Sunday, February 10, 2013

Singapore's Population White Paper aftermath: Keep calm and speak clearly

If you speak to journalists who used to cover Singapore's Old Guard ministers, some will tell you that press secretaries for certain ministers used to routinely hand out speeches with key paragraphs underlined.

You may laugh, but this straightforward approach ensured the newsmaker got his message across. This is a practice worth considering, looking at how some newspapers miss newspoints.

The 90 cents newspaper's headline for its 1 January 2013 story that reported the Republic of Singapore Navy's second Archer-class submarine had arrived in Singapore is a case in point.

It said:"2nd S'pore Sub Berths at Changi".

What a pity that the paper of record opened the new year with a report that gave the impression there are only two subs at Changi Naval Base. Regulars to this site would know there are more. No elaboration necessary.

Exhibit Two: If a statesman pledges to defend his/her country's territorial integrity, is this worthy of a headline? Wouldn't every state leader do the same?

Or would the kicker that this would be done "at all costs" make people sit up and take notice?

Referring to the island dispute between China and Japan, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pledged on 2 February 2013 in Okinawa:"I am determined to stand at the forefront ahead of you all and stand up against the crisis that is there and resolutely protect at all costs our people's lives and assets, as well as our country's territorial land, air and sea."

When Japan's premier says words to that effect, there should be no doubt of Japan's determination to hold onto the islands.

But here in Singapore, the reader has to plough past the headline - "Abe vows to defend disputed islands" - standfirst and three chunky paragraphs before that "at all cost" quote appears in the mainsteam media.

The place where PM Abe delivered his speech is historically significant in Japanese military history. Okinawa was the battleground for the largest amphibious landing in the Pacific War (Operation Iceberg). The Allied landing on the island triggered a furious response from Japan, which unleashed kamikaze airborne and seaborne attacks - including the ill-fated sortie by their super battleship Yamato - against Allied forces.

The phrase "protect at all costs" coming from a Japanese leader conjures images of kamikaze attacks and Banzai charges, whose bravery outweighed their actual tactical value.(An infantry charge across open ground against dug-in opponents 50 to 100m away armed with belt-fed automatic weapons firing on cyclic will not get you more than 15 to 20 paces before the sheer volume of gunfire cuts the attack to pieces. Three steps per second would see a single defending MG firing at 600 rpm spew out 10 bullets for every second the soldier is left standing. Simple mathematics would reveal the futility of such a Banzai charge. There are exceptions, as seen during the human wave attacks during the Iran-Iraq War but let's discuss this another time.)

The Japanese PM's press sec ought to have underlined the sentence as follows:"I am determined to stand at the forefront ahead of you all and stand up against the crisis that is there and resolutely protect at all costs our people's lives and assets, as well as our country's territorial land, air and sea."

See the difference?

We understand Singapore's former Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence, Dr Tony Tan, had a knack for underlining parts of his speech.

At the time, some journalists used to take offence at this practice as they felt it impunged their editorial judgement. However, Dr Tan did so with a light touch. The highlighted portion typically amounted to no more than one or two key pars and these were indeed quote worthy. So journalists would have used it anyway and the newsmaker probably wanted to be doubly sure the message was not lost.

Exhibit Three: We get a report churned out by contributions from no less than 12 Singapore government ministeries and seven government bodies including the Prime Minister's Office.

Mainstream media dutifully does its job. News reaches the masses. When Singaporeans hiss disapproval, we are told that newspoint was taken "out of context".

Now to say something was taken out of context suggests that the information was shared in good faith but the telephone line was somehow broken along the way. [If you are a guy who is dating or married, I would not suggest using this defence next time she is cross with you.]

The inference is usually negative:
1) That the recipient of the information (us) was not paying attention
2) The listener/reader/viewer was reading too much into things, or
3) The writing was crisp, clear and concise but the recipient was stupid

Sounds familiar?

This is the aftermath of the ill-starred government communications plan that led to Singaporeans remembering the Population White Paper the way we do.

If the White Paper was intended as a conversation starter, it has certainly succeeded in stirring passions.

If there is a rewrite, the authors could perhaps learn a lesson from Dr Tan's stylebook by underlining key portions and, above all, leaving no doubt about the intended message in the first place.


Anonymous said...

Who cares whether the MSM got the message right or wrong. A huge number of people (except those fawners at LHL's FB page), are well aware of what is encompassed by the 6.9million threat issued by the govt.

The ST has been in business for more than 100 years. If its staff are unable to present news points correctly and responsibly, then it deserves to fail. And the same goes for those in all other areas.

Why should we keep on propping up, advising and supporting those who do their job badly?

Anonymous said...

Hi David, you refer to Dr Tan's practice of underlining his key points.

Yet strangely enough as our elected President he has been extremely silent on this Population White Paper, as he was on the other issues since he was elected.

David Boey said...

Radio silence from LKY too. Was hoping he would say something.

Hopefully reportets will ask him something if and when he makes an appearance at one of the Lunar New Year events.

Best regards,


Anonymous said...

Lackeys and dogs are never very smart.

LKY is keeping his mouth shut because he pronounced that 5.5M was an excessive population for Singapore.

Anonymous said...

Hoping LKY wld speak: Sad that we Still want to depend for direction/what to do on this old fellow, who - with his friends - has done his part for this country and kept on doing what he can for it till 2011. Why do we need to keep running to Daddy? Why are we unable to deal with our lives ourselves? How long more should we keep on depending on him?

Anonymous said...

The only thing better than him speaking... is him shutting up for good and for ever.

If it is for ever, it is for good.