Singapore Media on COVID-19

Bei Lin Teo
May 10, 2020

The BBC describes Singapore’s media as “highly developed” and “tightly controlled.” Mainstream media is dominated by the near-duopoly of Singapore Press Holdings and MediaCorp who own The Straits Times and Channel News Asia, respectively. Despite persistent audience loss due to the rise of alternative news sources, mainstream media is back in Singapore, and in many other countries, as it is a central node of reliable information during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and ‘infodemic.’ In general, mainstream media in Singapore has been echoing the government’s messages and has refrained from divergent commentary on the outbreak.

Since the first confirmed case emerged in December 2019, mainstream media has been diligently providing updates of the latest numbers of confirmed cases and new coronavirus-related government policies. Both The Straits Times and Channel News Asia have created COVID-19 microsites that aggregate articles, statistics, interactive graphics, and videos. The Straits Times microsite even features an ‘Explainers’ section that simplifies government policies into accessible language and shares COVID-19 factoids. 

As single-day increases in the number of confirmed cases in Singapore continue to hit new highs, mainstream media has joined the chorus of government officials urging Singaporeans to stay at home.

The rise in number of cases has been largely due to the government’s underestimating the vulnerability of migrant workers, and it has been criticized for not addressing the problem sooner. However, mainstream media has refrained from unflattering coverage of the government. A recent example made this evident in early April when current member of parliament and former Minister Yaacob Ibrahim “attribut(ed) the emptying of a green space of migrant workers to the coronavirus” in a now-deleted Facebook post. Outraged by its xenophobic and discriminatory overtones, many, including socio-political writer Kirsten Han, shared screenshots of the original post and its multiple edits. However, The Straits Times did not report on this incident at all, while Channel News Asia ran one article about how Ibrahim “apologize[d] for Facebook post remark on foreign workers gathering.”

Interestingly, The Straits Times had run multiple articles quoting WHO officials praising Singapore’s response and the Harvard study that reportedly considered Singapore’s approach the “gold standard.” Among articles lauding Singapore’s COVID-19 response from TIMECNET, and Forbes nestled one penned by Kazakhstan’s Ambassador to Singapore published in The Straits Times about how much Kazakhstan has learned from “watching Singapore.”

Self-praise or self-confidence, it seems, like former diplomat Professor Tommy Koh’s call for “remain[ing] very Confucian, very humble and modest” in spite of success, has fallen on deaf ears.

Bei Lin Teo is an MPA '21, specializing in Technology, Media and Communications. She is originally from Singapore and completed her undergraduate studies in Shanghai.