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Straits Times Forum explains why it heavily edited letter (updated with Samuel Wee’s reply)

The following article is first published on Visaisahero. It is the Straits Times' reply to Samuel Wee's letter to the newspaper asking for clarifications on why it edited his letter to the Forum Page the way it did.

Dear Mr Wee,

Thank you for writing in.

You highlighted two main changes to your letter which you felt collectively misrepresented your meaning. We do not think we did. In fact, we edited your letter to correct factual and contextual errors of which there were more than two, viz..

1. You stated we wrongly replaced the statistic you cited with another from Ms Rachel Chang’s article on March 8 (“School system still the ‘best way to move up’).

Your original letter

“It is indeed heartwarming to learn that 90% of children from one-to-three-room flats do not make it to university.”

Reasons we edited it: Factual error, sense.

There were two problems with your sentence. First, it was contradictory and didn’t make sense.Your original sentence cannot mean what it says unless you were elated over the fact that nine in 10 children from less well-off homes failed to qualify for university. So we edited it for sense, i.e., underscoring a positive feeling (heartwarming) with a positive fact; rather than the self-penned irony of a positive feeling (heartwarming) backed by a negative fact (90% failure rate to university admission by less well off children). That was why we replaced the original statistic with the only one in Ms Chang’s March 8 report that matched your elation, that is, that 50 percent of less well off children found tertiary success.

(Visa: Firstly, I find it hard to believe that nobody in the Straits Times office understands the meaning of sarcasm. Secondly, there was NO FACTUAL ERROR. Allow me to present to you the statistics, direct from The Straits Times themselves: http://www.straitstimes.com/STI/STIMEDIA/pdf/20110308/a10.pdf )

Second, we replaced your original statistic because it did not exist in Ms Chang’s March 8 front-page report.

Ms Chang quoted that statistic in a later article (“Poor kids need aspiration: March 18; paragraph 5), which appeared after your letter was published.

(Visa: It did not exist? Pay careful attention to the URL: http://www.straitstimes.com/STI/STIMEDIA/pdf/20110308/a10.pdf . Look at the number. 20110308. 2011 03 08. 8th March 2011.)

Our edit:

“It is indeed heartwarming that almost 50 percent of children from one- to three-room flats make it to university and polytechnics.”

2. Your original letter

“His (Education Minister Dr Ng) statement is backed up with the statistic that 50% of children from the bottom third of the socio-economic ladder score in the bottom third of the Primary School Leaving Examination. “

Reason we edited it: Factual error

“His statement is backed by the statistic that about 50 per cent of children from the bottom third of the socio-economic bracket score within the top two-thirds of their Primary School Leaving Examination cohort. (Para 3 of Ms Chang’s March 8 report).

(Visa:  THIS IS NOT A FACTUAL ERROR. If 50% of a group score in the top two-thirds, then the remaining 50% of the group, by simple process of elimination, must score in the bottom third!)

3. Your original letter

"In recent years, there has been much debate about elitism and the impact that a family’s financial background has on a child’s educational prospects. Therefore, it was greatly reassuring to read about Dr Ng’s great faith in our “unique, meritocratic Singapore system”, which ensures that good, able students from the middle-and-high income groups are not circumscribed or restricted in any way in the name of helping financially disadvantaged students."

Your complaint of misrepresentation:

“I would also like to point out that there is a very substantial difference between ‘reading about Dr Ng’s great faith in our “unique, meritocratic Singapore system, which ensures that good, able students from the middle-and-high income groups are not circumscribed or restricted in any way in the name of helping financially disadvantaged students”‘ and reading about his life experience as he grew up, and that substituting the latter for the former is a misrepresentation of my opinion.”

Reasons we edited it: Sense and contextual error

The minister was referring to a unique meritocratic system with emphasis on how a boy in a low-income house could rise up. Your letter put the minister’s argument out of context by coalescing it with “a system that ensures good, able students from middle and high-income groups (note middle and high-income) to not be restricted by the help given to disadvantaged students.This was not said by the minister at all. So, we needed to provide the context to the minister’s statement in order to retain the sense of your meaning.

(Visa: Providing context is one thing, professing admiration on behalf of the writer is another! You’re DISTORTING the sense of his meaning, not retaining it!)

I hope this explains why we edited your letter. It would have been wrong to publish it in its original form,
given the errors, factual and contextual. My colleagues and I took pains to research the points you raised
because we felt your opinion deserved publication, despite the errors, which are not uncommon in Forum contributions.

I am also including attachments of the relevant material regarding your letter.

Sincerely,

Mr Yap Koon Hong
Forum editor
The Straits Times

--------------------------------

Dear Mr Yap,

I thank you greatly for the courtesy of your reply. Time is surely of the essence for a man as busy as you; therefore I do not take the time you have invested into replying my queries lightly.

Nevertheless, I found the explanations given in your letter for editing mine unsatisfactory, especially with regards to the matter of statistics.

The first statistic in question, as quoted in my original letter, is as follows.

“It is indeed heartwarming to learn that 90% of children from one-to-three-room flats do not make it to university.”

Firstly, you claim that the original statistic did not exist in Ms Chang’s March 8 front-page report, and that it was only quoted in a later article (“Poor kids need aspiration: March 18; paragraph 5), which appeared after my letter was published.

This is inaccurate. The statistic appeared in a case study of Primary 1 Pupil Amos Leong, under the headline, “School system still ‘best way to move up’”.

You appear to have forgotten to attach that article together with your email (You did, however, very kindly attach the other two articles by Ms Rachel Chang–my utmost thanks!) Therefore, for your convenience, the quote in question, from para 2 of the article:

“Education Minister Ng Eng Hen gave several reasons yesterday why a boy like Amos, seven, can aim high as he moves through the school system. Among them: One in 10 children from one to three room flats makes it to university. Four in 10 go to a polytechnic.”

The statistic in question can also be found in an infographic uploaded to the ST website on the 8th of March.

Secondly, you claim that my original statement was contradictory and didn’t make sense, and that my original sentence could not have meant what it said unless I was elated over the fact that nine in 10 children from less well-off homes failed to qualify for university.

However, why is it so unlikely to think that someone could be happy over that fact? After all, the statistic in question was produced as evidence to argue that social mobility in Singapore is alive and well, as your article suggested. Following that line of thought to its logical conclusion would force us to accept the statistic as a positive one.

If social mobility in Singapore is thriving, it makes sense that someone would be happy over the quoted statistic, and it thus makes no sense for the statistic to have been removed. If the statistic is a negative one, however, it makes no sense to point at it and use for as evidence that a meritocratic system exists where the poor can rise up–as your article did.

Now, the second statistic in question:

“‘His (Education Minister Dr Ng) statement is backed up with the statistic that 50% of children from the bottom third of the socio-economic ladder score in the bottom third of the Primary School Leaving Examination.’

Reason we edited it: Factual error

‘His statement is backed by the statistic that about 50 per cent of children from the bottom third of the socio-economic bracket score within the top two-thirds of their Primary School Leaving Examination cohort. (Para 3 of Ms Chang’s March 8 report).”

You claim that my statistic was a factual error, when in actual fact it was a mere paraphrase. If 50 percent of any given group scores in the top two-thirds of the PSLE, the remaining 50% of the group scores in the bottom third by elimination–a matter of simple math.

(So simple, in fact, that it might even be a question for future PSLE Math papers! Food for thought).

Now, as for the matter of misrepresentation:

“Your letter put the minister’s argument out of context by coalescing it with “a system that ensures good, able students from middle and high-income groups (note middle and high-income) to not be restricted by the help given to disadvantaged students. This was not said by the minister at all. So, we needed to provide the context to the minister’s statement in order to retain the sense of your meaning.”

My letter made its original point based on the following exchange between Mrs Josephine Teo (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC) and Education Minister Dr Ng Eng Hen, as recorded in para 18 and 19 of your article, ‘MPs speak for kids from poorer families’, March 8, Page A6.

“‘If we expect about 70 per cent of the overall population to go through tertiary education, should we not aim to do the same for students from lower-income households?’ she said.

Dr Ng disagreed. ‘That’s a very wrong starting point, that in our attempt to focus
on one group, we actually try to conscribe other groups. It becomes a win-lose
mathematical game,’ he said.”

The exchange directly shows, through use of quotes, that Dr Ng believes that rich-and-middle-income students should not be conscribed at the expense of lower-income students. Therefore, it is inaccurate to accuse the minister of not having said something he was recorded as having said.

Let us say, for the sake of argument, though, that the quote I have just quoted did not exist. The description of his background edited into my letter would still be irrelevant, since my original intention was not to describe his childhood circumstances. Therefore, the change represents a distortion, not a clarification, of my meaning.

I hope you will give the various points I have raised here careful thought. In all seriousness, I appreciate the commitment in time and attention you have invested into this dialogue, and sincerely thank you for your effort. For the sake of accountability and openness, I will be publishing this exchange online. I look forward to your reply.

Samuel Wee