TL;DR – We need to improve the way we discuss important issues.
Recently, President Halimah delivered an address for the second session of the Parliament. In it, she called for bold changes.
Straits Times then came up with an article that had this initial blurb on Facebook:
That initial blurb made it sound like Mdm Halimah was calling for bold changes like ending the use of CPF savings for home purchases. Understandably, that blurb created a bit of a stir.
Many people were upset that our President is proposing the end of using CPF for home purchases. With a good 30+% of our wages going to CPF, if we aren’t allowed to use our CPF for home purchases, how are we going to be able to afford our own houses? How could our President suggest such a thing?
But hang on.
Mdm Halimah didn’t make that suggestion.
Yes. Her speech called for bold changes. And yes. It did draw bold ideas. Like the one about CPF. Which didn’t come from Mdm Halimah.
It came from Dr Walter Theseira, who’s an Economics professor at the Singapore University of Social Studies. So you see, that Straits Times Facebook blurb for that article was highly misleading.
The whole incident gives us three lessons about discussing important issues.
1. Our media should have better standards
Like this particular article. Not only did Straits Times not carry Dr Theseira’s suggestions and views in full which resulted in his thoughts being taken out of context, the Facebook blurb was also downright misleading.
Sure, Straits Times eventually updated the article and they also changed the Facebook blurb. But that was only after many people shared the post and expressed their anger at Mdm Halimah.
You see. Too many of us just read the headlines and the blurb. Often, we don’t read the actual article. In the case, it doesn’t help that the article is behind a paywall. Such low quality from our mainstream media reduces our ability to have informed and intelligent discussions on important issues. So our mainstream media must really do better.
And we also read on Sureboh.sg that Dr Theseira’s views were not fully published in the Straits Times article (therefore taken out of context). Straits Times has apparently since clarified his original view.
The doctor’s seemingly upset enough to put up a clarification post on his personal Facebook account.
2. So we need to be more media literate
What it means is that we, the readers, need to be more critical when we read the news. Read more than the Facebook blurbs and the headlines. Read the article.
Better yet, get information from multiple sources, cross-referencing different articles. Don’t just read things that support our own views. Read things from different perspectives, look at things from different sides. That will allow us to have the discussions on important issues that will lead to better decisions.
3. And keep our discussions civil
On a superficial read, Dr Theseira’s idea might not make sense to us. Unfortunately, that’s because Straits Times’ article didn’t fully reflect his views, resulting in people taking his idea out of context. Dr Theseira has since clarified that he is arguing that
“CPF system could be redesigned so that people no longer need to pay for housing out of CPF, by cutting contribution rates to focus on retirement and health.”
This is quite different from the original summary in the Straits Times: “Stop allowing… CPF savings to buy homes.”
Dr Theseira’s full comments can be read here:
We might not agree with what Dr Walter said. We can certainly voice our disagreement and criticise his ideas. In fact, it’s important for us to have robust exchanges of views. However, it seems that often we don’t just criticise the views, nor do we keep the discussions civil.
Take this case for example. There are people who didn’t just criticise Dr Walter’s views, but also criticised his clothing, haircuts, and even parentage.
Why? What for?
That doesn’t contribute to the discussion in any way. In fact, it brings down the quality of discussion. Is it too much to ask to keep discussions civil and criticise the views, and not get personal? I don’t think so.
Lastly, I’ll leave you with what Dr Theseira had added as postscript in his Facebook post,
I hope one thing that comes from this is that we ask ourselves – What choices would we make if a different policy was in place? What trade-offs would we accept if we designed policy? It’s easy to make fun of policymakers, and it’s also easy to critique policy. Finding workable solutions that promote the public interest is a lot harder, but more than ever, we need to work together to help improve policy in Singapore.