berthahenson

Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

About a mother

In Writing on May 10, 2015 at 10:47 am

My mother turned 70 in February although you wouldn’t be able to tell her age if you meet her. If she’s captured on one of those websites which gives her age, it will probably say 50 – which is what I am. I weep every time I get mistaken for her sister or her friend.

When I grow old(er), I want to be like my mother, an active, healthy and I believe, happy, septuagenarian.

People have described my mother as quite a character. I agree.

This is my mother:

She zips around in her, or rather, my car, but only when I am with her or if she needs to ferry me or her grandson somewhere. (I don’t drive). Most times, she drives to a “cheap’’ carpark to take the bus or MRT. Saves on ERP and parking fees, she says.

She takes care of her appearance with her round of mani/pedi, exercise, facials, face and eyebrow threading, at neighbourhood places which she deems cheap and good. She colours her hair only when I do so she can “steal’’ some dye from my hair-stylist for free.

She needs so little dye. I, on the other hand, am a full head of grey.

She is a fantastic cook (she’s a nonya) and sometimes bakes cookies and mooncakes for “extra’’ money. Now, this is NOT because her children do not give her a big enough allowance. They do, but she says nothing beats making her own money. I end up being her kitchen helper.

She’s a frugal shopper who will make a trip to Shengsiong supermarket to demand a 50 cent refund for something she was over-charged. When she bargains, I tell her I will go walk around for half an hour and so and meet her back at the shop. I’m usually too early because the price negotiations wouldn’t have ended. She is so happy with her Pioneer Generation card that she flashes it everywhere she goes, asking if it entitled her to any discount. Times like these, I look away.

Despite her frugal nature, she presses me to buy expensive, designer clothes that I don’t want – because she thinks I need to splurge on myself. “Girl, you like, just buy,’’ she tells me like it’s the easiest thing in the world for me to reach for my wallet and pull out dollar notes. If I decline, she goes: “Mommy will buy for you’’, forgetting that her money is mine.

When she got twinges in her hip which made it difficult for her to shop for three households (hers, mine and my brother’s) and to do her own household chores, I got her a live-in maid to help. But she complains about the invasion of her privacy because she now locks her bedroom door when she sleeps. She thinks it will be better to move into an old folks home, forgetting she will get even less privacy there. (My brother and I know she doesn’t mean it…)

She did not have much of an education but she is an avid newspaper reader. She would call me or my brother whenever she comes across words and phrases she doesn’t understand. I bought her an electronic dictionary when she started reading my book, Troublemaker. She seldom uses it because it is so difficult to type the word and “telephoning’’ is faster, she says. It was she who taught me my ABCs and 123s. She caned me when I attached two zeros to make an 8. Yup, I still remember my kindergarten days.

Now in the twilight of her years, I want her to be a tai tai, to have lunches with her church kakis and to play mahjong. She is beginning to do so. I want her to be clear of any worries and never have to re-live those days when money was short and life was tough. She deserves as much rest and happiness as possible because she has spent her whole life looking after her younger brothers and then, looking after her own children.

I am still “girl’’ to my mother and she still tells me to be careful while crossing the road. But I wouldn’t exchange her for anybody else in the world. Who else will drive me around, fill my fridge, buy me health supplements, brew me yucky medicinal soups, sew me my pjyamas and become, in effect, my all-round concierge? Who else will keep calling me to remind me of things I have to do myself – because it is impossible for her to forge my signature?  Who else will be my best friend, scold me, laugh with me and weep with me? Who else knows everything about me?

Okay, I take back the last line.

She is NOT internet-savvy and so she doesn’t quite know what I do online. She knows that I “write’’ and worries incessantly that my writing will get me into “trouble’’. I will probably get into trouble, with her (!), for writing this. But I think I might just escape the sharp end of her tongue. You see, I am going away for a two-week holiday with my mother tomorrow so, hopefully, no one gets to tell her about it before we get out of Singapore.

It’s my mother’s day present to her.

I love you mom.

PS. Can those of you who know mom PLEASE SHUT UP?

How to smear elegantly

In News Reports, Writing on March 17, 2015 at 2:12 am

So StarHub and M1 are pissed that SingTel appears to have employed a social media agency to complain about their services. SingTel denies this, according to TODAY. It was not its brief, it said. So it seems to be saying that it did not hire Gushcloud to do a smear campaign, but just to get more people to sign up for its Youth Plan – or something. But the agency decided (on its own?) to leverage on its network of social influencers to bad mouth the two other telcos. An “internal brief’’ was leaked by blogger Xiaxue whose relationship with Gushcloud is, to put it mildly, complicated.

Among briefing points: the influencers are to share with its readers how they are fed up with the other telcos and have plans to sign on another plan. And to hint heavily that they are moving to SingTel’s Youth Plan.

Sigh.

Anyway, since social influencers need a brief on smearing, here are my tips…

1. Always say that you are doing it for the company’s good, and that you hope it will take criticism constructively. Then launch into its failings in point form.

2. Don’t make specific accusations that you can’t back up, just ask enough uncomfortable questions such as “Is your company going to survive this debacle?’’.

3. Say that it is not just you who have experienced bad service etc but your friends as well. And they must be correct because they are all your FB friends.

4. Apologise in advance if you have hurt the company’s feelings when you talk about its failings, then go on to talk about how it should emulate its rivals.

5. Say that you are doing an analysis of the merits and demerits of companies in the industry – but then again, you’re just a layman so it might not be scientific. And to please forgive

6. Adopt a sad tone. Say that you have been a fan/customer/client since you were six years old. But since you are now all grown-up, you’ve wisened up to its tricks and regret that you have to part company.

7. Use big words that sound slightly legal. That will make the company sit up and worry that you are going to sue. That might even earn you a rebate, discount or free gift.

8. If you want to be nice, use terms such as how it can “further’’ improve, “better’’ enhance whatever it does so that it won’t feel that it is THAT bad, just not very good.

9. Use backhanded compliments, such as how you love the taste of the food, but you had diarrhea after eating or how you think it provides incomparably great service, but should fix its faulty products.

10. Damn it with faint praise: Your products are “not too bad’’, your service is “okay’’ and your company might just be able to retain its customers for the foreseeable future, and even gain one or two new ones.

11. Sign off nicely. Thank you so much for listening to me vent. Here’s wishing your company all the best in its future endeavours. Then use a nice pseudonym such as iloveXX (XX is company name). Remember to add a smiley emoticon.

Enjoy.

A big fail of a story

In News Reports, Writing on December 4, 2014 at 1:59 am

This post is for those interested in journalism or those who fancy themselves “professional’’ readers. I am putting this up because I don’t understand how or why the story made it into the public domain.

This is the headline in BT yesterday: Spanish tycoon pays $4,100-plus psf for pair of Seven Palms Sentosa Cove units.

Story:

The overall Sentosa Cove condo market may be languishing, but SC Global Developments is understood to have sold two units at its Seven Palms Sentosa Cove at what could be a record price in the waterfront housing district: $4,100-plus per square foot. The overall lump sum works out to $28.55 million.

Now, it is the job of journalists to verify and confirm. The intro is an uncertain intro (understood/what could be a record), despite the impression given by the headline. It’s perfectly okay to say it is understood if you tell me “how’’ you understand and if requisite checks have been done. That is, was SC Global Developments contacted? Some way to check caveats? Who/what is the source? The story doesn’t even say “sources’’.

Spanish tycoon Ricardo Portabella Peralta is thought to be the buyer of two neighbouring units on the third-level of the four story condo, which is flanked by Tanjong beach on one side with the adjacent greens of the Sentosa Golf Course, and the South China Sea on the other. Mr Peralta is chairman of Groupe Ventos and inherited a huge fortune, especially related to Danone Spain.

Again, “thought to be’’? There is no way to confirm this? Who is giving  this info? A friend of Mr Peralta? A business associate? Was Mr Peralta contacted? If he’s such a big man, he would aides/PR agents who deal with queries. Again, no indication.

Seven Palms Sentosa Cove received the Temporary Occupation Permit in the first quarter of 2013. The low-rise project has only 41 luxuriously appointed beach-house apartments available in three, four and five-bedroom configuration ranging from around 2,700 sq ft to 8,000 sq ft. The units picked up by Peralta are believed to be around 3,400-plus sq ft each.

Hmmm….thank you for telling me about the layout and all. But what is this “believed to be around 3,400-plus sq ft’’? If it is “around’’, do you need a “plus’’? Small point, but it all adds to how this story is so iffy.

The project was designed by Kerry Hill Architects, which has designed many Aman resorts.

Again, thank you. But up till now, I still have no idea if the report is real. I am supposed to take it on faith with no sight of whether checks have been made – not even attempts at a check. After this comes backgrounding on how Aussie Gina Rinehart was “reported to have paid’’ $57.2 million for two units in 2012. Price “was thought to have crossed $4,000 psf’’. Sigh. Even old stories don’t have facts nailed down.

Then this follows:

While the news of Mr Peralta’s purchase of the two Seven Palms units is not expected to improve sentiment for Sentosa Cove properties in the short term, “the news will be a good highlight to a very quiet and dismal year for Sentosa Cove’’, said Century 21 CEO Ku Swee Yong.

Gosh! “News’’ of his purchase? I am not sure I would call something so iffy news. Why is this Century 21 person being quoted so lamely on this? It would be better if readers are given an overview of what is “quiet and dismal’’. How many Seven Palms condos sold? What about other Sentosa Cove properties? Oh! And is this guy the “source’’?

A little bit more interesting, the next paragraph:

Transactions of condos as well as bungalows have thinned drastically. A few months ago, two units in the Turqiose Condo, both mortgagee sales, transacted at around $1,400 psf – a record low since the 2006/7 luxury housing boom, noted Mr Ku.

But it still doesn’t give me overall numbers, just a “highlight’’. Wonder if this piece of news was reported during that very unspecific “a few months ago’’?

As to why Seven Palms still managed to set a record price, or at least a near record price, Mr Ku said: “This is the only beachfront condo, and probably the only beachfront resident in Singapore. Morever, SC Global’s products have a certain premium…’’

Goodness, tentativeness of the story displayed in all its glory: record or near record. And did SC Global pay Mr Ku to say nice things which it can’t say about itself. No sight or sound from SC Global at all.

The resort-style facilities of the project include concierge service, a Beach Club, a 45-metre infinity pool with Jacuzzi and barbecue terrace overlooking the sea.

Thank you for telling me what the brochure says.

As if lack of attribution, verification and sourcing in the text isn’t enough, there is a photograph published of a family looking out to the sea with a caption on how Seven Palms has only 41 luxuriously appointed beach-house apartments available in three, four and five-bedroom configurations. The picture looks like a brochure picture and is NOT credited.

This story is a big fail.

Turning 50 – ME, not Sg

In Society, Writing on November 27, 2014 at 2:26 am

Old is gold, so I’m told

It’s a line which leaves me cold

Turning 50 is to me

Living half a century

Creaky knees, eyes can’t see

Flesh aligned with gravity

Turning 50 is to me

Living life more crazily

Thank you all for your best wishes

I’m getting ready some fine dishes

Hope they will erase your frown

Age will NEVER get me down!

Twenty years ago, I wrote a column about coming to terms with turning 30. I went into the third decade kicking and screaming, looking with alarm at the mirror and wondering if that’s yet another grey strand on my head. Now, my head is camouflaged, courtesy of good hair colouring and the expert snip of my hairstylist’s scissors. I take off my glasses to read, realizing that I am not just short-sighted but long-sighted as well. I wonder if I should have had Lasik surgery but I gather I’m past the age for it. It does allow me, however, the excuse to collect an array of spectacles to fit clothes for various occasions.

Half a century later and what have I done? At a gathering of ex-classmates recently, all of us celebrating our 50th birthday, I count the number of the “girls’’ who are married with children. “Doing NS’’, “now taking A levels’’, “going abroad to study’’, ‘’empty nest’’. Very mother-like statements which leave this single woman nonplussed. I suppose at age 50, you would have chalked up some achievements, both materially, mentally and, ah, biologically. Then the “girls’’ turn to me, expecting I don’t know what sort of a riot of a life accounting…

I suppose at age 50, it’s natural to take a look at your balance sheet. How far have you climbed up the corporate ladder? How are your kids doing? What’s your bank account like? Who are the friends you have collected? How’s your cholesterol? Are you still as stressed out at age 30 or 40? Have you fulfilled your childhood dream or are you still caught up in the rat race, operating day by day in this tedium that is your life?

Accounting is a fearful thing. I mean, what if you fall short? Are you going to spend the rest of your short life making up for mistakes and mis-steps of the past? Get yourself into some mid-life crisis and buy a fast car? (I can’t do that because I don’t drive) Quickly see what you haven’t got done, and go do it? I suppose some people will do that because they hear the clock ticking and want to get as much out of life as they can.

Am I different?

Some years ago, I wrote a column on the end of life. Nothing morbid. I just think that everyone must have an end goal or what they would like carved on their tombstone . I want to be remembered as a good daughter, a good sister, a good boss and a good friend. Fulfilling all four is good enough for a good life for me. Then. Now I add a fifth: A good citizen.

That probably sounds corny to people, like some national education or civics lesson. It probably doesn’t figure on most people’s radar because being a good citizen comes naturally no? Pay your taxes, don’t break the law…don’t spit, litter or defeacate in public places… But I am talking about being invested in this place we call home and getting involved in the big discussions of the day. It’s one reason I keep writing. I do it for pleasure and out of passion. I am glad that I have time for this pursuit, even though people ascribe all sorts of motives to what I do.

Frankly, I don’t care what people say. That’s the good thing about being old(er). There is no more the neediness of youth, this keeping up of appearances (just use good skin care products). You develop enough self-confidence to both stay the course and accept other points of view graciously. You know the importance of growing old gracefully. You become pretty zen.

I think I am pretty zen – and that is helped admittedly by my not being tethered by mortgages and re-payment plans. But on top of zen, the other important thing to me now that I am late in my life, is not to take things too seriously. I see people online ranting unreasonably, irrationally and rudely, casting a sour pall over everything and I wonder if they think they are smart or realize that they are just very, very unhappy people.

At the end of the day, and of your life, that’s really what we wish for no? To be happy.

Besides the five “goods’’ listed above, here’s what will make ME happy

  1. Going on a rail holiday in India, one of the few places I haven’t been to
  2. Getting myself a very, very expensive designer bag because I can surely afford it since people half my age can….
  3. Mastering the Chinese language
  4. Resurrecting Breakfast Network

Multi-coloured lenses

In Society, Writing on November 2, 2014 at 1:56 pm

It’s the age-old question: Can journalists really be objective? According to Ms Maria Ressa, former CNN correspondent and CEO of Rappler.com in the Philippines, the answer is no. And to say yes would be hypocritical. Every journalist carries a perspective based on his or her upbringing and beliefs and this would naturally feed into the way they report the news. I agree. Each of us looks at issues differently. There’s a difference between the way the Western media and those in Asia view events, as the Chinese government would be quick to say especially over coverage of the Hong Kong protests.

Here, too, politicians say the same thing. Don’t be too quick to agree with everything the Western media says.

Yes, the media lens is a coloured lens. Coloured by the journalist, and the organisation he or she belongs or the views of the paymaster or publisher. Indonesian Solahuddin, a long-time journalist and press freedom activist, said the same. He told of how Indonesian journalists were divided into Christian and Muslim camps when there was unrest in the Moluccas and how the media was divided into the pro-Prabowo and pro-Jokowi camps in the last election. Journalists had to abide by the wishes of their publishers, who had their own political links. No fault of the journalists; they had to do as they’re told.

What to do then? Read everything, he says.

So interesting. All this was said at a Singapore Book Festival event today. I was the moderator, and I felt very small compared to these two journalists who engaged in deep, deep investigative reporting and have written expert books on terrorism. Ms Ressa is a firm advocate of social media, as a way for every citizen to play the role of journalist and to do “authentic’’ reporting. The traditional journalist’s job is to take the “top’’ view, look at all the data provided by social media and discern and analyse trends. This sort of ground up reporting breaks the elite power structure, she says. It’s no longer a top-down approach. The mainstream media is no longer the voice of authority.

Mr Sola talked about how he started an alliance of independent journalists to protest against the Suharto regime’s strictures on press freedom. The media there organises itself to discipline its own. Sure, there were the religious and political affiliations of journalists and publishers but enough people know how the media is aligned to be able to pick and choose what fits their own view of the world.

So interesting. Yet disturbing to this blogger who has been so long in Singapore journalism that she still can’t get her head round the idea that bloggers and those who use social media are journalists. Eye-witness, maybe. Commentator, sure. But journalists? Only if the definition of a journalist is someone who publishes/broadcasts to a wider group of people.   In that case, I am still a journalist, but not in the sense that I am employed by an organisation or paid by readers to do a job.

(This reminded me of a panel discussion I was on yesterday with a young blogger who blogs for a living. I was really interested to know how she managed to survive. She said she was paid to do interviews, got some traction and PR firms started calling on her to do more interviews. No, she didn’t tell readers that she was paid to do the interview nor did she tag her posts as “advertorials’’ that had been sponsored – because “readers don’t like it’’. Nevertheless, she said, she was robust in her reporting and reviews. She tells her sponsors that they were paying for her time and energy, not content. She told of food bloggers who eat for free and still get paid; and beauty bloggers who get skin creams and cosmetics.  I guess there are bloggers and…. there are bloggers…)

And what of the exhortations we’ve been hearing from our politicians that social media is just so much noise, with people gathered in “silos’’? That it’s  hard to sieve the wheat from the chaff and it’s best to depend on “reliable’’ sources which I guess would emanate from the traditional “power structure’’?  Should we embrace a diversity of noises or stick to a single narrative? I guess much would depend on how ready we are to do our own thinking. We need to don clear transparent lenses to see for ourselves.

My problem with social media is that the dissemination of news is usually about the “what’’, and not enough of the “why’’. The “why’’ can’t be condensed so easily into a tweet or two, or one minute of air-time. It usually involves backgrounding; and the more expert your reader want to be, the more backgrounding is needed. That requires the long-form, which people don’t seem to have much time nor inclination for. Yet it is dangerous, methinks, to draw quick conclusions and make judgments based on merely the “what’’

Mr Sola is right to say we should read everything. Whether in MSM or online, all have bits of information and views worth thinking about. The G position is that it should have the biggest voice. I agree because everything about Singapore is so tightly-knit together. But should it be 100 per cent? Or 90 per cent? I think more like 60 to 70 per cent, with the people sector (including experts) contributing the rest. The G can, of course, argue that it represents the people and therefore can claim a much bigger voice. That is, if it thinks the people can’t think for themselves…

Can we?

Whose story is history?

In News Reports, Politics, Society, Writing on October 12, 2014 at 9:55 am

I like reading about the past. In fact, over the past two years, I have eschewed fiction. I read plenty of non-fiction, in particular, history. Whether the books are about adventurers who trek through the wilds, on ice or up the Nile and the Amazon, early pioneers in the United States or Australia or about dynastic families such as the Tudors, Hapsburgs or the Ottoman empire, I devour all. I often wished I did my degree in history rather than in political science. After all, political science is just a multi-varied framework that describes what really is political history.

It is important to know the past because it is a signpost of the future. I read about the different empire builders in history and wonder if ISIS is a repeat: that’s how empires begin, with an idea and then wholesale slaughter of those not in agreement, before coming to something more akin to stability. So it is now in Stage 2?

I read about the Crimean War because of what is now happening between the Soviet Union and Ukraine and was enlightened on four things:

  1. That the Lady of the Lamp Florence Nightingale served during this war and more people DIED under her care than in other hospitals. Because her hospital was built on a leaking sewer system which seeped into the water.
  2. That the Charge of the Light Brigade immortalised by actor Errol Flynn and poet Alfred Tennyson was a suicidal assault by unthinking calvary who obeyed orders of silly, squabbling commanders.
  3. That the phrase the Fourth Estate was coined during this time during a Parliamentary session in England to refer to pressure from the popular press to launch a war against the Russians (I have always thought it was of American origin!)
  4. Russian writer Leo Tolstoy was in the war and based some of his characters in War and Peace on real-life officers.

I guess those are the “facts’’ I have gleaned. As for impressions: The English wanted war, the French were dithering over it, the Turks were overwhelmed and Tsar Nicholas I was mad.

History books give the facts but how the facts are presented is another thing altogether. I read Eri Hotta’s Japan 1941 – Countdown to Infamy, on how the Japanese cabinet decided to go to war and I am left with the impression that every minister was either out for himself or very, very stupid. I read the Balfour Declaration and was sorry about how the Arabs appeared to have been conned by the crafty British to carve out Israel during the period of the Great Game played among colonial powers for control over other people’s territory.

Sometimes I read more than one book on the same period or people – and think I am actually reading about a different period and different people. So I read JOP Bland and Edmund Backhouse contemporary record of China under the Empress Dowager and Jung Chang’s Empress Dowager CiXi and wonder why she is so much more emphatic/sympathetic to the woman than the Englishmen.

I read Raffles and the Great Opportunity by Victoria Glendinning and want to put flowers under the statue of the great man (so brilliant but misunderstood). But I also read Raffles and the British Invasion of Java (crazy, cruel megalomaniac) – and I wish he stayed in Java.

Now we are being fed reams of newsprint on the Battle for Merger. I will go buy the book because I am interested in history and this has to do with my country. But, dare I say that I am also aware that it will be one-sided reading, from our former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew? Because I was not born during those times, I do not quite know what the communists did nor their views on why they do some of the terrible things they are said to have done. I wish I could hear from the older generation who lived through those times.

Also because then, I will have a better idea of why the G is so adamant that Tan Pin Pin’s film To Singapore, With Love, cannot be screened in public. (Actually I won’t have a better idea because I haven’t seen it). Some very tough words have been used by both Communications and Information Minister Yacob Ibrahim and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to defend the G stance. The G says that the film is full of drums – distortions, rumours, untruths, misinformation and smears. It was self-serving because the interviewees (communists who fled the country) chose to white wash their past and did not talk about their “wrongs’’.  (I hear background noises…like, did the Holocaust really happen?)

It’s so terribly odd. We decided not to screen a one-sided film, but are okay about reading a one-sided book – which is more or less on the same topic (?) or at least of the times. It seems to me it would be good to let both loose on the population, as Han Fook Kwang suggested in Sunday Times today. It is when there are two opposing ideas that people get excited and engaged; a monologue will have the opposite effect. Letting the film be broadcast might generate more interest in Battle for Merger, he says, and make it come alive.

I think it’s a good idea too. PM Lee says that a film is not like a book, and therefore cannot be easily countered. Frankly, I have great faith in the ability of the G to counter “anything’’. It seems lazy to resort to a ban when it might be better to engage the film. In fact, given what he has said, maybe Ms Tan should consider putting the exiles’ transcripts in a book! And they could be packaged together with Battle for Merger for sale! Okay, bad joke.

In any case, here’s what PM Lee said: “Why should we allow through a movie to present an account of themselves (that is) not objectively presented documentary history, but a self-serving personal account, conveniently inaccurate in places, glossing over inconvenient facts than others which will sully the honour and reputation of the security people and the brave men and women who fought the Communists all those many years in order to create today’s Singapore?”

I think the better justification is the later half of the statement on the need to preserve the honour and reputation of those who fought. I would dearly love to hear from them, for a firmer grasp on that period which most of us weren’t born early enough to experience.

But I was taken aback when PM Lee also said the communists were still vying for “a place on the winners’ podium’’. Goodness!  In 2014? I doubt most people understand the first thing about communism, unless they mistake it for consumerism!

I don’t think I will be sticking my neck out if I say that communism will never return nor take root here. Nor do I think Ms Tan’s film will be a threat to national security. Let everyone have their say. People will have different views, sure, but I really doubt that they will be so rattled as to shake the foundations of our country. The past belongs to everyone. Let the present people be the judge.

Sounds and silence

In News Reports, Society, Writing on September 7, 2014 at 6:49 am

The Prime Minister said something a couple of weeks ago which I think we should heed. He said that the Internet, far from leading to a great convergence on universal truth, has led to divisions of all kinds. People seem to think they have grasped the “truth’’ with the emergence of groups that are completely antithetic to each other. “We have to make sure we don’t get seduced by the delusion that we know everything, that what we know is the truth and that we are the sole possessors, and therefore we will fight it out to the very end.’’ It leads to a fractured society, he said.

He doesn’t think human society was designed with the Internet age in mind, like the good ole days with information lags and time lapses to let stuff sink in before coming to a considered and wise consensus. “But today, all of that is telescoped and the splash goes out tonight, and tomorrow morning, everyone knows the answer, which may be the wrong answer.’’ Far from having a faster circuit, we have a “collective short circuit’’, he added.

ST followed it up with a Pew survey report which talks about how people online tend to keep quiet when they think they have a minority view. Yesterday, it followed up with a major spread on whether the same “spiral of silence’’ applied to Singapore. The Anton Casey and Amy Cheong cases were brought up as examples of online vitriol, with moderate voices only emerging when the din has died down. The ease of the “sound bite’’ online with no need to substantiate views makes it impossible to have a good conversation, you have experts saying.

I agree somewhat.

I have watched different groups emerge online and those who push a line or agenda regardless of the topic at hand. If you watch the many conversations closely, you get an idea of who are among the like-minded and who sticks together, whether friends or not. The various Facebook groups which are agenda-based don’t help. They start off by promoting a cause which gets hijacked by immoderate elements who are countered by yet other immoderate elements. Hence, this wonderful term: polarisation.  

It’s the word of the day, week, month and maybe even year given the way people are agonising over east being east, west is west and never the twain shall meet.

Here in Singapore, I think we’re still novice navigators of the free speech space. It wasn’t too long ago, you know, that rules were relaxed for rallies at Hong Lim Park and you don’t need a public entertainment licence for indoor events. It used to be that you can’t even use a loud hailer at Speakers’ Corner and it was the police, not the parks or performance authorities who monitored your events. The internet hastened the pace of liberalisation and the flowering of views everywhere, yes. But here, it meant liberation of a different kind. Suddenly, it seemed the shackles were off and we don’t quite know how to use the new-found freedom.  So there’s a torrent of voices, a cacophony, so loud that it intimidates those who want to say something not quite “mainstream’’ – or rather, fits with what the supposedly online mainstream is saying.

I have been asked many times if it’s possible to bridge the different groups or bring a level of reason to discussions on the Internet. I reply that there are probably plenty of reasonable people on the Internet, those who watch and don’t post a word because they’re scared that they’re being watched. They’re scared that they will be called to account for their views and can’t answer rationally – all “gut instinct’’ you know. They worry that the more articulate will out-talk them and make them feel small. Worse, being called names and feeling bullied. They think of Anton Casey and Amy Cheong. They’re not like them at all, but what if….?

I call them the internet spectators. Funny that the climate of fear that people perceived as emanating from the authorities has become a climate of fear of fellow netizens.

There are probably many, many groups of people out there online who discuss issues rationally. But they are probably “closed’’ groups, that is, like-minded individuals who do not want to have their reasonable conversations interrupted by the unreasonable. That’s the problem isn’t it? Reasonable people don’t want to reason with the unreasonable and the unreasonable pitting themselves against other unreasonable people. No wonder it’s so noisy on the Net.

Ask you. Do you have any of the following traits?

  1. I have a view which I hold very dearly and will inject it into every conversation because MY view is important and everybody MUST share them.
  2. Everybody who disagrees with me is wrong. They have been brought up badly, are intrinsically bad or went on the wrong path somewhere along their miserable life.
  3. I cannot listen to other people’s arguments because they go against something very fundamental for me, for example, the PAP is evil, religion is evil, homosexuals are evil.
  4. I don’t care about the totality of your views. So long as ONE aspect offends me, you are not worth “friending’’.
  5. I have a right to my views and I don’t care how in-your-face I get. The internet is free space. So suck it up.
  6. I shouldn’t have to pick my words carefully because that won’t be ME talking or reflect exactly how I’m feeling.
  7. I don’t see the need to self-censor even if others are offended because censorship is just plain wrong.
  8. I will never say sorry for my views or acknowledge that I might have interpreted things wrongly because I know, at the end of the day, I am right.
  9. If you have not experienced what I have, you have no right to talk to me because you don’t know what you are talking about. So shaddup.

Narcissism, egotism and self-righteousness is everywhere on the Net. I tend to think that maybe some people don’t want to be any of the above but lack the tools or experience to communicate effectively. They come off as blunt and abrasive because they’ve never had to engage in the cut-and-thrust of debate in the past. And they haven’t collected a body of knowledge with which to defend their viewpoint against the more erudite. So they either come off as defensive or they seek solace in silence. Or these people might really hold those positions from a. to h. In which case, I don’t see how any sane discussion can be had with them.

I liked what Mr Baey Yam Keng said in the ST report: “Facebook itself is a neutral platform. What is the style or character of that page depends on the people in charge of that page.’’

There is something to be said for having “moderators’’ and rules of engagement. Too often, people are turned off from voicing views when they see a few dominant voices making a point so aggressively that they seem to be spoiling for an online fight. Or the page or chatroom becomes so sour that you are worried about being infected by it. Of course, blocking and deleting views is an option – for which you get vilified elsewhere.  Questions will be raised about “censorship’’ – and you will simply have to bear with it. The bottomline is this: If “censoring’’ or editing some people can lead to more people taking part in the discussion and bring more views on board, why not?

I have blocked a grand total of three people on my FB wall, and this after many, many nice warnings to them to behave and get with the programme. My rules of engagement are simple: No vulgarities, personal attacks, hijacking of conversation threads or protracted bilateral feuds. There must be space for moderate voices or reasoned voices that doesn’t descend into name-calling or pure assertions. I like the way some people try to tamp down tempers by resorting to humour. I like people who are clever but also self-deprecating. Those who put down others oh so nicely are also appreciated. There can be “hurt’’ feelings but there should not be long lasting “hard’’ feelings. And I get a nice, warm feeling when someone who is defeated in argument actually admits it.  

This is the way the Internet space should be : where no one need fear one another and where you – and me – can admit that we are not always right. With humour and elegance, of course.     

 

The challenge of writing an assessment

In News Reports, Politics, Sports, Writing on August 12, 2014 at 2:07 am

I guess not many people realise that today marks the 10th anniversary of PM Lee at the helm of Government. Well, The Straits Times remembered and has a long essay assessing the Lee decade. It is a fine balance of he did this, but…he didn’t do this, still…
And it starts off by using the catch-all word “challenging’’ to describe the PM’s first decade.

Sigh. It’s a safe word, of course. Challenging can mean anything. You always rise up to challenges, you never merely solve problems. Challenges mean tough times, but not so tough as to not be able to overcome them. A challenge is like a dare. It evokes courage.

It must have been a challenge to write this piece. You have to give credit where credit is due and not over rah-rah such that the article becomes sycophantic. Every action should have a reaction. The piece must be very clearly analytical, with no biases that are detectable.

So the article goes this way….(excerpts are in italics)

GOOD…Leading Singapore relatively unscathed through the global financial crisis was cited by several observers as among Mr Lee’s top achievements in the decade. (Annual gross domestic product (GDP) growth averaged 6.3 per cent from 2004 to last year. GDP per capita went up from $46,320 to $69,050 from 2004 to last year)

BUT…The global buzz also comes at a price – cohesiveness.

STILL…. One of the signal achievements of Mr Lee’s Government is the move to bridge inequality by raising the tranche of subsidies for the lower- and middle-income group in all areas: from an income supplement for low-wage workers to grants for housing to subsidies in health care and childcare.

THEREFORE… By last year, the Gini coefficient was back down, to 0.463. After government transfers and assistance, it was 0.412. (Major re-ordering of the social compact)

BUT…. Trouble is, many Singaporeans do not see it that way, as they grapple with rising housing costs and feel the heat of competition for jobs. Instead, anxieties on overcrowding abound. Over the past decade, the population went up too fast, before transport and housing infrastructure could cope. Some observers consider this the greatest policy failure of the last decade. How did a government that prides itself on keeping close tabs on numbers allow an influx of foreigners beyond the housing and transport infrastructure’s capacity to cope?

STILL…. Mr Lee himself did not shirk this responsibility. In the heat of GE 2011, he surprised many when he apologised to the people of Singapore for the mistakes made, in an election rally at Boat Quay. That public mea culpa and events after GE 2011 raised widespread expectations of political change. (Which are in the form of nips and tucks, such as liberalising the use of Speaker’s Corner)

ALSO…he stopped doing some things. He sought to be seen to be fair when he called for polls, reducing the surprise element in timing them. Nor were there wholesale changes to electoral boundaries. He stopped using estate upgrading as electoral carrots. In GE 2011, opposition candidates’ views, not their personal character, were attacked. In choosing fair election campaigns, and in refraining from browbeating opposition candidates, Mr Lee made it less risky for people to enter the opposition fray. Hence, more opposition members got in.

BUT… Mr Lee stopped short of fundamental reforms to the electoral system that some sought, ignoring calls for an independent election commission, for example.

ALSO… still very much top-down/command and control approach, like the Population White Paper introduction. (Backed by an opinion from a commentator, that is, not writer’s words)

WRITER’S FINAL ANALYSIS… What is one to make overall of Mr Lee’s roller-coaster decade? One can take the optimistic view and say Singapore has weathered crises remarkably well and remained intact as a society, despite the train breakdowns, the Little India riot of last December, a bus drivers’ strike, and the sex and corruption scandals. Critics might say there are signs of a ship that is cruising, or even adrift, tossed about by the global winds of change. I would say that the truth as usual lies in between.

See? Told you it would be a challenge to write the piece….

This troublemaker thanks you

In Reading, Society, Writing on August 3, 2014 at 3:29 am

I had a magnificent time last night! All that stress started dissipating as the night went on. I want to thank those who were at the launch of Troublemaker. I don’t even know most of you personally! I am gratified you came. (More importantly, got buy the book or not?)
The book is available at all major bookstores from mid-August or you can go to http://www.ethosbooks.com.sg to order. Anyway, here’s the introduction to the book.

“Troublemaker’’ was the word Professor Tommy Koh used to describe me when we were talking about the demise of the Breakfast Network site. “But you are a good troublemaker. We need more good troublemakers,’’ Singapore’s veteran diplomat added.

Well, that was a relief!

I came to thinking that the phrase would be a good title for this book, a collection of blog posts and columns I had written in my post-Singapore Press Holdings days. I started on the day after I left my job of 26 years, when my free SPH newspapers did not appear on my door step. The absence of my morning reading material impressed on me firmly that I was no longer a journalist – at least, of the employed kind.
So I started Bertha Harian; the name was given to me by a top level civil servant some years ago. An alternative, he suggested, would be Berita Henson. I didn’t think it had quite the same ring.
People ask me why I write and have variously described my writings as that of a disgruntled ex-journalist, a Trojan horse set by the Government to infiltrate the online community, a political opposition supporter finally free of the fetters of the establishment that my career had imposed on me.

I laugh.

For some people it seems, content should not be assessed on its merits alone. Questions must be asked about the “motivation’’ and “agenda’’ behind the content. I have never seen the need to take an ideological standpoint, whether anti-this or pro-that, although there are certain principles I cherish. I believe strongly in transparency and access to information, which will allow citizens to make informed choices. I prefer less government, not more, with governance underpinned by the rule of law, not the discretion of executives. I uphold the ethical principles of professional journalism especially the need for accuracy and context, because it is the prism through which most information are presented regardless of the widespread use of social media.

After so many years in the practice of journalism, I thought I possessed enough institutional memory, knowledge of the workings of government and media and the ability to “read between the lines’’. I thought they would help me become a useful moderator or filter on issues that affect citizens.
Much of my content is based on mainstream media reports. I regard them to be the best source of information, properly researched and verified. Most of the time. They are my jumping-off point for further reflection. That is why I cannot abide unprofessional work such as sloppy reporting or a lack of reporting which result in incomplete and half-baked reports that misinform the unwary reading public. When I spot them, I feel cheated.

My writing inspiration is a column that used to be published in The Straits Times on Saturdays close to three decades ago. It was titled Look back in wonder by Ms Tan Sai Siong. She didn’t always attempt single-issue columns to fill up her allotted space. Sometimes, she just gave her “take’’ on three of four news items that had appeared over the week. When she did so, the column was extremely readable. Why spin so many words to fill up space when you only want to make one point?

This is one of the freedoms I enjoy from writing online: Freedom of space. Short or long, content must dictate space, not the other way round.

The second joy is freedom from editors who sometimes draw the OB markers far closer and tighter than I think necessary. Sure, I take a risk when I make critical comments about the Government, or the G, as I call it. But I weigh every risk, and right every wrong in my posts when they are pointed out. I have never been afraid to say sorry. Should I equate this with freedom of speech? Perhaps the right phrase is freedom of responsible speech, from a citizen with no greater agenda than advancing the cause of rational thinking for the collective good.
Third is the freedom to experiment with writing styles. The mainstream media’s methods are outdated – news reports with facts framed in a reverse pyramid or in blocks. For print and broadcast, there is that newsprint and airtime space to fill. Frankly, squeezing out regular columns in a regular style in a regular spot of a regular size is a draining exercise and terribly uncreative.

Now, of course, story telling has gone beserk with Twitter, storify, listacles and memes. They cater to people with short attention spans. But not everything can be short-formed. The long form should not be consigned to the Internet trash bin because sometimes it does take a lot of more words to make or argue a point – not pithy one-liners.

Did I make trouble? I gather I did. Civil servants and politicians have me on their radar but, hand on heart, none have ever gone beyond a “aiyah, why you write like that?’’ when commenting on specific posts which affect them. Some have even tried to engage me by giving me the heads-up on policies to be introduced, like they did in my past life.

My blogging segued into the establishment of Breakfast Network, on which I have devoted a section in this book. Suffice to say that I was glad to be back in harness, as a news editor, columnist, reporter. Even temporarily.
The start of my online writing adventure coincided with the post 2011 GE and the “new normal’’. It was an era which tolerated and, in fact, welcomed and fostered the discussion of big and small issues. Much of the news happenings post-2011 are unprecedented. An illegal strike? A riot? A philandering Member of Parliament? A dead prisoner?

So much content.

Why do I write?

I write to be read.

Brazil-Germany post-match commentary

In News Reports, Sports, Writing on July 10, 2014 at 3:07 am

Ah Seng, bookie extraordinaire holds court in a coffeeshop after Brazil was trounced 7 – 1 by Germany in the World Cup semi-finals.

Wah lao eh! Got watch football or not? Brazil kena hantam terok terok. Seben one! One masuk…two masuk…three masuk…The goalie stand there like gong cha cha…No! No! Not kelong. More like Brazil after first few minutes already pengsan. Stress lah. So much pressure. Such big crowd. How to tahan? That’s why I tell my boy no need to study so hard for exams. Never mind if get relegated to lousy stream. Just don’t break down during exam…

But Brazil also so malu….Where the team going to put face like dat? Where got such thing as seben-one scoreline in World Cup? Okay lah, better than seben jiro.
Anyway, shiok to watch although not much fun since already know winner before half-time…You should watch Brazil panick. Dive here. Dive there. I tell you that Scolari!

He don’t know what he doing lah. Donno how to pick his team. Just because Ney-ah-mar not there, whole place collapse. Then the coach go and pick this fella with big permed hair to become captain! What sort of captain! Run around like headless chicken…and after the game, crying all the time. And everyone in Brazil crying. All very upset. One place, got bus burning. Like Little India riot like that. No, sorry, salah, on beach, got shots fired some more. So not like Little India. Maybe our own police should go there to do crowd control during finals on Sunday. Practice! Like what that Sylvia Lim wants!

Actually, quite heart-break for me. I follow Brazil since dunno how long. I got yellow jersey. Brazil now not like the old time of Pillay, So-crates and those old fellas. I see on Internet Pillay so embarrassed, he want to migrate to Ghana. Donno true or not. Cannot always believe what you read on the Internet.

But I tell you something…our council for problem gambling very good. Say to bet on Germany. Wah. I hope got second advertisement from them. Anyway, there’s this tall German, some Close fella. Wah, already 30-something and still so fit! Very good active ager. Old is gold! Old is gold! All-time World Cup top scorer! Beat even Ronaldo! You saw him do back flip? I cannot even do IPPT standing broad jump!

This German coach Mr Low very, very good lah. He don’t smile very much but he got nice hair-style. Like mop like that. Germans also quite humble. Hug and kiss the Brazil boys. Didn’t over-celebrate. Got no champagne like F1. Maybe they regret scoring so many goals, like hu-mi-li-ate Brazil. Not nice. But the Brazil people actually seem quite sporting. Cheer them and so on. Still don’t think the garment going to last long lah. So many problems hosting this World Cup, so many million dollars spent, like they raid their reserves like that…and then got no World Cup trophy to hold…

Anyway, see how the Brazil team play against Netherlands lah in next round. Donno whether they finish crying by then or not. Maybe they not condemned yet. Maybe Netherlands will give chance and don’t have such big margin to hu-mi-li-ate. Maybe I keep my yellow jersey.

Okay, I taking bets now…

PS. If you can’t read this, you can’t have been living here for very long…

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