Saturday, July 16, 2005

Unfettered Journalism in Singapore

protesters campaigning for press freedom
We've experienced an interesting lesson on press freedom in Singapore this week. Our largest local charity, the National Kidney Foundation, brought a suit against our national news organization, Singapore Press Holdings. The issue in question was an article written by local journalist Susan Long on alleged 'gold plated' toilet fixtures in the NKF's executive toilet.

Sadly, and as is often the case in Singapore, the NKF dragged Susan Long and SPH into court on a libel charge. Twice before NKF had brought similar suits against other individuals when they alleged that the NKF CEO flew first class and stayed in luxury hotels - and won settlements both times. But this time the outcome was different. NKF withdrew its suit after 2 days of court testimony revealed that the CEO was paid US$ 1m over 3 years, that he did travel first class, and yes, the toilet fixtures were indeed gold plated.

The public outrage was such that close to 40,000 Singaporeans signed an online petition calling for the CEO's resignation, and thousands cancelled their donation pledges. The CEO, his entire Board of Directors and even the patron, wife of our former Prime Minister, were all forced to resign.

The resignation of the NKF CEO, its Board and Patron brings the current saga to an appropriate close. And our current Prime Minister has spoken of the renewal that is already underway. People seem willing to put their mistrust behind them.

But this was an unusual event in Singapore - which is often criticized for lack of press freedom. In exposing the lack of transparency at NKF, journalist Susan Long has done the public a great service. Susan stuck her neck out on an issue that landed two others into court in the past, despite being correct in their assertions. And she jeapordized her editorial management and the SPH organization. Indeed, they too were dragged into court.

Fortunately, Susan was backed by strong management including her supervising editor, and an organization willing to go to court to stand up for editorial integrity. This willingness of the SPH editorial team to defend its own independence is worthy of applause.

Yesterday, as it happens, was the 160th anniversary of the Straits Times. I would judge this week's events an appropriate 'coming out' for SPH as a national news organization.