Simon Fraser University PhD candidate Shangyuan Wu analyzes the passing of former Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and the Umbrella Revolution as events that demonstrate the need to critically look at using Western journalism standards in the non-West.
Two events have rocked Asia in recent months that have united hundreds of thousands – the recent passing of Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew, and Hong Kong’s tumultuous “Umbrella Revolution.” In my study of press systems in the non-West, both events are critical entry points into discussions on why it is necessary to consider the voice of the non-Western subject in defining reality on his or her own terms. While journalism studies, particularly in the area of journalism ideals and crisis, have centered on Western liberal-democratic scholarship – the belief that the news media should enable free expression and political debate or risk falling into “crisis” due to its democratic deficit – non-Western realities suggest that journalism crisis definitions must be reconsidered.* Let me explain.
The Making of Singapore
In late March 2015, Singapore’s first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew passed away at the age of 91. He was seen as the founder of modern Singapore, putting in place numerous policies that successfully transformed Singapore from a third world country to a first world nation within his lifetime; these policies spanned the areas of industrialization, housing, education, economic development, labor, diplomatic relations, and cultural integration. Among the steps to drive the government’s nation-building efforts was the creation of a cooperative press that would work with the government to achieve social stability and economic growth (Bokhorst-Heng, 2002).
With Lee’s passing, hundreds of thousands of Singaporeans, keenly aware that they had benefited from his nation-building efforts, paid their last respects as his body lay-in-state at the Singapore Parliament House. Thousands more flooded the internet with tributes to Lee. Meanwhile the Western media, in their description of Lee, acknowledged his achievements but often with a qualifier that he was also controversial because of his views on the media, political opposition, and corporal punishment. Singaporeans responded with angry fervor on social media, arguing almost in unison that Lee did what he had to do to bring Singapore from a struggling post-colonial city to where it is today, by creating a government that actually worked (Singh, 2015). There was strong identification amongst Singaporeans with Lee’s words, said during his 1986 National Day Rally: “I am often accused of interfering in the private lives of citizens. Yes, if I did not, had I not done that, we wouldn’t be here today.” (BBC News, 2015)
This is an important narrative that directly shapes how one should think about “journalism crisis” beyond the Western world. While it may seem natural for a Western observer to proclaim that a system, unable to meet a certain set of liberal-democratic ideals, is “in crisis,” the local population may not define it to be so. It is noteworthy to point out here that research has shown that people in Asia respond to power and authority in different ways from those in the West. They do not oppose the rule of powerful leaders, as long as these leaders are deemed to be trustworthy (Mikami and Inoguchi, 2010). This was reflected in a thought-provoking survey response I received from a journalist in Singapore: “the question is not whether the government exerts control on Singapore media – that is a bald fact – but whether journalists feel that the controls are justified.”
The Hong Kong Revolution
And then there is Hong Kong. In late 2014, in a series of pro-democracy protests popularly known as the “Umbrella Revolution,” hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers took to the streets to call for universal suffrage. Since the 1997 handover, the Chinese government has maintained ultimate control over the extent of Hong Kong’s democratization (Chan and Lee, 2007). These demonstrations, which saw protestors in record numbers braving tear gas to occupy major city intersections for almost three months, was the culmination of years of apprehension that the Chinese government was encroaching on Hong Kong’s civil freedoms, including its freedom of the press. Public confidence in Hong Kong’s news media suffered during the protests – many media platforms, owned by businessmen with close links to China, adopted a conservative stance on the movement. This caused exasperated young Hong Kongers to turn to social media for information (Kaiman, 2014).
To some observers, these developments proved rather puzzling. Hong Kongers had never been given liberal democracy status by the British, so why go up in arms now? Again, the local narrative is an important one. The British, concerned primarily with maintaining the economic prosperity of Hong Kong, had always given Hong Kongers ample freedoms in managing their economy, press, and civil society, as long as they did not challenge the British establishment. Interestingly, given that Hong Kong, in the early days, was a refuge for political dissidents and revolutionaries who had fled the imperial Chinese government (Lai, 2007), this society instead became a strong bastion for challenging the Chinese establishment.
This freedom is something that Hong Kongers are struggling now to hold on to. Post-1997, Hong Kong’s ties with China have deepened considerably. Despite the “one country, two systems” policy put in place, the influence of the Chinese government on Hong Kong society and its press system is becoming a part of the city’s new reality. Attempts to disseminate viewpoints that stray away from pro-Chinese government stances might mean overstepping an invisible out-of-bounds line. Hence, the root of Hong Kong’s democratic deficit must be understood in local terms; any proclamations of “journalism crisis” in Hong Kong must be matched with an understanding of this historical context.
Peeling off the Layers
In an attempt to give voice to journalists from the non-West, I am currently conducting a large-scale study to investigate how newsworkers in Singapore and Hong Kong perceive their journalism ideals and crisis. It is fitting to say that both global cities stand at important historical junctures—if there is a time to speak to the local populations about how they see their futures, the time is now.
Journalism in these two cities is certainly in flux – liberal models established in the West, which these press systems have traditionally been judged against, might not make for adequate measures. Liberal democracy might not be an ideal that a population is necessarily aspiring to, and if it is, the reasons why these aspirations exist and how these aspirations may be reached will warrant localized investigations. Indeed, the idea of “crisis” is a layered and dynamic one; the past must be understood before one can make sense of the present.
*The author is currently conducting a large-scale journalist perceptions study with the aim of reaching out to 100 to 200 newsworkers in Singapore and Hong Kong, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.
BBC News. (2015, March 22). In quotes: Lee Kuan Yew. URL: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-31582842
Bokhorst-Heng, W. (2002). Newspapers in Singapore: A mass ceremony in the imagining of the nation. Media Culture and Society, 24, 559-569
Chan, J. M., & Lee, F. L. (2007). Media and politics in post-handover Hong Kong: An introduction. Asian Journal of Communication, 17(2), 127-133.
Kaiman, J. (2014, October 29). Hong Kong protests bring crisis of confidence for traditionalmedia. The Guardian. URL: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/oct/29/hong-kong-protests-confidence-media
Lai, C. P. (2007). Media in Hong Kong: Press freedom and political change, 1967-2005. Routledge.
Mikami, S., & Inoguchi, T. (2010). Diagnosing the micro foundation of democracy in Asia: Evidence from the AsiaBarometer survey, 2003-2008. In Y. Chu & S. Wong (Eds.), East
Asia’s New Democracies (pp. 246-292). Routledge.
Singh, S. (2015, March 25). Critics call Singapore an autocracy, but I never felt more free than when I lived there. The Washington Post. URL: http://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2015/03/25/critics-call-singapore-an-autocracy-but-i-never-felt-more-free-than-when-i-lived-there/
Shangyuan Wu is a PhD candidate in the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University, Canada. Her research areas of interest include the political economy of communication, global journalism studies, development studies, and comparative media analysis. Shangyuan is trained in journalism, having worked as a senior broadcast journalist in Singapore, covering the areas of politics, defense, and education. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org