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A rant on discussion of political issues in Singapore

with 14 comments

Sometimes I get very frustrated with others when I discuss Singapore political stuff with some of my friends.  You see, a good number of my interlocutors don’t attack my arguments/points, preferring instead to focus fire on your position, even if you don’t have a firm opinion on something and might just be playing devil’s advocate or simply making a point. Even worse, there are times when they don’t even attack your argument, but instead a highly caricatured strawman position which no reasonable person would hold.  Perhaps this is best illustrated with a real-life example:

This conversation occured between persons A (me) and B (a friend).

A: Hmm, you know a reason why I don’t read the state media is because they’re very biased.  I’d much rather read foreign and international news sources such as BBC, CNN, WSJ, FT and the like.

B: Well, I don’t agree because even the BBC has its own biases. (Navigates web browser to Wikipedia page on BBC controversies).  Even if you read multiple foreign news sources it’s still better to include the Straits Times in your reading.

A: I’m aware of that page, but it misses the point I’m trying to make.  No, if you look at RSF [Reporters Without Borders] ranking of Singapore press freedom, it’s always been below 140th in place out of the 167 countries surveyed.  Furthermore, even if the international media have their own biases, this bias is with respect to their own countries’ government and does not influence journalistic reporting on a faraway country such as Singapore.  Take Al-Jazeera for example.  Everyone knows they’re against the Israelis and can’t criticise their government, but they have no reason to be biased against Singapore in any way.  Furthermore, many of the disparate foreign news sources report more or less the same thing regarding Singapore, so unless there’s some conspiracy and collusion amongst them against Singapore, there’s little reason to doubt what they say is true.

Let me also point out to you how this recent report by the ST is misleading and biased.  [Directs B to this page and starts explaining the gist of the post]

B: Ok, so how was this ranking carried out? (Referring to RSF’s ranking)  I think you should know that most of the news we read are garnered from AFP, AP and Reuters.  Even when the news sources don’t explicitly state so, journalists often consult these three wire news agencies’ reports for their articles.

[Now at this point I should say this made me kind of frustrated.  Somehow B thinks that it’s not unreasonable to start with the position that the state media is unbiased and there’s a real possibility that the rest of the world media may possess some inclination towards negative reporting on Singapore.  It kind of reminds me of the meth addict who screams out to the authorities to save them from giant spiders stalking the streets preying on them.  Why should we assume by default that the journalistic integrity of the local media is to be ranked  higher than the rest of the world media?  Especially when numerous press freedom reports (US State Dept report, Freedom House in addition to RSF) around the world agree that the Singapore media isn’t free?]

A: You can find their methodology here.  (Navigates to RSF website.)  Furthermore the US State Dept annual human rights report, Freedom House, RSF happen to concur.  Isn’t that evidence the state media has a systemic bias?

[The discussion appears to be drawing to an end, with a half-hearted concession by B on the possibility that the state media possesses a systemic bias though he continues to insist it’s better to include the ST among my reading  Now of course I disagree strongly with this recommendation.  It’s as good as saying that one should read the KCNA (North Korea’s state news agency) in addition to world news reports on North Korea in order to get a more complete “perspective” on North Korea]

So what’s the lesson I learned from the above?  Sometimes political discussions are very painful when both parties start out from very different premises.


Written by defennder

July 13, 2009 at 4:57 PM

Posted in Singapore affairs

14 Responses

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  1. Interesting point.

    Question: do you think the WSJ, which has been sued numerous times by Singapore is unbiased?

    Suppose we agree with you that ST is biased.

    Do believe that the ST is not factually accurate? Do your foreign media have equal access to facts about Singapore as ST?

    Bias has to do with opinion. ST got opinion meh?

    Not defending ST. Just trying to understand your premises. 🙂

    Kway Teow Man

    July 14, 2009 at 10:23 PM

  2. Hi KTM,

    The WSJ has its own conservative bias on its editorial pages, but I find them less dishonest in their regular reporting compared to the ST. I pointed out above (as I did in a discussion with a friend) that the ST painted a very misleading and disingenuous picture of Temasek’s returns compared to Bershire Hathaway. Other blogs have done the same. To this date, I don’t think they have bothered to clarify how they arrived at their numbers. Isn’t that a clear example of disingenuity?

    Another example was how the state media was quick to jump to conclusions about David Widjaja’s death in the immediate aftermath of that incident, even before investigations commenced. You can search for the relevant criticism of their coverage on Wayang Party and TOC. It’s not a matter of the ST reporting something which we know later to false, I don’t think I’ve claimed anywhere that the ST has been factually inaccurate, although perhaps others have evidence that it has.

    Media bias isn’t all about factual inaccuracy. Partisan tone and misleading claims matter factor into this as well, especially since they have a lot more room to fudge around.


    July 15, 2009 at 10:14 AM

  3. Hi guys,

    I’ve been following a bunch of s’porean blogs for some time now, but this is my very first time commenting. The reasons (among others) being 1) I think it’s a great pity that defennder and his friend(s), presumably being intelligent, articulate, passionate s’poreans, can’t agree to disagree on something like this, and 2) I find that I may (hopefully) be able to bring more light on B’s intentions and perspective.

    While I can’t say I know what B was thinking, I could imagine myself bringing up similar pts if I were in her/his place, partly for reasons of being devil’s advocate, and partly because I think defennder is being a little extreme in this case.

    Let me state upfront that I think any reasonably well-informed s’porean would know that the ST toes the govt line fairly tightly. I doubt B felt strongly otherwise.

    That said, I think the point abt the BBC’s bias etc has more validity than defennder thinks. It’s not that the “international media” goes something like: “oh i hate singapore so i’m gonna say bad things” (that’s not what defennder’s saying, of coz). perhaps it’s more that they view democracy and civil rights etc etc in a way that’s fundamentally different from the ST and/or govt (and similar to each other). Take the example of Al-Jazeera; yup they probably have nothing “personal” against S’pore, but that doesn’t mean that they share a similar worldview as the ST either.

    i’m not even sure if I’d called all this “bias”, btw. it’s one thing to allow emotions to supplant logic, but to have a different opinion stemming from different fundamental beliefs etc (which I think is the case for the intl media vs s’pore), seems to me to be mostly just difference of opinion.

    have more pts to make/address/rebut, but this post getting a bit long, so we’ll see where this discussion goes.

    Doesnt Matter

    July 16, 2009 at 11:49 PM

  4. Hi KTM,

    This is irrelevant to the discussion at hand, but is there any chance that you might send your email address to thinkaholic.anonymous@gmail.com, so that I can contact you?

    There are a few things I’d like to share with you regarding the closure of your kway teow stall, but I’d rather not have it viewable in the public domain.

    defennder, sorry to hijack your blog like that, but I couldn’t think of any other way to contact KTM. (probably because i’m a noob, but anyway.)

    Doesnt Matter

    July 17, 2009 at 12:01 AM

  5. Hi DM,

    I seriously doubt my friend was merely playing devil’s advocate. You see I met up with him recently again, and he made the general comment, without reference to Singapore’s state media that he thought all media was biased and there is therefore no point in preferring one source to another.

    He is completing his studies on media and he has shared with others before that he doesn’t believe there is such thing as a free press. Therefore, he concludes, there’s no point slamming state media such as Singapore’s or North Korea’s because everything is biased. His approach to me seems to be “pick your poison” by virtue of your own biases.

    Now, what do you say to such a view? Because his world view differs so radically from mine, I don’t know where to start rebutting his points. We’re resting on very different premises.


    July 18, 2009 at 3:34 PM

  6. A pity KTM shut down his blog here. He may have received a lot of flak over some comments he made on Lucky’s post on wages but there has to be some reason why he decided to stop blogging. No idea.


    July 18, 2009 at 3:43 PM

  7. Yeah I agree that that argument’s a big cop-out. I’ve used that argument myself before (in a different context), and the ridiculousness of it was pointed by my friend. But I think the valid underlying point I was trying to make to my friend was something like: “both parties have their faults, but you seem to beating on one party without acknowledging the faults of the other”.

    btw, I think a completely free press is a mythical entity. don’t you?

    I think your example of North Korea isn’t that great. There’s a difference between outright intentional fabrication (which I think is the case with NK), and having biases (in the case of SG). No doubt the dividing line *can* be grey, but I think the ST is pretty far away from that line. I think that’s why KTM brought up the question of factual accuracy.

    In any case, you know the chinese saying: “know yourself, know your enemy…”? I hear that the CIA closely examines photos of Kim Jong Il to try to infer if he’s ill/dying/etc. So even in the case of NK there’s some value in their state media, though of coz that’s stretching it somewhat.

    In the case of ST, if you’re solely referring to topics that are covered by the foreign media, and your stand is that you already kinda know what angle the ST will take and they never say bad things, then I don’t disagree. But I didn’t get any sense of such qualifications from your post.

    Doesnt Matter

    July 21, 2009 at 11:03 PM

  8. Hi DM,

    Yeah there are valid points to be made over the biases of the other media. I did not deny those points. The ST does more than avoid saying bad things. Sometimes they distort and paint misleading pictures as the link I’ve noted in the conversation pointed out.

    I don’t pretend there exists a completely free press, at the same time if someone tells me the difference between KCNA and BBC News is strictly or largely a matter of individual opinion, I think I’ll probably save myself the time and trouble of arguing with him.

    That the CIA or some news analysis may point out that Kim may be dying from state media published photos mean that they are doing an indirect inference. They may even conclude that the KCNA is doctoring photos or recycling old ones if that warrants. But the point is, the KCNA itself not free to explicitly say so or even so much hint at the truth. It’s useful as a source, but not without detailed analysis and the implicit assumption that we cannot trust the reporting of the state media too literally.


    July 21, 2009 at 11:13 PM

  9. Besides, I’d like to point out that this post is nothing more than a rant. Don’t read too much into it 😉 If I have the time I might write something on the state media in future.


    July 21, 2009 at 11:14 PM

  10. As far as i can tell, that Alvin Foo article comparing Temasek and Berkshire Hathaway does seem to be an instance of particularly bad reporting.

    But to probe a little bit more, do you think that’s the typical quality of ST articles?

    “It’s useful as a source, but not without…”. I think we are in complete agreement on this point.

    Doesnt Matter

    July 22, 2009 at 2:02 PM

  11. Ah yes, noted. For me, it’s really just using this as an entry point into being an active participant online.

    I’m finding it’s quickly becoming quite a time-sink. Will probably not be posting so much once my vacation’s over.

    Doesnt Matter

    July 22, 2009 at 2:07 PM

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