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Analyzing media coverage of Singapore’s Presidential Election 2023

Gutzy’s analysis of Singapore’s 2023 presidential election media coverage reveals a significant discrepancy in space allocated to candidates, particularly favoring Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam, which may have influenced public perception and voting behavior.

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Recognizing the vital role of the media in the electoral process, Gutzy Asia has carried out a media watch of the Singapore 2023 presidential election to shed light on the fairness of mainstream media coverage of each candidate.

This analysis also seeks to emulate the media monitoring project previously undertaken by MARUAH, a non-governmental civil society organization based in Singapore, during past elections.

Singapore held its presidential election on 1 September 2023, the first poll of its kind since 2011. The previous presidential election in 2017 saw a walkover victory for the then-elected President Halimah Yacob after her two potential competitors were disqualified for not meeting the criteria as private candidates.

We traced mainstream media coverage from the pre-nomination period through the election campaign between June and August, examining the narratives and biases in their reporting that may have influenced public perceptions of the candidates.

Our analysis focused on four state-funded news outlets—Mediacorp’s TODAY and Channel News Asia, and Singapore Press Holdings’ (SPH) The Straits Times (ST) and Lianhe Zaobao. State investment company Temasek owns Mediacorp, while the Ministry of Communications and Information funds SPH through annual grants amounting to S$900 million.

Based on our observations, former senior minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam appeared to have garnered more media coverage via online articles than other candidates, and this discrepancy was most apparent in ST and Lianhe Zaobao, as opposed to TODAY and Channel News Asia.

When it comes to printed articles, Mr Tharman received the highest number of mentions in mainstream newspapers among the three qualified candidates, with over 70 articles in ST and Lianhe Zaobao newspapers. The candidate who had the least printed coverage was former NTUC income director Tan Kin Lian, who had less than 50 articles.

In assessing the amount of coverage, we have also assigned weightage to the newspaper’s news article space to quantify the relative size and impact of different reports. The scale we use is based on the proportion of a full newspaper page that an article occupies.

From the findings, we observe that although the number of reports on Mr Tharman may not be overwhelming, the space allocated to these reports significantly exceeds that dedicated to Mr Ng and Mr Tan. Notably, the weightage for Mr Tharman’s coverage is more than double that of Mr Ng and Mr Tan.

However, it’s possible that we missed some instances of media coverage in our tally.

Considering that Mr Tharman was the first person to announce his candidacy, we noted that the timing of the candidates’ announcement to run for the election might have influenced the amount of news exposure they received.

Pre-Nomination Period

First Candidate

Mr Tharman announced his bid to run in the election on June 9. For starters, media attention centred around his decision to resign from the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) and his role as a senior minister and coordinating minister for social policies.

In the days leading up to his resignation from the PAP, we observed that mainstream media portrayed him in a positive light, such as an ST report highlighting him singing a song by the late Malay singer P. Ramlee during a ground-breaking ceremony at Wisma Geylang Serai.

In another report, ST quoted political analysts describing Mr Tharman as the PAP’s “trump card” for the election, with one observer suggesting that he could be the party’s “nuclear option—meaning you can’t think of a better-winning formula for the PAP.”

The analysts questioned whether the former PAP member’s popularity among fellow Singaporeans might discourage other potential candidates from contesting and potentially leading to another walkover.

One of the analysts described Mr Tharman as someone whose influence extends beyond the political party that he was associated with. These observations seem to provide favourable sentiments regarding his candidacy.

On June 12, CNA aired Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam’s remarks at the Institute of Policy Studies conference, in which he defended Mr Tharman’s candidacy amidst criticism surrounding his ties to the PAP. In the video, Mr Shanmugam implied it is not the PAP’s fault that Mr Tharman is a “strong candidate.”

We also observed that several reports seem to exclude information about Mr Tharman’s past ties with the PAP. For example, his former membership in the PAP was notably absent in a CNA report covering Parliament’s tribute to Mr Tharman on his last sitting day.

In TODAY’s report covering his speech at an event marking Racial Harmony Day on July 21, Mr Tharman was only referred to as a “presidential hopeful” and “a former Senior Minister,” with no mention of his previous affiliation with the PAP.

It is possible that this omission was intended to reduce the public’s perception of Mr Tharman as a “government-backed candidate.” Throughout the pre-nomination, Mr Tharman reminded Singaporeans not to judge candidates based on their previous affiliations with the government.

Second Candidate

George Goh, founder of Harvey Norman Asia, announced his bid to run for the election on June 12, just three days after Mr Tharman’s announcement. The Singaporean businessman was forthright in stating that he had “no political party affiliations—past or present.”

Both ST and TODAY highlighted his challenging upbringing—his background in a low-income family—in their reports. While most of the coverage maintained a neutral tone, Mr Goh did face criticism about his English proficiency at one point.

TODAY said in a July 11 report that “some netizens who watched video excerpts of [Mr Goh’s] interviews have criticized his English and questioned how it would reflect on Singapore if he becomes the head of state.”

Questions about his eligibility quickly surfaced due to the private sector service requirement, which stipulates that an applicant must have served as a company’s CEO for three years, and the company must have at least S$500 million in shareholders’ equity.

His previous role as Singapore’s non-resident ambassador (NRA) to Morocco also made headlines. He resigned from the post to run for the presidential election. Mr. Goh clarified that the position was purely honorary and did not entail any executive authority.

According to an ST report on June 21, Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said the NRA scheme helps to enhance the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ potential talent pool. He praised Mr. Goh for his good work as an NRA but declined to comment on his candidacy.

Third Candidate

Former GIC chief investment officer Ng Kok Song announced his bid to run for the presidential election on July 19, presenting himself as an independent candidate. He co-founded Avanda Investment Management, a Singapore-based company backed by Temasek.

The mainstream media’s coverage of Mr Ng largely maintained a neutral tone. In an interview with ST on July 26, Mr Ng refuted claims that the government put him up to split votes and affirmed that it was his own decision to stand for the election.

In a separate report by ST on July 28, Mr Ng told reporters that he had “come forward so that there will be an election, so Singaporeans have a chance to choose the president.”

We observed that throughout the pre-nomination, Mr Ng had advocated for an independent president. In a report by ST on July 28, he implied that it would be difficult for Mr Tharman to distance himself from his past relations with the PAP.

We also find it noteworthy that TODAY’s report on “7 things to know” about Mr Ng included his fiance’s name, Sybil Lau, and age in the headlines—seemingly trying to highlight their age differences—while other candidates were not highlighted in this manner.

Fourth Candidate

Mr Tan, an entrepreneur and former candidate in the 2011 presidential election, submitted his application for a certificate of eligibility on July 31, making him the fourth and the last person to announce his bid for the election.

The mainstream media’s coverage of Mr Tan carried a mix of neutral and negative tone. On August 3, CNA quoted analysts criticizing Mr Tan for his remarks that he would influence policies if elected president, calling it misleading given the limited scope of the role in the policy agenda.

One of the analysts said that Mr Tan might have made the remarks to gain support from “disgruntled” Singaporeans. The report also mentioned his past ties with the PAP—from which he withdrew in 2008 after serving 30 years due to disagreement with the party’s value system.

Later on, reports emerged about Mr Tan and Mr Goh having disagreements on whether either of them would withdraw if both qualified to run in the election. Mr Tan has rejected splitting votes among “independent candidates” and said he would support Mr. Goh if he qualifies. But Mr Goh said he believed that Mr Tan should just focus on his own campaign.

Reports during Election Campaign

On August 18, the Election Department announced that three candidates met the criteria to contest, except for Mr Goh, whose eligibility application was denied because the five companies he submitted cannot be regarded as a single private sector organization.

We observed that mainstream media coverage during the election campaign was generally fair for Mr Ng and Mr Tharman, but this wasn’t the case for Mr Tan. Just days after the ELD made its announcement, reports surfaced about his Facebook posts that mentioned “pretty girls,” which sparked controversy.

Mr Tan made the posts on his Facebook account between 2020 and 2022. CNA said in an August 22 report that his posts “ignited debate about whether his comments objectify women and whether the assessment process for presidential candidates should have caught them.”

Mr Tan eventually issued a public apology and criticized the mainstream media for what he views as an “unfair and dishonest” portrayal. He also claimed to have been the target of “a smear campaign” by his “top opponent” but later removed this assertion.

“I did say there are some pretty girls, but the pretty girls take the effort to dress up to be attractive. When I say that they are attractive, most of them actually feel quite happy,” he said on August 22. “I don’t know why somebody would want to use that as a negative point.”

Moreover, a TODAY report published on August 24—in which Mr Ng claimed to be the only “non-partisan” candidate among the three—notably mentions Mr Tan’s past affiliation with the PAP but omits a similar fact about Mr Tharman.

CNA report on August 25 quoted an analyst accusing Mr Tan of “engaging in negative campaigning” following his comments suggesting that Singaporeans would prefer having a Singapore-born president and first lady.

Subsequent reports, which carried a negative tone, revealed Mr Tan said the ELD omitted three paragraphs from his presidential candidate’s broadcast script on the grounds that they contained “inaccuracies” about the president’s duties.

Mr Tan also stirred debate when Dr Tan Cheng Bock, chairman of the opposition Progress Singapore Party (PSP), endorsed his candidacy in his personal capacity. A CNA report on August 27 highlighted comments from rivals Mr Tharman, who urged the avoidance of “politicizing” the election, and Mr Ng, who accused the pair of “confusing” voters of “dishonoring” the election.

Aside from the PSP chairman, Tan Jee Say, who was a member of the opposition Singapore Democratic Party, also gave support to Mr Tan as his proposer. However, mainstream media appeared to focus more on Dr Tan, as seen by a CNA report citing four PSP members—including one anonymous member— with contrasting views on the matter.

That said, it’s perplexing how Dr Tan’s endorsement of Mr Tan could cause a stir in mainstream media—prompting PSP to clarify that it was entirely in Dr Tan’s personal capacity to make such a decision and not the party—while the same level of scrutiny was not given to the PAP when Mr Teo Chee Hean and Mr K Shanmugam showed support for Mr Tharman’s candidacy.

We found that mainstream media coverage of Mr Tharman was generally fair and largely positive, although there was one issue that stood out as potentially negative. It pertained to his son’s previous role in the Ministry of Finance’s reserves and investment directorate, which drew public attention to potential conflict of interest. His son, Akilan Shanmugaratnam, was subsequently moved to another unit within the ministry.

The election resulted in Mr Tharman winning by a huge margin, securing over 70 per cent of the vote in a three-way race. He was sworn in as Singapore’s ninth president on Sept. 14. Mr Ng placed second with 15.72 per cent of the vote, followed by Mr Tan with 13.88 per cent.

We concluded that mainstream media coverage might not be the main factor affecting voting behaviour and electoral outcomes. However, we believe that it still serves as a foundation for discussions and can, to some extent, shape voters’ perceptions of the candidate.

You can view the records of our findings in the Google sheet here

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Why are we even discussing this ?!!!

It’s a given issit not !!!

He’s pap through and through, having voted for every policy proposed, including all the increments and amendments/adjustments to the constitution, … plus he’s a senior member and he’ll play his role, as to the objectives and directives of Sg Inc !!!

So what if Tharman’s popular, … so is Pinky, so is HoHo Ching, so is Snakey, so is Ah Chan, …… … ……

Independent? Please lah these politicians and Non politicians playing Groups. Seeing whose groups biggest?!? Then bring their groups from offshore to prop numbers … Independent?!???!?!??

He is one of them and will remain one of them as he ensured that the Public will not sight the reserves, kept for a “future, future” generation. I am disappointed as I have always trusted him but have been proved delusional. However if he was that popular, he did not have to spend over $700,000 for 70% vote, compared to NKS who spent over $300,000 for about 16% and TKL who spent just over $70,000 to obtain 14% votes. In terms of dollars spent and the percentages TKL is the winner. So those on the ground need visualization for… Read more »

Yes, he is independent.

Independent from all the voters
Because, by default, he wins anyhow.
Does not matter who the voter votes for.. he will win.
.

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