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Becoming Asean (four steps at a time)

When I first heard the idea last June, from Pana Janviroj of The Nation in Thailand and Wong Chun Wai of the Star in Malaysia, I thought it was a neat concept, worth doing.

Imagine Southeast Asian newspapers with e-papers grouping together, using the tablet space to offer their papers at a uniform rate and to attract advertisers interested in reaching a regional audience. A good idea, I thought, but not something I would necessarily find use for.

Turns out my imagination did not go far enough. In reality, the bundled subscriptions make for a terrific reading experience.

The other Friday, four members of the Asia News Network - The Nation, Malaysia's Star, the Jakarta Post and the Philippine Daily Inquirer - launched the joint subscription initiative. For a discounted rate, a subscriber to one e-paper gets full access to the three other e-papers. Last Sunday, I finally started the habit of downloading the other e-papers too - and now I'm hooked.

The Post is ready for download at around 11pm, Bangkok time. The Inquirer, the Star and The Nation are available at around five in the morning. That means a subscriber can read these English-language papers from four of the five original members of Asean even before breakfast. For anyone increasingly conscious of Asean's economic integration in 2015, it's a great way to start the day.

If I may cite my own (admittedly very early) experience, a reader can gain several advantages from a close and comparative reading of the e-papers. (For lack of space, let me narrow the scope of comparison to just two of them).

A reader can deepen his understanding of a given news event by reading the different perspectives offered. For instance: The recent raid on a resort in Semporna, Sabah, apparently by mercenaries under the banner of Philippine insurgents Abu Sayyaf, was covered heavily in the Star. In two days, the Star ran eight stories and two opinion pieces on the incident where a Chinese tourist and a Filipino resort worker were abducted.

Malaysian interest in the kidnapping is high in part because of its impact on the country's thriving tourism industry, and in part because one of the two hostages is a woman from Shanghai (the other is a Filipino resort worker). The news that a Chinese tourist had been abducted in territory Malaysia administers "couldn't have happened at a worse time", said one opinion piece, because of Chinese anger over the still-unknown fate of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.

A reader can compare scope and quality of coverage. Unlike the Star's extended look at the Semporna kidnapping, the Inquirer covered the story with only one report and an opinion piece the next day.

Answering the inevitable "why" leads us to the next advantage of the e-papers: a reader can begin to deepen his understanding of four Asean countries. Two examples:

First, the reason Philippine media coverage of the Semporna kidnapping seems merely routine, when compared to the Star's extended coverage, is simple enough: The news does seem like more of the same. The reincarnation of the Abu Sayyaf as a merely criminal enterprise happened many years ago. Abu Sayyaf as a commercial enterprise is looser and therefore harder to stop than as an ideological or religious project.

Second, Malaysian media interest in the Semporna incident has been driven in part by public concern about the performance of the new Eastern Sabah Security Command (Esscom) - something set up as a direct result (but hitherto unknown to most Filipinos) of Sulu insurgents' reckless incursion into Lahad Datu last year. The kidnapping has put the viability of Esscom into question.

But there's a journalistic lesson to be learned too. I like the way Malaysia's Star went beyond the usual official sources and, as a matter of course, interviewed former kidnap victims of the Abu Sayyaf, or their families, or academics who are expert in the subject, for perspective. Last Sunday, it was "Dr Shamsuddin L Taya of Mindanao", a visiting lecturer in Malaysia, who offered words of caution: "As the Abu Sayyaf no longer has a prominent leader, it is easier for any gangster group to claim link to the outfit."

And on Monday, the Star interviewed the brother of the Taiwanese tourist who was kidnapped by the Abu Sayyaf from Semporna last November; he had advice for the family of the Chinese hostage. "Stay calm and strong while preparing for long-haul negotiation." Journalists confined to a way of reporting based only on official sources might take heed.


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