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.