Even as Iraqi troops tossed their weapons and surrendered to their invaders, the minister of propaganda insisted that the Americans are “coming to surrender or be burned in their tanks!”
His detachment from reality, together with his colourful bombast, earned him the nickname 'Comical Ali' – a play on the name given to his deadlier colleague 'Chemical Ali', defence minister Ali Hassan Abd al-Majid, who had gassed civilian populations during Saddam's reign.
Who are you going to believe? Comical Ali challenged his countrymen and women: Me or your lying eyes?
The scenario flashed across my mind when I read Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam's Facebook post in which he declared: “Our mainstream media carries all the important news of the day, including both sides of the political debate.” (emphasis mine)
As if in a deliberate move to make the DPM look like Mr Mohammed Saeed, our media – while tripping over each other to give Mr Tharman's remarks the widest possible coverage – drew a blank when it came to reporting on my reply to him.
This is despite his finger-wagging at me in his post: “[Dr Chee] blaming the mainstream media for electoral losses is not a good strategy, it doesn’t square anymore with the reality of a public that reads, follows issues and thinks more critically.”
The all-and-nothing coverage underscores my point: anyone who thinks that the state media carries the news of “both sides of the political debate” is either spreading propaganda or simply deluded. Or, as one suspects in the case of Comical Ali, both.
How does the public read, much less think critically, if our newspapers refuse to report what the opposition says? I have never doubted Singaporeans' thinking ability but even Mr Tharman will agree that thinking critically about issues that are censored requires extra-sensory perception.
And what little coverage that is afforded the opposition is often spun or, worse, fabricated to demonise us – like what Lianhe Wanbao did during the by-election in Bukit Batok as I relate here. (After more than a year, we have still to hear from the media officialdom about this matter and how it can condone such an unethical practice within its ranks. It must be reminded that there is honour even among thieves.)
And then there were none
Singapore's media were not always this sickly. The crackdown started in the 1960s when the Straits Times had its editor Mr Leslie Hoffman threatened with imprisonment if he did not back off in his criticism of the PAP. “We shall put him in,” Mr Lee Kuan Yew thundered, “and keep him in.” Taking the hint, Mr Hoffman made a beeline for Malaysia.
Following the editor's departure, the hitherto independent-minded Straits Times was reconstituted and has never been spotted since.
Other newspapers followed suit. The Malay-language daily Utusan Melayu was shuttered in 1969. Its editor, Mr Said Zahari, who had unfalteringly stood on the side of press freedom, was imprisoned under the ISA for 17 years.
This was followed by Nanyang Siang Pau which printed its last page in 1971 after four of its editors were accused of “glamourising communism” and detained under the ISA.
Within a month, the PAP wrecking ball swung from the communist left to the American right. The vivacious Singapore Herald was accused of being involved in “black operations” with the US intelligence in tow. After a spirited resistance in the form of the 'Save the Herald' campaign led by the National Union of Journalists and joined in by opposition parties, student bodies and labour unions, the PAP forced through the closure of the newspaper.
The Eastern Sun was also accused of being funded by the communists in China. Its editorial staff, unable to work under such a cloud of suspicion, resigned en masse. The government seized the opportunity and shut down the last of Singapore's independent newspapers.
With no one left to stand in its way (opposition leaders were imprisoned, unions crushed and student leaders exiled), the PAP amended the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act (NPPA) in 1974 to outlaw private ownership of newspaper companies in Singapore. Ostensibly, this was to “safeguard public interest” from “undesirable foreign elements”, a line which Mr Tharman continues to faithfully spout.
Today, every newspaper in Singapore, except for TODAY which is owned by MediaCorp, is owned by the Singapore Press Holdings (SPH). The list of people who have chaired the SPH reads like a who's who of the PAP faithful: Mr Lim Kim San (former cabinet minister), Mr S R Nathan (former president), Mr Tony Tan (former deputy prime minister and president), and Mr Lee Boon Yang (former minister and current chairman).
The history of the broadcast media is a lot less eventful. Apart from the change in name – from Radio and Television Singapore (RTS) to the Singapore Broadcasting Corporation (SBC) to Television (and Radio) Corporation of Singapore (TCS) to MediaCorp – the broadcaster at Caldecott has always remained in the hands of the government. With apologies to Shakespeare, arsenic by any other name tastes just as poisonous.
The international media were not spared. Time, Newsweek, Asiaweek, Far Eastern Economic Review, International Herald Tribune, The Economist, and Asian Wall Street Journal were either banned, sued or had their circulation curtailed for reporting unfavourably on our rulers.
Yet, Mr Tharman would have us believe that, having gone through all this trouble, all his party wants is for us to have a media that are “responsible players in an evolving Singapore democracy”.
Yes, and we were all born yesterday.
For the country's good, as always
Having a free media, the DPM adds, is not good for Singapore as they have the ability to “divide people”. He continues with his party's favourite trope that “our media does a better job at advancing the collective interests of Singaporeans...”
Autocrats don't ever crack down on dissent for the own selfish ends; they always do it for the good of the country. Even Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge leader who killed more than one million of his fellow Cambodians averred: “Everything I did, I did for my country.”
But this is where Mr Tharman's rhetoric is so dangerous. Unlike his cabinet mates, like Mr Ong Ye Kung's clumsy and unadorned call for more years of one-party rule, Mr Tharman seduces his critics, good-cop-bad-cop style, by pointing out that he was an activist himself, that he doesn't always agree with his party colleagues' tactics, that he would have liked to see a contest for presidency, etc.
But dwell on them and one sees that these statements are ornamental, serving only to prettify the stark reality that his party has no intention of relaxing its undemocratic grip on Singapore.
Even a cursory survey of history demonstrates irrefutably that closed and captured media ultimately destroy the societies they beguile. Vőlkischer Beobachter in Nazi Germany, Pravda in the Soviet Union, Dabiq in the Islamic State, take your pick, all blindfolded their peoples to misery.
On the other hand, newspapers like the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, The Economist, and news agencies like Reuters, Bloomberg, Agence France-Presse, fallible as they are, are all sources on which the PAP leaders privately rely for news but publicly denigrate for convenience.
It is the contestation of views and ideas enabled by a free media that has ensured human progress. In this day and country, such media are essential to breaking the mind-forged manacles that the PAP has put on us, manacles that continue to stifle the development of a creative and innovative culture.
For all his erudition, it is tragic that Mr Tharman cannot see that the cacophony of views in a democracy – as discordant as they might be – are not a menace to society. A free and open media are, instead, the very essence of a modern and sophisticated community and necessary for the development of a robust political immune system able to withstand shocks and a dynamic socio-economic constitution capable of inspiring growth.
Taking us for fools
“I don’t think Singaporeans are fools,” Mr Tharman admits.
On this, he is completely on the mark. That is why his party has had to resort to introducing the GRC system, politicising the People's Association, threatening to withhold HDB upgrading, suing and prosecuting the opposition, and reserving the presidency in order to stay in power.
But the bigger question is: If the DPM believes that Singaporeans are no fools, then why does he continue to tell us to believe him and not our lying eyes?