Friday, July 29, 2005

The Straits Times: From Reporting To Advocacy

I have always said that The Straits Times, as the grandmother of newspapers in Singapore, has a role beyond just reporting the news. It has a secondary role as a national newspaper: to champion the plight of the helpless, the needy, the minorities, the victims of unjust deeds or - to put it simply - the underdog.

This role of advocacy is increasingly more important in Singapore today, as the recent National Kidney Foundation fiasco has shown. The questions and issues that The Straits Times raised in its pages were crucial in serving a public desire for accountability and transparency. (And I am glad that the Media Development Authority did not halt this process using its wide regulatory powers.)

It cannot be denied that the question and issues raised by The Straits Times were long overdue.

I am sure that The Straits Times did not have it easy, especially since, in doing so, it quite obviously ruffled some feathers powerful enough to drag it to Court.

And it is my hope that The Straits Times will not be intimidated and continue to raise such questions and issues in other contexts. The Media Development Authority should also encourage other local media to do the same.

For example, it is time societies, cooperative societies and companies, whether linked to the Government or otherwise, begin disclosing the salaries of their key officers. Likewise, the Government should also disclose the salaries earned by key officers in the various ministries, statutory bodies and other Government offices.

Nevertheless, in pursuing such a course of action, The Straits Times (and other media) should bear in mind that advocacy does have an ugly side, which can have the effect of sensationalising or exaggerating an issue, and thereby steer public sentiment in a particular direction.

Some of my fellow Singaporeans feel that, in reporting the NKF fiasco, The Straits Times may have inadvertently taken too aggressive an editorial stance.

Arguably, this has in turn caused the strong outpouring of public sentiment not just in words but in deeds.

It is also unfortunate that the brunt of the sentiment has been focused on one person: the former Chief Executive Officer of the NKF, T T Durai. His family - as is evidenced by a strong e-mail that Mr Durai's daughter wrote to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong - has also suffered. How could the public have so quickly forgotten the key contributions that Mr Durai made to our healthcare system?

To a certain extent, this shows the great steering power that lies in media advocacy. Advocacy by the media can only be effective if it is utilised responsibly. If not, we risk going down a slippery slope, which is likely to see us fall and leave us badly bruised.

The NKF fiasco amply highlights the relevance of media advocacy. The important work of The Straits Times has only just begun. And as The Straits Times begins to unearth more such lesser known realities, I hope it will use its great steering power in a constructive manner.

There is wisdom in the words of Health Minister Khaw Boon Wan, which he shared in Parliament on 21 July 2005. He said, "I scanned through the local media today. I could not help noticing the different spin The Straits Times put to the MPs' speeches yesterday, compared to all the other local media, like Today and ZaoBao. Let us hope arrogance has not also gone to the head of the victor in the Court case."

Dharmendra Yadav

Please consider the environment - do you really need to print this?