Climate control in the Singapore Press
- Commentary: An old article that is re-circulated in light of current
debate on ministerial salaries, illustrating how events and facts
are often manupulated and distorted by Singapore's government
controlled and propaganda ridden media.
Climate control in the Singapore Press
by Eric Ellis
The Australian, June 21, 2001
I'm sitting in the tiny office of Cheong Yip Seng, editor-in-chief of
Singapore's The Straits Times. And he's waxing lyrical about the
paper and its contribution to the tiny South-East Asian nation that
he's seen leap from Third World slum to First World wonder.
Cheong, 57, has been with the paper since 1963. He's proud of the
paper and its contribution to modern Singapore. And he's proud, too,
of the former intelligence operatives in his newsroom.
There's Chua Lee Hoong, the ST's most prominent political columnist.
She might be Singapore's Maureen Dowd, except The New York Times's
Dowd didn't work with the secret police for nine years. There's Irene
Ho on the foreign desk. She was also an "analyst" with Singapore's
intelligence services. So, says Cheong, was Susan Sim, his Jakarta
And there's Cheong's boss, Tjong Yik Min. From 1986 to 1993, Tjong
was Singapore's most senior secret policeman, running the much feared
Internal Security Department, a relic of colonial Britain's
insecurities about communism in its Asian empire. Now Tjong is a
media mogul, the executive president of SPH, Singapore's virtual
print media giant, which controls all but one of the country's
I ask the affable Cheong, as the "journalist's journalist" he says he
is, if he's comfortable having such people in powerful positions on
his editorial staff and, indeed, running the company. "Why not?" he
beams. "These guys have good analytical minds . . . they are all
What's wrong with this picture? For many Singaporeans, nothing. After
42 years of comfortable living in a near one-party state, and a
wealthy one at that, it's what you've come to expect.
Walls may not have ears in Singapore, but many locals aren't fully
convinced they don't. And so they've affected this curious
idiosyncrasy, which I call the Singapore Swivel.
I've seen it constantly in the two years I've been based here. It
happens when discussions graduate from small talk to opinions. The
interviewee goes "off-the-record", the voice lowers to a whisper, and
the head slowly turns left-right-left-centre, scanning the location,
checking who's within earshot. The Swivel speaks to the probably
unfounded suspicion that the "wired island" is monitoring your
Some Singaporeans talk of their country's "climate of fear", more
charitably described as a "contract" with their leaders: keep our
economy soaring and we won't challenge the restrictions imposed on
our civil liberties.
Step out of line in Singapore and you will be politely requested by
the regime to step back. Do it repeatedly and openly and be prepared
for the state machinery to crank into action against you, as it did
in 1987 against lawyer Teo Soh Lung and businessman Chew Kheng Chuan.
They were among the 22 Singaporeans detained, some beaten and
tortured, by Tjong's ISD for being suspected "Marxists" a charge
roundly denied and one from which even the Government has backed
Teo and Chew were held without trial for more than two years, often
in solitary confinement, in a cell their captors called the "Shangri-
La suite" in a sardonic tribute to Singapore's famous five-star
hotel. A slight, 51-year-old lawyer who keeps a poster of Martin
Luther King Jr on her office wall, Teo remembers Tjong as "Mr Beady
"He was a sneering character; he had very shifty eyes," she
recalls. "He never beat me himself . . . I disliked him intensely,
and I'm sure the feeling was mutual."
Independent Singapore's first Harvard College graduate, Chew, 43, has
a different sense of Tjong. He quite liked him. "I saw him probably
20 times during my detention," remembers Chew, now a successful
businessman and chairman of The Substation, one of Singapore's few
forums for alternative theatre. "He was always quite polite. Tjong
seemed to take a shine to me. I think he was intrigued by me, wanted
to know what made me tick.
"I think he was baffled by how someone who'd been to Harvard could
possibly be in this situation. I found him a lonely man, a somewhat
That Chew and Teo can talk openly about Tjong and their ISD
experiences shows how far Singapore has liberalised in recent years.
The Government says it is committed to openness and airing contrary
views. But the message seems to be taking its time to sink in at the
Take the way it dealt with a hot local topic recently ministerial
salaries. On June 29 last year, Singapore's Deputy Prime Minister,
Lee Hsien Loong (Lee Kuan Yew's eldest son) announced massive pay
rises for cabinet ministers. Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong's annual
salary would jump 14 per cent to $2.25 million, or $187,000 a month,
five times that of the US president.
On May 11, six weeks earlier, the independent Hong Kong-based think-
tank, the Political and Economic Risk Consultancy, released a survey
of expatriate businessmen on political leadership in Asia. The survey
ranked Singapore as Asia's most capable government. The findings were
carried by the major wire agencies on May 12, in Hong Kong by Agence
France-Presse and by the Reuters bureau in Singapore.
In Singapore the story didn't appear in the ST until June 26, when it
was splashed across the front page headlined "S'pore Govt rated top
in Asia". Three days later the Government announced the ministerial
pay increases. That same day, the ST carried another excerpt of the
same PERC report, headlined "PERC: Govt's economic policy makes the
From June 30 to July 7, as controversy raged in Singapore salons
about whether already well-rewarded ministers deserved their
increased salaries, the ST evoked PERC's rosy view of Singapore's
Government another four times.
Is it just a coincidence that a six-week-old report became front-page
news in Singapore just days before the Singapore Government justified
its massive pay rise?
"If you want to arrange the facts in that way, I suppose that you do
have a case," says editor-in-chief Cheong. "But I'm a newspaper and I
must accept information that is given to me and then I make a
judgment whether I want to use or not use it."
Other times news judgment can appear downright wacky. In early 1999,
Lee Kuan Yew wished to The Wall Street Journal that someone would
invent air-conditioned underwear because that way "everyone can
then work at his optimum temperature and civilisation can spread
across all climates".
A news editor on a mainstream Australian newspaper might hand the
item to a wry columnist. The medical writer might consult some
physicians as to whether the nation was in good hands. And the
science writer might ring boffins to see if boreal boxers were
Not at the ST, which ran it as a straight story on page one. A month
later, it published a 1455-word feature quoting local academics and
engineers hot for the idea with an illustration of how a "cold
suit" might work.
Lee is famously intelligent and while refrigerated undies are a
fantastic notion, anything's possible. The cooling Calvins inspired a
book The Air-Conditioned Nation, by former ST journalist Cherian
George, who views Singapore's success through the prism of air-
conditioning. He writes that Lee designed this air-conditioned
nation "first and foremost" for the comfort of its citizens,
believing they are more more interested in money than "high-minded
"Central control" is a feature of air-con, writes George,
and "comfort is achieved through control".
George could have added to that last line "and through people like
Tjong Yik Min". Tjong, 48, led the ISD though one of Singapore's most
paranoid periods, the attack on "Marxists". The following year he was
awarded a gold public administration medal for services to the state.
Tall and owlish, Tjong seems the quintessential behind-the-scenes
operator. Although one of Asia's most powerful people, there is not
one interview or feature published about him appearing on any media
database. His home number is unlisted and he ranks just a few lines
in Singapore's Who's Who listing his job at SPH.
Tjong rarely makes public appearances. Even those who have regular
contact with him know little of his family or personal life. It is
believed he is married with children, and enjoys karaoke.
"He has a very good mind, very sharp, very focused. He's not just a
blind loyalist and I think is a true believer in the Singapore
system," says a local TV personality who knows him. "He arrived at
that view after careful intellectual consideration."
Mention Tjong's name in Singapore and three things usually come up.
Paramount is that he ran the ISD during the 1987 blitz. Second, is
that he was a classmate of Lee Kuan Yew's son and prime ministerial
heir apparent Lee Hsien Loong. And third, is that he's of Indonesian-
In Singaporean terms, the first speaks to the wariness many
Singaporeans have of the ISD. Part CIA, part FBI, part Secret
Service, the ISD is the hammer the Singapore Government has engaged
to whack sometimes literally real or imagined threats to
The second reference speaks to Tjong's perceived influence with
Singapore's premier political family. Says James Minchin, author of
the Lee Kuan Yew biography No Man Is an Island, "The civil service is
full of people determined to do their master's bidding and Tjong
falls into that category."
The third reference is controversial in a country where race and
nationality can be politically charged. It alludes to his family
name, rendered in the style of Indonesian Chinese, generally regarded
as country cousins by Singapore's ethnic Chinese ruling elite.
But there's a fourth aspect to Tjong, which he again refused to
confirm or be questioned on. Several sources claim his older brother
was once suspected by Singaporean authorities of being a communist
one source even says he heard it directly from him, adding that the
brother was once "deported" to China in the 1970s.
The claim, which would be shocking in a nation that via loyal
functionaries such as Tjong has assiduously rooted out its suspected
communists, thickens the mystery surrounding Tjong. But in the
context of the region's painful post-colonial transition to
independence, the speculation simply speaks to the myriad struggles
of the era, within nations, and often families. As for Tjong, his
loyalty to Singapore is unquestioned. Media asked Tjong repeatedly
for an interview and for answers to a series of questions but he
declined. SPH spokesperson Liew Kim Siong says Tjong "prefers to keep
a low profile".
Tjong's official SPH profile says he left the civil service in 1995
to join SPH. On paper, that's correct. But a predecessor as
intelligence chief, and as media titan, Singapore's President S. R.
Nathan, provides a clue about how power flows in Singapore between
the public and private sectors.
A 1974 law gave the Government direct control over print media via
the introduction of so-called "management shares" of publishing
companies, which allowed the Government to select who could hold this
stock. This way the Government didn't need to nationalise the press
but could influence its board.
Editorial appointments could then be made by directors. A 1977
amendment prevented ownership of more than 3 per cent of a
newspaper's stock, which has had the effect of preventing
alternatives to the ST group.
The rationale to change the share structure was to ensure
that "undesirable foreign elements" weren't able to control
Singapore's press. Happily for Lee's Government, it also ensured a
largely compliant press.
The Washington-based Freedom House's 2001 measure of press freedom
a survey that wasn't reported in The Straits Times says Singapore
has one of the most restricted presses in the world, ranking
alongside Zimbabwe, Liberia and Iran.
In Singapore, there is no credible alternative to SPH. It publishes
nine daily newspapers across Singapore's four official languages.
The combined group circulation is more than 1 million some 25 per
cent of Singapore's population and by SPH's own numbers, its titles
are read by 4 million people every day.
The ST described by SPH a "one of the most respected newspapers in
the world" is the flagship, circulating 392,000 copies daily. It
even gives its name to Singapore's stock exchange index. Last year,
the company made $485 million, some 40 per cent of revenues, a profit
margin Aus- tralian publishers dream about.
SPH's only daily competition is an afternoon freesheet owned by the
government broadcaster. The domination that SPH has over Singapore's
print media is as if every paper in Australia, bar one, was owned by
the same company and the group president of that company formerly ran
Chua Lee Hoong, Singapore's most prominent political commentator, is
very open about the fact that she is a former ISD "analyst".
"It was on the [staffroom] noticeboard when I joined," she beams.
But her colleague in Jakarta, Susan Sim, is in a quandary and for
once it's not the arcane politics of arguably the ST's most sensitive
foreign posting that's got Jakarta-based Sim perplexed.
I asked Sim if it's true she's also ex-intelligence, as her editor-in-
chief Cheong maintains. But she seems deeply miffed, even mystified
at the notion.
Now I'm mystified. If intelligence services such as the ISD are
Singapore's "most valuable assets", as Lee Kuan Yew once described
it, how could that constitute a slur in Singapore? Surely as a good
Singaporean, she'd have a stronger case if I said she wasn't an ex-
spook if she actually was? I ask her to clear it up by confirming or
denying. I get no response.
But Chua is not coy. "I'm not ashamed about [being ex-ISD]."
Chua is a classic example of the system working for Singaporeans, and
Singaporeans paying it back. The Government sent her to Oxford
University for a degree in politics, philosophy and economics. Her
pro-government columns are perceived by analysts as insights into
official thinking. "Is the ST a government mouthpiece?" she asks,
then answers herself: "Yes . . . and no".
It's not China's People's Daily, Chua insists. "The key editors are
not government appointees or necessarily [the ruling] People's Action
Party members but they are loyalists in a general sense. It's true of
every major institution in Singapore."
Chua admits Singaporean journalists self-censor "they do
everywhere," she says but "editorial interference" is too strong a
term to describe the input of authorities. "It's much more subtle
than that. I would say we are sometimes, but not often these days,
reminded to be mindful of the boundaries."
Chua brings to her commentary "certain basic assumptions" about
Singapore's national interest. It so happens they often accord with
the Government and its over-arching demands of its people.
Part of the challenge, Chua says, of being a journalist and possibly
even being a Singaporean is testing boundaries that are "not clearly
defined" by the Government, "perhaps on purpose".
"It's part of our culture, part of our maturing as a nation."
That means little campaigning journalism and no established culture
of investigative reporting. An underground press is virtually non-
existent, in large part because of the Government's restrictive press
The system functions like a big corporation, designed to maximise
profit. The Government maintains an upbeat information department,
frequently holding press briefings lauding economic achievements but
rarely or publicly discusses substantive matters of policy and
"Government press control might shock one's liberal western mindset,
but this is now a well-entrenched part of national culture," says
Roland Rich, a former Australian ambassador to Laos and co-author of
the book Losing Control, which analyses press freedom across
Asia. "You get the government you deserve and in Singapore you also
get the press you deserve."
Commentary By: Mellanie Hewlitt
Source: Singapore Review
Date: 2 May 2003.
The headlines blared loudly in the 2 May 2003 issues of the Straits
Times and Business Times "Pay cut? Ministers ready to lead by example:
DPM", announcing to the entire world this selfless act of leadership by
Singapore's Ruling Elite.
In what appeared to be an initial move to reduce severely inflated
salaries, to more reasonable industry standards, Singapore's Ruling Elite
have bowed to public pressure and hinted at accepting a pay cut.
Or have they?
What exactly does "Leading By Example" mean? Lets try to put some substance
behind those brave words. As of last count, average take home pay of a
Singapore minister was well in excess of SGD100,000/- a month.
The below table puts things back in proper perspective:
(these are basic figures as of July 2000 and did not include last year's
pay hikes or other benefits. Otherwise the updated numbers may well be
Prime Minister's Basic Salary US$1,100,000 (SGD1,958,000) a year
Minister's Basic: US$655,530 to US$819,124 (SGD1,166,844 to
SGD1,458,040) a year
2. United States of America
Vice President: US$181,400
Cabinet Secretaries: US$157,000
3. United Kingdom
Prime Minister: US$170,556
Senior Civil Servants: US$262,438
Prime Minister: US$137,060
Deputy Prime Minister: US$111,439
5. Hong Kong
Chief Executive : US$416,615
Top Civil Servant: US$278,538
Financial Sec: US$315,077
Source: Asian Wall Street Journal July 10 2000
In relative terms, less then 20% of Singaporeans here have take home
salaries exceeding SGD100,000/- A YEAR.
In stark contrast, BASIC SALARY FOR A MINISTER STARTS AT
SGD1,166,844 A YEAR, OR JUST UNDER SGD100,000 A MONTH.
What these ministers earns in just ONE MONTH exceeds the ANNUAL TAKE HOME
salary of 80% of Singapore's income earning population. Lets not even begin
to compare annual packages which will exceed SGD1 million easily.
With the above numbers and figures now in perspective, it is easier to give
substance to the words "leading by example". Several facts are noteworthy
a) That the ministerial salaries are grossly out of proportion, even when
compared with their counterparts in much larger countries (US and UK) who
have far heavier responsibilities.
b) That these salary reductions were long overdue. In the past, such handsome
remuneration were "justified" on the back of resounding performance. However,
Singapore's economy has been in the doldrums of a recession for several years
now (with beginnings reaching as far back as the 1997 Asian economic crisis).
This economic barometer is a rough measure of performance and implies that
ministerial salaries were due for review at least 3-4 years ago.
c) That adjustments should be made to bring them back within the industry
benchmarks. Taking the salary of US vice president as a rule of thumb, the
percentage for reductions should start at 50% of current pay. Even if a
Singapore minister takes a 50% pay-cut, he would still be earning much more
then the US vice president.
d) The percentage reductions should greater then 50% if the intent is to bring
the salaries within the perspective of Singapore's domestic scene.
With such inflated figures, it is understandable why the local government
controlled media (Singapore Press Holdings) have taken pains to exclude
mention of actual numbers for the world to see. The numbers would be too
glaring and no amount of window dressing or creative writing could have
reconciled these numbers with a sane figure and restored credibility.
It is unlikely that Singapore's Ruling Elite will accept such huge salary
cuts. Exactly How much and when the ministerial pay-cuts takes effect is
not revealed. Ask any man on the street and 9 out of 10 responses indicate
many agree the current ministerial salaries are grossly inflated, especially
in these lean and difficult times.
Said a long time forumer from an internet political chat group:
"First of all the Ministers are NOT leading on pay cut. Workers' salaries
have been drastically reduced since the beginning of the recession while
thousands have been unemployed. so the Ministers are NOT LEADING. they are
only CATCHING UP. And they have several decades to catch up on."
"Secondly, how much of a pay cut will Ministers take? 10%? 20%? unless its
a cut that will affect their lifestyles, it is merely symbolic and they would
still not know what it feels like to be a normal worker. as such, this is not
Leading by Example. Its just another bogus political propaganda stunt"
A 29 yr old executive who requested to remain anonymous admitted
"The numbers (ministerial salaries) are a national embarrassment really,
because it reflects the underlying materialistic value systems of Singapore
Ministers. No matter how you look at it, the fact remains that our ministers
are money faced, and these are supposed to be Singapore's leaders, with value
systems that Singaporeans should follow."
"It (the ministerial salaries) puts Singapore in a bad light in the eyes of
the world. The rest of Singaporeans really put in an honest days work for every
penny they earn. And the process for review and approval of the ministerial
salaries is also a joke. Imagine sitting on the board and approving (on White
Paper)your own salary increments! Its all a wayang show".
This also raises the question as to the authenticity of the actual process
for review and approval of cabinet minister's salaries. Who decides on these
numbers? Is there independence and transparency?
Veteran opposition figure J.B. Jeyaretnam on Wednesday, Nov 20, 2002 challenged
Singapore government ministers to take a pay cut to show they understand the
economic hardships faced by the public. And the over-riding concern is that
Singapore's Ruling Elite are unable to appreciate the economic hardship that
the masses face in these tough times.
The growing public resentment comes afew months after PM Goh's careless
comments that "lay-offs were notall bad", drew a backlash from the public with
a flood of e-mails being sent to the foreign press to register public
Singapore Review welcomes honest feedback on this hotly debated topic.
You can Send your comments to the editor: Sg_Review@yahoogroups.com
By: Mellanie Hewlitt
Source: Singapore Review
Date: 9 April 2003
Some may have come across a recent article in the Straits Times
below) concerning the lack of ethics in South Korean civil servants.
problem is not confined to Korean State Administration.
Not too long ago, the term "minister" and "civil servant" conjured up
altruistic, self-sacrificial, nationalistic citizens who dedicated
to the betterment of the country. "Think not what the country can do
but what you can do for the country", so a wise man once said.
But Kennedy is no longer around, and how things have changed.
Today, at least within the limited context of Singapore's state
these same words have a hollow ring and these once noble aspirations
replaced by more monetary and materialistic considerations. Indeed,
has the dubious honour of having the world's most highly paid
There have been many reasons cited by the PAP to justify Singapore's
ministerial salary scales (which are massively out of proportion with
counterparts in the rest of the world). The most common reasons were;
a) That you needed these pay packages to attract the right talent;
b) The pay packages are justified on the basis of elite performance;
c) The packages would ensure there was no corruption within the
But on closer inspection, none of these assertions hold water.
What happens when the state implements a recruitment policy that
monetary remuneration above all other fundamentals. In all likely
there will be
a flock of hit-men and mercenaries sending in applications. The very
predators that should be avoided in the first place, to guard the
very flock of
sheep in need of protection.
In a perfect world, ministers and civil servants alike serve the
public and are
officers who look out for and protect public interest. Such public
callings require motivation based on moral and ethical values as it
same principles which will shape and mould the very fabric of society
public policy implementations for instance). To accord a monetary
base to this
would seriously erode and corrupt this once noble function.
Veteran opposition figure J.B. Jeyaretnam on Wednesday, Nov 20,
Singapore government ministers to take a pay cut to show they
economic hardships faced by the public. And the over-riding concern
Singapore's Ruling Elite are unable to appreciate the economic
the masses face in these tough times.
Just some weeks ago, blatant remarks by PM Goh that "Lay Offs were
raised many eyebrows, and lent support to the notion that leaders who
times the salary of the average Singaporean will be unable to fully
the far-reaching impact and effects their public policy will have on
average lay person, who takes home less then 10% of a minister's pay.
Apart from the above, Singapore's attempts to apply private sector
driven enterprise to the public sector has attracted much critisicm.
feasibility of the entire scheme is questionable. How is the
performance of a
minister or civil servant measured? One logical answer is on the
their policies perhaps, and on the financial performance of Singapore
Inc as a
whole. But Singapore Inc is in the throes of a long drawn recession,
and it is
public knowledge that Singapore's economic well being is subject
extraneous factors, which, by the admission of the ministers, are
beyond the control of the government. So wherein lies the
latest round of promotions (of junior ministers)? Perhaps only God
The other problem with the notion of pegging ministerial remuneration
performance is the yardstick to be used for measuring performance
assumption made here is that Singapore is akin to a MNC and its
be measured in dollars and cents, or at the very lest in absolute
This assumption is questionable since many areas of public policy
implementation are in "soft" "intangible" areas and the direct
results of such
policies cannot be measure in crude numbers. Some examples are health
defense, education and the arts etc. How do you quantify results in
industries. How do you reduce the love and joy of discovery of a
child to a
solitary figure? You can't. And you should not attempt this endeavor
will rob the joy of learning and discovery from the child.
In short it is an overly simplistic treatment of public service
result oriented approach (even when it is not in terms of profit and
cannot be applied to every aspect of state administration. There are
why certain functions remain forever in the hands of the state (and of
government). And that maybe because a free-market profit driven (or
driven) approach is simply inappropriate.
Attaching a monetary or numerical attribute to these
the risk or reducing the worth of a human being to mere dollars and
to a mere percentage or statistical figure.
An example of previous errors is in state intervention in the
process to boost falling birth rates. As one indignant writer to
Review puts it: "Am I to base my preference for love-making and
solely on the statistical fact that Singapore as a whole is not
itself? Is my child to be just a number? Of cause not! I (and my
child) will not be reduced to a mere census figure."
The bottom line is that honesty and integrity are trades that cannot
should not be) bought with money. RESPECT can also be added to this
intangibles which cannot be bought by money. It has to be earned.
And a leader who cannot live-up to standards that he sets for the
rest of his
people will be accorded little respect. A direct example is a leader
for the masses to take pay-cuts, be "less choosy" and work longer
less pay, when the same leader is unwilling to take a similar pay cut
It is so easy to set high standards within the comfortable refuge of
tower, but quite another matter to follow through and lead by
example. Few if
any of the current leaders have this conviction.
That same leader will be accorded even less respect if he is unable
his promises. Election promises which are still very recent in the
Finally, what about the notion that high salaries were required in
service to avoid rampant corruption amongst civil servants (Indonesia
most cited example here). Well, would you also be paying the
thieves and crooks a "salary" to reduce crime rate? Nonetheless the
legitimized corruptions is an interesting one which bares further
in future issues of Singapore Review.
Opposition Politician Challenges Ministers to Take Pay Cuts
22 November 2002
Veteran opposition figure J.B. Jeyaretnam on Wednesday, Nov 20,
Singapore government ministers to take a pay cut to show they
economic hardships faced by the public.
"Will it be too much to hope, with the news that the recession is
deeper, that the ministers will at last take a cut in their salaries
empathise with the thousands of workers who have lost their jobs or
have had to
take wage cuts," Jeyaretnam said in a statement.
"Ministers do not have to take wage cuts to keep their jobs whereas
urged to take wage cuts just to keep earning," he said.
Jeyaretnam, a thorn in the side of the government when an opposition
forced to quit his parliamentary seat last year when declared
he could not meet mounting debts resulting from losing defamation
by ruling party stalwarts.
However, he has continued his criticism of government policies from
sidelines as the export-oriented Southeast Asian republic went into
Although there were signs of a recovery in the middle of the year,
again faltering amid sluggishness in the global economy.
On Tuesday, the national wage body recommended that wages be frozen
or cut to
save jobs and help companies cope with the slowdown.
Earlier this week, the government trimmed its 2002 growth forecast to
percent from 3.0-4.0 percent after releasing fresh data showing
Amidst these bleak conditions, the government has maintained a stiff
in maintaining (and increasing) remunerations to what are some of the
highets paid civil servants and ministers.