By Howard Lee
If you have been reading media reports on the Committee of Inquiry on the riot in Little India, you might have been a little puzzled, especially if you have read reports across different channels.
In particular, if you remember what was published in December 2013 immediately following the riot, you might have been even more perturbed by what can only be described as inconsistency in reporting.
Happy or not?
When the riot was first reported, at least two Ministers (with one Prime example) were eager to declare that migrant workers in Singapore were a happy lot, and there was no reason to believe that the riot was caused by any form of ill-treatment during their time here.
However, the COI seems to have revealed something else. Senior Staff Sergeant Mydeen Sahul Hameed was reported as saying, “...(the workers) told me that the driver had killed their friend and that they wanted the police to bring him to justice... They were also emotional because they believed they had been discriminated against in Singapore because no one respected them.”
Of course, we would expect a riot to have an emotional cause. But the latest revelation seems to suggest that the foreign workers in our midst are not the happy campers that our Ministers have earlier made them out to be. With the revelations made by the COI, did our media jump too early into conclusions by grabbing soundbites from someone important?
Mind, it is not wrong – the quotes were given by Ministers and their veracity should not be doubted. But to take their word for it wholesale when the workers in question might have a very different opinion, is to ignore one fundamental rule in journalism: Always try to reach the source. Were there any attempts made to interview such workers?
In addition, the responsibility would then be on them to tie these quotes back to the latest revelations, and question why our Ministers would hold these views. Was that done?
Drunk or not?
Some eyes should also have been raised regarding how media reported on the victim of the riot - Sakthivel Kumaravelu, the Indian worker who was trapped under and killed by the bus. Stomp boldly declared:
A blogger has earlier suggested that this headline deals very little in terms of compassion for the victim, and instead suggests that he deserves what he got. That aside, we now have to contend with a new revelation from COI:
Oxford Dictionary defines being drunk as “affected by alcohol to the extent of losing control of one’s faculties or behaviour”. It would then appear that Sakthivel, still “in control of himself” before he was called off the bus, might not be as drunk as media made him out to be.
Fair enough, the earlier views came from police sources, as reported in MyPaper.
But if so, why the odd headline that suggests Sakthivel was both drunk and not drunk? Perhaps, it would have been in better synergy with this earlier report, quoting yet another irrefutable source?
What then comes to mind is whether earlier media reports on how booze was a factor in the riots could have been mostly over-reported. “The smell of alcohol” seems to have taken over an actual breathalyser test in earlier reports. Yet the level of intoxication to which the alleged rioters would have lost control of their behaviour seems unclear, nor does it seem that our media is capable of making that distinction. For that matter, it does not seem to have had any relevance to a media that is only keen to hear about the riot from a few notable spokespersons.
Got pants or not?
The most curious fact-or-fiction story, however, has to do with the controversy that surrounds Sakthivel's trousers. Again, according to Stomp and MyPaper reports in December, “police revealed that he was drunk when he attempted to board an already-full chartered bus to his Jurong dorm. He even dropped his trousers.”
Now, we can't be too sure if the police knew or only suspected he was drunk, but clearly the police was not at the scene when Sakthivel supposedly dropped his pants. Why would the above statement made any sense to the reporter?
Perhaps it was more likely that the police either heard it from the bus timekeeper, Wong Gek Woon, or the driver, Lee Kim Huat? Unfortunately, media reports on the COI tells a different story:
"Meanwhile, part-time timekeeper Wong Geck Woon, 38, who testified before the driver, said that she had asked Mr Sakthivel to alight, as Mr Lee had told her the deceased had pulled down his pants. But Mr Lee said he "did not notice" that.”
Both Wong and Lee now deny that they actually saw Sakthivel without pants. So really, how did our media got to know that Sakthivel was undressed?
Indeed, if you read more than one “reliable” news source, you might never find out what was actually disclosed at COI. MyPaper reported: “Another witness, 34-year-old Indian national Ganesan Thanaraj, had stood on the bus behind the deceased, before the latter was told to alight. He said he hadn't noticed the man pulling down his pants - something that Madam Wong claimed happened.”
And by comparison, we have Channel NewsAsia reporting on the same as such: “Mr Ganesan added that he did not see Sakthivel remove his bermuda pants as there were about 10 people between them.”
The role of media is to shed some clarity on a situation. In this case, it appears that our media have been more interested in citing talking heads and the sensational details when the incident first occurred, and now with the revelations from the COI, are still not able to get it straight. Truly, they have been caught with their pants down.
Is it a moot point to discuss if the victim was drunk or not, clothed or not? Hardly. His drunkenness and the dropping of his pants, deliberately or otherwise, was supposed to be the factor that got him off the bus. If he has stayed on the bus, we would be telling a very different story today. So, what really caused him to get off the bus?
Yet these details seem to be of another importance to our media, who willingly and inconsistently peppered them into their reports, as if to give them a bit more spice. Might such reports have perpetuated the implementation of the new public order laws and the alcohol bans in Little India, affecting local businesses, citizens and foreigners alike in the area?
We might never know, but what we can see is a need for our media to move away from speculation and do some proper reporting for a change.