The flip side of the Filipino Day

In News Reports, Society, Writing on April 16, 2014 at 2:34 am

We all know that there are racists and xenophobes in Singapore, as there are in any society. The sane among us know not to add fuel to their fire. We do not encourage their sentiments – because we do not share them. Sometimes we ignore them because there is no way to change how they feel. And, of course, no one would acknowledge to being racist or xenophobic.

So when does racism and xenophobia become news?

I ask this because I was aghast to read the article, Filipino group gets online flak over event, published in The Straits Times today.

It said: Organisers of a plan to celebrate Philippine Independence Day here had to remove a Facebook post about the event, after it drew a storm of vitriol and protests from netizens.
The online response came as a shock, they said, though they still intend to proceed with the celebration on June 8 at Ngee Ann City’s Civic Plaza, pending approval of permits from the authorities.

A lot of things get “online flak’’, so when is “flak’’ so heavy that it deserves further magnification in The Straits Times? Well, it seems that the removal of a FB post about the event by the hapless organisers was enough to merit a piece of real estate in ST. It was prime estate as well, on page A8, not in the bowels of its Home section.

Note: The organisers weren’t compelled to stop the June event. They are still proceeding with it as soon as they get the licences. If they were bullied into stopping altogether, methinks it would be worth some newsprint space.
So perhaps the online flak itself is enough to merit a story?

The article continued:
The Pilipino Independence Day Council Singapore (PIDCS), a group of Filipino volunteers, put up a post on Facebook about the event last weekend and drew fire almost immediately.
Negative comments from Singaporeans flooded in, with Facebook page “Say ‘No’ to an overpopulated Singapore” urging locals to protest on the PIDCS page.

The page, which has 26,000 “likes”, is against the celebration of the Philippine Independence Day here and said that festivities should be confined to the Philippine Embassy compound.

It was the 26,000 “likes’’ that prompted me to check the particular page. I couldn’t believe that 26,000 would say no to the community holding an event here. We have that many xenophobes? If so, it is something worth reporting because there is something seriously wrong with Singapore society.
It turned out that the FB page has been set up way back when the White Paper on Population was still a hot issue. The page has all sorts of posts, including on the death of a wrestling star, the haze and the predictable pillorying of G leaders. It wasn’t a page that was dedicated to the event.

The post which called for the protest drew 300-plus likes – a more “respectable’’ number. In fact, it is a number which should not even bother any journalist. It is inconsequential in the scheme of “likes’’ in the internet space. So why does it even deserve newsprint space in the august ST?

Now, I am firmly against the protest. I think the arguments against the Filipinos holding its own day at Ngee Ann City in Orchard Road are narrow-minded.

The protesters said on the FB page that they are against three things:
a. We are against them using the Singapore skyline in their logo for their Philippine Independence Day logo & posters, Facebook page, websites, etc.

Why? They live and work here presumably, and we are the host country. Perhaps some people think it looks as though the Filipinos have taken over the country? And Singapore is the Philippines? Why such insecurity? I happen to think it’s a nice gesture to the host country. It should be the Filipinos back home who are aghast that their own national symbols aren’t used. Not us.

b. We are against them in using the terms “Two Nations” and “Inter-dependence” in their Philippine Independence Day celebration posters. Singapore only observe and celebrate our own National Day on the 9th of August and we DO NOT and WILL NOT have a joint-celebration of “Inter-dependence” with another sovereign state. Their event is insinuating a very serious and misleading assumption; which we Singaporeans have never endorsed.

Hmm….is there a communication problem here? Something lost in translation? Isn’t it good that the community recognises the inter-dependence of nations? I don’t think the Filipinos are calling for a joint celebration! Rather, more an invitation to Singaporeans to join them in their celebrations.

Its organiser was reported as saying in ST: “We are not saying that we are trying to take over. Our drive is to be part of the community and try to open up to other nationalities. Interdependence doesn’t mean Singaporeans depend on us, but that we all help each other.”

I agree. It seems to me that the protesters have misled themselves

c. We are against them in celebrating their country’s Independence on Singapore soil. We urge them, however, to do so in their own Embassy compound.

For crying out loud…By the way, the community has held similar celebrations in the past, in Hong Lim Park and Suntec City. Is Orchard Road so sacred? And what does it say about the country’s own celebration of Singapore Day around the world; we took a public garden in Sydney and more recently, spent $4m or so in London. So Singapore should stop its own celebrations on foreign soil and confine the activities only in the embassy compound? If the other countries reacted like these “protesters’’ did, then perhaps we should.

The so-called protest leaves a bad taste in the mouth. But then again, it’s a SMALL group, not some 26,000 or so as ST seemed to have implied.

Which brings me back to the question: What is the duty of care that MSM should exercise when publishing or broadcasting what goes on on the Internet? There will always be vitriol, even in pre-Internet days. But to have the MSM further magnify this (based on 300, not 26,000 likes) is downright bad reporting and bad judgment. If it was a question of numbers only – that is, so many thousands of people protesting – then it should take a look at the anti-STOMP petition and publish a story. The same rules must apply, even to itself.

What I cannot abide is how the article has given the impression to its much touted 1million readers or so that the entire Internet community is a bunch of rabid, raving xenophobes. I wouldn’t put it past some politician to refer to this as an example of the terrible nature of the community.

Now I certainly hope the authorities aren’t going to get cold feet and deny the licences to the organisers because of this and cite “security and law and order considerations ’’. I hope the Filipinos go ahead and organise the celebration. Just make sure you don’t riot or consume too much alcohol or litter or pee in the plaza.

This Singaporean wishes you a good Independence Day.

Before we stomp on STOMP

In News Reports on April 10, 2014 at 3:45 am

So, it’s 20,000 signatures and counting…That’s for the online petition to close down STOMP started by a Mr Robin Li.

The reason, according to the petition: STOMP publishes fabricated stories that promote cyber-bullying and unrest in the name of “citizen journalism’’. It doesn’t acknowledge mistakes and seems to lack guidelines that would screen out fabrications by contributors.

It is a worthy enough reason and one which would probably apply to countless of sites that unabashedly fabricate stuff under the guise of free speech and discussion. (What has happened to that petition to close down The Real Singapore?)

I suppose what grates on people is that STOMP is part of the Singapore Press Holdings stable using the brand name of The Straits Times. BTW, I declare my interest. I was party to the setting-up of STOMP all those years ago. It was meant to capture the young people on the Internet and get them to engage with the fuddy-duddy ST. There was some original content, giving different insights into the news of the day and I remember an extremely successful MMS talent quest and a successful “getai’’ series. It was an experiment to catch young eyeballs with a down-to-earth, life-stylish, grassroots approach that was accessible. (I admit to not being comfortable with the experiment as it seemed so at odds with the august and conservative tone of ST. But then again, I’m a fuddy duddy and who can object to an experiment to capture a slice of the online pie?)

Celebrating “citizen journalism’’ was part of its core mission. The idea was to give netizens a platform to post stuff which would be curated, edited and then published. For journalists, such user-generated content was a great source of news tip-offs, especially in its early years. STOMPers acted as eyes and ears on the ground. In the era before Facebook, it collected views. Both functions are less well-used now that social media is so wide-spread and news tip offs and opinions can come from anywhere.

(By the way, I object to the phrase citizen journalism – and have always done so. It cannot be that anyone with a camera phone can be considered a journalist. The right term is “eye-witness’’. A journalist asks questions about the picture and gets the full facts. Most “citizen journalists’’ simply capture a moment in time – and believe it to be newsworthy because he likes it or hates it – and then he opines.)

That STOMP has been successful is in no doubt. It has become part of the vocabulary, even a verb. You STOMP something or you are afraid of being STOMPed. It can even be used a threat…I’ll put it up on STOMP. STOMP has been lauded by its peers in the industry. Its list of accolades is long, including Best in Online media (Gold) last year from the World Association of Newspapers. The accolades must count for something.

Question: After so long in operation and the praise of its peers, why the sudden move to petition for its closure?

I venture to say this: There is so much rubbish online these days that we would like to see a marker of standards, especially from a media company. There must have been plenty of gaffes in the past, but it seems only more recently that people are complaining about the mis-steps of STOMP. Of course, STOMP didn’t help its case when one of its own was found fabricating material. And we still do not know how the offending picture of the NSman who did not give up his seat on the train to an old lady was cropped to leave out the vacant seat in front of her.

Because STOMP is part of a media company, people expect that some amount of scrutiny and editing should take place before inflicting content on the public. This expectation is even greater now given, well, the escalating amount of rubbish online. The flip side, of course, will be charges of censorship and how STOMP refuses to publish because of so-and-so reasons which have nothing to do with journalistic merit.

What rules should be in place then to guard against insane rants and fabrications? How to draw the line between trivial stuff that would divide people and cause “social unrest’’ and trivial stuff that are, well, trivial and may be good for a laugh? Should trivial stuff even make it on STOMP or should  they be considered as “slice of life’’ pieces or a collection of the diversity of Singapore, in all its groaning glory?

And how to screen out online trolls who are out to do in someone or up to plain mischief? Can STOMP do an ST Forum Page and contact contributors who must leave behind their full names and addresses? That would go against the nature of online contributions.

Maybe, we should look at it this way. Best to give the kooks and nutters a platform so that we know where they are. And not to take STOMP seriously at all. This, of course, won’t be good for its image and the image of the media company. It will be open to accusations of sensationalism and in the business of capturing as many eyeballs as it can by catering to the lowest common denominator. Drivel, unfortunately, attracts eyeballs.

Perhaps, it is good if STOMP makes a re-statement on what it is about and what it hopes to achieve. This is what it says now about itself:

Award-winning STOMP, or Straits Times Online Mobile Print, is Asia’s leading citizen-journalism website with user-generated material fuelling its success.

We’re also big on social networking, enabling millions to come together to interact and bond both online and offline in Singapore Seen and Club Stomp.

STOMP connects, engages and interacts with Singaporeans in a style and approach that is different from conventional news websites. Its strong growth reflects not only its popularity but its resonance with Singaporeans.

This is pretty old hat and can be applied to any website that has a social networking function and ah,,,,parodies the news! SGAG? New Nation?

Maybe it should also say what it is NOT. Right now, it is not about generating deep discussions on policy or starting useful debates. It isn’t geared towards doing so. For that, you have The Straits Times. (Don’t laff)

Then again, what it has been doing so successfully for years is causing a backlash (although it can argue that its fans outnumber its detractors) I say it was an interesting experiment in a time when there weren’t so many alternative platforms for the trivial or slice of life stuff. It acquired first-mover status and a market. Now, it has to find something new to distinguish itself from the rest of the hoi polloi.

Any media must move with the times, the demands of its ever-changing audience and in the case of Singapore and its media duopoly, show how responsible online journalism should be conducted.

STOMP should take a step back and re-consider its content if it wants to continue to stomp ahead.



More than grade expectations

In News Reports on April 10, 2014 at 12:05 am

Every time anything goes wrong, it’s de rigueur to blame the education system. My class of undergraduates, too, are prone to laying the blame on the system which has allowed them to get this far. And I would have thought they would be appreciative of how, rightly or wrongly, they were beneficiaries of the system.

Is this why some people are sniffing at the results of the PISA test on problem-solving? Singapore is No. 1 but not many people are cheering the accolade despite the best attempts of MSM to rah-rah Singapore’s pole position. The Prime Minister and Education minister have weighed in too, pointing out that the scores debunk the stereotype that the education system is based on rote-learning.

Still, many people are asking questions of PISA, including Western academics who decry the poor positions of the teens of the West. (Predictable, you say?) Even over here, people including me, wonder if those rose-tinted glasses are firmly on the nose of those who blow the trumpet.

So what’s the beef?

A lot is about the “so what’’? So what if our 15 years old are better at problem solving than other teens their age in the rest of the world? They can’t string a sentence together to save their lives, so detractors say. I agree somewhat. Articulation is not the best trait in our young people. I don’t mean “outspokenness’’ but simply being able to communicate their thoughts. They can probably do it on paper, after several revisions. But to get them to do so on their feet and you will see their tongues tied and, if loosened, tripping over what they want to say. The brain isn’t connected to the vocal cords. Sometimes I wonder if they even know what they want to say or if those words that emit from the mouth is merely taking up air space…

Is this a big deal? I know of several people with a language handicap who somehow manage to express their ideas clearly, even if not grammatically. I am full of admiration for them because at least, they KNOW what they want to say and will do their damnedest to express it. They are not shy. And because they do not have a vocabulary of big words, they use simple language effectively.

I have to add that this is a phenomenon I see in foreigners, including foreign students. When educated Singaporeans speak up, however, they speak in the language of  the press release or the academic thesis. That was my experience when undergraduates started writing for Breakfast Network, the poor ole’ site which has been shut down. It took a few months to get them out of their preachy, grandfatherly language and rid themselves of flabby words that contribute to nothing more than adding to length. I found that the less time I give them to ponder, the better and clearer  their written work. Nothing contributes more to clarity than stress!

Asked about this, fingers are pointed firmly at how they were taught. This is the generation which was not taught the rules of grammar. They say that their primary school teachers place a premium on the number of “big’’ words they use. So a test of vocabulary, I asked? Not really, they said. More a test of polysyllables that are descriptive in nature. They take this habit with them when they go higher up the education ladder and have to write “argumentatively’’.

Also, there is a tendency to ask about “word count’’. This is normal in academia where teachers expect essays of a certain length.  Students write to fit 1,000 words or 8,000 words as directed. It becomes a numbers game where words become more important than content. It is hard for them to grapple with an instruction such as “give it what it’s worth in as short a space as possible’’. Numbers act as the end point for thoughts. That’s why the stuff they write is usually so florid. It should be florid because writing simple sounds stupid.

As someone who champions clear and simple communication, that kind of thinking is what is stupid.      

But the young people are not surprised that Singapore is No.1 at problem solving. Throw them a problem and they will get cracking. That’s what they are used to and good at.

PISA detractors note that the teenagers solve problems individually in front of a computer. So it is a very individual activity which requires no socialisation or brain-storming. It’s straight-line thinking. I wonder what would happen if the Singaporean students are asked to say HOW they solve the problem. Will they be able to articulate their solution? Or if they have to solve problems in a group or deal with a problem which has no solution.

Employers are quick to lament the poor presentation skills of Singaporeans. In the big world where they have to interact with others, they fall short because they cannot express themselves clearly and will not put themselves forward. One wag talks about cringing when the locals have to take global conference calls or meetings. Mangled tenses. Long pauses. Jumbled phrases. They are outshone by those less intelligent but more articulate than they are. Well, an empty barrel makes the most noise too.

I think it would take a patient employer to find out what gems are hidden in the silent bodies of their workers. Maybe our young people are better at connecting via email or Twitter or SMS – an individual activity which does not require anyone to stand in front of a crowd and argue or defend a point on the spot. They are so used to individual activity that they become socially awkward. Not good. Not good.

Our education system is cognizant of this. So classes are now more interactive and project or group work encouraged. I only ask that when we teach our young people to speak up, they also make sense…

Okay. Back to those PISA scores.

 Methinks we are being too hard on the education system which has, after all, built the world’s No. 1 problem solvers. It’s a great achievement. We shouldn’t expect international tests to examine all aspects of education to our satisfaction. It’s probably difficult enough to come up with a problem solving test that would be applicable across all nations. Just think. If Singapore was No. 40, we’d be kicking up a greater, bigger fuss.

Our cynicism probably lies in the high expectations of what we expect of the education system which unfortunately cannot be one-size-fits-all. If our young people suddenly become vocal paragons, we’d probably have something bad to say about it as well. Perhaps we’ve also become blasé about reports of Singapore being No. 1 in this or that and can’t help but pour cold water over results because the reality the individuals among us face or see doesn’t fit the high scores.

We ask ourselves: Are we really that good?

Well, we’re definitely not perfect. But maybe sometimes we should admit that we’re good. Somewhat.




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