Tuesday, May 28, 2013

In Media Res

T. S. Eliot, in his choruses from The Rock, asked:
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
One might add, 'Where is the information we have lost in media?'

I am driven to this question by the saddest (as in, most pathetic) of things: I was annoyed by comments on the internet. Such pettiness would normally not be worth more than a moment's hyperventilation, not to mention a blog post. But this recent ugly round of online irresponsibility has interfered with my sheer sense of joy and wonder that on Sunday, Singaporean director Anthony Chen won the Caméra d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival for his film, Ilo Ilo (爸妈不在家) . This is the first Singaporean feature film to win at Cannes. Chen had also, in Cannes in 2007, garnered a special mention for his short film Ah Ma. Rejoice! I thought. Things were to prove more complicated than this.

The sorry story of the online shenanigans is told here and here. In short, some persons online decided to set up a fake facebook account with the name of 'Cindy Toh' to spread an utterly spurious story about how Chen had sought support for his studies and filmmaking from the PAP government and MPs and was repeatedly turned down. This was parroted by many online commenters as it seemed to fit into what they wanted to believe: that the PAP government was useless; that it neglected local talents; that it was only now trumpeting Chen's success (Chen received laudatory mentions on the Prime Minister's facebook page, for example) because well, he had succeeded. "Whatever" you think: the internet is a hive of misinformation anyway. But the weirdness comes next.

Minister Lawrence Wong responded to these comments by pointing out that the Media Development Authority (MDA) of Singapore did provide funding for Chen and the film. (If you check out the film's twitter feed, it thanks the MDA.) These online provocateurs than responded, and I kid you not, that they had successfully baited the minister. Mr. Wong, in pointing out that the government had provided funding for the film, had in fact admitted that this was a government propaganda effort to normalise the presence of foreigners in Singapore. Their fake facebook troll and rumourmongering had paid off! One observation to made from the off, which Mr. Wong made, is that this is not news. A quick search on Google will reveal that Chen
recently completed his MA in Film Directing at the National Film and Television School, UK with a scholarship from the Media Development Authority of Singapore.
If one looks at the official site for the movie, the logo of the Singapore Film Commission, part of MDA, is clearly visible on the bottom left corner of the page. So much for 'baiting' Mr. Wong then -- it appears internet provocateurs aren't very good at using the internet. On the whole, it was plain upsetting that we couldn't simply celebrate Chen's triumph, and were exposed to the strange minds of conspiracy theorists online. But again, you say, nothing new. The internet was designed for conspiracy theorists. (Though conspiracy theorists will tell you otherwise, of course.)

What was worse was that various online news outlets, including the fairly well-read theonlinecitizen and also publichouse.sg, among others, repeated this story. As pointed out, if these editors had bothered to google the stuff (as I did), they would have realised what the truth is. The question I have is simply this: isn't this sloppy approach an argument against your very existence? The onus is on these online news outlets to prove that they're as good as, if not better than traditional media. That way, journalism in Singapore will be improved -- and that's the way they can best justify their existence. If they're going to descend to reporting rumour that simply confirms their own and their readers' cognitive biases (as the online comments on their posts seem to show), then what's the point? Why should a discerning reader support alternative media/online news/whatever you call it if they can't even verify news? Then, today, like an omen, the MDA announced a new licensing scheme of online news websites.

The moment hasn't been ruined, despite a few hours of annoyance. I am very happy that Ilo Ilo, a film about a Filipino domestic worker (from the province of Iloilo in the Philippines, hence the title) in Singapore, the Asian financial crisis and family pressures, has won. I am even more happy that it's a win for Singapore (and really, I would argue, for the Philippines as well). I can't wait to watch it: my family employed a Filipino lady -- whom I am still in touch with and still love very much -- when I was growing up, to largely take care of my great-grandmother. She taught me many things, cooked many lovely Filipino dishes (like stuffed milk fish, or rellenong bangus) , spent many idle afternoons with me, playing and drawing, made sure my great-grandmother was comfortable and happy till she died and is now still providing help to another family. I recall a friend's mother telling me that without maids, she wouldn't have been able to be a career woman. I'm not going to let these idiots ruin this for me, and neither should you. 

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