singapore government the defence of  holding a valid, if contested, view.

However, the key demand over allegations of miscarriage of justice is qualitatively different in that it allows no room for relative validity. It’s an absolute question: you’re either right or wrong. Either there was miscarriage or justice or there wasn’t. It is extremely threatening to the Singapore government to box them in like that. This, in my view, explains why the newspaper chose to leave a hole in the story.

The question I have is this: Which is going onto the trashheap of history? The Straits Times, or Singapore?

The breathtakingly blatant way such a story flouts the minimum standard of journalism might initially lead one to believe that it should be the Straits Times. But I have a nagging doubt. Might our government and their cronies be right:  That people can be fooled through slanted reports in government-compliant media? Thus, they knowingly do this because it works.

But if so, what kind of Singapore is this? What kind of future does a place have that can so spite the rest of the world and even its own moral conscience (if we can find it)? Is this not self-destructive behaviour? In which case, it can only be Singapore that will be cast onto the trashheap.

24 Responses to “Doughnut reporting”


  1. 1 Robox 11 August 2010 at 22:29

    There are two related issues here that I see as very closely related even if did not seem so at first:

    1. “[There ST report] closes by asserting that Malaysia too has capital punishment for drug trafficking — a kind of “pot calling the kettle black” taunt.”

    While that is undeniably true, what is also true that like Singapore, Malaysia also has its share of anti-death penalty activists. Exactly as you have argued implicitly, it is they and their concerns in this case that should have been the focus of the story.

    My own suspicion is that the ST report was actually intended too provoke a typically infantile Singaporean reaction: “Go clean up your own backyard first before telling me that my own is filthy”.

    2. “…the key demand over allegations of miscarriage of justice is qualitatively different in that it allows no room for relative validity. It’s an absolute question: you’re either right or wrong. Either there was miscarriage or justice or there wasn’t.”

    As I see it, the specific questions of miscarriage of justice in the late Vignes Mourthi’s trial have to do with the blatant violations of the norms of fair trials, which are fairly consistent no matter where they are conducted.

    The criteria for a fair trial are:

    1. procedural fairness;

    2. legal counsel, both its availability as well as its quality; and,

    3. judicial competence.

    In general, I find all the above to be chronically problematic in Singapore. However, in this case, I will not comment on #2 and #3 but only in the matter of procedural fairness.

    Specifically, it is two components of procedural fairness that are in question here, and they are a) the flouting of the Rules/Laws [for the admissability] of Evidence; as well as, b) witness credibility. While questions have been thrown up for me about the first of the two components that I have mentioned such as the admissability of Vignes’ unsigned testimony as evidence, there is also serious doubt about the admissability of Rajkumar’s evidence based on his credibility as witness.

    Thus while it continues to be true that Malaysia has the death penalty, Malaysians with concerns that a case tried in Singapore involving one of their citizens meet with the requirements of procedural fairness, a requirement of all justice systems, have full legitimacy to air those concerns in and to Singapore.

    • 2 Robox 12 August 2010 at 01:08

      Mat Alamak, you said, “The PUB Chairman was given the top honours in this year’s National Day, despite the recent big floods in prime area Orchard Road and a few other areas, leaving many bewildered by the logic of it.”

      Funny how I too was linking the above with these three cases. Chan Sek Kiong has, at least at one point or other, been involved in both Vignes’ as well as Vui Kong’s cases. As reward for his gross incompetence, he was promoted to Chief Justice after his involvement in Vignes’ case and remains at the position after delivering what in my experience of studying constitutional rulings from oversees jurisdictions of all sorts, the crudest constitutional ruling I have ever come across.

      It would seem that the PAP government rewards incompetence so as to better allow themselves to continue in their own mediocrity. And all this depite the talk of raising productivity levels, which I have already denounced as just the very latest of their many feel-good fads.

    • 3 Robox 13 August 2010 at 07:30

      A correction to my post above.

      I wrote, “Specifically, it is two components of procedural fairness that are in question here, and they are a) the flouting of the Rules/Laws [for the admissability] of Evidence; as well as, b) witness credibility.”

      I was incorrect.

      It should be: ONE of the components of the rules [for the admissability] of evidence is witness credibility; rules of evidence exist to ensure procedural fairness.

      And while I am at it, the rules of evidence centre around four main issues:

      1. actus reus;

      2. mens rea;

      3. identity – making a positive identification between the accused and the crime s/he is accused of; and,

      4. witness credibility.

  2. 4 Mat Alamak 11 August 2010 at 23:27

    How will be the final outcome of this memorandum and protest by the father of the late Vignes Mourthi turn out?

    And also how about Alan Shadrake’s case?

    And the two cases are now strongly interlinked and the outcome from one (whichever come first or at the same time) will definitely affect the other.

    And what about the outcome for the 3rd case of Yong Vui Kong?

    Is there any likelihood of the final outcome being in favour of the late Vignes Mourthi, Shadrake and Yong Vui Kong? It seems all these 3 cases are without precedent so no reference to the past can be made.

    This seems to be a most interesting development of court cases with regards to the death penalty and also how the Singapore govt will deal with it. Also with internet, public awareness and opinion have also built up strongly and will this be a factor?

    Maybe this analogy and fact is also helpful as to how the Govt will deal such matters. The PUB Chairman was given the top honours in this year’s National Day, despite the recent big floods in prime area Orchard Road and a few other areas, leaving many bewildered by the logic of it. This shows how much the govt care about possible public opinion and the repercussions.

  3. 5 Vampyre 11 August 2010 at 23:46

    I was wondering when someone would pick this up. This article made me laugh over breakfast this morning, and also made me wonder about all the wheels and cogs that must be turning behind the scenes to have produced it. The unfortunate reality is that very few people would realise that the national broadsheet is not above such blatantly biased journalism.

    The coverage and public exposure of the ongoing battle against the MDP has been severely stifled by the mainstream media. Most of my peers know nothing about this issue and the circumstances surrounding it.

    I believe the missing ingredient in the push for the MDP to be reviewed is public interest, and this is probably what the MSM is trying to suppress by omitting the more emotive elements of the story. They have been doing this since YVK’s case came to light. The extent to which they have truncated the story just shows how deliberate this effort really is.

  4. 6 prettyplace 12 August 2010 at 01:03

    The plan, would be to jumble up everything into one.
    Confuse the public, with more doughnut stories.
    Then try to get a favourable outcome for themselves.
    mmm, lets see if I’m right.

    Anyway, we all know people in ST, in their younger days, used to play masak masak in the most creative way with exquisite ingredients, which they have just brought over to their working life as well. i’m not surprised.

  5. 7 Venga 12 August 2010 at 01:56

    Being a political journalist in ST is like hiring a prostitute to read you the bible- that is, it can be done, but its utterly pointless and a little weird. To even call ST government propaganda is to flatter it and insult its historical proponents. It would credit the ST journalist undeservingly with motive and the capacity for thought and effort. And sadly, it is perhaps the most important job for democracy to exist. Thankfully, we now have yawning bread and company, who perform the role so impressively.

  6. 8 dole 12 August 2010 at 07:42

    Just wondering why the need for paper qualification to be a Straits times journalist?.Are they locally “schooled”.They are a disgrace to the human race because of their doughnut head and body,sold their soul for a few dollars more.But then again,they may be awarded for “integrity” come next national day.Reminded me of North Korea beating brazil 1-0 in the recent world cup match.!Such is the sorry state of singapore.

  7. 9 Jacob 69er 12 August 2010 at 09:55

    Your post reminded me of this from Francis Seow’s 1998 book, Media Enthralled: Singapore Revisited….

    “Shortly after his return from an ambassadorial stint in France, Singapore’s first chief minister, David Saul Marshall, wrote a letter to the editor of the Straits Times …challenging the need for the death penalty, and questioning its “effectiveness” in Singapore. Marshall had always been against the death penalty. The editor refused to publish the letter on the feeble pretext that “it did not sponsor petitions and there was no evidence death row was overcrowded.”

    Outraged at this insouciance, Marshall remonstrated: “Where do we go to express our differences of views if we are not allowed to hold meetings or write to the press?”

    And, at a public forum, amplified his grievance at the suppression of his letter, by labelling the Straits Times as “either PAP wallahs or bootlickers” and local journalists as “pathetic [who] were only concerned about their own survival. They are running dogs of the PAP and poor prostitutes.”

    At first blush, the statement seemed rather intemperate, but, given the uncritical appreciation of official policies and fawning posture it adopts to officialdom, it is a well-deserved judgment.”

  8. 10 Joshua 12 August 2010 at 11:19

    Blackstone’s formulation:” It is better that 10 guilty man go free than to have 1 innocent man suffer”(re-worded for better understanding)

    The British, Americans and Australians all follow that form of thinking to the detriment of their own population. Little needs to be said about escalating crime rates in these areas. To add credence to the debate, I refer to Arthur Shawcross, famous serial killer(aren’t they all) who murdered 12 more women after being convicted and released early from prison.

    More can be read here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arthur_Shawcross

    Our Singapore government is very far from being perfect. As the OP has mentioned, we suffer from many political contritions, but as far as the death penalty in Singapore is concerned, I believe that Singaporeans as a whole are in full support of our court’s no leniency stance.

    It is a shame with mourthi; indeed, our law courts are far from perfect and I acknowledge that it is possible that there may have been a “miscarriage of justice”. However, I believe that the ‘silent majority’ of Singaporeans believe that it is better that “1 innocent man suffer than have 10 guilty man go free”

    Indeed the strict laws imposed by our constitution has made it such that Singapore is a very safe place. Science has proven that capital punishment works in a small country, with an efficient judicial system and a strong deterrent message.

    As for the “lawyers for liberty”, cast not the first stone.

    • 11 kz 12 August 2010 at 16:39

      Joshua
      I see your logic. But you must be kidding . You don’t need capital punishment to ensure LAW and ORDER.

      What you might also want to know — it is the unequal, preferential application of justice (including death penalty) that is also the issue. (that is what Shadrake book talks about). The german girl who trafficks drug; the son of an ex-chief justice serving sentence AT HOME etc etc were treated differently from what a kenyan soccer player or mourthi experienced for dealings with drugs.

      What many want to see is if the PAP preaches something, it should practice what it preaches. FAIRNESS.

      The case about Mourthi is not about the death sentence. It is due to INJUSTICE and the FAILURE to mete out a death penalty sentence without considering all the facts ( or for that matter ommitting crucial facts that could prove innocence). This is about some one’s life. This is not about limiting the “ills” or evil influence on our society. THE SINGAPORE COURT HAS Committed a miscarriage of Justice in this case. They should be asked to account for this!!!

      If the PAP is so damn f. concerned about vices and social ills, then they should not have gone on the slippery slope of setting up the casinos.

      • 12 Josh 13 August 2010 at 10:49

        Hi KZ,

        can you explain this paragraph?

        “What you might also want to know — it is the unequal, preferential application of justice (including death penalty) that is also the issue. (that is what Shadrake book talks about). The german girl who trafficks drug; the son of an ex-chief justice serving sentence AT HOME etc etc were treated differently from what a kenyan soccer player or mourthi experienced for dealings with drugs”

      • 13 yawningbread 13 August 2010 at 11:44

        Josh – I think the above by KZ may be hard to follow (and explain concisely) unless you’ve read the book. Try to get a copy of the book. It’s available in Johore Bahru, and from what I’ve read on The Online Citizen, it’s now into its third print run!

    • 14 KT 13 August 2010 at 14:53

      ‘Science has proven that capital punishment works in a small country, with an efficient judicial system and a strong deterrent message.’

      What science was it that proved that capital punishment worked in a small country? Why the delineation by country? How about a province or city?

  9. 15 INJUSTICE 12 August 2010 at 12:47

    Some netizen called the CJ as “Chief Injustice”. I the CJ can make this kind of unaccusable mistakes and we cannot say something about this, then do we still trust our legal or juridical systems? In fact in this modern world, we can’t find 包青天 any more, but it’s easy to find 包錢天 nowadays.

    [Can we show some consideration for minorities please and stick to English? I will leave this comment up for 24 hours and then delete — Yawning Bread]

  10. 16 rojakgirl 12 August 2010 at 13:24

    It’s Straits Times and so, nothing new. They praise themselves for censoring the news, praise the government for screwing up people’s lives or even for taking lives and in the hopes that the masses will believe everything.

    Hence they must exercise censorship and dance around said issues and avoid touching on certain questions. All these while framing the information in a somewhat acceptable yet confusing format so the inquiring masses will not know or either care.

    Btw, check out this super cheesy rap video the MDA made:

    I wonder just who made the music, wrote the lyrics or even produced the video for them.

  11. 17 X' Ho 12 August 2010 at 13:27

    All that I know is that Singapore’s judicial system IS ARBITRARY because the Govt has chosen not to sue Dr. Lim Hock Siew despite the censorship board’s official word that Dr. Lim has made “baseless accusations” against authorities & is undermining the system – a statement announcing the ban of Martyn See’s documentary on Dr. Lim. Unlike, say, Francis Seow (a political fugitive), Dr. Lim is still in Singapore to facilitate the call of supposed justice.

    • 18 rojakgirl 12 August 2010 at 15:44

      Wait, are you THAT X-ho, that deejay whose works were banned and who used to stir up lots of controversy? I used to listen to 98.7fm as a kid but not anymore because I’ve grown out of much of its music. And there was a fair bit of gossip about you on the airwaves. Too bad I can’t listen to exciting music anymore or my blood pressure will probably rocket and I’ll run around screaming and then punch the… nevermind.

      But I’m stunned, you actually shoot movies?! And write books? Holy crap. They made you sound like some sort of nutcase who doesn’t do anything with his life.

      Oops, sorry for the over-excited outburst. I forgot my medication again.

      *calms herself down*

      Oh yes, Francis Seow, that poor guy who was sued and then made the butt of many Singaporean jokes.

  12. 19 X' Ho 12 August 2010 at 16:47

    To rojakgirl. I am the nutcase who’s “not doing anything with his life”. Who can in Singapore? Where got time after dealing w bigger nutcases called ‘ordinary Singaporeans’ who are out there everywhere behaving like suicide-bombers (walk into u just so you’ll explode) and invasion of body snatchers (let’s see u try not scowlin’ back!). With your delicate condition, you should try staying in more. Infestation is at insufferable-high; even for me when I venture ‘armed’ like a Cantonese-tongued savant! Btw, the deejay you’re referring to is Chris Ho. I am X’ Ho. Same-same but different. In Singapore-lingo, that’s win-win for you. But really… win-win for me, the ST-way (say & it is so!). Oh, my latest book is How To Be More Win-Win Than the MM, only an e-book naturally. Download from http://www.xhosux.com But if you like sample of writing, check http://www.myspace.com/xhobooks/blog for free viewing of my essays. Jan 2010’s essay Hushed Fascism is most recommended, if I may say so myself. Keep well. Singapore is not for the human of heart unless it’s beating to only the “no.1” beat. And that’s not a radio-lingo.

  13. 20 Jacobian 12 August 2010 at 23:17

    well there is no such a thing as press freedom in singapore.

  14. 21 Robox 13 August 2010 at 01:03

    Alex, I wonder if you can shed light on this matter. You wrote:

    “The first possible reason [for this doughnut journalism] is the Straits Times’ fear of repeating the allegations, which Justice Quentin Loh had warned the media against on the first day’s hearing of the Shadrake case.”

    I note also that you have attributed the more likely reason for this to incompetent journalism. Notwithstanding, Alan Shadrake has not, or not yet been, charged with criminal defamation. Thus the repeating the contents of his book cannot (or cannot yet) be considered defamatory. (I imagine though that a journalist can still be similarly hauled in for investigation for repeating any portion of Jolly Hangman, but…)

    Would it be your opinion that, quite apart from the censorhip that you have declared judge’s veiled warning to journalists to be, Quentin Loh has also exceeded his powers?

    • 22 yawningbread 13 August 2010 at 11:46

      No, not incompetence. I attributed the chief reason for this doughnut to be deference to the powers that be.

      The summons to Alan Shadrake was for contempt of court. Thus the judge warned the media that repeating those statements would also risk contempt of court. He did not exceed his powers.

  15. 24 Robox 13 August 2010 at 07:20

    I can’t seem to get these issues out of my mind so here I go again.

    I’ve read that Vignes Mourthy’s family intends to take the Singapore government to court, a move that I am supportive of depite the likely outcome. However, I can only imagine that it would be a sue. I recall that you once wrote, in the context of gay rights, that the cost of suing the government would be about $20 000 per day of hearing, and that such cases can be expected to last longer than a day.

    I was just wondering how anyone can afford it much less a family from Malaysia that appears to be quite poor.

    On another note, I have not read this acknowledged anywhere but it would seem as if that Vignes’ case was also invloved entrapment, an entrapment that cost him his life.

    If true, what issues would that raise?


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