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