By Choo Zheng Xi
With additional reporting by Terence Lee
Ms Agnes Lin was featured in last week’s Sunday Times in an article entitled “Mom and Dad will provide”. The article was part of a set on how Singaporeans are coping with the recession.
Twenty- year-old Ms Agnes Lin must be Singapore’s most loathed undergraduate, and all thanks to a Sunday Times article that portrayed her as a spoilt brat leeching off her parents to feed her expensive shopping tastes.
But Ms Lin was shocked when she first read the article by Nur Dianah Suhaimi on 26 October. She was made out to be a person intent on indulging in grossly irresponsible shopping habits at her parent’s expense despite the recession, she said to The Online Citizen (TOC).
Giving her side of the story, Ms Lin highlighted important facts that the journalist omitted, and instances where assertions made were only partially true. The portrayal, she said, was so inaccurate that it seems almost to have constructed an alternate persona for her.
“When the piece came out, my friends were calling me and asking me whether I had really said all that. They were shocked because I’m not like that!”
Ms Raudah Begum, her best friend from since Ms Lin’s days in Millenia Institute, could not believe her eyes when she read the Sunday Times.
“Everyone who knows her is shocked. It’s as if they were talking about a totally different person in the article”.
The real Agnes Lin
The piece describes how Miss Lin ‘only uses Shisheido cosmetics and skin care products’, and ‘goes on overseas vacations with her friends where she would bust $1,000 on shopping alone’. The alleged source of her income? According to the article, ‘Mum, a private tutor, and Dad, a businessman selling polythene bags, pay for her expenses’.
Netizens who read the Sunday Times piece were outraged. One blogger fumed: “How she feels about the world is incredibly shallow, I really really need to slap her”. Another wondered: “Does she not understand the notion of being self-sufficient, or that not everyone is as blessed financially as she is?”
But the truth could not be further from the impression created by the ST piece, says Ms Lin.
In fact, contrary to the money-leeching image portrayed in the ST article, she says she actually makes an effort to pay her own way.
While the article claims that she has been receiving a $500 allowance since she was 16, she has in reality stopped taking money from her parents upon beginning her current educational bond programme, which provides her with a monthly salary.
And contrary to the assertion in the article, she pays for her own expenses and bills with this money. While Ms Lin says she took pains to highlight this during her interview with the ST reporter, this fact was omitted in the article.
Is she a lavish jet-setter at her parent’s expense, as the ST piece seemed to suggest?
Agnes has only been on two overseas trips with her friends: once in January this year to Taiwan, and then to Bangkok in July. While her parents helped her defray the cost of her Taiwan trip, she paid for all her expenses to Bangkok herself out of her own savings from a previous relief teaching job and tuition assignments.
Not only does Ms Lin not take money from her parents, she actually makes an effort to earn her own. Before beginning university, Ms Lin gave tuition four times a week to two different children at Punggol and Novena.
According her friends, Ms Lin values frugality. Ms Raudah said, “Agnes is not someone to take money lightly. Sometimes when I see an item I want to buy but is slightly pricey, she will tell me not to waste money on it”.
A twist in the tale?
So is Ms Lin a privileged shopaholic?
The piece claims that ‘twice monthly, she shops at her favourite stores - Topshop, Zara and Forever21’.
Ms Lin says she highlighted to the reporter that she shops less these days as she lives in Nanyang Technological University (NTU) hostel. At one point in our interview, she burst out: “This is hardly the lifestyle of some rich girl lor!”
So what about the claim that Ms Lin ‘carries around the latest mobile phone’?
She is in fact currently using a free Samsung clamshell phone. Her previous phone, a HTC, is spoilt. Since her mom had said 'no' to her buying a new phone, she plans to use her Samsung until her 2-year plan is up.
What Agnes felt was most unfair was the ST article’s assertion that ‘She thinks a friend of hers, who is left with $20 to last until the end of the month, is silly to consider taking up a part-time job to earn some extra cash’.
“Anyone reading this would think I’m a spoilt and insensitive brat. I have done part time work myself too! Why in the world would I imply she is silly?”
Based on an extract from her personal blog, the article seemed to put words in her mouth:
“What the reporter asked me was " Do you have any friends you know facing financial difficulties or are in need to money?"
I said, " yes, I've got a friend who has only 20 dollars left for the month. I told her to ask her parents but she said no because she want to be independent because she is already 20” and should not be asking for her parents for money so often already...so she asked me what’s the fastest way to earn money."
There was never any mention of the word silly.
The ST’s claim that she planned to get a $4,000 Chanel bag was also wildly distorted, says Ms Lin.
“The reporter asked me what my dream bag was and whether I planned to get it with my first paycheck. I told her that it was a Chanel bag but that I certainly wouldn’t be able to afford it with my first paycheck. Isn’t it common sense that nobody gets paid so much in her first job?”
Ms Lin feels that her words were twisted to fit the story the journalist was trying to write. Looking back, she feels that even the photo she was asked to take was contrived to exaggerte an image of indulgence.
“She initially asked me if her photographer could take a picture of me clubbing. Of course I refused! During the photoshoot, the photographer kept asking me to pose with my branded bag, the only branded item that I have, but I refused”.
The view from the ST
TOC managed to interview ST reporter Nur Dianah and asked why she omitted certain facts in her story.
Explaining why she omitted to mention that Agnes actually pays her own bills, Ms Dianah said that before the interview, Agnes did not want to be identified as being under a tuition bond. She was afraid of infringing her employer’s guidelines on speaking to the press.
Ms Dianah elaborated that if she had written that Ms Lin paid for her own bills, she would then have to explain in the article where Ms Lin got her money from.
“This put me in a quandary. I couldn’t say she was paying her bills through part time work, as her tuition grant guidelines prevent her from moonlighting. I also couldn’t reveal that she was being given an allowance under the tuition bond as she had explicitly asked me not to, so I chose to leave it out”.
Wasn’t it then inaccurate to say that ‘Mum, a private tutor, and Dad, a businessman selling polythene bags, pay for her expenses’?
But, Ms Dianah qualifies that line was not meant to refer to all her expenses.
“In Agnes’ interview, she did mention that when she shops with her mother, her mother usually helps foot the bill."
Asked if overall she thought the interview was fairly done, Ms Dianah said:
“Definitely. I might have left positive material (about Agnes) out due to space constraints, but there was a lot more information on her that wasn’t flattering which I left out too”.
Does Ms Dianah regret writing the article?
“I certainly regret the distress this has caused her, we never expected this to happen, and we understand this has caused her some trauma. Still, she shouldn’t be worried about what people online are saying about her because a lot of netizens aren’t held accountable and can be quite nasty."
To Ms Lin, the explanations provide cold comfort. Individual facts aside, Ms Lin feels that the article badly misrepresented her, and intentionally so.
“The fact is, the whole article was out to portray me in a bad light, leaving out many important points that would have given a more balanced picture,” she said.
While not wanting to comment on the specifics of this case, media academic Dr Cherian George highlighted the importance of media accountability:
"Increasingly, a more engaged public will judge the professionalism of news media by the level of public accountability that they open themselves to, especially when they make mistakes that hurt relatively powerless individuals and groups. Professional news media should want to progress along these lines, since they say it's their ethics that distinguish them from mere bloggers."
Her friend Ms Raudah was more blunt: “I feel that the journalist was intentionally trying to portray her as spoilt. In reality she isn’t like that. She never shows off, she’s a very humble girl.”
Ms Lin was initially depressed at the ST story. So depressed, in fact, she said that “every night I cried to sleep because I didn't know how to face my parents. I am not someone spoilt and ungrateful, someone who only knows how to ask her parents for money”.
For now, all Ms Lin wants is for her name to be cleared in the court of public opinion, and to put the whole episode behind her.
Special thanks to Mr Clarence Chua for editing assistance.