I discontinued my online subscription to the Straits Times earlier this year. The habit wasn’t easy to break. At first I found myself buying the print version about twice a week. Weekends, I often bought the Sunday Times — mostly for its Sudoku and two or three comic strips that I liked (most I didn’t). But lately, I’ve gone for perhaps two months without missing it.
Then a few weeks ago, I happened to leaf through a copy of the Sunday Times at a cafe and discovered that they had halved the Sunday comic strips. Sherman’s Lagoon was gone.
Well, that’s that, then.
Above, Hawthorne the crab says “I feel more violated than entertained.” I know the feeling. Reading the Straits Times often felt like a mugging.
Not everyone feels that way though. A friend to whom I mentioned that I had unsubscribed said something quite different. “It’s come to be like the old magazines one browses through in doctor’s waiting rooms,” she said. “Mostly predictable drivel.”
I have a feeling that many are feeling and doing likewise. As the top photo indicates, the Straits Times has now found it necessary to advertise itself on other channels, when once it reigned so supreme it had no need to. Reducing the syndicated comic strips looks like cost-cutting.
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I suspect that not subscribing has had an effect on my writing. I am much less up-to-date on domestic news. Being more cut off, I respond less, but then again, there had been times when I became conscious of how I was largely led by the Straits Times’ news agenda. I was writing because something in the newspaper irked me. To put it another way: I was being jerked around by it.
Of course, there is the opposite danger now, which is that relying mainly on social media to flag up newsworthy tidbits, my attention is being jerked around by social media instead. But there is a big difference: Whereas a Straits Times story would (once) have had reach and therefore made it more compelling for me to speak up against, the stuff shared on social media won’t normally have much traction. I don’t feel the same need to counter-argue.
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What do I mean when I say I felt like being jerked around by the Straits Times? Let me give you an example.
Lately a journalist phoned me for a comment in response to a survey conducted (or mis-conducted, as one could say of the choice of language in the question) for the Singapore Conversation. See earlier article about it here. And oh, by the way, I have since heard from a source who said, “All the researchers involved were Christian.”
As pointed out in the earlier article, the survey revealed that those who told survey-takers that they “reject gay lifestyles” have now fallen below 50 percent. Among younger and better-educated respondents, those who are accepting of “gay lifestyles” now roughly equal those who do not.
In the phone conversation, the journalist kept coming back to a point that a member of parliament had made to her when she asked this MP for his comment. According to the reporter, the MP’s reply was to bemoan the “polarisation” that the survey uncovered. As for whether the future would see even greater acceptance of gay people, the MP’s response was to warn against even more polarisation. Further pushing by gay people for equal rights would, implicitly, be the kind of action that would exacerbate such polarisation.
The journalist then kept asking me if I agreed with this assessment and what I would say in response. I tried my best, but it was no easy task holding back my annoyance.
What was I annoyed about?
1. To speak of polarisation was a stupid way to characterise the situation;
2. Instead of treating stupidity with the contempt it deserved, instead of unpacking it, the journalist seemed to feel it was her job to uncritically accept such framing of the issue;
3. She then insisted that my comments fit within this kind of framing.
That in a nutshell is how the Straits Times gets it wrong, not just on the gay issue, but on just about everything else that in any way touches the government and its preferences. It religiously uses the government’s line as the starting point for any conversation, and it puts the burden of proof on those who dispute the government’s line, no matter how absurd the government’s case may be.
It’s like someone saying that the moon is made of cheese and then demanding that everyone around respond seriously to such a claim. You get very tired of it very fast.
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Why is “polarisation” a stupid way to characterise the situation?
The process of social change always has early adopters. On equal rights for LGBT people, quite obviously the earliest adopters would be those whose lives have been directly affected by prejudice and discrimination, the LGBT people themselves. Soon, their friends, families and other fair-minded people too shift their positions to become, in the parlance of the survey, “gay-accepting”. Still, for a long while, early adopters remain a minority.
Change always has laggards too. Some among them are active resisters. This is true of the LGBT question as it was when women began to ask for the right to vote, or when Singapore began to shift from being a predominantly vernacular to a primarily English-speaking society. Social change brings in train a rebalancing of power relations. Some people will fear losing out.
What this means is that through the process, individuals in a society never move in lockstep with each other in their evolving views. They first spread out over a spectrum of views, and then gradually reconsolidate at a different opinion position. Today, it is considered beyond consideration to speak of denying women the vote; everybody has clustered at one end of the opinion spectrum. But it was not always so. There was a wide divergence of views during the process of change.
On the language question, the process isn’t over; the linguistic scene in Singapore is still spread out over a spectrum, but the trend for the past few decades has been towards wider usage of English. The centre of gravity is shifting.
“Polarisation” is quite inappropriate as a description of the process. The word implies only two possible and opposing views, with people clustering around each pole, the same way iron filings are most strongly attracted to the two ends of a magnet bar. It is also inappropriate because the mental image the word dials up is a static one.
A better way to see social change is to think in terms of a moving wave, as represented by the animated gif below. It may be a long drawn-out process, taking perhaps two generations to move from a near-universal acceptance of the old ways to a near-universal acceptance of the new. But through much of the process, the great bulk of people are somewhere in between, absorbing, adjusting and accommodating themselves to the future.
If “polarisation” is such a bad metaphor, why does the government and its henchmen use it? Because they are not interested in being accurate. They are more interested in promoting their own agenda. “Polarisation” is useful to them because it implies discord, tension and antagonistic repelling. To most people other than those who see great creative value in contestation, these are bad things. To warn against polarisation is to tell people not hold strong opinions, better yet, to give up on their own views and adhere to “consensus” — another loaded, agenda-driven word.
Coupled with the incessant drumming of the claim that Singapore is a “conservative society” — no good evidence offered — bemoaning “polarisation” and tacitly lauding “consensus” can be read as a call to the pro-equality side to fold. At the same time, it casts those who hold strong views as trouble-makers. Taken together, the “polarisation” framing is not only insulting to one’s intelligence by being misleading, it is offensive to me personally for trying to negate my rights.
When the Straits Times buys in to this kind of framing and indicates through their line of questioning that the article will be similarly bounded, you know the newspaper is not about to give you a fair shake.
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Nonetheless, I told the reporter the news point is not “polarisation”. The news point from the local survey, and from a more perceptive reading of world-wide trends, is that the high-water mark is either passing or has passed. Specifically, recent opinion surveys have found that a majority of Americans now believe that same-sex couples should be able to get married. And American churches are beginning to dial back on their anti-gay rhetoric. The Mormon Church, for example, chief fundraiser for the “Proposition 8” campaign against marriage equality in California in 2008, is quietly soul-searching today. Pope Francis, just a week or two ago, spoke out against Christians obsessing over gay rights. It doesn’t take much effort to find articles on the net drawing the conclusion that the rightwing side of the “culture war” is lost.
Since anti-gay campaigns in Singapore are inspired and stoked by US church groups, their retreat will surely be reflected in Singapore too before long.
This is not to say that it will be smooth sailing for gay equality from now on. Not at all. The high-water mark may be passing, but strong, tricky currents remain. For example, winning the constitutional challenge against Section 377A of the Penal Code at the Court of Appeal is not assured. This leftover piece of legislation criminalises homosex between men, and casts a long shadow over all same-sex relationships and homosexual orientation generally. Oral arguments have been scheduled for 14 October 2013.
One thing I didn’t say to the journalist but which perhaps it is timely I do so now: I am beginning to see low-life in Singapore spewing anti-gay invective. I take it as a quite positive development. My theory is this: When louts start doing that, it is the endgame.
It’s like the smoking habit. At first it was associated with the upper classes, a sign of sophistication. But when truckers dangled cigarettes from their lips and streetwalkers puffed to look cool, you know tobacco’s appeal is kaput. Likewise, when the unintelligent adopt anti-gay postures and attitudes, the intelligent flee.
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So, after that conversation with the reporter, how did her article come out? Guess what, I didn’t even bother to find out. I don’t subscribe anymore, and I had no interest in spending ninety cents buying a print version to satisfy my curiosity. For a simple reason: I was not in the least curious.
That says something about laggards too. In the end, they become irrelevant, like the last 0.1 percent who still believe that women should never have gotten the vote.
Of course, it remains within the realm of possibility that Singapore will choose to be a die-hard denialist of a state. We shall see when the constitutional challenge is decided.
Lee Kuan Yew, for all his faults, was at least perspicacious enough to see that irrelevance will be the price to pay if we choose to be resisters to the end. In an interview he gave to Reuters on 24 April 2007, to a question
“. . . did we read this correctly — you saying that we should decriminalise it [Section 377A] eventually?”
his answer was
“. . . . if this is the way the world is going and Singapore is part of that interconnected world and I think it is, then I see no option for Singapore but to be part of it.”
It’s a prospect the Straits Times too should be concerned about — for its own sake. As its habit of framing every story the way the government wants it becomes indigestible to its readers, who then peel away, irrelevance emerges on the horizon.