Could Singapore Have Feet of Clay?

Singaporeans, as the rest of Asia knows to tiresome detail, are called to a higher standard. And the reason we know is that Singapore Inc never tires of telling us.

As they see it, there’s no conflict of interest in Singapore because the virtuous republic claims to employ “world‘s best practices” of corporate governance. Its politicians claim to be the least corrupt and don’t mind citing myriad independent studies to prove it. Singapore's lapdog media like to boast that they too are among the best in the world in editorial standards, ethics and probity.

So what to make of the solicitations for complimentary accommodation being made to Asian boutique hotel owners by a Singaporean television production house commissioned to make a program for the government-owned broadcaster MediaCorp? As far as boondoggles go, this is one helluva junket.

The Singapore production house Xtreme Films – “Xtreme is a philosophy of going beyond the limits to break out of the box, about unconventional creativity,” or so goes its self-promotion – won a commission in September from MediaCorp’s Channel News Asia (CNA) to make a documentary series called Paradise Asia.

The eight-part series program would highlight Asia’s chic resorts, and be broadcast on CNA in early 2007 – provided the chic resorts pony up.

“Paradise Asia,” wrote CNA’s programming manager Haryaty Abdul Rahman in a letter for Xtreme’s producers to show hoteliers, “will showcase some of the finest, most distinctive and luxurious Asian resorts across the region.”

On the surface, that seems a fairly benign letter establishing Xtreme’s bona fides to potential story subjects. But in the hands of Xtreme, it becomes an invitation to party in some of Asia’s most expensive hotels.

In an email written to one luxury resort owner in tsunami-devastated Sri Lanka, CNA’s representatives began negotiating for access to the recently rebuilt property. The resort owner, who usually sells rooms for upwards of $250-$300, expressed an interest in co-operating, advising that the resort was well used to foreign film crews. He offered the CNA-Xtreme crew a heavily discounted “media rate” of $100 per night.

But the production company was unimpressed with the generous 66% reduction. Xtreme’s Yannling Lim wrote in response “paramount to the feasibility of our project….is the understanding that from 20-24 Jan, our film crew will be able to receive complimentary accommodation at your hotel for the purpose of their documentary work.”

The resort owner responded that “we have a strict policy not to give free accommodation to any media, in order to not be exposed to rumours that we are "buying editorial exposure" in exchange for free accommodation, considered the lowest level of publicity.”

“This is in accordance to international professional standards and media etiquette. I assume that Singapore Media Corp is aware of these.”

Xtreme was not willing to take no for an answer. This time it was Lim’s colleague Michelle Chua who wrote back to the resort-owner.

“With this being a commissioned program, we have been working on the grace of the other various resorts around Asia,” Chua wrote. “(I) am truly sorry we have failed to meet each others' standards/opinions.”

The Lankan resort owner, whose properties have been featured in magazines like Conde Nast Traveler as among the most stylish and desirable in Asia, was appalled.

“The implication here is clear,” he said. “If you don’t provide free accommodation for these people, you don’t get featured.”

“Does this program want to feature the best properties, or the properties that gives them free rooms?” he asked. “Where’s the editorial integrity in that?”

Asia Sentinel put a series of questions to Mediacorp, one of Singapore’s biggest corporations, whose chairman is ex-journalist Ho Kwon Ping, who owns the luxury Banyan Tree resort group.

“Does MediaCorp or its affliates condone the solicitation of free goods and services in the preparation and production of editorial and/or feature programming? Have there ever been any examples of that and, if so, what has been the action of MediaCorp toward those making such solicitations?” we wrote.

MediaCorp did not respond, perhaps hoping that if it doesn’t, the problem will go away, a common tactic among Singapore institutions when asked difficult questions.

Xtreme’s Michelle Chua did respond, to confess that “I have solicited for sponsored accommodation myself for even non-Singapore owned broadcasters.” Oh, so that’s all right then.

At this point, it seemed the questioning of Xtreme got a little too hot for Chua and her team. Writing from location in Thailand, she told the resort owner the reason why he was suddenly dropped from the feature wasn’t because he’d refused to offer a complimentary stay but because of a "startlingly vicious" email she said he had written. She then described her restraint on the job. “We are staying in alternative, nearby budget hotels for at least three other episodes, all currently in production.” She didn’t answer our questions about the accommodation terms for the other five episodes. The resort owner is perplexed. He doesn’t remember writing any email that could even vaguely be described as ‘vicious.” He did write to her that “given the interest of the public in lifestyle issues, such under-the-table-favors are a real disgrace for Singapore media. Its time for a policy change, don't you agree?”Chua wrote back to advise the hotelier that she wouldn’t be writing back.

Continued Chua to us: “it really usually is a 50-50 percent chance whether they will agree to it. Most hotels just decline politely, and everybody moves on.” She didn’t say if Ho’s Banyan Tree would be amongst those featured.

This is contrary to standard procedure among most international media, where staff are forbidden, usually under threat of dismissal, of solicitation and acceptances of freebies.

But it seems that in the world of Singapore government-sponsored TV production at least, one is called to a different standard.