Being media literate during the elections

chiam by bob lee

Mr Chiam See Tong during GE 2011, by Bob Lee

I’m thankful for the work of great photographers like my friend Bob Lee, who took this photo of Opposition veteran Chiam See Tong during his elections campaign. Mr Chiam suffered a stroke some years ago, and the physical effects are obvious to everyone. However, it has not diminished any of his passion for politics or the people.

This photograph speaks more to me than all the rhetoric over the airwaves or grassy fields.

Whether it is photos like the one above, or Youtube videos, it is heartbreaking to see this brave man trudge on despite his health and the odds. It doesn’t matter which party you support, you watch Mr Chiam and you forget all the “hot topics” and mudslinging happening between the PAP and the Opposition. He also brings immense pride to generations of ACS boys who believe in the same principles of honor, fair play and determination.

The PAP, with all its brilliant minds and water-tight policies, simply have no counter against this man’s emotional appeal. You may not vote for Chiam this elections, but he has (deliberately or not) become the emotional center of this contest and is the antithesis of all that the PAP stands for. The PAP will probably win the majority of the votes, but they cannot win a popularity contest versus this man, because everyone knows his story by heart and it can make a grown man cry. Thus the PAP has been wise to keep silent on Chiam so far – the public backlash would be irreparable.

Bob also took this cool time-lapse photography video on how the Worker’s Party rally filled up over a few hours at Serangoon stadium:

Time-lapse photography of Worker’s Party Rally, Serangoon Stadium. By Bob Lee.

To most young people, it’s shocking how many people attend Opposition rallies. (“Even more than the National Day Parade!” quipped my wife).

But if you’ve been involved in previous elections, there’s always been a monster crowd as people stream in from all over the island to see what the Opposition (especially the stronger parties like WP) have to say. It’s just that it was rare to see the mainstream media publish any of these photos in the past, due to either Govt intervention or self-censorship (I suspect it was always more of the latter).

This year, the Straits Times did publish a huge photo of the Hougang crowd who turned up to hear Low Thia Khiang:

opposition crowd

I wasn’t surprised, since any media outlet would look pretty bad if they didn’t publish what was already circulating rapidly on Facebook the very minute the photos were taken by both press and public. PN Balji (former editor of Today) commented on it in his latest editorial.

“Newspapers, TV and radio know they have to cover the elections differently this time round. Or else the eyeballs will dart elsewhere, very likely never to return.”

Few people realize that the mainstream print media’s circulation has remained largely flat as the population has grown – this means that their penetration of the population is dropping. At the same time, make no mistake, nobody reaches more people than the mainstream media. You think that fiery article you shared online is going to help swing the votes? Think again, because it probably won’t reach more than 20% of any electoral base in just exposure alone. Whether the article can persuade the voter, is another question.

The PAP’s response to the huge crowds (versus their own small crowds, usually made up of their own supporters), was pretty tame. It was the first time though, if I remember correctly, that they’ve responded to the “Big Opposition Crowds” question.

(Home Affairs and Law Minister) Mr Shanmugam said: “In the previous election and elections before that, the rallies of some opposition parties attracted crowds of such size. It’s not unusual by any stretch of the imagination; it’s about the same as what happened in the previous elections. So I’m not sure it’s larger or smaller. The reasons have been given so many times; it had happened in 2001, it had happened in 2006. What the PAP stands for are our track record, what we are going to do, it’s all very clear. But at the same time, there isn’t too much fun and entertainment at PAP rallies either. As for the opposition, I think people are curious as to what they’ve proposed, what they want to do, and people want to listen, which is a good thing.”

Channelnewsasia, 29th April 2011

But if you read the Straits Times as a whole, it still appears pretty pro-PAP as the PAP quotes will always take up the front page and more pages are devoted to the incumbent. Their rationale would often be that this is fair coverage since they have more personalities who can make the news, versus the Opposition.

Well, I’m not here to debate whether that’s right or wrong. I’m more interested in sharing how one can be more media-literate during this critical period when both sides are tussling for your attention, your emotions and your vote.

In the age where different forms of media are bombarding people with an overflow of information, being media-literate is the first step in making the right decision for yourself and your country. After all, the media is where most of us are getting the majority of the information in order for us to make our own value judgments on candidates and policies.

It doesn’t matter whether you read SPH papers, watch Channelnewsasia broadcasts, political blogs and aggregators or just your Facebook and Twitter streams – they are all media and they need to be read in the right way.

What is Media Literacy?

According to Wikipedia:

Education for media literacy often uses an inquiry-based pedagogic model that encourages people to ask questions about what they watch, hear, and read. Media literacy education provides tools to help people critically analyze messages, offers opportunities for learners to broaden their experience of media, and helps them develop creative skills in making their own media messages. Critical analysis can include identifying author, purpose and point of view, examining construction techniques and genres, examining patterns of media representation, and detecting propaganda, censorship, and bias in news and public affairs programming (and the reasons for these). Media literacy education may explore how structural features—such as media ownership, or its funding model — affect the information presented.

In Singapore, I don’t think anyone teaches media literacy in schools. The first time most students encounter this subject is probably in university arts courses, and the immediate effect is that they become leftists and anti-establishment. Oh, the fun of being young and angry.

These past few days, as I switch on my browser on my PC or phone, I’m overwhelmed by the amount of URLs and blog postings that are being shared by my friends on the elections. Some believe it’s a “political awakening” of young Singaporeans, I say it’s just that we’ve never been able to tell everyone our thoughts before without fear of censorship or retribution.

When MM Lee Kuan Yew warns: “If Aljunied decides to go that way, well Aljunied has five years to live and repent.”, I have dozens of friends immediately protesting the use of the word “repent” as a threat and following up by linking articles on why the PAP should not be using such tactics.

When Vivian Balakrishnan touches on the gay background of Vincent Wijeysingha, I see many FB posts on homophobia or Lady Gaga’s Born This Way ad nauseum. (By the way, whether you like it or not, the majority of Singaporeans are conservative and such topics do sway their vote).

It’s become like a Roman gladiator event – every new PAP topic that enters the ring generates howls of disapprovals, no matter their validity. Such hot button topics often solidify people’s pre-existing views, rather than cause them to think WHY these topics were brought up in the first place.

The lack of media literacy and the inability to analyse and deconstruct the massive wave of information, reinforces mob thinking and irrational discourse.

Ok, that sounds cheem. To translate : if you don’t understand what you’re reading and why it was written this way, you will end up following the crowd. 

For example, I have some friends who are staunchly pro-PAP and they are likely to support just about any argument that the PAP puts forth. I have MANY friends who aren’t pro-PAP (ie. it doesn’t mean that they like the Opposition) who find every opportunity to express their feelings on Facebook/Twitter about what the PAP or Opposition just said in the press.

Now it’s weird, but in doing so, everyone has also become a media outlet themselves. That really complicates matters but media literacy helps in this case too. When you know how to filter the noise, you will know which friends have a balanced opinion, and which are just myopic.

So how to be media literate?

Not that tough, my brothers and sisters. Just keep asking yourself every time you read an article or listen to an opinion:

1. Is there sufficient airtime given to the opposing point of view?

2. What are the rationale reasons supporting each side of the argument and which do you agree more with?

3. Most importantly, what is NOT being said is often the more critical issue at hand.

For example, when the Opposition says they should be voted in to be a check and balance in Parliament, I want to ask if they can continue the same level of services for their districts that the PAP can provide. Both macro and micro needs of the people need to be met. I respect Mr Chiam with all my heart, but can his team deliver what is expected of (not merely promised by) them?

The NSP’s superstar Nicole Seah already has nearly 49,000 fans on her Facebook page (she will definitely surpass LKY as Singapore’s most popular online political character this week) and has proven to be an unflappable spokesperson on just about any issue, but can she win over the pragmatic crowd worried about their HDB assets, salaries and job security?

And when the PAP says that it wants to make our education system one of the best in the world, I wonder what it has to say about the UTTERLY UNREASONABLE workloads Primary school students have to suffer through, and losing their childhood playtime in the midst of expensive tuition lessons.

And why is it so convenient that the National Wages Council is recommending pay raises, and that LTA has declared no ERP increases this quarter? Come on lah, you can’t sweeten the ground just like that.

Who Has Your Interests At Heart?

A closing anecdote – I was reading Marvel Civil War over this weekend, and after weeks of intense fighting, espionage and massive casualties between Captain America and Iron Man’s teams (they were arguing over being officially registered with the US Govt), the Cap suddenly surrendered even though his side was winning.

Captain America: “Oh my God.”

Falcon: “What’s wrong?”

Captain America: “They’re right. We’re not fighting for the people anymore, Falcon. Look at us, we’re just fighting.”

See the page here.

It’s just a comic, you say, but how true it rings.

Our history lecturer in school Chiew Seen Kong once told us this classic quote about local politics throughout history: “When elephants fight (or make love, depending on your source), the grass suffers.”.

Sometimes, the grass doesn’t even know what the elephants are fighting about.

One Reply to “Being media literate during the elections”

  1. This is the most unflattering picture of Mr Chiam but it speaks a thousand words. His campaign reminded me of John McCain whose age and health issues became his liabilities. And it is worse when I and my neighbours witnessed how he needed prompting and physical support when he did his walkabouts.

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