The man at the coffeeshop pulled out a Styrofoam box to pack up the leftovers of my beef fried rice. “You and your husband, both journalists ah?” he asked in Mandarin. “Journalism is tough, right? I guess if you don’t write about politics here it’s not too bad…”
“Oh, I write about politics.”
His eyes widened, his brows arching high above his glasses. “That’s so tough!” he exclaimed. “If you write the truth you get in trouble and if you don’t write the truth no one reads it because you’re a liar.”
It seemed strange that a guy who works way more than 12 hours a day in a non-air-conditioned coffeeshop would feel sorry for me and what I do, but he’d more-or-less summed up political journalism in Singapore.
There is, of course, much more to it than that, which is why I’m even bothering to write this.
It’s a commonly-held stereotype that Singapore is a tightly-controlled nanny state with a government that has extremely low tolerance for dissent. There’s an element of truth to this stereotype, but it does a pretty poor job of reflecting the realities of working as a journalist – or freelance journalist, in my case – in this peculiar city-state.
I know a number of freelance or independent journalists in Singapore who don’t, or won’t, write about political issues. One reason is that many of them are non-citizens. While there might be some discomfort on writing about or critiquing the politics and social issues of someone else’s country, I more often hear from these non-Singaporean writers that they’re worried about running into visa issues if they report on “sensitive” issues. Their worries are not irrational, but real
Another reason many journalists don’t write about political issues is much less sensational but much more applicable to the media industry as a whole: it just doesn’t pay. Not as well as business, finance or tech journalism might do, anyway.
It doesn’t help that, despite to above-mentioned stereotype, Singapore is neither-here-nor-there on an international news editor’s spectrum. It’s a rich finance capital, but its politics are small and inconsequential on the world stage (seriously, why are we arguing over hawker centre ceilings in Parliament?) It’s known to be authoritarian, but its oppressions are nowhere near as overt or egregious – and therefore as newsworthy – as other nations like Egypt, North Korea or Myanmar.
So I find myself sitting in a little bit of a “niche”: a citizen who doesn’t need to worry about getting kicked out, and who’s also passionate (or stupid) enough to want to focus on political stories, even if that means potentially earning less than my peers for all eternity.
I get people telling me that I’m brave, or asking me if I’m worried I’ll get in trouble, like getting sued or arrested or something. I can totally understand why they say such things – we’ve just seen what’s going on with Roy Ngerng and Alex Au – but I never really know how to answer. I feel like I’d only disappoint if I reveal how mundane things are on a day-to-day basis.
Press freedom is a problem in Singapore, and it would be overly optimistic to describe us as a liberal democracy. But that doesn’t mean that there’s no space to manoeuvre, or that every dissenting voice will be snatched up and locked away.
If you’re aware and careful, and make sure that you have a basis upon which to build your writing and your critique (“don’t anyhow pong!” is a useful motto), there’s actually quite a lot of space for reporting, criticism and analysis in Singapore. You can’t be sued, arrested or locked up for any old thing; you still need to commit some sort of offence, and these things can be avoided, or at least minimised.
There’ll still be a possibility of getting in trouble, of course – our contempt of court laws are ridiculously broad and even journalists who interview workers can get warnings. But if you wait until Singapore becomes a shining beacon of free speech and press freedom, you’ll find yourself stunned into paralysis for a very long time.
What’s left, after you get over the fear, is the potential to explore the Singapore beyond the stereotypes, to meet people who are doing great work often for very little recognition, and to cover stories that teach you so much about big things like capitalism, globalisation, identity and equality.
Being a freelance journalist in Singapore is not about bravery or heroism, not any more than it is anywhere else in the world. It’s not about having a death-wish or wanting to take down the government. It’s about deciding on what you’re interested in, and navigating the situation so that you can keep doing it for as long as possible. Just like any other job.
And so we come back to the man at the coffeeshop, shocked that I choose to write about politics in Singapore. “It’s interesting,” I offer up lamely as an answer.
A smile breaks across his face. “Then write more,” he said. “Write more, and write the truth.”