NKF vs THE STRAITS TIMES
One could not have planned a better birthday present for The Straits Times as it celebrated its 160th anniversary last week. Mr T. T. Durai’s libel suit against the national newspaper not only gave it reams of readable copy, but also provided the opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to the public.
This was the principle that was at stake last week – the legitimate role of a newspaper to raise issues of public interest. The outcome of the lawsuit was a victory for ST because it upheld this principle, and not because it brought down NKF’s chief executive. True, the case metamorphosed from being “NKF vs SPH” to “the People vs T T Durai”, as a headline in the Sunday Times put it. And, now, the main work to be done is focused on rehabilitating NKF and the re-examining the supervision of charities.
This makes it harder to remember that, based on available evidence, ST did not set out to bring down Mr Durai or the NKF board. It was reporting and analyzing an on-going controversy that originated with observers outside of the press. Its editors probably assessed that the criticisms were credible enough to investigate, but there is no evidence to suggest – as Mr Durai tried to do in his failed lawsuit – that ST was maliciously targeting the organization or campaigning to bring it down.
It was merely asking questions – questions that were uncomfortable for the newsmaker, but necessary for the public.
The ST has gained some goodwill from a large segment of Singaporeans for this. However, the positive reaction is double-edged, for it comes with high expectations. If only the local press could be as independent in covering government institutions, said one friend in an SMS.
So, what could ST possibly deliver for a sequel? Here’s where we need a reality check: every great hero needs an anti-hero, and the paper will not easily find a new co-star to take over the role of the imperious newsmaker, shielding himself from the public’s need to know, until finally exposed by the probing searchlight of publicity. Without a Lex Luthor, ST will go back to being boring Clark Kent, reporter, a shadow of the Superman that amazed Singapore last week.
At one level, this is good news. Mr Durai and his board do not appear to typify corporate governance in Singapore. Government agencies, which use the bulk of public funds and affect every aspect of Singaporeans’ lives, are supervised too well to generate a regular supply of scandal.
However, in the spirit of planning for worst-case scenarios, we should contemplate what would happen if an arm of government were suspected of betraying the public trust. The bad news is that Singapore’s press system is not designed to probe and uncover official misdeeds, a job that is instead left – thus far quite reliably – to internal policing.
Whether press is allowed a greater watchdog role depends on how the government chooses to balance two conflicting priorities.
First, transparency, which contributes to Singapore’s exceptional record of corruption-free government, and which could be enhanced by allowing the press to operate fearlessly as an external check.
Second, the ruling party’s desire to provide decisive leadership by claiming supreme power to set the national agenda, which would be compromised by a press that behaves as if it is the moral equal of an elected government.
Two priorities, with opposing implications for how the press is to be managed.
As the government remains confident of its ability to keep itself clean, its main message to the media has focused on the follies of the liberal model and the need to respect the government’s authority.
In a season of slaughter of sacred cows, this is one prize bull that remains protected behind an electric fence. The government will not allow journalists to engage it as an equal party. Therefore, any reader who expects ST to do a Durai on the government would be harbouring quite unrealistic expectations.
Still, between the extremes of a propaganda mouthpiece and an adversarial press – neither of which the government wants – there should be space for ST to play a more active role as part of Singapore’s transparency system.
There may be merit in the principle that elected officials need to be able to carry out their mandate without excessive obstruction by an unelected institutions. However, there is always a risk that this principle is translated by officials on the ground into self-serving secrecy and we-know-best condescension when they deal with reporters.
The NKF case was instructive. No matter how worthy an institution’s mission, it is dangerous for individuals in charge to equate themselves with the institution. Observing the NKF case, there is little doubt that the organization would have been better off in the long run if its chief had been able to distinguish between his individual stature and his institution’s reputation. Personal ego and private interest can block healthy scrutiny that is good both for the institution and for the public at large.
The PAP’s argument has been that it will be hard to induct able people into public service if they are treated as roughly as officials elsewhere, and that, besides, respect for people in authority is part of our Asian culture. However, if officials are too thin-skinned, poor judgment and policy errors may be left unexamined and uncorrected for longer than they should.
If the national press is to take on a heavier burden in Singapore’s transparency system, the experience of other countries also warns us to be wary of the press becoming too powerful. The government has nothing to worry about, since press laws are overwhelmingly in favour of the state. However, private organizations and individuals do need to be assured that they will not be victims of journalistic excess, backed by one of Singapore’s most powerful corporations.
The ST has tried to demonstrate that it acted responsibly and not recklessly in methodically investigating the NKF story last year, and that its reporting of the lawsuit and its fallout has been vindictive. Such assurances will continue to be necessary if indeed ST plays a greater investigative role.
Other countries have mechanisms such as press councils, ombudsmen and right of reply to protect the public against irresponsible journalism. None of these can be 100 percent effective, but they certainly help to increase the media’s level of accountability to citizens.
Such is the way forward, if Singapore is to draw lessons from the NKF case for the role of the press. Most Singaporeans would probably feel more at ease if they knew that the press was on their side, probing possible misdeeds of public institutions, asking tough questions, and keeping important issues on the agenda. The Singapore press has always done some of this, within limits tightly circumscribed by the government.
Through the NKF affair, Singaporeans were shown what public affairs would be like if those limits on the press were not so constraining. The spectacle would have alarmed anyone with something to hide, but should be welcomed by healthy public institutions that recognise greater transparency as part of the formula for continued good government.
NOTE: The Straits Times declined to publish this piece.