Holding hands, Straits Times and government walk into sinking sunset

pic_201309_28I discontinued my online subscription to the Straits Times earlier this year. The habit wasn’t easy to break. At first I found myself buying the print version about twice a week. Weekends, I often bought the Sunday Times — mostly for its Sudoku and two or three comic strips that I liked (most I didn’t). But lately, I’ve gone for perhaps two months without missing it.

Then a few weeks ago, I happened to leaf through a copy of the Sunday Times at a cafe and discovered that they had halved the Sunday comic strips. Sherman’s Lagoon was gone.

Well, that’s that, then.


Above, Hawthorne the crab says “I feel more violated than entertained.” I know the feeling. Reading the Straits Times often felt like a mugging.

Not everyone feels that way though. A friend to whom I mentioned that I had unsubscribed said something quite different. “It’s come to be like the old magazines one browses through in doctor’s waiting rooms,” she said. “Mostly predictable drivel.”

I have a feeling that many are feeling and doing likewise. As the top photo indicates, the Straits Times has now found it necessary to advertise itself on other channels, when once it reigned so supreme it had no need to. Reducing the syndicated comic strips looks like cost-cutting.

* * * * *

I suspect that not subscribing has had an effect on my writing.  I am much less up-to-date on domestic news. Being more cut off, I respond less, but then again, there had been times when I became conscious of how I was largely led by the Straits Times’ news agenda. I was writing because something in the newspaper irked me. To put it another way:  I was being jerked around by it.

Of course, there is the opposite danger now, which is that relying mainly on social media to flag up newsworthy tidbits, my attention is being jerked around by social media instead. But there is a big difference: Whereas a Straits Times story would (once) have had reach and therefore made it more compelling for me to speak up against, the stuff shared on social media won’t normally have much traction. I don’t feel the same need to counter-argue.

* * * * *

What do I mean when I say I felt like being jerked around by the Straits Times? Let me give you an example.

Lately a journalist phoned me for a comment in response to a survey conducted (or mis-conducted, as one could say of the choice of language in the question) for the Singapore Conversation. See earlier article about it here. And oh, by the way, I have since heard from a source who said, “All the researchers involved were Christian.”

As pointed out in the earlier article, the survey revealed that those who told survey-takers that they “reject gay lifestyles” have now fallen below 50 percent. Among younger and better-educated respondents, those who are accepting of “gay lifestyles” now roughly equal those who do not.

In the phone conversation, the journalist kept coming back to a point that a member of parliament had made to her when she asked this MP for his comment. According to the reporter, the MP’s reply was to bemoan the “polarisation” that the survey uncovered. As for whether the future would see even greater acceptance of gay people, the MP’s response was to warn against even more polarisation. Further pushing by gay people for equal rights would, implicitly, be the kind of action that would exacerbate such polarisation.

The journalist then kept asking me if I agreed with this assessment and what I would say in response. I tried my best, but it was no easy task holding back my annoyance.

What was I annoyed about?

1. To speak of polarisation was a stupid way to characterise the situation;

2. Instead of treating stupidity with the contempt it deserved, instead of unpacking it, the journalist seemed to feel it was her job to uncritically accept such framing of the issue;

3. She then insisted that my comments fit within this kind of framing.

That in a nutshell is how the Straits Times gets it wrong, not just on the gay issue, but on just about everything else that in any way touches the government and its preferences. It religiously uses the government’s line as the starting point for any conversation, and it puts the burden of proof on those who dispute the government’s line, no matter how absurd the government’s case may be.

It’s like someone saying that the moon is made of cheese and then demanding that everyone around respond seriously to such a claim. You get very tired of it very fast.

* * * * *

Why is “polarisation” a stupid way to characterise the situation?

The process of social change always has early adopters. On equal rights for LGBT people, quite obviously the earliest adopters would be those whose lives have been directly affected by prejudice and discrimination, the LGBT people themselves. Soon, their friends, families and other fair-minded people too shift their positions to become, in the parlance of the survey, “gay-accepting”. Still, for a long while, early adopters remain a minority.

Change always has laggards too. Some among them are active resisters. This is true of the LGBT question as it was when women began to ask for the right to vote, or when Singapore began to shift from being a predominantly vernacular to a primarily English-speaking society. Social change brings in train a rebalancing of power relations. Some people will fear losing out.

What this means is that through the process, individuals in a society never move in lockstep with each other in their evolving views. They first spread out over a spectrum of views, and then gradually reconsolidate at a different opinion position.  Today, it is considered beyond consideration to speak of denying women the vote; everybody has clustered at one end of the opinion spectrum. But it was not always so.  There was a wide divergence of views during the process of change.

On the language question, the process isn’t over; the linguistic scene in Singapore is still spread out over a spectrum, but the trend for the past few decades has been towards wider usage of English. The centre of gravity is shifting.

pic_201309_30“Polarisation” is quite inappropriate as a description of the process. The word implies only two possible and opposing views, with people clustering around each pole, the same way iron filings are most strongly attracted to the two ends of a magnet bar. It is also inappropriate because the mental image the word dials up is a static one.

A better way to see social change is to think in terms of a moving wave, as represented by the animated gif below. It may be a long drawn-out process, taking perhaps two generations to move from a near-universal acceptance of the old ways to a near-universal acceptance of the new.  But through much of the process, the great bulk of people are somewhere in between, absorbing, adjusting and accommodating themselves to the future.

pic_201309_29_prog4If “polarisation” is such a bad metaphor, why does the government and its henchmen use it? Because they are not interested in being accurate. They are more interested in promoting their own agenda. “Polarisation” is useful to them because it implies discord, tension and antagonistic repelling. To most people other than those who see great creative value in contestation, these are bad things. To warn against polarisation is to tell people not hold strong opinions, better yet, to give up on their own views and adhere to “consensus” — another loaded, agenda-driven word.

Coupled with the incessant drumming of the claim that Singapore is a “conservative society” — no good evidence offered — bemoaning “polarisation” and tacitly lauding “consensus” can be read as a call to the pro-equality side to fold. At the same time, it casts those who hold strong views as trouble-makers. Taken together, the “polarisation” framing is not only insulting to one’s intelligence by being misleading, it is offensive to me personally for trying to negate my rights.

When the Straits Times buys in to this kind of framing and indicates through their line of questioning that the article will be similarly bounded, you know the newspaper is not about to give you a fair shake.

* * * * *

Nonetheless, I told the reporter the news point is not “polarisation”. The news point from the local survey, and from a more perceptive reading of world-wide trends, is that the high-water mark is either passing or has passed. Specifically, recent opinion surveys have found that a majority of Americans now believe that same-sex couples should be able to get married. And American churches are beginning to dial back on their anti-gay rhetoric. The Mormon Church, for example, chief fundraiser for the “Proposition 8” campaign against marriage equality in California in 2008, is quietly soul-searching today. Pope Francis, just a week or two ago, spoke out against Christians obsessing over gay rights. It doesn’t take much effort to find articles on the net drawing the conclusion that the rightwing side of the “culture war” is lost.

Since anti-gay campaigns in Singapore are inspired and stoked by US church groups, their retreat will surely be reflected in Singapore too before long.

This is not to say that it will be smooth sailing for gay equality from now on. Not at all. The high-water mark may be passing, but strong, tricky currents remain.  For example, winning the constitutional challenge against Section 377A of the Penal Code at the Court of Appeal is not assured. This leftover piece of legislation criminalises homosex between men, and casts a long shadow over all same-sex relationships and homosexual orientation generally. Oral arguments have been scheduled for 14 October 2013.


One thing I didn’t say to the journalist but which perhaps it is timely I do so now: I am beginning to see low-life in Singapore spewing anti-gay invective. I take it as a quite positive development. My theory is this: When louts start doing that, it is the endgame.

It’s like the smoking habit. At first it was associated with the upper classes, a sign of sophistication. But when truckers dangled cigarettes from their lips and streetwalkers puffed to look cool, you know tobacco’s appeal is kaput. Likewise, when the unintelligent adopt anti-gay postures and attitudes, the intelligent flee.

* * * * *

So, after that conversation with the reporter, how did her article come out? Guess what, I didn’t even bother to find out. I don’t subscribe anymore, and I had no interest in spending ninety cents buying a print version to satisfy my curiosity. For a simple reason: I was not in the least curious.

That says something about laggards too. In the end, they become irrelevant, like the last 0.1 percent who still believe that women should never have gotten the vote.

Of course, it remains within the realm of possibility that Singapore will choose to be a die-hard denialist of a state. We shall see when the constitutional challenge is decided.

Lee Kuan Yew, for all his faults, was at least perspicacious enough to see that irrelevance will be the price to pay if we choose to be resisters to the end. In an interview he gave to Reuters on 24 April 2007, to a question

“. . .  did we read this correctly — you saying that we should decriminalise it [Section 377A] eventually?”

his answer was

“. . . . if this is the way the world is going and Singapore is part of that interconnected world and I think it is, then I see no option for Singapore but to be part of it.”

It’s a prospect the Straits Times too should be concerned about — for its own sake. As its habit of framing every story the way the government wants it becomes indigestible to its readers, who then peel away, irrelevance emerges on the horizon.

24 Responses to “Holding hands, Straits Times and government walk into sinking sunset”

  1. 1 Rethink 30 September 2013 at 22:45

    The Singapore that navigated change quickly and had its eye on the pulse is dead. Say waht you like about LKY’s methods, but he knew what was going on in the world and how to make Singapore an economic success. Too often we buy into the ridiculous notion that Singapore has always been a conservative country. Nonsense. It was radical to make English the official language and get rid of dialects. To insist on female equality. To insist on racial equality. These were radical, progressive strokes.

    That sense of radicalism and social progress is dead. The old Singapore is dead. Now all we have is a country that feels like an old folks’ home, with grandmotherly nagging passing for public policy. This country is a lost cause.

    • 2 GE 2 October 2013 at 22:52

      You are right. In the past I felt the government was actually quite radical and it was the people who were dragging their feet. This is now reversed. The people are straining at the leash and the government is still wondering what’s going on.

  2. 3 Duh 1 October 2013 at 00:01

    You couldn’t really blame the journalist that interviewed you – if she did not follow the rubric provided by the PAP MP then her editors will reject her write-up and this would mean that all her efforts will be for naught. The problem is with the insertion of PAP lackeys into the positions of power in the Straits Times.

    The only option for her, if she had any integrity and ability, is to resign from SPH and be a journalist elsewhere where she could write something intelligent independently.

    Nothing will change until the tendrils of PAP’s insidious corruption into the various machinations of the nation be removed one by one.

    PS. I am surprised you tolerated ST for so long – I stopped my years ago.

  3. 4 Wiki 1 October 2013 at 00:14

    I just want to say that change is a constant. During the transition process, those resistors will harp on negatives like polarisation, advocate trust in the government and brand their view as one that belongs to the silent majority. But slowly and surely, the 60.1% will become the 39.9%. They can’t stop the inevitable from happening. CHANGE

  4. 5 alan tan 1 October 2013 at 01:58

    I stopped reading ST more then 10 years ago. After a couple of years, I decided that ST would have to pay me S$1 before I would read it, cause their main revenue are from selling ads and they needed eyeballs in order to sell the ads. 5 years later, I started to feel that it should cost them S$2. Now after reading your article, I feel that they should be paying me S$3 before I would read it.
    Now that I think of it, this is actually not such a silly intellectual exercise. ST have to advertise to promote their paper, and paying for the ads is similar to paying the readers to read it. The lesser the readers, the more money they will have to spend on ads to promote themselves.

  5. 7 yuen 1 October 2013 at 06:12

    ST is losing readership because of (a) news is freely available on the web (b) people read less and enjoy alternative pursuits; I dont think ideology is the reason (but maybe ST would do a survey on this too…)

    take your own example; I assume you have been annoyed with ST for years, but stopped subscribing only recently

    NYTimes, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post… ST is in good company; maybe there is a Jeff Bezos out there waiting to buy it…

  6. 8 Dewdrop Notes 1 October 2013 at 08:27

    I’m surprised that you tolerated the Straits Times for so long too. I stopped reading/paying for it since 1995 when they refused to publish my replies. However, I doubt they will die off so soon. Many people still trust and rely on them as a source of news. The “silent majority” is shrinking, but it’s still out there.

  7. 9 Chanel 1 October 2013 at 11:03

    A few years ago, Straits Times literally offered mini gold bars to attract people to subscribe. This was after various other prize offers failed to bring up circulation figures. What ST fails to realise is that quality news content is what attracts readers. Quality news in the sense that the newspaper should not read like a PAP/government newsletter, as it is now.

    ST has gone subliminal with its articles. Instead of outright promotion of government policies, it now engages in subtle brainwashing. Eg. using certain photos (eg. always of people crowding and smiling with PAP MPs), quoting “experts” who invariably support whatever the government is saying, highlighting certain events overseas to make a point about how “lucky” we are to have our government, etc.

  8. 10 Alan 1 October 2013 at 13:09

    Our National Library allows members to access certain foreign newspapers free-of-charge on its eResources portal but yet does not offer free access to our own national mouthpiece Shit Times except than Today ?

    There has to be a particular sinister reason why they doing it this way, agree ?

  9. 11 Blog.CripperZ.SG 1 October 2013 at 15:53

    ah wells… i never missed TNP or ST … coz they owned by SPH …decades of propaganda ….should now be trash away if we want to form a better society …. IMHO people complain too much partly was SPH fault through all the years of their propaganda.

  10. 12 georgia tong 1 October 2013 at 18:00

    Same here, used to be a regular reader of ST. Then reduced to few days a week…..to only on Sunday. Now totally non ST reader, unless nothing to do when at the CC waiting for class to start. Agree with Mr Au, reading ST gets my blood pressure up instead of being entertained.

  11. 13 Thor 1 October 2013 at 21:09

    I remember during the heat of elections that I made a comment regarding TNP that we should hit them where it hurts. I am glad to see that it has come to pass. Indeed, I suspect that the recent measures introduced for the Internet may very well be in anticipation of an organic entity like malaysiakini emerging which may very well replace MSM. It is very clear SPH is running scared. Look at how they flag STARs. It’s pathetic. In any case, ST has gotten even more lap dog under warren Fernandez. YW, the slashing of comics is even more stark in the daily version and they were more real than the rest of the paper. It’s interesting that a deal was struck between SPH and Yahoo regarding copyright infringements. I often see articles reproduced in ST from New York Times, Bloomberg or Huffington Post. I am curious if SPH merely attributes or pays these papers. Perhaps one of the intrepid Internet sleuths can do some digging into this. The proverbial shoe may very well be on the other foot!

    • 14 Thor 2 October 2013 at 05:18

      Another issue is some blurring of ethics with regard to adverts. Every sat, there is a section on autos, which is primarily designed to attract ads from the auto industry. Every few weeks, ST will also run a few articles on travel. Again you will see many travel agents advertising in those pages. Of course ST can do what it wants, but it seems that the intent is to draw revenue via ads rather than an organic article or issue which is explored journalistically. On another note, many schools purchase ST on Mon and hotels and airlines for their customers. Hence, actual circulation may be even less.

    • 15 whiffer 2 October 2013 at 06:35

      The foreign articles you see in ST are syndicated, meaning ST has to pay for them. ST is probably losing a lot of money, but it’s purpose is not to provide news, it is to provide propaganda, so the PAP looks at it as part of the internal security budget along with their internet trolls.

  12. 16 Rajiv Chaudhry 1 October 2013 at 23:09

    No need to shed tears for ST.

    In 2012 the SPH group made an operating profit of over $400m and net profit after taxes of over $365m, or over $1m per day for every single day of the year, after accounting for all expenses. Think of it – in the next 24 hours, and every succeeding day, SPH will make another million dollars, net of all costs.

    While print media in the rest of the world is struggling and hoary broadsheets such as The Washington Post changes hands, The Straits Times with a daily circulation of around 390,000 remains perhaps the most profitable newspaper in the world. Ah, the joys of monopolies!

    • 17 yawningbread 2 October 2013 at 00:56

      SPH is also a property company.

      Page 60 of Annual Report 2012 (http://www.sph.com.sg/pdf/annualreport/2012/SPH_AR2012_58.pdf) indicates that the newspaper business is declining while it’s their property business that is keeping them up.

      Revenue for the Group’s Newspaper and Magazine business:
      lower by 1.0% compared to FY 2011. Within this segment,

      (a) Print advertisement revenue declined 0.7%
      (b) Circulation revenue declined 2.1%

      Rental income for the Group grew 14.0%.

      Other businesses grew 12.8% (“increased contribution from the exhibitions business”)

      That said, page 193 (http://www.sph.com.sg/pdf/annualreport/2012/SPH_AR2012_101.pdf) (Segmental Information) reveals:

      Newspaper and magazine business produced 79% of group revenue and 76% of group PBT;
      Property business produced 15% of group revenue and 23% of PBT;
      Other businesses produced 6% of group revenue and made a loss of 6% PBT;
      with treasury operations producing an additional 7% of PBT.

      PBT for newspaper and magazine declined 8.3% between 2011 and 2012, when revenue dipped just 1.0%.

  13. 18 Richard Lee 2 October 2013 at 08:29

    Don’t worry. The Min. of Truth will have new life when the Min. of Love mandates everyone reads ST. MiniLuv is already buying into Orwell’s technology that allows them to check on you via your webcam.

    Hands up those of you who think I’m joking.

  14. 21 henry 2 October 2013 at 10:38

    ST( and its other languages) is the company circular
    Today is for adverts
    MyPaper is trying to be sort of bilingual media

    I like your reasoning about cigarettes and its allure ( originaly) to “high class” lifestyle.. yes, once bengs get into the act, its time to move out.

    There are very very well connected people within the government and civil society. They are the ones that dictate, influence the agenda, mostly within GLCs… and some non-GLCs too..

  15. 22 George 2 October 2013 at 10:51

    If we don’t read the news, the main losers are the govt and SPH.

  16. 23 peter long 2 October 2013 at 22:42

    Yes I don’t subscribe to the ST or the Sunday Times but buy a copy as and when I want to but I have always tried to get the Sunday Times because of the 2 page comic strips, Now there is only one page and where are those two delightful sharks and their undersea friends?
    Ah well, there is still Mr Chew.

  17. 24 Jake 4 October 2013 at 07:36

    Yeah. Missed Sherman’s a Lagoon and Get Fuzzy. Will get my fix online or buy printed compilations. Will also convince the missus to cancel subscription.

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