Language scuffles

[The first half of this article was changed substantially about 6 hours after upload. I thought it was badly written after looking at it a second time.]

Crowing is as commonplace in our mainstream media as soya sauce is in Chinese food. Any story where Singapore can be presented in good light will be used to hammer home the point that we are such a great place. Rankings reports are particularly welcome, because  they are easy stories to tell readers. Who doesn’t understand “We are number one”?

In actual fact though, ranking stories are devilishly complicated, as with any story that involves statistics. But you rarely see our mainstream media take the trouble to underline the full implications of the ranking system. Their role, as they understand it, is to sing praises, not to educate the public.

Take this first story, boasting about how Singapore topped 1,700 other cities in hosting the most international meetings:

24 August 2010, 1716 hours
Channel NewsAsia

S’pore named ‘Top International Meetings City’ for 3rd consecutive year

By Mustafa Shafawi

SINGAPORE : Singapore has clinched the title of ‘Top International Meetings City’ for the third consecutive year, affirming its standing as a leading business events destination, ahead of some 1,700 cities.

The latest 2009 global rankings published by the Union of International Associations (UIA) also showed that Singapore climbed a spot, from third position, to be placed as the second ‘Top International Meetings Country’ behind the United States.

And for the 26th consecutive year, Singapore remains both the top city and country to hold meetings in Asia.

Secretary General of the UIA, Jacques de Mevius, said Singapore is an increasingly strong market leader in international associations meetings.


Click on the thumbnail at left to see a screenshot of the complete news story as it appeared on CNA’s website.

What the story overlooks is the inherent bias of such a report once the determinant “international meetings” is used. Cities in big countries, such as Japan, Germany or Australia may host plenty of meetings drawing participants from other cities but because these countries have plenty of other cities to draw from, the meetings are not “international”. In Singapore’s case, just about every convention is international because we’re so small. How many conventions do we have that are Singaporeans only? Will these ever serve much purpose?

* * * * *

This is reminiscent of an earlier story in the Straits Times that boasted that our country was the most desired by migrants.

22 August 2010
Sunday Times

Singapore most desired by migrants: Gallup poll

Its population would triple if all immigrants were allowed to enter

Washington – Singapore remained a top immigration hot spot for the second successive year in a global survey conducted by Gallup.

The city-state could see its population triple if everyone who wants to move here was allowed to, the poll released last Friday showed.

It found that, in that case, Singapore’s population of 4.8 million would increase by 219 per cent.

The second-most popular destination was New Zealand, whose population of four million would rise by 184 per cent. Third was Saudi Arabia, whose population of 26 million would soar by 176 per cent if everyone who wants to come in and wants to leave, could do so.

Gallup researchers interviewed nearly 350,000 adults in 148 countries between 2007 and this year to calculate each country’s Potential Net Migration Index (PNMI).

The PNMI is the estimated number of adults who wish to permanently leave a country subtracted from the estimated number who wish to immigrate there, as a proportion of the total adult population.

The last sentence gives away the game. Our high ranking is mainly due to our small population base, but nowhere in the news story is this clearly explained to readers to ensure that they get the correct perspective. Instead the overall crowing tone is given prominence.

Consider this: Saudi Arabia has a citizen population of about 22 million. If net migrants outnumber them by 176 percent, then it means about 38 million people want to move to that country. Singapore may have a higher percentage score of 219 percent, but depending on which population base Gallup used for this place (3.2 million citizens? 3.7 million citizens+Permanent Residents? 4.8 million total population?) then the net migrant figure would be just 7 to 10 million. Not that fantastic if even Saudi Arabia can attract 38 million, is it?

* * * * *

Another reader sent me a photo he took outside St Patrick’s Institution, a school run by the Roman Catholic mission in Singapore. The banner, strung up on a wire mesh fence, appears to be a call for men to join the priesthood and serve as teachers. It shows three schoolboys with a cleric teacher; above each boy are words indicating what they could make of their futures with a good teacher’s help:

  • future pro-life doctor
  • future Minister for Education
  • future green activist noble prize winner [sic]

The first and third are bubbled up above the main image so you can read the words clearly.

Where the government-controlled Channel NewsAsia tries too hard to make its political master look good, here we have somebody trying too hard to wage its side of the culture war through the use of language: not just any doctor, but a pro-life doctor. The result is that they end up looking awfully insecure. It also begs the question of whether they themselves understand what education is about, even if they are running a school: Is it to open young minds to knowledge and critical enquiry, or is it to indoctrinate towards pre-determined outcomes?

You will have noticed, I’m sure, that anyway the banner had already made them look unfit for running a school when they couldn’t even spell “Nobel Prize” correctly, or know when capital letters are called for.

* * * * *

Much more serious is the case of Abdul Malik Ghazali who was arrested earlier this week for words he used on Facebook. The incident is in the newspapers, but nothing beats looking at the actual words he used:

The context quite clearly shows he was using the word “burn” metaphorically, to mean something destroyed. It’s common usage in Singapore, for example when someone says in our Singlish patois, “My weekend burn liao”, to mean that one’s leisure time has been severely reduced due to imposed obligations to do other things, often job- or soldiering-related.

I think anybody reading Malik’s comment would know that what he meant was to destroy Vivian Balakrishnan, the Minister for Community, Youth and Sports (therefore the minister in overall charge of the Youth Olympics — YOG — which is the subject of the thread) by voting him out at the polls. Naturally, in order to vote him out, people would have to “rally” together — a word that Malik also used.

But the police saw it as incitement to gather as a mob and do violence to the minister.

26 August 2010
Straits Times

Arrested for ‘inciting violence’ on Facebook

By Ted Chen

A 27-year-old man was arrested on Tuesday after he posted comments related to the Youth Olympic Games (YOG) on a Facebook group – comments that ‘incited violence’, according to the police.

The comments, posted on Aug 18 by Abdul Malik Mohammed Ghazali to the social networking site, also said it was time to ‘burn Vivian Balakrishnan and the PAP’.

Dr Balakrishnan is Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS), the ministry that is organising the inaugural YOG here.

Malik’s words appeared on the ‘I hate the Youth Olympic Games (YOG) Organising Committee’ group, after reports surfaced of a food poisoning case involving 21 volunteers on Aug 15.

At the end of Malik’s comment was also a call to ‘rally together and vote them out’.


The story then segued into character assassination mode, digging up details of him for having served time in prison before over an unrelated offence: keeping insurance premiums paid by his clients. Once again, the full story can be seen by clicking the thumbnail.

Abdul Malik’s case, I understand from reading bits and pieces on the web, is now going around the world, exemplifying the a widely-held (and valid) picture of the Singapore government as thin-skinned and oppressive. This contrasts with the scarce coverage for the games itself in global media.

* * * * *

Twisting words and defensive over-reaction are never good strategies for winning friends. Honesty and openness work so much better. But in a tragi-comic way, those who are most eager (actually: most desperate) to press a hopeless case tend to resort compulsively to doing the former.

But this is the internet age, my dears. And if there’s one thing that’s been cranked up by the new technology, it’s the laugh machine.

32 Responses to “Language scuffles”

  1. 1 Harvey Neo 26 August 2010 at 16:15

    I thought the news report refers to several different measures: top city (which Singapore was named as), top country (which Singapore was ranked 2nd after USA), and top city and country in Asia (both first).

  2. 2 beast686 26 August 2010 at 17:09

    “Burn the minister”………a metaphor lost in translation.

    Well, if that is what gets Singapore on the world map, then so be it. Bad publicity is better than no publicity. That’s what our dear Dr Bala thinks, anyway. 😛

  3. 3 George 26 August 2010 at 19:18

    How can Singaporeans trust the police anymore as this case clearly and unequivocally shows that the SPF has become an extension of the ruling party.

    The only reason for its action against Malik is a political one. Of course, by now who would be surprised by this anymore? The SPF is a de facto
    instrument of the govt to suppress any political dissent by Singaproeans.

    The PAP and the SPF have become a laughing stock of the world!

    • 4 yuen 26 August 2010 at 19:49

      “laughing stock”? this is not really a laughing matter

      “character assassination” (yes we all read temasek review)? mentioning someone has a previous conviction is hardly that; you could even say it adds transparency; the interesting thing is that someone took the trouble to dig up this piece of information

      internationally, the arrest received less coverage than the refusal of an Iranian to compete against an Israeli at YOG, so temasek review exaggerated this aspect too

      overall, I see a great deal of folly all around, but the government has all that money, power and database, so it does not need my sympathy or advice …

    • 5 Peter 28 August 2010 at 15:03

      Are they?
      I think not,do not under estimate the wrold class propangada machine created.quoted,one opposition leader.

      They are doing a better than world class job,so long as citizens do not bother about it.No problem!They eat and sleep well.

  4. 6 Sgcynic 26 August 2010 at 19:39

    Maybe “they” are “fixing” Abdul Malik to send a message…

    • 7 prettyplace 26 August 2010 at 23:11

      And what would that msg be?
      If that is their intention, I can strongly say, it’s not going to work. In fact, its going to back fire big time and its already happening. Old dogs can’t learn new tricks.
      That’s how I’ll conclude this episode.

      Now coming to matters, since the games are over. Is MCYS going to groom some of our local athletes to win medals in London 2012. I expected an annoucement of that nature and what do I hear, another $1.3B on infrastructure. Fair enough, need it as well, but what about the swimmer boy,Rainer and the TKD gal.
      The archer, who won bronze, his hands were shivering when he hit a 10, bulls eye. Are they going places. What are the plans, any annoucements. I don’t mind parting with some money in donations even.

      The feeling of a locally groomed athlete in London, would take Singaporeans to an euphoric level, I am sure. Is Dr V planning anything along the lines or is it, construction is booming the economy.

  5. 8 Mat Alamak 26 August 2010 at 21:12

    Actually Singapore having a small population base not only can have advantage of high rankings but most important is it is also more politically easy to control than big countries.

    PAP is lucky in this respect, partly also due to the population makeup and strategic location. Give them Timbuktu to rule and you think they can do the same?

    Also smart, successful and intelligent people also do not want to be in opposition. And if they do, there are not enough of them, partly due to the small population base.

    It is also easier to make the majority happy with a small population base. Can you imagine is it possible to have 66% happy for countries like China or India?

    Hence being small has its blessings, never mind what the critics say. If I were the PAP, I would even ignore these critics because they are of no consequence to the big scheme of things.

  6. 9 sloo 26 August 2010 at 22:08

    Do the cleric teachers at St. Patricks really dress that way? In my day at the mission schools, the brothers were dressed in loose white robes…That in itself would be a turn off for anyone wanting to join their cohort except perhaps for closet drag queens

  7. 10 Longtrader 27 August 2010 at 06:11

    “burn” is a vey sensitive word in Singapore especailly to the Ministers. Taxi drivers ring a bell?

  8. 11 machiavel lee 27 August 2010 at 08:37

    The picture on the banner itself proves that government servants are merely sycophantic ball carriers. why is he standing so close to the teacher? teacher’s pet issit?

  9. 12 T 27 August 2010 at 09:05

    /// You will have noticed, I’m sure, that anyway the banner had already made them look unfit for running a school when they couldn’t even spell “Nobel Prize” correctly, or know when capital letters are called for. ///

    Alex, don’t be so hard on St Pat lah. They are not gunning for the Nobel Prize, just your neighbourhood prize given by the MP, which is very noble indeed.

  10. 13 sgcitizen 27 August 2010 at 11:37

    i see he has spelt Vivian’s name incorrectly as “Vivien” if it’s word for word viewing. I believe it can be argue that it’s not exactly the person intended 🙂

  11. 14 madeline 27 August 2010 at 13:05

    “burn vivien balakrishnan and the pap”
    How exactly does one set fire to a political organisation? Incinerate the official building with a humongous firebomb? Set aflame each and every card carrying member? If this is not carrying literal interpretation to the extreme. I don’t know what is. Maybe the cops can enlighten us, in similar vein, how they perceive the expression “fix the opposition”.

  12. 15 yuen 27 August 2010 at 13:25

    “fix” can mean “repair”, so the PM was, probably, saying that the opposition was not to the government’s liking, and the government wanted to improve it; but that’s just one interpretation; I have no idea how the police or other people understood it; maybe some of the SPH bloggers can enlighten us

  13. 16 hahaha 27 August 2010 at 13:43

    “I need to bomb” = “I need to bangsai”
    “Fxxx that arsehole” = Angry with someone and not literally going to do that act!
    “My wallet burnt” = “I spent a lot of money”
    “hey, u pakjiao ah” = hey, did u not see it, and not u missed the bird.

    Time for literature classes, boys!

  14. 17 Andrew Chen 27 August 2010 at 16:30

    If you think about it, you have to wonder if Singapore is being modeled after the Village in the British Television series “The Prisoner”!

    There are striking and eery similarities – we’re being constantly bombarded from every angle by the media and establishment about how good this “village” is, while every aspect of every citizen’s life is controlled.

    As long as you’re happily docile and ignorant, everything’s fine. The minute you realize something’s wrong and become aware like No.6, you become a target to the establishment, who then tries to balance cutting you off at the knees for subversion while preventing you from becoming a martyr to the generation population, hence the character assassinations.

    When (not if) will it all come crashing down one wonders….

  15. 18 Chris 27 August 2010 at 16:56

    I believe that this article (in part) highlights how statistics can be manipulated to present facts in the most optimistic light. There has been a welter of stories in the past few days stating that net migration to the UK is +137,000 people. It sounds like we are drowning in immigrants. However, in the footnotes is the fact that most of this “net” happened because emigration from the United Kingdom has gone down, not that immigration into the United Kingdom has increased. But it satisfies the current Coalition Government to use the numbers to make the electorate believe that we are drowning in immigrants.

    When you are starting from a relatively small base as compared to other countries, percentage statistics help to make comparisons possible. From the description, however, it looks like the population base is the entire world (total number of who want to immigrate–does it include people from all countries, or only, say, permanent residents of Singapore and/or workers on work permits in Singapore already who want to settle? The footnote doesn’t make this clear.).

    What is required (and may not be either available or possible to gather) is a statistic which helps the government and people of Singapore understand both what the level of net migration is, why there is that net migration (including why emigration occurs), and what the economic benefits (if any) are for Singapore. I believe in general that immigration ought to be subject to as few controls as possible in order to guarantee economic growth.

    As for choosing words for Twitter or for blogs, using incendiary language without being absolutely clear about what you mean gives those who might be reading it some latitude as to what you mean. And Hansen’s Law says: “If a malevolent meaning can be read into your blog or tweet, it will be.” So choosing words carefully is important if the blog or tweet is on controversial or important subjects. I do take the point that the word in question is a common Singlishism and did not mean what its literal English meaning would suggest. I hope that will be taken into consideration if the matter is ever the subject of a court case.

  16. 19 rojakgirl 27 August 2010 at 18:27

    Hmmm… the measures taken by the police against Malik are really high-handed. It’s crazy, paranoid and leaves me wondering: don’t they have criminals to catch and do they really have nothing better to do?

    Reminds me of this incident around 2000, 2001 or 2002 when the police arrested a couple of teenagers for discussing weapons like bombs, grenades, or even rocket launchers from get this… CounterStrike or some other online game. There was a huge ruckus because it completely pissed off and frightened a lot of teenagers and youths.

    Oh wait, I forgot: was it the police or the Internal Security department which did the arresting + “interrogations”? The whole incident was pretty crazy: how on earth do a bunch of virtual weapons pose a threat to the peace in Singapore? This is not some anime or Matrix where humans can slip back and forth from cyberspace and reality. Oh well, since it’s really old, I was unable to find any links regarding this incident.

  17. 20 LC 27 August 2010 at 19:22

    Yes, the character assasination is PAP SOP – all critics are found to be dishonest in some way – all the many opposition politicans, the latest being James Gomez. If not, they will be declared mentally ill – remember the taxi driver and the lecturer who is with SDP?

    The sad thing is, a large percentage of the population believes everything the PAP says, and there are still many people willing to do the dirty deeds, like people in the police!

  18. 22 prettyplace 27 August 2010 at 23:22

    I think this will be the first case of cyber-lingo in court.
    It is already intresting to see the SPF’s perspective on cyber semantics.Now to see the reaction of others.

  19. 23 yuen 28 August 2010 at 11:44

    the Abdul Malik incident and the whole YOG episode show that the press situation today is very different from 10 years ago; the blog movement (which actually received the endorsement of Lee Kuan Yew himself once at a public forum in answer to a question from the floor: if you dont like what you read in Straits Times, why dont you just go and start your own blog?) means today it is very easy to publish your views on the web, but generally, moderate views dont receive much attention while extremist and unserious views get free play.

    If Singapore Inc wishes to continue to rely on its PR machines, SPH/Mediacorp, to maintain the authoritative news source status, they would have to diversify They need to provide more outlet for alternative views within the system, e.g., by having a range of columnists covering a whole spectrum of standpoints. That is, various moderate views should all be bundled in the Singapore Inc public voice so that they get greater exposure, to combat the eye catching extreme views that float around on the web.

    Come back Catherine Lim/Mr Brown – your country needs you

  20. 24 Bobby Tan 28 August 2010 at 16:08

    I fear the day when this VB guy (a Minister in the Governmnt!) goes back to practising Medicine……when He cannot and is unable to discern the meaning of “burn” in its actual context what interpretation He will have on medical terms! Hah!

  21. 25 patriot 28 August 2010 at 22:11

    The Day one has the POWER, one will have the Right to interpret any word metaphorically, semantically, creatively, imaginatively or politically.


  22. 26 thinkso 29 August 2010 at 22:10

    !!the blog movement (which actually received the endorsement of Lee Kuan Yew himself once at a public forum in answer to a question from the floor: if you dont like what you read in Straits Times, why dont you just go and start your own blog?)!!

    In didn’t know that. But since he said that, Thank you Mr Lee Kuan Yew for giving that piece of superb advice. You are not just a forecaster but a fantastic adviser. It’s because of your advice that the blogosphere is now such a fertile ground jammed full of ideas, comments and suggestions. I think that in addition to your many titles and accolades you should be known as The Father of the Blogging World!

    • 27 yuen 29 August 2010 at 22:37

      ah..since you liked what I said about LKY, let me say something about Vivian Balakrishnan. He has taken most of the heat generated over YOG and I find the bashing he received quite excessive. While my acquaintance with him was limited to two email exchanges and one face to face meeting in I think 2002, I had a good impression of him; he struck me as sincere and dedicated, with both admiration and reservation about the Singapore “system” and its creators.

      Afterwards, I myself took little interest in news about his part in cat culling during SARS, casinos, YOG, etc, but of course got bombarded with information all the same. Given the way the “system” operates, I dont think one can credit a single person for success or blame him for failure. However, in the general scheme of things, Success has many parents but Failure is an orphan, and someone gets to hold the baby. That’s the way life goes.

  23. 28 Gmale 30 August 2010 at 00:08

    Yes, life is full of ups and downs and many
    other twists and turns in between. But one
    has to take whatever life throws at one and
    make of it as best one can.

    Coming back to Vivian B, he is another good
    boy turned bad. I used to admire him for his
    guts in speaking up against the excesses and
    inequities of the system but since entering
    politics he has turned full circle. It is
    amazing, but can one’s views change in such
    a dramatic fashion in so short a time?

    • 29 yuen 30 August 2010 at 00:30

      if you are in the “system”, it is inevitable that you talk and act like the “system”; the reasons are complex – “he is doing it for the money” is much too simplistic – the ideas “I need to stay here to do good” “if I lose, others with worse ideas win” are at least as important

  24. 30 Vernon Voon 30 August 2010 at 10:50

    Singapore has a larger population than New Zealand. Yet it has a higher migrant rate of 219% versus New Zealand’s 184%. Does this not at least confirm that Singapore is more popular than New Zealand is a destination for emigration, even after accounting for its small population?

  25. 31 thinkso 30 August 2010 at 11:14

    But it still doesn’t explain the stark contrast between
    his previous and his current stand. It’s easier to understand if it is just a slight shift in what he says, but it is not. It is as if he is saying “Look folks, this is the new me. I completely reject everything I have said before. Just look at me now!” Can anyone really experience a total change of mind?
    Looks to me like it’s all for the money.

  26. 32 George 30 August 2010 at 11:18

    ” Does this not at least confirm that Singapore is more popular than New Zealand is a destination for emigration, even after accounting for its small population?”

    Numbers alone don’t give you the whole or true picture.

    Singapore takes in virtually any tom dick harry or their opposite genders whereas the NZ immigration authorities and those of other countries are pretty
    choosy who they allow in. And they make pretty sure the locals wouldn’t suffer as a result of exploitation,

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