Seng Han Thong, alternative media and choosing sides



December 24th, 2011

The Seng Han Thong controversy has produced a flash flood of protest in the midst of a climate already fouled by the SMRT debacle. Such was the interest in the episode that my instant posting on Journalism.SG made it the site’s busiest day ever (which admittedly isn’t saying much – Journalism.SG isn’t exactly on the average netizens’ must-read list). Many readers disagreed with what I had to say. Some of that disagreement is fundamental, and in those cases I don’t expect any meeting of minds. For other readers, though, let me address three separate issues in what, I hope, is my final contribution to this particular debate.

What verdict on Seng?

The most important question is, of course, what to make of Seng Han Thong and his words. His intentions were not 100 per cent clear, so individual citizens will have to make up their own minds. Like others who have grown up as a minority in Singapore, I have developed my own personal antenna for detecting prejudice and racism. It’s been tuned by first-hand experience and the experiences of those close to me, plus lots of listening and reading. Lee Kuan Yew’s statements about race and religion through the decades have a special place in my heart – they never let me forget that ethnic stereotyping runs deep within the establishment. Thus, when I read the headline and report in TOC about what Seng said, my antenna triggered a code-red. I was ready to be angry and to classify this as a case of outright racism. But after watching the video, I was not so sure. Definitely another case of a member of the PAP putting his foot in his mouth. But racism? It now registers an “orange” at worst on my personal meter.

Others will have their own antennae, each tuned differently. The range of views that have been expressed shows not only different interpretations of Seng’s state of mind, but also different degrees of sensitivity towards the offence. Government leaders will have to assess the mood and act accordingly. If they get it wrong, they will pay the price. Looking at what’s at stake, I suspect that the Prime Minister will tick off Seng publicly. Will the PM go further? It is not the PAP’s style to mete out swift punishment in response to public opinion. But there’s supposedly a new normal in town and there is a first time for everything.

TOC’s report

A less important topic – but which was the main focus of my postings, since Journalism.SG is devoted to journalism-related issues – is The Online Citizen’s reporting of the video. Its original posting had a headline and two sentences. The headline and one of the two sentences were misleading, in a way that misrepresented what Seng said. TOC’s response to me hasn’t changed my assessment of what they did. The fact that TOC supplied the whole video for viewers to hear the MP in his own words was considerate, but this does not make TOC’s own summary of what Seng said any less incorrect.

Am I thus imposing mainstream media standards on alternative media, as some suggest? In my writing and speaking on alternative media (one of my main areas of study), I’ve consistently argued that they have a different democratic role from the mainstream, and should operate accordingly. They need not be “balanced” or “objective”, and indeed often serve democracy best when they are driven by causes. I’ve tried to explain to doubters the value of having some journalists who are simultaneously activists, thus challenging the professional norm of detached disinterestedness. When a society includes such morally-engaged journalism as part of its media mix, there’s a higher chance of important issues being surfaced, and of marginalised interests being represented. I’ve regularly cited TOC, together with Yawning Bread, as the leading practitioners of such activist-journalism in Singapore.

However, this freedom from the yoke of “balance” and “objectivity” doesn’t have to mean trampling over basic factual accuracy. TOC could have highlighted the Seng fiasco as an important public issue without misreporting what he actually said. In many cases, a certain laxity is understandable, given TOC’s meagre resources (for which I have advised critics that the best solution is either to donate to them or their own preferred citizen journalism venture). But I think the stakes are higher when it comes to reporting offence to racial and religious sensibilities. For alternative media that wish to make a difference in this area, which I hope TOC does, it is wiser to be extra scrupulous in order to maintain one’s credibility.

Letting down the side?

A third concern has been raised by some commentators who seem to believe that I have betrayed “the side” by criticising TOC’s coverage and giving the benefit of the doubt to Seng. This is an interesting argument that reflects the spirit of the times. Singaporeans have different modes of response to PAP domination. The most common coping mechanism is to tune out, allowing oneself to be depoliticised. As for those who remain bothered by the structure of politics here, one common reaction is to close ranks against the ruling party, and to give the PAP a taste of its own medicine. Basically, turn politics into a streetfight – you bully us in the real world, we’ll show you who’s boss in cyberspace. The student of realpolitik in me tells me that this may indeed be the only language that the PAP ultimately respects. So, I can see the logic in the position of those who want to make life as uncomfortable as possible for the PAP.

However, I choose to respond in a different way. Not because I think my way will be more effective in changing PAP politicians’ minds, but because I would not like the person I would become, if I merely mirrored them. I prefer to resist the PAP traits that turned me off in the first place. For example, I know too well the harm caused by the PAP’s intolerance towards dissenting opinions. So I try to cultivate tolerance, starting with myself. I don’t like the PAP’s tendency to distrust Singaporeans, suspecting the worst in them. So I want to be fair to people and not prejudge them. I’ve observed the PAP’s partisan stance, that if you are not for us you are against us. So I try not to think in us-versus-them terms. I’ve felt what it’s like when one is labelled by the PAP, and when spineless acolytes treat one according to that label. So, I try to avoid labelling people when criticising their actions. I know the PAP’s ability to twist opponents’ words to score political points. So I treasure truthfulness in politics, and – since I am not seeking votes or eyeballs – would rather lose a battle of words than push an untruth.

As I’ve said, the main reason why I choose to respond in this manner is personal. I’d like to adopt habits that I respect in other people, not mimic those that I don’t. There are few things more precious to me than the freedom to explore contrarian views, and I don’t think the reward for resisting PAP conformity should be anti-PAP conformity. If this lets down “the side”, so be it. Maybe I’m selfish that way. But perhaps there is some wider benefit in this approach to politics. If the opponents of the PAP ever succeed in removing it from power, it would be nice if the underlying political culture changes as well. It shouldn’t be an Animal-Farm-like transition, where we look at the old and then the new, and can’t tell them apart.

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