In a response as monotonously predictable as a mid-afternoon downpour in the tropics, the Singapore Government has fiercely rebuffed a stinging report by The Washington Post.
The audacious American publication insinuated through an article, “In Singapore, Loud Echoes of Beijing’s Positions Generate Anxiety”, that Singapore’s Chinese-language media outlet, Lianhe Zaobao, is dancing to the tune of China’s propaganda and falsehoods.
Singapore’s riposte was orchestrated by none other than the city-state’s Ambassador to the United States, Mr Lui Tuck Yew. Mr Lui, a former politician of the ruling People’s Action Party and a former Transport Minister before he bid adieu to the political scene in 2011, defended Singapore’s Chinese state media platform.
In a letter addressed to the editor of the Washington Post, Mr Lui contested that the Post’s controversial article titled “In Singapore, Loud Echoes of Beijing’s Positions Generate Anxiety” was misguided in its insinuation that Zaobao merely parroted Beijing’s propaganda.
He asserted, “Singapore’s mainstream media, including Lianhe Zaobao, reflect our distinct societal concerns, cultural history, and perspectives.”
The Washington Post’s contentious article conjectured that Beijing was manipulating Singapore’s Chinese-language media as a loudspeaker to boost its geopolitical narratives.
The report underscored Zaobao’s burgeoning Chinese readership and accused it of succumbing to China’s influence, hence reverberating Beijing’s narratives.
In a 2022 survey by the Pew Research Center encompassing 19 countries, Singapore was among the three nations where China and President Xi Jinping received favourable reviews.
Furthermore, a study by the Eurasia Group Foundation in June involving Singapore, South Korea, and the Philippines disclosed that Singapore was the only country where China was regarded more positively than the United States.
In Singapore, less than half of the respondents held a favourable view of the United States, while 56 per cent looked upon China favourably.
A meticulous dissection of over 700 Lianhe Zaobao articles from 2022 and early 2023 by the Washington Post and the Australian Strategic Policy Institute unveils the denial of rights abuses in Xinjiang and allegations of foreign involvement in Hong Kong and mainland China protests.
The report unmasked two columnists, Deng Qingbo and Ding Songquan, as CCP officials, a fact conveniently overlooked by Zaobao, which introduced them merely as China affairs commentators.
Deng Qingbo heads the online propaganda and comment division of Hunan province’s cyberspace administration office, while Ding Songquan holds positions within the CCP committee at Huzhou College.
Furthermore, Hong Kong-based columnist Xing Yunchao contributes columns to both China Daily and Lianhe Zaobao that are so eerily identical that it blurs the boundary between Chinese state media and the privately-owned Singaporean newspaper.
Rallying to the newspaper’s defence, Mr Lui posited, “Our media and society are unique and offer valuable perspectives that contribute to the global dialogue.” This, although a stirring sentiment, conveniently sidesteps the grim reality of media freedom in Singapore or the rationale behind its mediocre Press Freedom Index ranking.
Notably, from 2021 to 2023, Singapore’s position on the Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders leapfrogged from 160 to 129. However, the ascension was more a result of worsening press conditions in other nations than any significant advancements in Singapore’s media environment.
In response to The Washington Post’s earlier query, Goh Sin Teck, Zaobao’s editor, maintained that the publication upholds “objective, neutral, and fact-based” reporting.
This assertion comes despite a recent scandal where the parent company, Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) Media Trust (SMT), was found to have misrepresented its circulation figures during an audit.
Despite this scandal, the Singapore government, in its boundless wisdom, has pledged to continue financially supporting this media behemoth to the hefty tune of S$900 million over five years.
This financial commitment follows as SMT separates from its delisted parent company, SPH, and morphs into a “non-profit” entity.
The Washington Post article also highlighted that China’s substantial economic sway has provided an incentive for Singapore to comply with Beijing’s wishes, consequently eroding Singapore’s traditional reluctance to pick sides.
In the face of declining readership in Singapore, particularly among the young, the publication has strived to appeal to a digital audience. Its combined print and digital circulation in Singapore plummeted from 187,900 in 2015 to 144,000 in 2020.
In contrast, Lianhe Zaobao’s market in China is thriving, with over 4 million monthly readers in China, nearly double the total number of Mandarin speakers in all of Singapore, according to census data.
The newspaper earned its influence in China during Deng Xiaoping’s leadership in the 1980s when its reports and commentaries began to be reprinted and circulated among high-ranking CCP officials.
By 1993, Lianhe Zaobao had made its way into Beijing hotel bookshops, and the newspaper ventured into the digital realm in 1995. Today, it stands as one of the few accessible Chinese-language foreign news websites in China.
Lianhe Zaobao is also the exclusive Chinese-language overseas newspaper available for purchase in Beijing and Shanghai.
Given the sizeable readership in China, several current and former reporters told the Washington Post that avoiding being blocked in China became the chief concern of Zaobao’s senior leadership.
Lianhe Zaobao cherishes its access to audiences in China for advertising and growth; financial incentives also influence smaller online outlets in Singapore, where self-censorship is practised to maintain access to Chinese social-networking apps like WeChat, as being blocked results in a significant decline in readership and advertising.
Interestingly, the newspaper’s website in China offers a different version than the one in Singapore, with editors holding back sensitive stories from the Chinese edition.