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Why oh why can’t we have a better press corps?

Vivian Balakrishnan's indignant response to Al Jazeera's coverage of the homeless in Singapore has been making the rounds for the past couple of days, helped by our unquestioning mainstream press when they printed the minister's words without even a hint of challenge or an effort towards verification. And when Al Jazeera refused to back down from that story, the contrast between them and the local press has never been clearer.

I just don't think the local press corps understands that. I'll explain why in a moment, but first, here's the Al Jazeera video that so offended our Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports.

And this is what the minister said:

“This is a clear example where a foreign media has failed to ascertain the facts. Some irresponsible websites have also caused these falsehoods to circulate widely on the internet. Now that the facts are out, let us see whether those who have been propagating these falsehoods have the courage and the honesty to set the record straight.”

Dr Balakrishnan's revealed two "facts":

  • The man in the video (Mr I) had made over S$220,000 from the sale of three flats.
  • The woman in the video (Mdm S) still owns an HDB resale flat with her ex—husband.

It is plausible that Al Jazeera or The Online Citizen have found out about the proceeds from the sale of the three flats; I believe TOC just did not publish them for the sake of brevity. But what I want to know is how that $220,000 figure is arrived at, pre- or post-deduction to return to CPF, and over how many years it was spread. $220,000 is a significant sum if you are holding that in cash, but if you spread that over ten years, it only amounts to $22,000 a year. Which isn't a whole lot. And I'm pretty sure no one would insist to be homeless if they have $220,000 burning a hole in their pockets.

The second point borders on farcical. Why would anyone expect a divorced couple to live under the same roof? And why would Mdm S' ex-husband even allow her into the house? To bring that up as a fact shows how little stock the minister places in empathy.

If anything, the second point highlights what Al Jazeera and local bloggers have been saying: that homelessness is a policy issue, and these people are deprived of the security of a roof over their heads because national housing policies have failed to take them into account.

More egregiously, after the video was released, MCYS expended valuable resources to track down and identify both Mr I and Mdm S, ran background checks on them, and instead of finding a solution, chose to throw them under the bus just to protect the sanctity of their policies.

The minister chose to attack these already defenseless people using his bully pulpit in Parliament, giving them no chance of facing their accuser. All these expended resources that could be dedicated to finding a solution instead of shunting the responsibility away from themselves in the bureaucratic equivalent of saying "That's not our problem".

Furthermore, using the information collected about one homeless couple to dismiss the issues of all homeless families is a weak and juvenile stand. Imagine someone telling you, "I met a stupid MP yesterday, therefore all MPs are stupid". Anyone with any sense will laugh that person out of the room.

Some of the same energy that was lavishly used by Dr Balakrishnan to publicly humiliate the homeless couple could have been used to answer queries from Al Jazeera or even TOC; the former have again asked the minister for an interview, which was rejected twice before. TOC have also attempted to contact the minister, and have yet to receive a reply.

None of these facts were pointed out by any member of the mainstream press. No questions were asked by these establishment journalists. All they did was publish Dr Balakrishnan's response verbatim, without any verification. This isn't journalism, this is stenography. Therein lies the difference between our mainstream media and Al Jazeera or local blogs, and makes a mockery of Dr Balakrishnan's statement of courage and honesty to setting the record straight.

**(Thanks to Brad DeLong for inspiring the title of this post)

Callan Tham