A week of ridiculous statements

It’s been a busy week of news and I’m pretty upset, not so much by the news but the jaw-dropping things the Govt people say as a result of the news.

Meritocracy

“The labour movement is “uncomfortable” and “concerned” with the calls for equal jobs, equal remuneration”…Mr Lim said that equal remuneration would not take into account the standard of living in Singapore as opposed to other regions, and this would be unfair for local workers who have to support their family members here. - Labour chief Lim Swee Say with regards to the strike by the China-born bus drivers in Singapore.

For all the talk about meritocracy in Singapore, it doesn’t exist from what I see. The rich/poor gap widens every day, because things are stacked up against the poor and lowly educated.The rich can ensure their children get all the help they need to get a top-tier education, and the poor struggle to make ends meet while trying to figure out the convoluted English in today’s primary school papers.

Now we are asked to ponder: Why shouldn’t we pay foreign workers less than a local worker for the same amount of work done?

Does this mean, if I go overseas looking for a job, I can ask for a higher salary since the cost of living in Singapore is so high?

Please.

I can tolerate a higher cost of living if it means that there are more opportunities for locals AND foreigners to find jobs that can pay the bills here. The cost of living is shooting up because of ridiculous housing prices (especially that of public housing), unfettered increase in rentals by greedy landlords, and an education system that forces so many parents to fork out money for tuition. (I shan’t include cars since it’s deemed a luxury item these days.)

What is being done to manage those costs? Not very much, until the next recession comes along and all the bubbles burst (except the recession-proof tuition centers)

The last thing I want to tell my children is “See, look at that foreigner over there. He earns less than the Singaporean guy doing the same job because you deserve to be paid more for being born here.”

Or

“Do you know that we have to pay that China bus driver so much less, and make him stay in a dirty dormitory because otherwise you will complain about the high cost of transport in Singapore?”

Pay people for the work they do, not who they are. And for goodness sake, treat our foreign workers with dignity and respect. They’re here to earn a living just like the rest of us.

The SMRT

“The purpose of fare increases is not to boost the short term profits of PTOs. It is also not just to improve salaries of bus drivers but to improve service to commuters while keeping public transport operations commercially viable.” - Lui Tuck Yew, trying to clarify what he really meant when he said the public had to bear fare increases so they can pay bus drivers better.

Lui Tuck Yew’s recent statements on public transport have been derided endlessly by the public, but he wouldn’t keep quiet. Ironically, he hardly replies to the near-100% negative statements on his postings. I wonder if he even reads the comments from his angry “fans”.

Let me lay it out in a simple formula that is easier than today’s PSLE questions:

Profitable SMRT + Billions of taxpayer dollars to subsidize their fleet + A lucrative COE/ERP system hell bent on making us take public transport = Poorly maintained train lines + dismal living conditions for hardworking foreign drivers + An ex-CEO who goes scot-free for today’s mess + no real penalty for angering commuters all the time = Can the Transport Minister fix problems first before saying so much?

I do feel sorry for so many SMRT workers who have to take the heat daily from commuters for bad management and government decisions. The SMRT is a difficult entity to manage across all its lines of businesses, and honestly, it does a pretty good job day-to-day in ferrying millions around this tiny island.

But someone needs to tell Mr Lui to stop destroying whatever is left of their public image and commuter goodwill with his mindblowing PR skills.

Come clean with the financial numbers and tell us how much it’s going to cost with the proper data and projections – we’re not that dumb you know. Apparently we score very well globally in mathematics.

Employees and the right to privacy

“When we heard this happened, we all felt sorry for her (Ms Laura Ong) to be caught in that position. On one hand, we would like to not add to her pain by disclosing her identity, yet at the same time this case has attracted much public attention.” - Lim Swee Say on why the People’s Association revealed the name of Michael Palmer’s lover to the public.

So a high-flying Speaker of Parliament has an affair despite knowing better (and he’s a lawyer to boot). There goes his career and reputation, and it’s all his own doing.

It is obvious that his lover will be outed by social or traditional media sooner or later, but for the People’s Association to reveal her name publicly in connection to the case…that’s unacceptable.

If you say you don’t want to add to her pain…DON’T.

Who is the one in the wrong who has shamed the PAP for his lack of integrity and moral fibre? Who has caused a potential by-election that will cost a lot of time, money and political points?

Why add a tremendous amount of pain to a woman who probably didn’t fully understand how this could turn into a media inquisition? If you’re going to reveal her name, why not go all the way and issue a press release with high resolution photos of her mugshot? Why not add in statements that this woman has had an affair with the Speaker and that’s why she’s quitting?

Seriously, this is a week which has shown how poor the Govt. is at diplomacy and public communication.

Simi National Conversation about happiness and what not?

This IS the National Conversation and it’s not going well.

It’s not me who is “kan cheong”

This post has been published as a letter in Today, 10 Oct, under the headline “To educate is not to hothouse“.

In May this year, I was so outraged by the steep difficulty in a primary school exam paper that my wife showed me, I wrote my first letter to Today about the unrealistic standards in our education system. It was followed by a flurry of letters by other parents, and by National Day, this had become a national conversation of sorts.

I was glad to know that I was not the only one who thought that the system has become distorted.

In the past few weeks, I have been equally cheered and perturbed by the many discussions around the PSLE. There have been extreme calls to dissolve the PSLE, which the Prime Minister has wisely cautioned against.

Academic exams serve a simple purpose – they reinforce learning of concepts and they test a person’s ability to perform under pressure. There is no gauge of the learning achieved without an objective evaluation.

Exams also force a person to consider – what are the consequences of not doing well? The decisions that we make before each major trial, often determines the path our lives will take.

The problem with the PSLE, is that it makes people so focused on a moderated aggregate score, that our children no longer have a chance to dream about what they want to be, what they want to aspire to. For many today, their only distinct memory of primary school life is filled with endless homework, tuition lessons and stress.

It is obvious (perhaps not to the Ministry of Education) that our children are over-burdened with the curriculum’s sheer volume and difficulty. Parents with degrees struggle to solve key PSLE mathematics questions. Accomplished writers wonder what is with the convoluted English that our children are forced to memorize. Why do we still have Speak Good English campaigns if our education system is so stellar?

It would be fodder for a comedy if it weren’t a sad reality.

I wouldn’t know how the Ministry is dealing with the massive amount of feedback to date.

All I hope the policymakers will do is to remember why our children go to school in the first place – to receive an education, and not to undergo hothousing with things they can scarcely understand at their tender age.

The simplest way to resolve the differing expectations and standards between schools is to standardize all primary school exams. Other letter writers have raised this idea as well and it is worth considering.

What if most of the kids do well, some educators may protest. How do we differentiate the good performers from the mediocre?

To that, I say: Why should we penalize our children for meeting the clear learning standards laid down for them?

Take the national Class 3 driving test for example – as long as students don’t get immediate failures or breach 18 demerit points, they are allowed to immediately drive on the road any car they can afford.

But today, the school curriculum is not clear at all. I see children tested on topics that aren’t in the textbook. I see tough questions designed to only demoralize young minds, not build them up for greater things. I look into my son’s eyes and despair when I see his struggle to understand why this education system is so brutal on him and his friends.

The Prime Minister has told us parents not to be “kan cheong” and let our kids have their childhood.

I’m trying my best, sir, but the current system of unrealistic and unbalanced standards is the one that contradicts everything you and I desire for our next generation.

Getting to the root of kiasuism

This commentary was published in Today on 27th Aug as a parent’s reflection on Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s 2012 National Day Rally the night before. I focused on the topics of education and the birth rate, which readers will know are my two pet topics on this blog and in real life. Contrary to popular belief, the family photo wasn’t a National Day thingy, but Chinese New Year from earlier this year :)

As a parent of two primary school children, I paid extra attention to the Prime Minister’s take on education and the birth rate. I was glad to see some glaring gaps finally plugged, or at least touched on.

Finally, new fathers can look forward to longer paternity leave. The lack of it is something that has puzzled me for years, given that I have changed nearly as many diapers as my wife.

Improving work-life balance was another key topic that was tackled head-on. It’s true, people are just too busy to procreate.

Somehow, people need to learn how to say no to constantly checking their emails and deliberately carve out quality time for their families. Perhaps the Civil Service could take the lead by limiting the maximum working hours in a week?

Indeed, there were many gems in last night’s rally. But I hope the new policies laid out by Mr Lee Hsien Loong will take into account larger, deep-seated problems that may ultimately derail the Government’s good intentions and long-term vision.

For example, I was happy to see Mr Lee emphasising that, while pre-school standards need to be raised in several areas, parents should let their children enjoy their childhood and not introduce them to primary school content too early. Yes, improving the early phase of education is important, but it has to be done in tandem with a serious relook at the remainder of the student’s journey.

I’ve seen the benefits of my children not having exams at Primary 1. But when students reach Primary 3, the demands of the curriculum take a big leap, many folks get stressed out and it’s back to square one.

There is a lot of unnecessary tension created in the primary school system today by parents, teachers and tuition centres who make their students learn more than is actually spelled out by the Ministry of Education.

If the primary school problem is not resolved, kiasu parents (of which there are many) will inevitably derail the improvements to the pre-school system.

A simple solution may be to standardise exam papers across all standards in primary school. This may in turn change mindsets about elite versus neighbourhood schools (another hand-wringing issue for parents).

As the PM spoke, I also wondered how much the current education system is linked to the dismal national birth rate. Why? The mindsets of young people are shaped by the values that they imbibe in school and later at work.

A relentless focus on grades and wealth as key measures of success has led to a society where many people want to succeed materially first before they want to start their families.

Implementing radical policies such as a new Medisave for children may help young parents cope with childcare costs but, for many people, they may never be enough.

The long-term solution to the birth rate may be to develop a holistic education system and societal culture that shapes a very different national mindset from what we observe today.

I was also heartened by the PM’s call to Singaporeans to have bigger hearts on this small island.

Kindness and graciousness are not things that can be easily taught through national campaigns or classroom lessons. But if more Singaporeans can have the opportunity to enjoy more balanced lifestyles while contributing to the nation’s progress, I believe it’s not just the birth rate that is going to improve dramatically.

It’s our very attitude towards life and others that is going to undergo a great transformation.

Ian Tan is a 36-year-old marketing manager and ex-journalist. His wife Goy Sze Wei became a homemaker in 2005 to look after their children Isaac and Isabel, now aged nine and seven.

Why I don’t feel sorry for Kodak

It was all over the news today – Kodak has finally filed for bankruptcy protection.

Nobody was really surprised. Kodak has been on a decline since the beginning of the 2000s as digital cameras began to supercede film cameras. Unlike the recent passing of Steve Jobs, I haven’t seen many people on my social media networks lamenting the loss of the company that popularized photography. Looks like people just aren’t shedding a tear for Kodak.

While I do feel sorry for the Kodak employees and pensioners who face an uncertain future, they had little say in how the company was run to the ground by their management over the past few decades. Yes, Kodak film allowed for the creation of millions of amazing images, but in my lifetime, Kodak didn’t care for the consumer very much.

I’m normally a very nostalgic guy, and I will always remember walking past the bright yellow decor of film-development stores that were sponsored by Kodak in the 1980s. It was always fascinating to see how long strips of negatives would pass through the innards of the gigantic machine which would spit out 3R-sized color photos.

However Kodak left more of a bitter taste in my mouth than nostalgia is worth. Let me tell you why.

1. Film was ridiculously overpriced.

When I started getting into photography in the late 1990s, it was such an expensive hobby. If I remember correctly, it was $5 per roll of film, $10 to develop a roll of film and 30 cents to print each photo in 4R size. So to shoot a roll of 36 exposures would easily cost you $25 before inflation.

That’s not counting the cost of batteries as film cameras were power guzzlers – remember the sound of film being rewound in a compact camera? Today you can shoot thousands of photos without considering the cost – it costs just about nothing on the digital platform. But we always had to consider the cost of reloading each roll of film.

You can argue that it forced us to become better photographers when we didn’t waste film, but I can also argue that Kodak profited handsomely from enthusiast photographers.

Kodak and other film makers never really sought to lower the cost of film. The centuries-old method of using silver halide worked for them until digital overtook it with dazzling speed (actually it took about 5 years for digital to go into the mainstream from the time the first decent digicams appeared in the early 2000s).

2. Kodak never understood digital, and still doesn’t

As a tech writer in the mid-2000s, I always groaned when Kodak’s PR agency would pitch their latest digicams for a review. Compared to current models of the day from Canon and Olympus, Kodak’s digital cameras often seemed like backward and ugly cousins. And their image quality was never up to par. I could be wrong, but they were probably re-branded OEM digital cameras. For a company that invented digital cameras, they put little effort and money in advancing the technology.

As film development stores began to shutter down rapidly, I didn’t see Kodak doing anything significant to save their retail partners.The shopkeepers were helpless as the landscape shifted and so was their principal supplier.

I remember it was so expensive to request for film negatives to be converted to a digital format. I tried it for a few rolls after a professional shoot and the quality of the scan was not fantastic. Where was Kodak then? Still trying to sell more Portra film to professionals, and over-saturated Gold label films to clueless tourists.

If you read any business story on Kodak’s decline, you’ll see so many other ways that they failed to capitalize on the digital tsunami. It’s not that they didn’t have the money to invest,  (especially at their peak in the 1990s), but like many legacy companies, they clung on to the past desperately and turned their noses at consumers. We just wanted a better solution instead of having to panic every time our film canisters or strips became accidentally exposed to the sun.

I embraced digital photography the minute I discovered it, and was over the moon when digicams finally reached an acceptable level of quality compared to film (that was about 2007 if I remember correctly, while dSLRs achieved that about 2004 with the Canon 1D Mark II). When I used the Canon 1D Mk II, my first 1GB memory card cost a whopping $400, but it paid for itself quickly – that card was approximately the cost of 16 rolls of film (or 576 exposures) and I shot thousands of photos in a few weeks.

It was sad at first to see how Kodak failed to change itself for the times (in contrast to its greatest nemesis Fujifilm), but after a while, one didn’t care for the company at all. It looks like after this bankruptcy protection, Kodak wants to focus on digital printing. That’s another silly move – everyone in developed countries are gradually moving to ebooks and Zinio mags on tablets, and we’re now sharing photos on Facebook folders…thousands of them, all for free. Who will pay for digital printing in the future?

Like the cliche goes, change is a constant, and we have no choice but to embrace change. If you work in a company that doesn’t embrace change, please take a look around and see if you can get out before the company becomes obsolete by its own choice or ignorance.

Kodak may emerge from its bankruptcy protection a better company, but the young people of today don’t even know how iconic it once was. Perhaps I should be sad for the past, but that feeling just isn’t happening.

Of Art, Ads and Naked Men

I was driving into Orchard Road with the family a few weeks ago when I saw the huge billboard (above, from Mr Brown’s site) from Abercrombie & Fitch. I was so stunned that I took a second look and probably put myself at risk of an accident. It was a black and white image of a rippling male body with his genitals barely hiding from view underneath the low-slung jeans.

I said to Goy: “Wow, that picture is going to cause a few accidents.” but left it at that. After all, the billboard did its job of capturing my attention and the male model does have an amazing body. And it was a very well-taken photograph, never mind that it had little to do with A&F apparel at all – such is the nature of brand advertising.

In recent days, the billboard has become a tabloid-style news story. First it was reported that the Advertising Standards Authority of Singapore (ASAS) had suspended the billboard. Then it came to light that the Authority had no authority to do so, since A&F was not part of its group and not beholden to their bidding (which I found was the more newsworthy bit, rather than the near-naked guy). The Media Authority of Singapore  supported ASAS’ call but said that the industry is self-regulated. In short, nobody can take down the ad except A&F themselves, and I’m sure many ad agencies are rubbing their hands in glee thinking about what they can achieve now with their clients.

I don’t know if they’ll ever get the billboard taken down but I oppose such a move on artistic grounds. Yes, we are a conservative society, but we are also living in a wasteland of mediocre visuals and advertisements. If you’ve ever visited Rome, one of the key attractions is a statue of a very nude man – Michelangelo’s David.

I’ve visited the statue twice, and both times, I’ve just sat there staring at the sheer beauty and perfection of the sculpture. No, I’m not gay, but there is something enthralling about the artistic depiction of a human body. And you don’t see people going “eeeee, that man is naked!” because it is undoubtedly art, and it is not vulgar.

And the Christian fundamentalist shouldn’t wrongly compare the story of Adam and Eve who fell into sin and quickly covered their nakedness in front of God – our Creator made them perfect and unclothed but sin caused them to become self-conscious of their bodies. Man would of course fall greater into sin and lose self-control of their bodies, which is what the Bible warns against repeatedly. Then we should also consider what happens when someone views an image that he purports will make him lose self-control of his body – this is the line drawn between art and pornography.

When it comes to art, everyone has the right to disagree on the interpretation. What is vulgar to someone may seem as virtuoso to another. But art is always judged and weighed in the zeitgeist of the times, and overlaid with common standards of morality and sensibility. It is not surprising to see ASAS’ objection to the ad, but one also must ask: “Are there a lot of people who are upset with the ad?” Personally, I haven’t heard anyone complaining and demanding the billboard’s removal. These sort of images, my dear ASAS, are par for the course these days.

And as a Straits Times forum writer pointed out, there are far more vulgar ads going around that ASAS does nothing about. It’s just that they are all smaller than the billboard in size.

I’m more upset with the general low standards of advertising in Singapore which celebrates the lack of wit, creative expression and artistics standards. Marketing managers are happy to adapt the most boring global visuals they can get from their HQ and just get their media agencies to book the ad space – because they don’t know what they can achieve in creating customer excitement. Most of them have never stepped into Bras Basah’s Basheer Books and flipped through the vast collection of award-winning advertising visuals and graphic art, and thought about doing it better themselves.

I’ll be very clear here: I don’t wear Abercrombie apparel, nor am I a fan. I’m a conservative in many ways, but I also appreciate art deeply. I’ve taken my fair share of sexy fashion photos during my photography days and I hope they weren’t seen as vulgar. I’m also very inspired by the billboard’s abs of steel and I shall do more sit-ups tonight.

If ASAS hasn’t gotten it by now, the whole furor has just given A&F the absolute best advertising in town – public controversy where the advertiser hasn’t really done anything illegal. The more ASAS tries to pull the billboard down, the worse it will look on them, because all A&F did was to put up a thought-provoking visual and it turned out that ASAS is really toothless after all its public statements. Bigger powers may step in, and they will be in turn branded as prudes or overreacting by the younger crowd in Singapore.

It’s always amusing to us media and ex-media alumni how stories are generated in Singapore. Many times, newsmakers do not know when they are exposing themselves to ridicule or embarrassment when they decide to go public with something. Then the media has a field day and the newsmaker wonders how did things go this way.

Just leave the billboard alone folks. A&F will change it when next season’s apparel arrives anyway. So far there haven’t been any car accidents right?

The man who lost his limbs

In recent days, you’ve seen me voice out on why we need to do more for the needy and marginalized in this rich country. And every time I ponder on this issue, this story floods back into my mind.

Nearly ten years ago, I was still a press photographer and I was assigned to cover what the journos call a “hard luck” story. It’s self-explanatory but I’ll explain it further: This is a category of stories that often feature people down on their luck, suffering extraordinary hardships or are the victims of really unfortunate circumstances. In the earlier days of The New Paper, these stories really helped to drive readership, along with scandals and freak accident stories.

The main newsmaker was this man in his 40s who had started to lose all his limbs, starting with his appendages. He was a heavy smoker in the past, and one day, he discovered he was getting gangrene (or something similar) in his toes and fingertips.

Over time the affliction spread inwards and affected more of his limbs. He stopped smoking, and had several fingers and toes amputated, but the disease wouldn’t stop.

By the time the journalist and I met this man, he was stuck in a wheel chair with both legs amputated just below the knees, and only two fingers on each hand.

He spoke to me, then he started crying: “My wife just got retrenched from her job. If it wasn’t for our young children, I would have committed suicide by now.”

I was so shaken by a grown man crying with nowhere to go, I could only take two or three photos of the man before I shut down my camera. I wish I could put the photograph on this site, but it’s copyrighted by the newspaper.

I also remember feeling upset at how little support money they were getting from the authorities despite their situation. It was in a range of a few hundred dollars a month.

Their social welfare worker was trying her best, but there was only so much she could do. I believe she told us about this story in the hope that it would bring some public support for this man’s plight.

Then the man asked softly if I could help him in any way.

I declined, because I was covering hard luck stories regularly in those days, and newsmakers were asking to borrow money from me on several occasions because they had nowhere to turn to. My reasoning was : I’m a photographer/journalist. My pay is only sufficient for my own needs. I can’t be donating money to every newsmaker. I’m just here to do the story.

I went back to office and received a scolding from my photo editor because it was standard protocol to take many different angles of a newsmaker for easier layout. “Why did you take so few photos!?!?” But I refused to go back to the man’s house to take more photos and the story was later laid out around my few image.

Today, as the memory of this man constantly resurfaces, I keep asking myself : How could I have turned down his plea for help?

Closing thoughts on the elections

Chiam and signboard

Mr Chiam See Tong from 2009: “Every Singaporean must be given the respect he deserves”. Photo by Charles Lim

Like many of you, I stayed up late to watch the announcement of the General Election 2011 results, all the way until 3am on 8th May when Potong Pasir’s narrow win by PAP was finally announced. I believe more people in Singapore watched this historic event more than several National Day Parades combined.

At the same time, I monitored my Facebook and Twitter walls as real-time updates from the mainstream media and friends came in fast and furious. People cheered the wins by the Workers’ Party in Aljunied and Hougang. People ranted that Tin Pei Ling got into Parliament while Minister George Yeo was booted out. People wrung their hands when they realized that the rest of the Opposition parties failed to win any seats at all.

And I think everyone agrees that Chiam See Tong became a national folk hero.

The outpouring of emotions continued well into this afternoon. Anger, happiness, disbelief, relief, outrage and bitterness. You name it, I read it.

Through it all, I didn’t feel the surge of emotions people were expressing. Did journalism kill my passion and my angst? Was I being too Zen about the whole elections? Or did I write my blog articles till I had nothing left to say?

Well, here’s my pragmatic take on this “watershed” elections (yes, it was a watershed event by all accounts). Where so many people are focusing on the negative outcomes (“Why did she get in? Why did they not get kicked out? Why did they lose?”) I would prefer to focus on the positive.

It was an election, never a revolution.

Some people are furious with the silent majority who gave the PAP the mandate to become the ruling party once again. They couldn’t believe that there were people who didn’t want to see change in the country.

Let’s turn the situation on its head – Did it ever occur to you that there was massive groupthink going on in the online space?

People online were screaming for a revolution, for a drastic change in the way politics were run in Singapore. But the results showed that more people voted for the incumbent than the newbies as with every elections. Sure, the PAP’s winning margin had dropped to 60.1% from 66% in 2006, but it’s still a majority. Let’s not fault voters for being pragmatic – give Singaporeans credit where it’s due.

For example, let’s talk about Bishan, where I stay.

Mr Chiam’s team lost in Bishan-Toa Payoh despite the man’s reputation and his strong team (I thought Benjamin Pwee was very impressive and it’s not because we’re both botak heads). I went to their last rally at Bishan Stadium and I could already tell from the reaction of the Bishan audience that it was difficult for the SPP to win.

The crowd was relatively muted, there to observe and to think, rather than to cheer wildly like the Workers’ Party crowd at Serangoon Stadium a few minutes’ drive away. The SPP’s main rhetoric during their last rally was to convince the fence-sitters to swing their votes towards them.

But in the end, the SPP still had a very respectable result in Bishan-TP : 43.1% of the vote, versus 56.9% for the PAP.

For a team that had never campaigned here before, why did so many people put their faith in SPP? If you ask me, SPP won over many strangers, and that’s a significant victory in itself. To win in a PAP stronghold was a longshot to begin with but the fact is SPP dared to take on a GRC with Deputy PM Wong Kan Seng in charge.

The Bishan-TP PAP team led a relatively smooth and positive campaign with no major issues or boo-boos. OK, except for this poorly-made video which led to much groans among my friends. But I have no issues with the PAP team here, and I’m not as upset over the Mas Selamat affair as other people are. I’m more concerned over housing or transport issues.

The national results, and the PAP’s declining margin, indicates that people do want change in how the country is run, but not overnight. This was no French Revolution in the making but perhaps the online audience whipped itself into a self-delusional frenzy.

And let’s face the facts – WP had really strong teams where it won. Perhaps the Opposition teams just didn’t have candidates that were strong enough, not just individually, but as a team, to convince the majority of voters.

Nicole Seah was the only recognizable figure of the NSP during the whole race, and Goh Chok Tong’s team experienced a relatively low margin of 56.7% of votes. That could go down in history as the “Tin Pei Ling effect” where an unpopular newbie nearly did in the respected Senior Minister’s team. To be honest, I didn’t even expect the NSP to get as far as 30% with their team lineup but they hit 43%.

By the way, am I upset that Ms Tin got into Parliament? Let’s just say I’d rather not be in her position where she’ll spend years, if not decades, working to dispel her current reputation, whether it is justified or not. To me, it’s not worth the salary, authority, or prestige of being an MP, to have to deal with her current situation.

If you’re still not happy with her, let me ask you – why don’t you try for the PAP or be in her shoes? Do you have the guts for politics or grassroots work? It’s always easy to criticize, but not so easy to empathize. I say this even though I prefer Ms Seah’s performance (note, “performance”, since I don’t know her in person) in this elections.

Everyone is human, everyone has feelings. Even political candidates. And the Marine Parade voters voiced their opinion of the candidates with their votes.

Look at the data, not the rhetoric

Joining Microsoft has taught me to respect the importance and sanctity of data. Data is objective, data is not emotional. The SG Elections website contains all the winning margins of every party, and you can cross-check it with previous years (taking into account change of electoral boundaries).

This was no vague newspaper straw poll or research project with questionable sampling – take a good, hard look at the data and you’d realize that although the Opposition only won two wards, they had a very decent number of votes in many other wards. This is remarkable given that we hardly hear from these guys until elections time. And worrying for the incumbent too.

Yes, Potong Pasir went to the PAP by just 114 votes, causing much grief among SPP and Opposition supporters. But the balanced observer should also focus on the fact that Sitoh Yih Pin has not given up trying, and that perhaps there are people in the estate who want change for the estate as well.

There are two sides to every story and change is the only constant.

Social media changed the landscape for the better

Let’s count the ways this elections were different, thanks to Facebook, Twitter, and dozens (no, not thousands) of bloggers.

- The PAP said sorry and admitted it had been perceived as arrogant. I never thought I would see the day, but it happened. It sent shockwaves throughout the island and the media had a field day. Although it was not said explicitly, the PAP was obviously affected by the wave of online discontent, not merely the size of the turnout at opposition rallies. And just a few weeks ago, the PAP was dismissing Internet chatter as “online noise”, so they learned a painful lesson there.

Was it a good move given that the Opposition pounced on the PM’s apology to give their own arguments more firepower? I don’t know, but it was better for civil society – the PAP finally acknowledged its shortcomings in a very public and honest manner.

The first step to change is acknowledgement, and it’s not up to us to speculate whether words will translate into action – the PAP is a smart lot, and will want to improve its results in 2016. It needs to arrest and reverse its declining popularity, and it has five years to do so.

- The mainstream media provided more balanced coverage and upped the ante. SPH and Mediacorp still appeared pro-PAP on most days with Opposition coverage buried deep inside the papers, but this was still much better than the past.

And on this point, it’s often said that the Gahmen focuses all its attention on what The Straits Times publishes because it’s “the paper of record”. Unfortunately, you can’t find the archive of ST stories online due to its paywall.

The Today newspaper has become the actual paper of record when people do their online searches now, as its archive of stories is open to all. This is something for the folks at SPH to chew on – if you aren’t making much money from selling old stories (they aren’t), you might as well open it up like Today or TIME magazine.

- Politicians became better at social media and opened up to the young audience. George Yeo’s video to young voters was a turning point for the PAP’s campaign, displaying great sincerity, humility and earnestness to win over his voters in his team’s darkest hour (at their campaign’s halfway mark when all rhetoric against the WP seemed to have flopped).

Oh yes, there was a blogger who decided to support him and the PAP using posts that included vulgar language. We’re adults here casting votes with our brains and with civility, so give your candidates and voters more respect than that.

There were other sincere videos by other PAP teams but they received little viewership. Mr Yeo’s video will remain in many minds long after this elections.

Today newspaper and Razor TV posted many videos of rally speeches, largely unedited, to allow one to escape traffic jams and judge candidates in the comfort of their own homes. The candidates took advantage of this big public service by reposting those videos on their Facebook walls.

In closing

You know, it’s been a really monumental elections to watch. Everyone’s packing up shop now that the results are out, and finally our Facebook walls can go back to the usual postings of vacation photos or new materialistic pursuits.

You can choose to remain upset about the results, but for me, I’ll remember that on the night of the elections, I saw a young crescent moon in the sky.

Personally, the elections have made me more aware that I need to do more for the disadvantaged people around me. It has made me see that change is possible, whether it is with the contrite ruling party or more credible Opposition. It has also shown me that we are in a age of heroes who can be gracious under fire, and determined despite illness and age.

Mr George Yeo and Mr Chiam See Tong, thank you for showing Singapore a better way. 

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.