Some thoughts on Temasek Review and the Presidential Election
I’ve not written much recently, given work commitments which allows me only enough time to catch up on stories during weekdays and write on weekends. But I thought I should say something about Temasek Review.
Temasek Review has been offline since 5th Sept, and there’s no word from the main site as to what happened to the web admins. I hope that they are all right and would continue to run the website.
Many online folks blame TR for endorsing Tan Jee Say who won 25% of the votes, a distant finish compared to Dr Tan Cheng Bock who nearly upset the eventual PE winner Tony Tan by less than 1%. Some critics of the establishment have even called it a fiasco. Yet others have gone even further and baselessly claimed that TR is an ISD or PAP-backed website which supported TJS with the secret intention of helping Tony Tan win the PE. I beg to disagree.
I believe such a view however is poorly thought out and misinformed. The key argument I put forward here is that Tony Tan would have performed much better if TR wasn’t around. My own take on this was that TR played a critical role in publicising stories which drove up negative perception of Tony Tan, causing him to win just over 35% of the vote despite the fact that he was much more well-known by the public. I believe that if TR hadn’t existed, or had not reported the way it did, Tony Tan would probably have had won with over 40% of the vote.
Don’t believe this? Check out this Yahoo poll where Tony Tan won with some 48% of the vote among online participants (who tend to skew anti-PAP) very early on in the campaign on June 20th 2011. TCB came in behind TKL and even SR Nathan (who hadn’t ruled out running then) with 16% of the vote. In a much later Yahoo poll in August, Tony Tan fell to 3rd place with less than 30% of the vote while Tan Cheng Bock topped it slightly over 40%. Now unless someone demonstrates convincingly that Tony Tan lost much support to Tan Jee Say (something I regard as highly unlikely), I regard this as evidence that negative coverage of Tony Tan have had much effect on eroding Tony Tan’s early lead.
Temasek Review’s negative coverage of Tony Tan
Some may not know this, but it was Temasek Review which first broke the story about Tony Tan’s initiative (as the minister in charge of university education) to boost foreign student numbers in Singapore universities. I’m not able to link to TR to prove my point, but a mirror website (Temasek Realm) proves it. Here’s the article which was first dated 9th June 2011. Yes, 9th June. They were that early to first break that news. TR was the first major opinionated news blog to break the story. Are critics of TR who blame it for giving away the election to Tony Tan cognizant of this? Likely not. TR later posted a follow up to that article on June 28th here.
The other major socio-political news blog, TOC, by contrast never wrote a single article on Tony Tan’s university education policies until after the mainstream media had covered it. Yes, it completely befuddles my mind how a story which was well-sourced and cited extensively from Straits Times articles from the 1997 era was completely missed by TOC. Then again neither NAR, the Satay Club nor New Nation, other Singapore-news oriented collaborative website did so although in NAR and NN’s cases their primary focus is on intellectual policy discussions and magazine-style gossip respectively rather than breaking news stories.
Similarly, TR was again the first major news-blog to break the story on Dr Patrick Tan’s extremely privileged National Service stint. The link is here (note the date in the URL 28th Jul). But unfortunately it’s not accessible because the site is down. Again TOC was late to this story, with chief editor Ravi Philemon hurrying to write a short post (and nothing else thereafter) on this only a full day after the story was first published by TR. The state-controlled mainstream media, on the other hand followed it up shortly on the same day after TOC reported it. A case of TOC playing catch up? Perhaps there’s more to that.
In addition, it was also Temasek Review, not TOC nor other rival major socio-political news websites which published a sharply critical piece (on Jul 17th) which utterly debunked Tony Tan and the compliant mainstream media’s myth that he stood up to ministers and abolished the unpopular graduate mothers scheme. The article, also posted here, was completely missed by TOC. Why didn’t they pick up this story at all on their website? I don’t know.
Let’s also not forget that TR helped to publicise a short clip of Tony Tan’s apparent reluctant handshake with a fishmonger, which helped to build an impression of him as being elitist and out of touch in contrast to the other candidates. TOC published (briefly) an article on 13th August, long after TR first went public with the story on 5th Aug. It’s been deleted now, unfortunately, after many started complaining on TOC’s FB that it was pursuing frivolous stories instead of “real” coverage, whatever that means.
Late in the game TR also published a series of what it called exposé, a 5-part series of possibly damaging revelations (though several claims were completely unsourced) about alleged privileged NS treatment for Tony Tan’s sons, as well as a claim that Tony Tan and his family purchased 3 units of project Sky@eleven before its soft launch in 2007. Again since the site is down I can’t link to it. It can be found here, on HWZ.
Mollifying the new media?
It’s no secret that TOC was invited to Tony Tan’s June 23rd press conference along with other bloggers. TOC makes this clear here. None other than Cherian George, a former ST journalist himself openly speculated that this might herald a “new era in relations with alternative media“:
This message was not lost on TOC, which posted on Facebook, “Foreign press not invited to Dr Tony Tan’s press conference. TOC is.”
It’s quite apparent that Tony Tan’s campaign had decided to adopt a soft approach by engaging and inviting bloggers probably to stroke their egos and make them feel important in the hopes that they might not be that critical of him. Tony Tan later also invited the bloggers to another lunch event (23rd July), and TOC posted this photo as evidence:
Did all these invitations play a role in softening TOC’s otherwise hard-hitting coverage of Tony Tan? I do not and cannot know for sure. But it seems to me that to avoid any possible conflict of interest in reporting fairly on the PE, TOC ought to have decline the invitation.
Some might argue that it’s really no big deal for TOC (who wasn’t the only one invited) to attend the lunch. Indeed it might even seem petty to criticise them for this, but in 2007 the New York Times ended its participation in an annual White House press corps dinner due to increasing criticism of conflicts of interest between the media’s duty to report critically and independently and their perceived cozy relationship with the White House. Should TOC have done the same and declined the invitation? Perhaps it ought to have done so.
To top it off, it’s worth asking if Tony Tan was really serious in engaging the new media or was he just trying to soften their anticipated hard-hitting coverage. For that, let’s ask if Tony Tan actually invited TOC or any bloggers to his presidential inauguration after the election. Um, let me hazard a guess that he did not.
TR’s advantage over TOC
TR’s strength and advantage over TOC is that unlike TOC they do not mandate that submissions to their website be accompanied with the person’s real name, and they receive constant tip-offs from anonymous individuals who are otherwise afraid to make their views and contributions known for fear of reprisals. The absence of TR from Singapore’s online landscape would mean that such contributions would not have a major portal to public outreach.
This in addition to the fact that TR has been far more willing to cover stories, which though might seem frivolous to some, might have an impact in shaping views and perceptions of the establishment.
Stories such as Tony Tan’s reluctant “dead-fish” handshake fall into this category. It’s mystifying to me why some people regard this as frivolous coverage. In many other democratic countries such as the US, such coverage is legitimate and have resulted in politicians losing elections as they were perceived as being out of touch with the common man. Examples include footage of the earlier president Bush checking his watch during a presidential debate with Bill Clinton which conveyed the impression that he was impatient for the townhall-style debate, where voters could field questions, to be over, or Nixon’s “pale, sickly” and tired, and bearded stubble appearance in the televised presidential debates of 1960 where he later lost the election to JFK by less than 0.5%
It doesn’t seem frivolous to myself for people to judge candidates in this manner. If any of us went to a job interview and shook hands poorly with the interviewer or appeared unenthusiastic, unshaved, sickly or tired, would we really be surprised if we weren’t offered the job? Shouldn’t the same standard be applied to candidates running for president?
To be fair to TOC, let me acknowledge they did provide superior and more balanced coverage compared to TR for the PE. The Face 2 Face 2 forum, where the four presidential candidates got together for a forum was one such example.
I hope that I have managed to put forward a convincing argument that critics of TR who blame it for publicly endorsing TJS and splitting the anti-Tony Tan votes should also bear in mind that Tony Tan’s low vote share was due to massive negative coverage which was in large part due to TR. I cannot imagine if it were otherwise so. Still it remains hard to deny that Tan Jee Say won 25% (5 times more than TKL) of the vote and likely stole some of TCB’s votes because of their endorsement.
In hindsight, the best course of action would be for TR to have reported as it did without the endorsement. Or for TJS and TKL to have stayed out of the race altogether. But no matter how one blames TR for the outcome, please do not forget the role TR likely played in driving down Tony Tan’s vote share.
My only beef with TR is that they ought to exercise better internal control over their moderators and key admins, who sometimes appear to differ on how far to go attacking the establishment and even more moderate opposition politicians and that some of their stories which turn out to be false could have been better fact-checked before publication (or abortion). My own guiding philosophy on citizen journalism is that one can be as biased as one wishes as long as that bias is justifiable with facts. It doesn’t make sense to moderate or water down views if they are backed by evidence. It’s much better to be factual and biased than to be balanced and deceitful.
Should TR make a comeback, (I sincerely hope they will) I hope they will change, not by becoming more moderate but by exercising better editorial control over their admins and reporting stories for which they can be reasonably certain are true.