Singapore’s PM Lee misses the news

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong either missed the news or gave his May Day speech just before the news broke. Blaming the uncertain economic outlook, he says: "A US recession has probably started." If it has, it hasn't yet been officially recorded. Just to set the record straight, here's the news reported by AFP:

The US economy managed to avert the onset of recession as it struggled to show a 0.6 percent annual growth pace in the first quarter, government figures showed Wednesday.

The first estimate of gross domestic product was slightly better than expected and came amid fears that the world's biggest economy might be headed for recession, generally defined as two consecutive quarters of declining activity.

The 0.6 percent growth rate was the same as in the fourth quarter of 2007, the Commerce Department report showed.

Not that the US economy is out of the woods. As the Associated Press reported:

Many analysts were predicting the gross domestic product (GDP) would weaken a bit more — to a pace of just 0.5 percent — in the first quarter. Earlier this year, some thought the economy would actually lurch into reverse during the opening quarter. Now, they say they believe that will likely happen during the current April-to-June period…

Gross domestic product measures the value of all goods and services produced within the United States and is the best measure of the country's economic health.  

So PM Lee's fears about the US economy may prove prophetic yet.

But I didn't set out to write about how PM Lee has to catch up with the news.

I noticed that only while reading the speech.

This post is about how the media spins the news: the May Day speech, for example.

How the Straits Times spins the news

The Straits Times headline says:

PM upbeat about S'pore economy.

It then adds in a subhead:

He is confident Singapore will be able to weather uncertain global outlook.

The Channel NewsAsia website, on the contrary, runs the headline:

PM Lee cautions S'poreans to prepare for economic slowdown.

Because the headlines are so different, I decided to look at the speech itself. Here are the first two paragraphs:

2007 was a good year for Singapore and its workers. The economy grew robustly, many jobs were created, and workers enjoyed good wage settlements. In unionised companies, bonuses were the highest since 1990. The mood was upbeat.

This year will be much more challenging. Our economy is still doing well, but dark storm clouds have gathered. The sub-prime mortgage loans crisis in the US has become a much broader problem. A US recession has probably already started. The question is how long, and how severe, the downturn will be.

So that’s how the Straits Times got its headline: it borrowed the word “upbeat” from the first paragraph which was about last year!

Just kidding.

The Straits Times used words from the prime minister’s speech itself. It ends with these words:

Overall, however the US financial problems play out, I am confident of our ability to cope. The global environment is in flux, and we are sailing into choppier waters. But our economic fundamentals are sound and we are in a strong position. Let us gird ourselves and keep our spirits up. Together, we will overcome the challenges ahead, and continue improving our lives.

I wish all Singaporeans a Happy May Day

But the speech begins on a note of caution which was highlighted in all the reports I have seen except the Straits Times’.

The Straits Times even added data that’s not in the text of the prime minister’s speech to make the outlook more rosy. It reported:

Latest job figures released yesterday … show that a record 68,400 jobs were added to the economy in the first three months of the year, exceeding the 62,500 jobs created in the previous quarter and 49,400 in the same quarter last year.

Still, despite the job boom, the unemployment rate climbed from 1.7 percent in December to 2 percent in March.

What the Straits Times didn’t say is that unemployment is expected to grow, which was reported by Reuters.

I know the Straits Times means well and didn’t want to spoil the holiday mood, but does it have to look only on the bright side? It’s a newspaper after all, not a get-well card!