Month: November 2010

Transcending Race

In recent reports, we have seen references by various dignitaries about how the Singapore press has to be controlled because the local context is one that is characterised by multiracial complexity. Of course many other reasons are hinted at, but this seems to be the one that is most often cited when specific examples are called for. I’d like to respectfully and humbly disagree with this stance.

For one thing, I have great admiration for the efforts our government and our people have put into making Singapore a harmonious society through, respectively, various sensible policies and the everyday accommodations we make for each other’s quirks and traits. Controlling the press because of the fear of racial riots shows a lack of trust in the policies as well as the people. Have we made no progress towards a Singaporean identity at all? I think we have. And I am not just referring to that 95% figure that was applied out of context – from a survey done to gauge the effectiveness of National Education to an evaluation of general feelings of ‘belonging’ to the country.

I am referring to the report in today’s Straits Times about the gang activity in Bukit Panjang, in which social workers who work closely with these youths are quoted as saying that they do not think the gang fights were racially motivated despite the members being of different races. They flock together on the basis of race merely because this is human nature, but race does not feature as a point of conflict.

I find this very encouraging. If we may consider that at-risk youths are among our weakest segments of society, and if they do not use racial divisions as the focus of their violent activites, then perhaps race is not so divisive, nor so incendiary an issue as we might be led to believe. Is it possible that official discourse based on race, however well-intentioned, has created a veneer of difference that does not reflect the true Singaporean identity?

I think of it as a cloak thrown over a shivering person weak from cold. The person has become warm now, strong, and whole. Keeping the cloak on will suffocate him and prevent him from stretching to his full height. He has outgrown the cloak. Yes there is some fear that taking it off may expose him again to the very elements that created his original weakened state. But it is a calculated risk.

There is already evidence that the Singaporean identity may have transcended race – not in a way that erases the traditions that makes each race unique, but in a way that underscores these interesting differences with a common national sentiment. That which makes us all Singaporean also makes us resilient.

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A thinking population: a delightfully messy prospect

I want so much to write a post about the press in Singapore. No, not really. I want to write about the comments and speeches that have been made about the press in Singapore. I want to explore what I think is a flogged-to-death false dichotomy between US-style journalism and Singapore-style journalism, the lack of awareness of all the possibilities in between, the unquestioned assumption that our local  press provides balanced coverage of all issues, the portrayal of our newspapers as trustworthy sources of verified information versus that of online media as questionable in veracity, and the unfounded fear that my fellow countrymen are idiots just waiting for an uncontrolled journalist to express an uncensored opinion to give us an excuse to beat each other up.

I can’t say I don’t understand the perceived need for such comments, especially in the face of the impending General Elections and the context of our political history. But I truly feel that the fear that seems to lie at the root of all the recent demonizing of online media is misplaced. More information is always a good thing, and if we really want a thinking population, we have to stop using our newspapers to tell them what to think. If we are really worried about the ability of our people to digest media then it is time to step up critical literacy in our schools. It makes no difference whether we get our news from online or offline sources. Being critical consumers of information can only benefit us as a society.

But I am NOT going to write about anything related to the press in Singapore, because so many other people have already done it in a much more eloquent and informed way than I can. What I want to do is present two anecdotes that serve as analogies for the sorts of thinking skills that we need as a country if we are to deal with the deluge of perspectives we are faced with on an everyday basis.

There is a wonderful lady who helps me with cooking and cleaning at home. Her name is Malliga. One day my son, Rishi, went into the kitchen just before lunch and asked her what was on the menu. She named one item that she knew he liked very much, thinking that this would make him happy.

Rishi: Is that ALL we’re having for lunch? But I’m hungry!

Me: What’s the problem?

Rishi: Malliga Akka says all we’re having for lunch is potato

Me: No that’s not all. We’re also having (insert list of dishes here)

Rishi: But when I asked her, this is what she said

Me: Malliga, how come you told him all we were having was potato?

Malliga: I started with that, because I know he likes it. I was going to tell him the rest of the menu but he left before I could finish

Me: Rishi, why didn’t you ask me what was for lunch?

Rishi: I saw her first, so I thought I would ask her

After discussing the incident, this is the moral of the story that my family came up with: the first source of information you come across is not necessarily the most accurate or reliable, and you should completely examine each source before coming to any conclusions. The immediacy of online sources sometimes means that people have not examined all sides of an issue before posting, but there is no guarantee that the time lag embedded into print sources has been used for this either. Also, online posters don’t always have the training that professional journalists receive but they do use many of the same primary sources. The key to digesting online sources is following the thread as it evolves. As the days pass, more and more detailed analysis comes out, adding to the initial knee-jerk impressions. With online sources, you’re part of the discussion, not the passive consumer of the finished product. But only if you stay in the game long enough to understand how it works.

This morning my son Arjun was looking for a backpack that he needed for a hike. We keep all our bags in a big plastic box in the storeroom under the stairs. He rummaged desperately in the box for a few minutes and couldn’t find the bag. Time was running out and so he asked me to help him. I stepped into the storeroom and did a cursory dig in the box. Sure enough, no backpack. I scanned the rest of the storeroom. Lo and behold! The backpack sat perched atop a stack of suitcases.

No prizes for guessing the moral of the story here. We’ve heard it often enough. Yet when we face any sort of issues with the current paradigms within which we are working, back we go into our box. Our paradigms become cages that limit our thinking and our search for knowledge, instead of the frameworks that they are supposed to be, with spaces for branching out into new and evolving paradigms. Yes, having many perspectives and sources of information is messy and hard to control. But knowledge IS messy. And when we are not afraid to get our hands dirty in dealing with the mess, we learn to move forward together as a thinking population.

Seventeen is the new zero

There is this long running debate going on in my house about sorting versus searching e-mail. My husband is on one side of the divide. He uses Outlook Express for his mail, and assiduously assigns all mail that he deems worth keeping into carefully named folders, based on a typology that only someone with his IQ can keep track of (he is a member of Mensa, by the way. Forgive me for basking in reflected glory). This is a man who, every so often, turns the house upside down to get rid of accumulated possessions that have outlived their usefulness. He applies the same philosophy to cyberspace, and so deletes any mail that is not essential, and sorts into folders that which is.

I am very squarely on the other side of the divide. I do not believe in sorting. Anything. My physical possessions enjoy a democratic anarchy of existence. Clothes are stuffed in tangled balls into my cupboards, books teeter in haphazard piles, empty chocolate tins that are too pretty to throw away share dusty shelf space with the kids’ handmade Mother’s Day and birthday gifts and cards from the last 15 years. As you can imagine, this slops over into my little corner of cyberspace. If I had folders, I’d forget how I classified them, and would probably end up with repeated folders simply because I’d assign a slightly different name for the same category each time, so the computer wouldn’t be able to alert me to the overlap. So I might name one folder ‘Kids’, and then forget I had that folder and name another ‘Family’. Since these are not mutually exclusive catogories, incoming mails would – even if I could get around to deciding which to keep and which to delete – get randomly distributed between these two folders. Guess what would happen if I needed to retrieve a mail? Extrapolating from my example, I would probably have up to a dozen folders to search in.

This is why gmail works so well for me. I categorise and sort NOTHING. But when I need something specific, I search for it, and there it is. This is how I have 7039 e-mails. According to my husband, I am a cyberspace-hog. I just think I am saving a lot of time. Sorting into folders is so twentieth century. Why sort when you can search? Also, how can I sort when I lack my husband’s ability to consistently keep track of mutually exclusive categories? I blame all the geeks whose technological brilliance keeps technodummies like me in a constant state of dependence. Google is doing my thinking for me, and I am a happy lotus-eater.

It is interesting to see how my children handle their e-mail. My older son Arjun has his father’s ability with categorization, but likes the searchability of gmail. He uses gmail’s labels, which to my mind is even harder to keep track of than folders, but he swears by it. My younger son Rishi is like me. Nuff said!

Zero is the number of unread e-mails my very efficient husband has in his inbox, because everything is dealt with immediately. Seventeen is the number of unread mails I have in my inbox. I don’t know which these are, because they are from so long ago that they can’t possibly matter now. I can’t even be bothered to search for these mails and delete them. I know I have a new e-mail when the number in the tab goes up to 18.

Twittertales: the Parody and the Irony

The Straits Times today (Thursday, November 4th, 2010) carried an article (‘SingTel tweets? They are fake’) about Twitter accounts that are parodies of real people and organizations. The focus in the article was on the parody of Singtel, but did mention other cases as well. I have for some time been following three ‘fake’ Twitter people, and never for one moment did I think that they were the real deal. There are a couple of reasons for this.

For one thing, one of them actually uses the word ‘Fake’ in his Twitter handle (I use the masculine pronoun only for convenience here. It could very well be a woman or a group of people). He parodies our Prime Minister, but calls himself ‘Fake_PMLee’, so that there is no confusion, and no danger of crossing legal swords with the authorities. After all, if you admit you are fake, how can anyone accuse you of deceptive intent? This person has come up with some real gems in political humour over the last few months, and actually takes on the persona of the PM. For example, he makes references to his father, to personal connections with other ministers, and to high level knowledge of national affairs. In his latest tweets, he has been poking fun at the redrawing of election boundaries. In a previous post I have made reference to the use of humour as political engagement by Singaporeans, and this is one very clever example.

Information about the user also provides clues, if it does not state outright that the account is fake. ‘ceoSteveJobs’ clearly announces himself as ‘More than meets the i. As you should expect from the most popular parody account on Twitter’. ‘SingtelPR’ information declares itself as ‘Asia’s leading blah blah blah blah blah. 100% tele-PHONY. 100% unverified’. This should tell us that most of these users actually want to be recognised as parodies, not dupe people into thinking that they are representing the actual people or organizations they are poking fun at.

Another giveaway is the tone of the tweets, which is clearly satirical. ‘Fake STcom’, for example, posted the following tweet: ‘Americans have apparently taken part in a mysterious ritual called “democracy”, which involves an intriguing process of “voting”.’ Even without the word ‘Fake’ in the handle, the irony shines through. ‘SingtelPR’, the parody version of Singtel, posted this tweet: ‘Once again, ST failed to use “telco giant” when they mention us. And I thought they were supposed to be objective. Pfft.’ The clever humour is in the content, and most Twitter users are very good at identifying this sort of humour, since it is the most common form used on Twitter.

This leads on to the next reason most people can spot the parodies from the real deals. Using social media involves learning a new language, a new way of processing information, and a new way of interacting with people and media. Just because you have mastered e-mail does not immediately qualify you as an easy immigrant into the land of social media. And even within the large social media club, there are specific social skills and knowledge sets you have to learn as you move between platforms. For example, mastering Facebook is no guarantee that you will take to Twitter. The ‘newbie’ stamp is very much upon you until you start to internalise and operationalise some of the practices and philosophies of Twitter. One such practice is irony, which is not only a delightful quality of the medium, but is also a necessity if you are to attract attention in 140 characters. Twitter users appreciate cleverly worded tweets, and if you want your tweets to be retweeted (or repeated by your followers to their followers), then you either choose your words well, or make sure you are posting some very useful links. Ironic humour is always a crowd pleaser.

The parodying of important people and organizations is by no means a uniquely Singaporean phenomenon. ‘Queen_UK’ is a fake version of one of the world’s best-known reigning monarchs, and if you want to know who ‘ceoSteveJobs’ is parodying, well, look it up on your iPhone.

The Straits Times has asked for reader opinions about what should be done about these fake accounts. My answer is this: if you have to ask this question, you are not ready for Twitter. I see the site’s ironic humour as a type of intellectual property, which needs to be protected as much as the freedom to engage in it.