Political observers of one-party states need to be able to read the subtle criticisms that appear once in a while in party-sanctioned newspapers. Unlike in liberal democracies, journalists operating in a one-party environment cannot pen opinions that directly contradict the government’s line. What they can do is to criticise through faint praise or raise pointed questions, or, if an opportunity presents itself, leverage one minister’s words in order to reflect negatively on another minister’s. Observers need to be attuned to such methods.
A good example is a report on parliamentary proceedings by Li Xueying, published in the 21 October 2011 edition of the Straits Times.
She gave the Prime Minister fulsome praise for a few key points in his parliamentary speech of the day before, but she also unearthed what current Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen had said some months earlier. She didn’t have to make reference to Ng, but she made the conscious choice to do so.
Yesterday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s hour-long speech drew vigorous and sustained thumping from the House – including from one opposition member, Aljunied GRC MP Chen Show Mao.
It was well deserved.
The speech was remarkable for how Mr Lee, seven years after taking over the reins, sought to reset the button on the conversation between the Government and the people.
He set out his thinking on the kind of society, economy and politics he envisages for Singapore.
In so doing, he made acknowledgements that none in the top echelons of the Government had before in such unequivocal terms: Incomes are rising ‘far too slowly’ on the lower end; the society is ‘stratifying’; the Government needs to take a ‘much more open’ approach in its governance.
On the first, he said: ‘Income inequality is starker than before. The most successful Singaporeans will continue to do very well. The average Singaporeans will be able to make improvements in their lives and are much better off than people in most other countries.
‘But at the lower end, incomes have risen too slowly – far too slowly – especially in real terms.’
Then, he moved on to the problem of social immobility.
‘Our society is stratifying, which means the children of successful people are doing better, the children of less successful people are doing less well.
‘Fewer children from lower-income families are rising to the top of the heap.’
It was a grim and unvarnished assessment that departed from previous government narratives on this subject.
The widening gap notwithstanding, what matters more, so the argument went, is that there is equality of opportunity for those at the bottom or their children to move up over time. And this continues to be the case in Singapore.
Just seven months ago, during the Budget debate, then Education Minister Ng Eng Hen – in the same Chamber – strenuously debunked notions that social mobility is stagnating.
As evidence, he cited how among PSLE pupils from the bottom one-third of socio-economic backgrounds, one in six makes it to the top one-third of PSLE scorers.
‘The Singapore Story continues for this generation,’ he then declared.
Yesterday, Mr Lee made it clear that inequality and social mobility are not so easily delinked. Those from poor families are disadvantaged from the start.
— Straits Times, 21 October 2011, Hitting the reset button, by Li Xueying
As you will have noticed, it made Ng look bad; he can’t be happy with her. But by doing what she did, she signalled that she and other Singaporeans like her preferred Lee’s frank diagnosis and willingness to tackle an issue over Ng’s intransigent denial that there was any problem at all. This signal of support gives Lee political capital to prevail in whatever infighting he has to do within the ruling cabal. That’s how politics is fought in the secret palaces of one-party states, and how semi-outsiders like party newspapers influence the process.
The day before, Li Xueying’s commentary provided an example of even sharper commentary. Pointing out that the Housing and Development Board (HDB) has managed to stabilise prices of public housing in the wake of public outcry against rising prices, she argued that it was all very well to obtain the result, but the pricing process is still as opaque as ever.
Mr Khaw spoke of how, since May, the Government had stabilised the prices of 13,000 flats in three [Build-to-Order] launches. This, even as prices in the private and resale market rose, albeit at a slowing pace.
He said: ‘We have moderated price changes such that after adjusting for differences in location, amenities and other physical attributes, the May, July and September BTO prices were roughly comparable to the prices of similar units in the April BTO launch.’
The BTO launch next month will repeat this pattern, he promised.
He pledged: ‘As long as construction costs do not rise dramatically, the BTO prices will stabilise.’
As long as construction costs do not rise dramatically. This raises a question.
What about the second component that the Housing Board factors in in pricing its new flats, that is, land costs?
More specifically, market-based land costs – a formula that has drawn so much angst in the past, given that it is pegged to the gyrations of the private market.
(Market-based pricing of land is done based on prices of state land located within HDB estates sold to the private sector.)
But it is telling that Mr Khaw also spoke of how his ministry had moderated the prices of the BTO projects such that the prices of those launched last month were comparable with the prices of those launched in April, even though prices in the private market rose over the same period.
Has the market-based pricing formula been quietly tweaked behind closed doors? Or did the Government just decide to deploy an interim measure of pegging new prices to April’s levels, given the unhappiness over spiralling flat prices?
It is marvellous that Mr Khaw has been so quick in assuaging the pain of first-time home buyers. I empathise with them – my younger brother and his fiancee were on the hunt for some time. But the speed with which the minister has done so – never mind the market – does raise questions on how exactly the Government prices its flats.
On Monday, Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC MP Zainudin Nordin also queried this, calling for the pricing formula to be as transparent as possible.
Doing so will assure Singaporeans that ‘the Government is not out to make a profit through the sale of public housing’, he said.
Unfortunately, Mr Zainudin and his colleagues did not manage to seize the opportunity to seek this clarification from Mr Khaw yesterday.
Going ahead, the need to be more open and transparent with information will continue to be an imperative that the Government has to struggle with, given a more questioning electorate.
Voters no longer want to be told just the answer – the what. They also want to understand the hows and the whys.
— Straits Times, 20 October 2011, Chance lost on clearing hows and whys of flat pricing, by Li Xueying
I thought it important to flag op-eds like these in the mainstream media. Too often, comment-makers in online forums paint the media landscape as starkly divided between good and evil, a trope the government itself seems eager to make, albeit reversing the good/evil roles. There are journalists who know how to use the system to say what they want to say, even if critical of the government.
Will what they write be influential? It depends. I suspect the housing commentary will be less so simply because it does not have leverage. The minister may well continue to ignore it, the same way the government ignores any single piece of commentary in alternative online media. But the cumulative effect is not to be sneezed at. One-party state or not, no government can remain in power without at least the acquiescence of the people, or at least the acquiescence of a class with enough social and economic power to make or break governments.
Journalists in our mainstream media play dual roles: firstly as surrogate spokesmen for the government, faithfully carrying its pronouncements and dutifully keeping a flattering spotlight trained on them rather than their opponents; secondly as representatives of the social and economic apron that rings and sustains the government in power. In her commentary, Li Xueying was playing the second role. The government cannot afford to totally ignore what this class is saying, at least not cumulatively.
With income inequality for example, I had noticed that over the last two months, both the Straits Times and Today had carried a number of syndicated feature articles touching on this subject. Partly it was news-driven; the Occupy Wall Street movement was underway. Let me cite one example to show you what I mean. Today newspaper featured an article headlined The instability of inequality, arguing how economic inequality generated by an unbridled laissez-faire economic system is politically self-destructive:
. . . the laissez-faire Anglo-Saxon model has also now failed miserably. To stabilise market-oriented economies requires a return to the right balance between markets and provision of public goods. That means moving away from both the Anglo-Saxon model of unregulated markets and the continental European model of deficit-driven welfare states.
Even an alternative “Asian” growth model – if there really is one – has not prevented a rise in inequality in China, India and elsewhere.
Any economic model that does not properly address inequality will eventually face a crisis of legitimacy.
The question I had (which still remains unanswered) was whether this interest in carrying such articles was suggested by the Prime Minister’s Office to pave the way for his parliamentary speech, or whether it was done entirely on editors’ initiative.
If the former – and it doesn’t have to take the form of a crass instruction to editors, but could well be a passing remark over cocktails, e.g. “You know, Mr Editor, this issue of income inequality is going to rise in importance in the West, and as usual it will likely impact the way Singaporeans think too” – from which editors know to take the cue, then it’s an example of the newspapers’ first role. If the second, i.e. the spotlight on income inequality is the editors’ doing, then it’s an example of newspapers playing the second role, telling the government: Hey, pay attention to this please.
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Yet, paying attention to mainstream media contains its own bias. Baey Yam Keng cited how just a few letters in the mainstream media was enough of a tail to wag the government dog.
The recent suspension of the Abercrombie & Fitch advertisement along Orchard Road seems to be sparked by a couple of letters to the Straits Times forum which found the uncovered male torso to be indecent. If the industry regulator was acting on public interest, did it note the strong support online for the ad to stay put? The online chatter is the closest to coffee shop talk that should have been taken into consideration before a final decision is made.
— Baey Yam Keng, speech in Parliament, 19 October 2011. (You can see the full text of his speech at journalism.sg)
How representative, Baey was asking, is the stuff that mainstream newspapers choose to print? If that stuff, however frank on the surface (as Li Xueying’s pieces were, for example) had been filtered through class interests that form the social apron surrounding the government in power, paying attention to their signals may in fact mislead.
* * * * *
At this point however, the bigger problem for the government may be still about refusing to read signals, wherever they come from. The instinct to shout down criticism, to deny that any problem exists, is still strong. Ng Eng Hen’s remarks, as noted above, is one example.
Another was the way Law Minister Shanmugam and People’s Action Party member of parliament Indranee Rajah responded to Workers’ Party member of parliament Pritam Singh when he called for a Freedom of Information Act. Instead of dealing substantively with the issue, the two bared their long incisors, challenging Pritam to say that mainstream media was”controlled by the government”. Singh had clearly not said that. Why make an issue of what he had not said?
The motive is obvious. It’s the old tactic of taking an opponent outside his carefully chosen words into a dark alley, there to beat him up on account of some other words. And the purpose of that? To avoid dealing with the issue raised by his carefully chosen words.
[Pritam Singh] said the perception that the mainstream media ‘operates with the long shadow of the Government firmly cast upon it’ was crystallised for him personally when he read a chapter in former president S R Nathan’s memoirs.
Mr Nathan recalled his time as chairman of Singapore Press Holdings and said he was conscious that another outbreak of serious displeasure with The Straits Times would result in a return to the old idea of putting in a government team.
Mr Singh also recalled a 2003 incident which he said had come to be referred to as ‘the Val Chua episode’, after which the Today newspaper editor left his job.
It was little wonder that some Singaporeans have more faith in the new media and may even tolerate misinformation to varying degrees online, he added.
Mr Singh’s comment about government control of mainstream media drew pointed requests for clarification from Law and Foreign Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam and Ms Indranee Rajah (Tanjong Pagar GRC). Both asked Mr Singh to state if he personally believed the mainstream media was controlled by the Government.
The opposition MP refused to do so. ‘This isn’t about Pritam Singh’s views on the mainstream media,’ he said.
Mr Shanmugam asked Mr Singh twice for an answer. ‘As an elected Member of Parliament, you come here and you express your views, you’ve got to put your hand on your heart and say, this is what I believe in,’ Mr Shanmugam said.
Responding, Mr Singh said he was not trying to score a political point through his proposals.
— Straits Times, 21 October 2011, Pritam Singh calls for Freedom of Information Act, by Kor Kian Beng
Then of course there was Teo Chee Hean still thumping the table saying the Internal Security Act had always been appropriately used and insisting that the 1987 detainees for example, were communist subversives.
In a post right after the general election, I had suggested that Lee Hsien Loong’s biggest problem lies within his own party (recall my use of the word “infighting” above). Assuming that Lee himself sees what needs to be done (and I am not altogether convinced myself) he simply doesn’t have enough people around him who sees likewise. My guess is that half his cabinet at least are more comfortable sticking to old habits. They prefer to deny problems than deal with them. They prefer to hammer opponents than engage in debate on the substance.
Change cannot be effected without changemasters and the first attribute of a changemaster is to feel no obligation to defend the past. It is only then that he is able to sweep things away and clear the ground for rebuilding. Lee has too many ministers who by dint of ego or temperament would defend the past to their last breath.
If even mainstream journalists’ efforts at persuasion are ignored, you can calibrate the chances of meaningful reform accordingly.