On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Up close and personal for media relations

In the case of Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir
Mohamad and his deputy, Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, they make it a point
to speak to reporters after a function. If time is pressing, reporters are
allowed to throw questions at them as they are leaving.

This same newsman-politician interaction, we can assume, is not enjoyed by our
counterparts in Singapore. In fact, American journalists cannot get near their
President. They are restricted, most of the time, to the White House press
briefing room where a government spokesman would provide them with

Last week, Singapore's Minister of State for National Development Dr Vijian
Balakrishnan found himself embroiled in a controversy when Umno politicians and
the Malaysian press criticised him for purportedly calling Malaysian reporters
''wild animals.''

He had reportedly passed the remark at a luncheon hosted for a visiting Barisan
Nasional Youth delegation in Singapore.

The rookie politician has said the remark was made in jest. He claimed that he
was hurrying along because ''wild animals'' were waiting to pounce on Barisan
Youth chief Datuk Hishamuddin Tun Hussein.

In retaliation, Information Ministry parliamentary secretary Datuk Zainuddin
Maidin, the former Utusan Malaysia editor-in-chief, said the incident showed
that Singaporean journalists behaved like ''mice'' when they came close to
their government leaders.

Not to be outdone, New Straits Times columnist Shamsul Akmar wrote that
Malaysian reporters should feel proud because it proved they were not

Trying to defuse the situation, Dr Vijian said: ''I could say I'm sitting in a
lion's den now.''

Malaysian reporters and Barisan leaders who attended Dr Vijian's luncheon have
admitted that they did not find his remark offensive but others have joined in
the fray to, presumably, settle political scores.

But there is certainly a need for Singaporean leaders, especially the younger
ones, to understand how their counterparts function.

The visit by the Barisan Youth leaders, for example, is good for

Over the past two years, the Singapore Government has, in fact, invited
Malaysian journalists, civil servants and other officials to visit the

But there is one area that Singapore needs to look into – until today,
Malaysian media companies cannot open their offices there.

Except for national news agency Bernama, which has a correspondent in
Singapore, none of the Malaysian newspapers can have representatives

It is a strange decision on the part of Singapore because other foreign
reporters are allowed to operate there. In the case of Malaysia, we have been
liberal by allowing Singapore newspapers to station ''consultants'' here.

In the past, it was worse. Each did not allow the other's newspapers to be
taken into Malaysia or Singapore. Restricting information in this manner is no
longer possible today with the Internet although Malaysian newspapers still
cannot be sold in Singapore and vice-versa.

The restriction came about, presumably, because both sides did not want
emotional stories, written by either side, to be widely read by the

But that should not stop Singapore from discontinuing its policy of not allowing
Malaysian newspaper firms to set up offices there.

Allowing Malaysian journalists to work there would help Singaporean leaders
establish a closer rapport with our media and, in turn, our media could
understand their policies better.

Singapore should not expect contacts with Malaysian journalists to be made
through a lunch or a visit. Relationship takes years to establish.

Over the past week, Singapore newspapers have published stories on how we have
reacted to several issues, ranging from the tudung ban to the visit by
Singapore Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

It's time for leaders such as Lee to influence their government to make bold
decisions that are in tune with the times.

No doubt, they do not have the kind of relationship their predecessors had, but
they also do not carry the baggage of history with them.