February 2004

Here's hoping Today doesn't become yesterday


Olive flick One has to be careful how much credence to give to bulletin board “news”. The story making the rounds this week about a management shake-out in the newsroom of ‘Today’ is probably exaggerated. The only thing that I know is definitely correct is that Rahul Pathak has quit as Deputy Editor.

However, it reminded me of a slightly older story, dating from November 2003, which, given the  passage of time and corroborating accounts, is in my opinion, largely accurate.

This one was about how the Senior Minister thrashed the news team of ‘Today’ for a report they made of one of his speeches. 

At this point, I suggest you read the various boxed articles, to fill in the details.

As you can see from Exhibit 1, Today wrote a story about the Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew disparaging the UK health system.

But Exhibit 2, detailing the correction issued by the Senior Minister’s Office, indicates clearly where the offending point was - it had to do with the phone call made to No. 10 Downing Street hoping for some intervention to move Mrs Lee up the queue for a brain scan (I mentioned this in my article Adding Value).

Exhibits 3 and 4 must be read with caution, being internet postings, although Exhibit 3 does explain its source.

Exhibit 1

3 Nov 2003
'Today' newspaper

by Val Chua

Emotions ran high on a balmy Sunday night as the normally stoic Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew nearly broke down while recounting the ordeal his wife went through in London recently.

The troubles that the couple faced - including joining a queue in a free hospital - when Mrs Lee was hit by stroke two Sundays ago, revealed how differently two systems worked.

"I cannot tell you how restless and unhappy we felt," he said at a community event in Jalan Bukit Merah yesterday.

"We run a (healthcare) system where you have to co-pay ... but you get the attention. There, no attention, just join the queue," he said grimly.

The first sign of trouble was that there was no private hospital with CT scan facility at night in London, he told residents and community leaders.

So, Mrs Lee had to go to the NHS hospital nearest to the Four Seasons Hotel where they were staying - a free facility called the Royal London Hospital - and join the queue.

"We waited 45 minutes for the ambulance for a 10-minute drive," said Mr Lee in his first public appearance since the couple returned on Friday.

"In Singapore, within half-an-hour, you would be in SGH (Singapore General Hospital), TTSH (Tan Tock Seng Hospital) ... and within one-and-a-half to two hours flat, you'd know what went wrong."

When Mrs Lee reached The Royal London Hospital at 12.30am, it happened to have three cardiac arrest patients.

Mr Lee was told his wife's brain problem was "not as important" as the cardiac arrest cases, he recounted solemnly. She would have had to wait till 8am the next morning for her CT brain scan if 10 Downing Street had not intervened to get her early attention. High Commissioner Michael Teo had sought help from 10 Downing Street at 2am on Sunday and she received treatment at 3.30am on the night itself.

"Once upon a time, it was a wonderful hospital. But after 40 plus years ... the system cannot deliver. There's no connection between those in the system and the patients," he said.

But it's the way free healthcare systems work, he added, noting that Singapore must not go down that path, even though there are calls for free C class wards in public hospitals here.

"It's how the system works ... They did not discriminate against us," he noted of his London experience.

This contrasted sharply with how quickly Singaporeans - including national carrier Singapore Airlines - reacted to the situation.

Even though doctors initially advised that Mrs Lee stay put in London for three weeks, Mr Lee decided fly her back once her condition stabilised.

And then there was the big worry that she would get a spasm onboard, he recounted.

But he needn't have worried. Within 48 hours, SIA had fitted out SQ321 with medical support of oxygen tanks and other fixtures for a drip.

"No other airline would have done this," Mr Lee said, looking visibly touched.

On board were also two Intensive Care nurses from Changi General Hospital, two doctors, as well as officials from SIA who made sure all the equipment worked.

"Everyone knows his job," said Mr Lee. "Within 12 to 13 hours, we'd reached Changi Airport. It was a big relief," he said. "Twelve to 13 hours. Your heart stops beating sometimes. We landed at Changi Airport. Great relief. I had my granddaughter (Li Xiuqi) with me. She is very fond of her grandmother. She was so relieved."

Mrs Lee was whisked off in an ambulance to Singapore General Hospital, where she is recovering.

"I think this experience has changed my granddaughter's view of Singapore," Mr Lee said.

The overseas ordeal has made him even more assured that Singapore has what it takes to succeed, despite the downturn. "It's how we respond in an emergency that determines how we fight back. And I have enormous confidence that we can fight back."

The Singapore system - with its efficiency and fighting spirit - must be kept, he said.

"You slacken, you choose the easy way, and you'd be finished," he said.

Choking back tears, he added: "I have immense confidence that in an emergency, our people respond ... If we can do that, we can succeed."


Exhibit 2

4 Nov 2003
Agence-France Presse

Singapore's Senior Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, admitted Wednesday he was mistaken to claim that British Prime Minister Tony Blair's office intervened to ensure his wife got quick treatment at a London hospital.

The elderly Lee caused a mini furore when he told a public gathering here at the weekend that 10 Downing St helped ensure his wife was given a brain scan four and a half hours earlier than doctors had initially said they could.

Mrs Lee Kuan Yew, 82, was taken to the state-run Royal London Hospital at 12:30 am on Sunday October 27 after she suffered a stroke while the couple were travelling on official business.

Lee, 80, initially said Singapore High Commissioner Michael Teo had called 10 Downing Street at 2:00 am and asked them to help ensure Mrs Lee was given the CT scan more quickly.

"Because of 10 Downing Street, the CT scan was done at 3:30 am. And then the blood clot could be seen clearly," Lee told the weekend community event, adding the incident highlighted the problems of Britain's free health care system.

But after the Royal London Hospital denied on Tuesday it ever gave preferential treatment to anyone and his comments made front-page headlines in Britain, Lee's office issued a short statement clarifying his comments.

"Mr Lee Kuan Yew regrets he was mistaken that 10 Downing Street had anything to do with his wife getting a CT scan at 3:30 am," the statement said.

"Earlier, at 2:00 am, he was told that it would be done at 8:00 am because they had cardiac patients to attend to.

"The hospital authorities may have decided on their own that they could do the scan for Mrs Lee earlier and she was scanned at 3:00 am, completing it at 3:30 am."

The Royal London Hospital is part of Britain's huge state-run National Health Service, which guarantees free health care to all but suffers long waiting lists, excessive red tape and a shortage of doctors and nurses.

Lee's weekend comments that were critical of Britain's health care system compared with Singapore's part user-pays method also caused controversy.

"We run a system where you have to co-pay... but you get the attention. There, no attention, just join the queue," local media reported Lee as saying.

He described The Royal London Hospital as a "wonderful hospital" a long time ago.

"But after 40 plus years... the system cannot deliver. There's no connection between those in the system and the patients."

Lee also praised Singapore Airlines for fitting out a plane with two intenstive care nurses, two doctors, oxygen and a drip to bring his wife back to Singapore, despite a British doctor telling them it would be better she stayed in London to recover.

"We weighed the odds and decided to take the risk," Lee said.

Mrs Lee is recovering at Singapore General Hospital


Exhibit 3

20 Nov 2003
From bulletin board of Sammyboy

Here's the lowdown on what happened at Today newspaper after it reported on the stroke that Mrs LKY suffered in London.
I checked with my client at Mediacorp, which is the largest shareholder of Today.

LKY's press secretary summoned Shaun Seow, Mano Sabnani, Rahul Singh, Bachchan Singh and Val Chua for a tekan session at the Istana. He chided the newspaper for running provocative stories that are out of bounds.

Today was asked to explain what service it does to the nation and why it shouldn't be closed down. Mediacorp was ordered to supervise Today more closely or it will be punished too. Also, all reports on local news must be written by locals, no foreigners allowed.

The chief editor, Mano Sabnani, has been demoted. He still holds the title, but he must now report to Shaun Seow, CEO Mediacorp Channel News Asia. ...
[personal remarks snipped]...

The deputy editor Rahul has also been demoted to night desk to be together with the other night editor Bachchan Singh.

The reporter Val Chua now writes advertising features for DBS and other banks. Her press pass is withdrawn and she cannot report news. She keeps her job and now reports directly to an old ex-Reuters editor hired in September by Today to consolidate operations.

Today has been told it has crossed the line and the media license will be withdrawn if it writes in such a way as to provoke bad feelings which may lead to public unhappiness.

Now, what the **** is happening?

Was Val Chua's report factually wrong? Was it slanderous? Was it biased?

Nothing. She reported what SM said at the Tanjong Pagar makan session, straight reporting, no twist. She added some background about the healthcare system and how different Singapore and UK are, mentioned by SM in his talk.

A young girl's career is ruined when she did no wrong. Where is justice?


Exhibit 4

22 Nov 2003
The Optical

Exclusive: SM Lee Vents Anger at TODAY

SM Lee Vents Anger at Newspaper for Report About His Wife

Singapore Libertarians is concerned about news that a Singapore newspaper was taken to task for reporting on the incidents that recently occurred in London over the treatment of Mrs Lee Kuan Yew when she suffered a stroke there.

Singapore Libertarians was informed that last week SM Lee had summoned the top brass of a Singapore daily, Today, after the paper published a story that indicated his wife had received preferential treatment in a London hospital.

Mr Lee met with senior staff members of Today Mr Ernest Wong, Group Chief Executive Officer of Mediacorp (which publishes the newspaper), Mr Mano Sabnani (Editor of Today), Mr Rahul Pathak (Deputy Editor of Today) and Ms Val Chua (a journalist with the newspaper).

The meeting took place around noon on 5 November 2003. It was learned that the above mentioned staff members of the newspaper were reprimanded for publishing the article "SM Lee and the eye opening trauma in London." They were also warned against writing any articles that were risqué.

If it is true that the meeting between Mr Lee and the newspaper staff actually took place, the incident constitutes a grave breach of journalistic practices in Singapore where newspapers are expected to report the truth freely without undue interference from the government.

Singapore Libertarians is concerned about the effect this meeting has on the media in Singapore. It is a clear indication that not only has the liberalisation of the mass media not happened in this, but also that Mr Lee Kuan Yew has no compunction about putting journalists on a very short leash when it comes to reporting on his family and the PAP.

The government must rectify this unethical and unhealthy situation immediately. It has to clearly separate the interests of the ruling party and the demands of the Senior Minister from the those of an independent media. Singapore's media organisations must not be used by one man or one party for their own agenda. They should have the right to perform their duties without fear or favour.

We also urge the management of Today to stand firm on its principles and serve the interests of the public.

In Singapore, all local newspapers, radio and television stations are owned and controlled by the government or its agencies and foreign publications are subjected to defamation suits and various laws to ensure compliance with the ruling party's views and policies.

For further information, contact us at: singaporeliberty@hotmail.com


Late January, I heard this story again from two sources. One was a friend whom I consider a very reliable source, who in turn had heard it directly from one of the persons involved. The other source more or less confirmed the general outline, on top of which he added that the press who were at the Tanjong Pagar event listening to the speech were told by officials what not to report of it. Today, however, did not abide by the instruction. I haven't had confirmation if the last part is true, but most of the rest of the story appear to be corroborated.

This whole episode makes a sorry commentary on the way our media are expected to meekly abide by whatever instructions are given, and the way our ruling politicians feel they can bully their way through. If you look carefully at exhibit 1, you'd hardly think it a scurrilous piece of journalism begging for a reprimand.

This brings to a crunch the problems that Today has faced since the very day they launched. These have to do with how it can be positioned and succeed as a serious newspaper when the Straits Times so dominates the landscape, and when the rules of the game are so constrictive.

* * * * *

Let's ask ourselves, how would one establish a new newspaper against the Straits Times?

The first problem to crack has to be distribution, and giving it out free the way Today has been doing is probably the only way to achieve that quickly. It brought immediate returns in that getting circulation rapidly brought in advertisers. But now they are trapped in a vicious cycle: having been given away free, how does one persuade subscribers to pay for it?

What I might have done differently would be to have two versions of it: a "lite" version given free, and a full version that carried a price tag. The lite version would have carried abridged stories, and perhaps an index of additional stuff available in the full version. Lite would be good enough for a quick read on the metro or over lunch, but it would also give the reader the assurance that he would get stuff that interested him if he paid a bit for the full version from the newsstand.

After a while, readers might be confident enough to sign up for home delivery of the full version.

If distribution is a big problem for a newspaper start-up in Singapore, the editorial challenge is head-crackingly huge. As a resource-short David against a well established Goliath, it stands to reason that Today has to choose certain niche areas in which to differentiate itself.

The Straits Times has pretty good foreign coverage, partly because it's an area (other than sports) with the least governmental interference, stories about Malaysia excepted.

Its weakest area is local politics, and therefore this is where a new brand can distinguish itself. Related to that is also the fact that it's the one area where the market is hungriest for interesting stuff. However, to satisfy the public's appetite, there has to be critical writing and the courage to carry trenchant rebuttals by the government's opponents, or by independent voices.

This can tie in with sharper reporting of home news. Singapore can do with a lot more investigative reporting about official cover-ups, bureaucratic bungling, errors of judgement in our government-linked companies and scandals both public and private.

The third area where Today can differentiate itself is the type of third-party commentaries it carries. The Straits Times' choice of commentaries is characterized by safe positions argued by the same names seen over and over again.

Their local op-eds try very hard for "balance" (which I put in quotation marks because what is "balance" in the establishment's eyes looks awfully contrived in others'). I have respect for some of their columnists as they try to strain at the leash, but they will be the first to tell you, I am sure, that strain is sometimes what they have to do.

The imported op-eds in the Straits Times often give a depressing appearance of propaganda. I mean, has it not struck you why they all seem to buttress the government's preferred way of seeing the world? The message seems to be, "see, all these worthies are saying the same things as your PAP government about the global economy, the rise of China and the evils of Muslim extremism. How can you not be convinced that the Singapore government is right?"

But then, have you seen any articles in the Straits Times lately about the evils of Christian extremism? Or the perils of a headlong rush to globalisation?

There is lots of room for more argumentative commentaries staking out unconventional positions, particularly about domestic affairs. There are plenty of local voices wanting to be heard on issues close to Singaporeans' hearts. If Today sets out to develop a working relationship with those among them who can write, the newspaper can find this to be rich source of free content (unlike the costly syndicated columns the Straits Times carries) giving a fresh, alternative, and maybe younger tone to Today. This may lay the groundwork for capturing the loyalty of the new generation.

* * * * *

All the above is not difficult to envision, and I'm not in the least suggesting that Today didn't think of them. Who am I, to quote that earthy Singaporean phrase, to teach a grandmother to suck eggs?

(Don't ask. I have no idea about the origin of this phrase.)

What I hope to achieve by sketching out this "business development plan", as it were, is to show that from a purely business point of view, there is a reasonable way for another serious newspaper to emerge in Singapore. Those who have been suggesting that Singapore is too small a market for 2 serious papers are making too hasty a judgement.

At the same time, what is also obvious from the above sketch is how impossible the plan is. Can you imagine any of these ideas being carried out under the present government policies?

To close, let me put the problem succinctly: How do we have two newspapers when we're only allowed one point of view?


© Yawning Bread