Income and wealth inequality has become an albatross around many governments’ necks — Singapore’s included — provoking distrust and resistance to policies.
Meanwhile, readership of the Straits Times is falling. Media academics have pointed out that the Straits Times, in blindly following the direction set by the People’s Action Party government, does the government no favours. Sheepishly echoing government edicts alienates people.
Such criticism may be largely focussed on the newspaper’s habit of casting government pronouncements as words of wisdom and government actions as self-evidently correct and optimal, and leaving little room for questioning, but the Sunday Times of 4 January 2015 showed one other way in which the newspaper is committing suicide for both itself and the government it so loyally serves. This example may be symptomatic of a more general problem: an absence of self-reflection and an inability to grasp what it is doing so counter-productively. Autopilot has taken over uncritical minds.
On page 10 of Sunday Life! is a shallow travel article bylined Lydia Vasko, telling of the experience of Dolores Tay, “global director of marketing of Catalunya Group”. The company is said to run a Spanish restaurant. In this half-page piece, which I read with a brutal mix of disgust and irresistible voyeurism, much like watching a python strangle a goat, Dolores Tay gushed about staying in Four Seasons Hotel in Prague, where rooms start at €280 (S$448) a night. Her “favourite restaurant” was one that serves oysters at about $10 a piece. (Why anyone would think it an intelligent idea to go to an inland city, 800km from the Atlantic coast, for “freshest” oysters escapes me.) A big part of the article was headlined “retail therapy” where she talks about her preferred antiques dealer among other pretentious-sounding things.
“Just about nobody will be able to relate to an article like this,” my sister pronounced. “99 percent of readers may even be put off by it.”
Indeed, it is foolish for the Straits Times to run articles that only provide fodder for accusations of elitism flung daily at the government and all its lackeys. It’s an editorial policy that displays both political insensitivity and business obtuseness.
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I am reminded of the middle-aged Indonesian woman who had the seat next to me on a leg of the flight back just the day before. She had a watch with a whole battalion of tiny diamonds around its circumference. Each of the twelve hours was marked by a bigger diamond. As if a screamingly loud watch was not enough, on the same wrist was a bracelet — all diamonds again. On a finger was a ring — three more diamonds, the largest one as big as an orange seed.
Far from being dazzled or impressed, I thought she was a very stupid woman. Travelling to strange places wearing stuff like that is like walking around with a “rob me” sign. Many years ago, I heard from a work colleague a story of her friend being attacked for his gold Rolex. The attacker had a cleaver, and made a quick escape after hacking off the victim’s forearm.
Yet, with all those diamonds, not only was Madam Indonesia flying economy class, her marshmallow arms were regularly flopping into my seat. Will people like her ever realise that if you want to be attractive, forget the diamonds, just shed twenty kilos?
That lack of self-awareness was similar to what I observed in the the Sunday Times and its featured traveller.
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Yesterday evening, I mentioned the Sunday Times article to a friend, and was a little disconcerted that he didn’t think anything was wrong. His point was that so long as the newspaper has decided to have a travel story a week, this is what will come out of it. All over the world, he said, travel articles are like this, where the subject person speaks about favourite hotels, restaurants and things to do.
Perhaps he’s right, but “Even if you’re right, it’s still a problem,” I replied. “All over the world economic inequality is a white-hot issue.”
He conceded that it needn’t be written in a way that was drenched with conspicuous consumption, but he argued — and I think validly — that holidays are always suffused with self-indulgence, reminding me of many in our own circle of friends we have long sworn never to travel with because they are insufferable shopping fiends.
He may have a point: self-indulgence means doing the things you want to do, things that make yourself happy. Fine, go ahead. It’s your own time and your money. But it bothers me that this view of what travelling should represent of may be as widespread as it is: a window for shallow consumerism and flaunting. Moreover, choosing what to publish must be take in other considerations, and the Sunday Times does itself a disservice to celebrate the kind of throw-money elitism that this article does.
I made up my mind there and then. My next article will be a travel article, to demonstrate another way of writing these. My self-indulgence when I travel has a twist: I enjoy observing other peoples and cultures, and I take back these observations for self-reflection. What we notice in others often reveals a lot about ourselves. To me, travelling is a learning experience — which partly explains why I generally travel alone. I find chatter with a companion distracting.
Coincidentally, midway through this recent trip, well before I was mashed up against Madam Indonesia, I had also decided I needed a new watch. The one that I was wearing was too good. It cost over $300! I’m not travelling with it again. I need a cheap plastic one, one that a thief would be too embarrassed to steal.