berthahenson

Open Letter to ST Readers Editor

In News Reports, Politics, Society on April 21, 2014 at 12:42 am

I am writing to convey my great disappointment over ST’s reporting of the online protests against the holding of the Philippines Independence Day celebrations.

In your first report, you said:
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.

This is inaccurate. The 26,000 “likes’’ are for the page itself, which was set up a few years ago and has a wide variety of posts including those not associated with foreigners. The post calling for the protest amounted to some 300-plus “likes’’.

This mis-reporting has caused consternation as it implied that 26,000 citizens or so support the protests – which is not true. For a subject that is potentially explosive, I believe it behoved ST to be extra vigilant in the accuracy of the information it publishes.

There was no correction nor clarification, which would be important for readers who read only your august newspaper. Nor was there an attempt to set the record straight in your next article on the protest organisers receiving threats. Or in subsequent articles and in your editorial.

In your Sunday Times article, Filipino group heartened by support, you chose again not to correct the misimpression. You quoted selectively from Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan Jin’s Facebook post, focusing only on his point that xenophobia should not be tolerated.

You ignored this point: “That there are xenophobes wasn’t the surprising part since there are these sad elements in any society. It was the reported 26,000 ‘likes’ for the page … that raised my brows. As it turned out, the reporting was inaccurate.”

Likewise, you quoted selectively from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s Facebook page on this issue, neglecting to incorporate this line: “Fortunately, it was the work of a few trolls.’’

It would seem that ST has gone to great lengths to sweep its mistake under the carpet, an ignominious thing to do for a newspaper which prides itself on accuracy. For ST-only readers, the 26,000 figure is what will stick in their minds, tarring the online community as a bunch of rabid xenophobes. Foreigners who read ST only would also come away with the impression that Singapore is on the verging of losing its sanity over the immigration issue.

In her column on April 19, your writer Ms Chua Mui Hoong used the online protests as a launch pad to discuss whether such online views are representative of Singapore society at large. She too made no mention of ST’s mistake of exaggerating the protest numbers although she did say this: From all acounts, that anger seems to be an over-reaction from a segment of Singaporeans against a perfectly pleasant, legitimate event. Many others spoke up against such anti-foreigner sentiments.

She also said: Unlike blogs in English which delight in ripping off mainstream media’s reports, Chinese language bloggers used mainstream media reports as sources of information, not as fodder for criticism.

I would like to point out that this is precisely why ST should be careful with its news reports – because the mainstream media is used as a source of information. This means that when it is inaccurate, it must brace itself for criticism, acknowledge its failings and not dismiss the comments of those, whom as Ms Chua put it, “delight in ripping off’’ its reports.

Ms Chua concluded: So it’s never a good idea to generalise from a group of angry netizens to Singapore society at large.

I agree. And it would help if ST was more careful in its reporting and upfront about its mistakes instead of adding to the misperception.

A mid-term report

In News Reports, Politics, Society on April 19, 2014 at 3:55 am

ST pulled out its big guns to mull over a mid-term report on Singaporean’s satisfaction with the G. They dissected the views on health, transport and housing and expanded on what they saw as middle class angst over the state of affairs here.

The survey results were generally favourable to the G, noting higher levels of satisfaction over its attempts to fix the housing, healthcare needs of citizens and to alleviate the plight of the old and the poor. Post-2011 GE – and the G seems to have taken into account the woes of the populace. Yet as commentator after commentator pointed out, the disaffected will still say that the measures were too little, too late and the problems were wrought by bad policies, which behoved the G to rectify anyway. Some will point to the small sample size of 500. But students of statistics will allow that a sample, if scientifically picked and polled, would suffice as a more-or-less accurate gauge of sentiment. Far better than the usual street poll, at least…  

In any case, I’d wager anything for comments to surface that the survey was a white-wash, initiated by a pro-G media mouthpiece which sought to present the survey results as the voice of silent majority.

Frankly, I’m not too surprised at the results. Bread-and-butter issues have always been foremost in the Singaporean mindset. People are happy that the problem of affordable housing seems to have been fixed and moves are being made to provide for universal healthcare. Social policies in recent years have been geared towards alleviating the plight of the poor, aided by the G’s constant reminders of the amount of money, subsidies and benefits that go to the group. The Pioneer Generation Package is appreciated. The need to provide medical cover for those who pre-date the CPF scheme and Medisave has been thoroughly welcomed, although experts have noted that the devil is in the details.  

Give us the good life – that’s what we want.

We also want lower COE prices and a train system that doesn’t break down. That’s the biggest bugbear of those surveyed. The G is having difficulty on this front, and no wonder. In housing, it has the levers of HDB and land sales as well as the power to restrict or expand lending through MAS regulations. Its network of polyclinics and public hospitals as well as controls over CPF and Medisave also work as healthcare financing instruments. In transport, besides the Land Transport Authority,road-building and infrastructure, public transport is really in private hands and private enterprises are wily enough to get round private transport curbs. Hence the luckless Mr Lui Tuck Yew.

When it comes to conceptualising policies, this really is a good government, aided by a very able civil service (MDA excepted). Increasingly, a soft touch is being applied to them, which we will probably see more of when Parliament re-opens.

As for the not-as-satisfied middle class and mid-age group, their sentiments have been variously described as conforming to a traditional U-shape for happiness (because this is the segment everywhere which has to deal with the bread and butter issues with car, house, children to support). Or explained as high expectations of an even better life than what they now have.

Now, the G can fix policies to give more people a fair shake, but raising the tide to lift all boats will be a far tougher issue at a time when people are unhappy about life’s stresses and the influx of foreigners needed to fuel the economy.   

How will this translate into votes come election time? There is a chart in the bowels of ST which could shed light. It does not refer to policy issues, but how survey respondents pick their MPs .

Of six factors, national policies and their impact on the individual were rated as “important’’ or “very important’’ for 86 per cent of them; or a mean of 4.1 on a scale of 1 to 5. This bodes well for the G, except that other contrary factors are also at work, such as how about 80 per cent think it “important’’ or “very important” to have checks and balances on the G, especially among the vast swathe of 21 to 54 year olds, and the higher-income. Indeed, a high 35 per cent viewed this as “very important’’. Expressed in terms of averages, this factor scored 4.11.  

There is another statistic: 29 per cent viewed the need for alternative views in Parliament as “very important’’; the same proportion as those who placed such a premium on local constituency issues. The score for alternative views is 4.05. For local issues, 4.02.  

The other two factors are the candidate’s attributes (4.11) and party (4.09).

I wish the survey had ranked the factors as well, so that we know which the people placed the greatest weight on.

Statistics can of course be interpreted any which way. But it is absolutely clear that the People’s Action Party will never go back to the days of a one-party Parliament however it satisfies the people policy-wise. Despite innovations like the Nominated MP scheme, the people’s aspirations for a more diverse Parliament have not been assuaged. In fact, it might have raised expectations instead. You can also expect that some will attribute the G’s performance to the presence of more opposition MPs and the rude awakening call it was administered at the last GE. In fact, it might lead some to think that more opposition would bring about better government.

Of course, the reverse could happen. Those who voted against the current G might feel that it has seen the “error of its ways’’ or the benefits of social policy are felt widely enough for more people to feel that the G has done right – and will continue to do right – by them.  

How the G does in the rest of parliamentary term will be critical. Can it consolidate its gains and ride the 50th anniversary feel-good tide?  Can it “fix’’ the current pre-occupation of residents – rising cost of living?

Truth be told, I am a little uncomfortable with its shift towards more “social’’ governance. Methinks it would lead to greater expectations on the part of the people and invite a greater role for the G in the people’s lives.

But it is so very important to satisfy the people, isn’t it?

  

 

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.

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