The kind word to describe the Media Literacy Council fiasco over its lumping of satire as fake news is overzealousness. The real unspoken issue is a bit more serious and needs some addressing by Singaporeans if they wish to progress beyond the current group-thinking society they are stuck in.
Let’s start with the MLC itself. What exactly is this animal? Home and Law Minister K Shanmugam called them “good people”. He added: “I can understand what the MLC was trying to say. But either they made a mistake or it didn’t get said accurately… That is unfortunately not an accurate representation of POFMA.”
According to its website, the MLC is a group of members from “the people, private, and public sectors”. These members are appointed by the Minister for Communications and Information. It “spearheads public education on media literacy and cyber wellness, and advises the government on appropriate policy responses to the evolving world of media, technology and consumer participation.
“In today’s digital and social media landscape, the Council seeks to address problems such as cyber safety and security, discernment of online falsehoods, cyber bullying and uncivil online behaviour. Its role is to cultivate digital users’ critical-thinking skills and refine their understanding of the issues in the online world so as to empower them to be safe, smart and kind online.”
This is not a casual body comprising do-gooder volunteers. It is a group of people who will supposedly help educate ignorant users negotiate the treacherous waters of the Wild Wild Westworld of the Internet.
And perhaps in one of its first tests in the new clean and green POFMA golden era, the MLC has exposed its own inadequacy. An overworked Home and Law Minister has to rush to its public rescue.
The minister has said so many times – in the lead-up to the select committee hearing, during its session and during the Parliament debate, before the law was enacted and after it came into effect – that POFMA does not cover satire or parody. As they like to say in many Hollywood films or Nexflix series: “Read my lips, which part of the law does the MLC not understand?” Can we be forgiven if we now do not have much confidence in the MLC’s ability to do its job, if at all we are particularly happy that we need such a “council” to even exist? Do we require another jia liau bi group of sa kar busybodies?
The less kind words to describe the MLC mess-up are unthinking jaga backsidism. Do not be a kaypoh or hero. Err on the side of ridicule, wherever possible. Whoever the person was who so nonchalantly extended the power of POFMA decided on his own that, contrary to whatever was reported on or intended for POFMA, perhaps this was what the government wanted anyway – catch all the smart-alecky anti-establishment online activities.
Yes, outdo the PAP itself, if you can. There ought to be many such characters in the establishment – in government, civil service, media. In media, you will find many of these, especially the foreigners turned PRs – who will go to the extreme to interpret what the ruling party leaders have in mind and bend over backwards to produce absurdly pro-establishment articles which no one except themselves would waste a nano second to read.
The instinct to turn an imperial edict into policy and execution is part of a group-thinkers’ world, unfortunately. We have had some examples in the past and these were only the known ones.
The National Library Board withdrew a series of books from its shelves in 2014. The idea of lesbians adopting and raising these swans as portrayed in the three books – And Tango Makes Three, Who’s In My Family and All About Our Families – may not be good for our values, so said the NLB. Really? We are that fragile? The idea that Singaporeans would abandon their family values after reading these books – which few had heard of before the controversy – was preposterous.
In the early 1970s and 1980s, the Urban Redevelopment Authority went on a mission to transform a charming city of beautiful heritage architecture into a modern city of soulless buildings. In the process, it bulldozed a number of irreplaceable historical and architectural jewels. If only Raffles Institution, Adelphi Hotel and the National Theatre had been either left alone or allowed to stand and be integrated into whatever new landscape the URA had in mind, Singapore would have been a much more spectacular city. There was so much history in all these iconic buildings. Not only that, we were also so cavalier in our attitude that a developer literally brought down a heritage building in Albert Street by mistake! The company got away with a fine.
And we are so proud of Jewel@Changi and Marina Bay Sands? Are we joking?
The errors resulting from bureaucratic “bendoverbackwardness” were sometimes laughable if not near-tragic. Pinyinisation also almost destroyed local heritage. For as long as we could remember, the Mandarin phrase for Raffles was lai fo shi which was a fair approximation phonetically speaking. Then suddenly in the 1990s, someone tried to replace it with a more pedantic version, something which was far away from the Raffles we were familiar with. That riled even a Mandarin-speaking PAP MP into action. He criticised the move and said we should let things be.
Around the same period, Zhujiao Centre in Serangoon Road reverted to its original name – Tekka Centre. Pinyinisation had not only destroyed memories but also made life havoc for our non-Chinese Singaporeans AND non-Mandarin-speaking Chinese Singaporeans who had known only one mother tongue their whole life – their dialect and not a Putonghua imposed on them without their permission.
If the MLC really wants something useful to do, it should look into how to re-engage our senior Singaporeans and help make their lives more meaningful through more relevant online literary and creative activities. Use dialect, if need be. Just don’t go around spreading falsehoods.
Tan Bah Bah is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.