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When the puppet speaks to the master

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  • Robert HO
    *Yawning Bread. July 2006* When the puppet speaks to the master ... I am sure most people who read the 14 July 2006 edition of the Straits Times took due note
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 16 12:50 AM
      Yawning Bread. July 2006

      When the puppet speaks to the master


          

       

       

      I am sure most people who read the 14 July 2006 edition of the Straits Times took due note of the story in the Review section, titled, "Where are the political cartoons today?" In the light of the Mr Brown affair  (see The inutility of speaking truth unto power), it's impossible to miss the significance of not just a story like that, but a headline like that too.

       

       
       
      First, however, let me summarise the news report.

      It featured Lim Cheng Tju, a history teacher and evidently a history sleuth too, whose particular interest was in assembling a history of political cartoons of the mid 20th century.

      He had met and interviewed about 10 other local political cartoonists and woodcut artists of the 1950s and 1960s, who used their pen -- or chisel -- to depict the anti-colonial or anti-Japanese mood of their times, the Straits Times reported.

      "I want to give them a voice," Lim said. "They are important because they are also part of the Singapore story. But like many others, they are forgotten because history tends to focus on big men."

      This is his way of layering the Singapore story, the newspaper reported Lim saying.

      He had done his master's thesis on political cartoons published in local Chinese-language newspapers from 1907 to 1980, and has since gone on to become an authority on the cartoons and prints of the turbulent 1950s and 1960s. He is organising an exhibition scheduled for October this year, at the National Library.

      Mr Lim wants younger Singaporeans to see such work and realise that 'our history is not just independence, merger and separation, introduction of National Service...

      'There were many other histories - history of theatre, pop music, political cartoons.'

      It is not that he has a problem with a dominant narrative of Singapore's political past, he says.

      'That happens in every nation. It's to be expected of any political party in power.

      'What's important is that there is space for different people to engage with that dominant narrative. And that space is there. My sense is it has grown in the past 10 years.'

      -- The Straits Times, 14 July 2006, 
      'Where are the political cartoons today?'

       
      The last 3 paragraphs of the story became even more pointed. In the 1950s and early 1960s, politicians such as Singapore's first chief minister David Marshall were caricatured in the press, the Straits Times said. (From the context, the source would have been Lim).

      And then it said,

      And a Straits Times cartoon dated June 6, 1959, shows the first Cabinet and People's Action Party's old guard, including Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Dr Goh Keng Swee and Mr S. Rajaratnam depicted as footballers standing in front of the goal posts, aiming for 'national language', 'equality' and 'stronger unions'.

      Says Mr Lim 'We don't really see that these days. But maybe it is okay to laugh at ourselves. We did that in the past.'

      -- The Straits Times, 14 July 2006, 
      'Where are the political cartoons today?'

      * * * * *

       
      Singaporeans need to acquire skill in reading between the lines. It is indispensable in totalitarian states with party-controlled newspapers. Although Singapore isn't totalitarian, in many ways, the authoritarianism here does go quite far, so the skill is still good to have.

      In the Soviet Union, in China and Vietnam still, political debate is not allowed to take place in the open. It's a subject reserved to the higher-ups in the party echelons, who then use the media to communicate their decisions down to the "liberated" masses.

      But when there is no consensus among the political elite, then these same party organs are used to try to influence the debate. Normally, it's the second- or third-tier political elite who run the media on a day-to-day basis, and if their views differ from the top-tier elite, the pages and airwaves are their way of lobbing their opinion upwards.

      Naturally, these opinion pieces or news stories are couched in oblique, non-threatening language, and quite often it tends to be allegorical rather than direct. Referring to a historical event that bears some relevance to the present is one way of commenting on the present.

      What this means, and it's always worth noting, is that the story is not meant for the "masses". Its intended audience is the top tier.

      * * * * *

       
      This Straits Times story may -- I stress, may -- be an example of this. It certainly has some of the hallmarks.

      The headline is almost uncalled for, if one were to stick closely to the substance of the story. For example, it could have been "Researcher unearths woodcut history" or "Old cartoons add fresh layers to Singapore history". But no, the editors chose "Where are the political cartoons today?"

      The Straits Times chose to keep in the story Lim's disparaging comments about the dominant narrative. "'Our history is not just independence, merger and separation, introduction of National Service..." the Straits Times quoted him as saying.

      Not least, the specific mention that Lee Kuan Yew had once been a subject of political cartoons.

      Yawning Bread has been interviewed by journalists before, and I know that typically, only 10% or less of what one says is reported. There is a great deal of selectivity in the editorial process. Hence, what we read Lim saying is not just what he said, but also what the newspaper would want readers to know he said.

      On the one hand, you could say the Straits Times was just being aware of the currency of the subject of political satire, and thus shaped the article to catch the wind, so to speak. But that would be to say that the editors had complete freedom to choose stories and slants to suit their public.

      We know for sure that they do not. The very fact that Today newspaper discontinued Mr Brown's column proves it. So the Straits Times must know it was tapping on OB markers [1],  to say the least, by moulding the story into the way it became. But why would it take such a  risk?

      * * * * *

       
      Many people believe that the Straits Times is a hand puppet of the government. It's surely a lot more complex than that. After all, the journalists who gave Lee Kuan Yew a hard time in the one-hour TV broadcast in April this year, worked for the mainstream media too. The editors above them may be less outspoken, but they are not necessarily as spineless as hand puppets made of felt.

      They must be aware, as Cherian George said in his recent blog commentary [2], that the biggest losers from the Mr Brown saga will be the mainstream media, i.e. themselves. It is likely that Singaporeans will increasingly rely on the boisterous internet for news and opinion, an arena which the government has still not found a way to control. Yet the principle established by the MICA minister's comments on this affair (see sidebar at right)  is that the internet is free but the mainstream media must remain "part of the nation-building effort". This can only mean that there will be a handicap for the mainstream media in competing for the respect and loyalty of the reading public.

      If you're a senior editor who cares about the long-term health of the newspaper and Singapore's politics generally, this can't be a sensible position to be in. You must find a way to tell the top tier of the political elite so.

      © Yawning Bread 


       

       

       

       

      On 12 July 2006, Minister for Information, Communication and the Arts, Lee Boon Yang, said to ChannelNewsAsia reporters,

      "I said that we will look at how we can have a lighter touch in regulating the internet during the elections. Er... Mr Brown's comment was not posted on his blog. If he had posted the same comment on his blog, we would treat it as part of the internet chatter and we will have just let it be. But he posted it --  he didn't post it -- he wrote it and published it in a mainstream newspaper. That's the difference. In a mainstream newspaper, you have to be objective, you have to be accurate, you have to be responsible for your views, and that's always been my position, or the position of this government: that a mainstream newspaper must report, you know, accurately, objectively and responsibly. And that they must adopt this model that they are a part of the nation-building effort, you see, rather than go out and purvey views that will mislead people, confuse people, which will undermine our national strategy."

      Pretty chilling words, I would think.

      (Thanks to Singabloodypore for archiving a videoclip)

       

      Footnotes

      1. "OB markers" is a term used in Singapore to indicate the boundaries beyond which discussion will bring the wrath of the government down on the speaker (and/or messenger).
        Return to where you left off

      2. See When bloggers enter MSM, part 3
        Return to where you left off

      Addenda

      None

       

      Yawning Bread. July 2006

      When the puppet speaks to the master


          

       

       

      I am sure most people who read the 14 July 2006 edition of the Straits Times took due note of the story in the Review section, titled, "Where are the political cartoons today?" In the light of the Mr Brown affair  (see The inutility of speaking truth unto power), it's impossible to miss the significance of not just a story like that, but a headline like that too.

       

       
       
      First, however, let me summarise the news report.

      It featured Lim Cheng Tju, a history teacher and evidently a history sleuth too, whose particular interest was in assembling a history of political cartoons of the mid 20th century.

      He had met and interviewed about 10 other local political cartoonists and woodcut artists of the 1950s and 1960s, who used their pen -- or chisel -- to depict the anti-colonial or anti-Japanese mood of their times, the Straits Times reported.

      "I want to give them a voice," Lim said. "They are important because they are also part of the Singapore story. But like many others, they are forgotten because history tends to focus on big men."

      This is his way of layering the Singapore story, the newspaper reported Lim saying.

      He had done his master's thesis on political cartoons published in local Chinese-language newspapers from 1907 to 1980, and has since gone on to become an authority on the cartoons and prints of the turbulent 1950s and 1960s. He is organising an exhibition scheduled for October this year, at the National Library.

      Mr Lim wants younger Singaporeans to see such work and realise that 'our history is not just independence, merger and separation, introduction of National Service...

      'There were many other histories - history of theatre, pop music, political cartoons.'

      It is not that he has a problem with a dominant narrative of Singapore's political past, he says.

      'That happens in every nation. It's to be expected of any political party in power.

      'What's important is that there is space for different people to engage with that dominant narrative. And that space is there. My sense is it has grown in the past 10 years.'

      -- The Straits Times, 14 July 2006, 
      'Where are the political cartoons today?'

       
      The last 3 paragraphs of the story became even more pointed. In the 1950s and early 1960s, politicians such as Singapore's first chief minister David Marshall were caricatured in the press, the Straits Times said. (From the context, the source would have been Lim).

      And then it said,

      And a Straits Times cartoon dated June 6, 1959, shows the first Cabinet and People's Action Party's old guard, including Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Dr Goh Keng Swee and Mr S. Rajaratnam depicted as footballers standing in front of the goal posts, aiming for 'national language', 'equality' and 'stronger unions'.

      Says Mr Lim 'We don't really see that these days. But maybe it is okay to laugh at ourselves. We did that in the past.'

      -- The Straits Times, 14 July 2006, 
      'Where are the political cartoons today?'

      * * * * *

       
      Singaporeans need to acquire skill in reading between the lines. It is indispensable in totalitarian states with party-controlled newspapers. Although Singapore isn't totalitarian, in many ways, the authoritarianism here does go quite far, so the skill is still good to have.

      In the Soviet Union, in China and Vietnam still, political debate is not allowed to take place in the open. It's a subject reserved to the higher-ups in the party echelons, who then use the media to communicate their decisions down to the "liberated" masses.

      But when there is no consensus among the political elite, then these same party organs are used to try to influence the debate. Normally, it's the second- or third-tier political elite who run the media on a day-to-day basis, and if their views differ from the top-tier elite, the pages and airwaves are their way of lobbing their opinion upwards.

      Naturally, these opinion pieces or news stories are couched in oblique, non-threatening language, and quite often it tends to be allegorical rather than direct. Referring to a historical event that bears some relevance to the present is one way of commenting on the present.

      What this means, and it's always worth noting, is that the story is not meant for the "masses". Its intended audience is the top tier.

      * * * * *

       
      This Straits Times story may -- I stress, may -- be an example of this. It certainly has some of the hallmarks.

      The headline is almost uncalled for, if one were to stick closely to the substance of the story. For example, it could have been "Researcher unearths woodcut history" or "Old cartoons add fresh layers to Singapore history". But no, the editors chose "Where are the political cartoons today?"

      The Straits Times chose to keep in the story Lim's disparaging comments about the dominant narrative. "'Our history is not just independence, merger and separation, introduction of National Service..." the Straits Times quoted him as saying.

      Not least, the specific mention that Lee Kuan Yew had once been a subject of political cartoons.

      Yawning Bread has been interviewed by journalists before, and I know that typically, only 10% or less of what one says is reported. There is a great deal of selectivity in the editorial process. Hence, what we read Lim saying is not just what he said, but also what the newspaper would want readers to know he said.

      On the one hand, you could say the Straits Times was just being aware of the currency of the subject of political satire, and thus shaped the article to catch the wind, so to speak. But that would be to say that the editors had complete freedom to choose stories and slants to suit their public.

      We know for sure that they do not. The very fact that Today newspaper discontinued Mr Brown's column proves it. So the Straits Times must know it was tapping on OB markers [1],  to say the least, by moulding the story into the way it became. But why would it take such a  risk?

      * * * * *

       
      Many people believe that the Straits Times is a hand puppet of the government. It's surely a lot more complex than that. After all, the journalists who gave Lee Kuan Yew a hard time in the one-hour TV broadcast in April this year, worked for the mainstream media too. The editors above them may be less outspoken, but they are not necessarily as spineless as hand puppets made of felt.

      They must be aware, as Cherian George said in his recent blog commentary [2], that the biggest losers from the Mr Brown saga will be the mainstream media, i.e. themselves. It is likely that Singaporeans will increasingly rely on the boisterous internet for news and opinion, an arena which the government has still not found a way to control. Yet the principle established by the MICA minister's comments on this affair (see sidebar at right)  is that the internet is free but the mainstream media must remain "part of the nation-building effort". This can only mean that there will be a handicap for the mainstream media in competing for the respect and loyalty of the reading public.

      If you're a senior editor who cares about the long-term health of the newspaper and Singapore's politics generally, this can't be a sensible position to be in. You must find a way to tell the top tier of the political elite so.

      © Yawning Bread 


       

       

       

       

      On 12 July 2006, Minister for Information, Communication and the Arts, Lee Boon Yang, said to ChannelNewsAsia reporters,

      "I said that we will look at how we can have a lighter touch in regulating the internet during the elections. Er... Mr Brown's comment was not posted on his blog. If he had posted the same comment on his blog, we would treat it as part of the internet chatter and we will have just let it be. But he posted it --  he didn't post it -- he wrote it and published it in a mainstream newspaper. That's the difference. In a mainstream newspaper, you have to be objective, you have to be accurate, you have to be responsible for your views, and that's always been my position, or the position of this government: that a mainstream newspaper must report, you know, accurately, objectively and responsibly. And that they must adopt this model that they are a part of the nation-building effort, you see, rather than go out and purvey views that will mislead people, confuse people, which will undermine our national strategy."

      Pretty chilling words, I would think.

      (Thanks to Singabloodypore for archiving a videoclip)

       

      Footnotes

      1. "OB markers" is a term used in Singapore to indicate the boundaries beyond which discussion will bring the wrath of the government down on the speaker (and/or messenger).
        Return to where you left off

      2. See When bloggers enter MSM, part 3
        Return to where you left off

      Addenda

      None

       

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