~ By Howard Lee ~
By now, the exploits of Reuben Wang would have been the stuff of online legends. The 17 year-old junior college student came out of this year’s Pre-University Seminar so antagonised by Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean's evasive rhetoric, that he decided to write a blog post peppered with expletives, some directed at Teo himself, to express his unhappiness.
The rest is blogosphere history. Wang later removed his blog (the entire blog, not just the offensive entry) and apologised to Teo, who accepted it with a surplus amount of grace and restraint.
Indeed, news reports made of this case as nothing more than another instance where the youthful exuberance of the online world is given a resounding reality check, administered graciously by the powers that be. Wang has learnt from his mistakes, Teo is seen as magnanimous, and his many "what do you think" have been recast as his way for motivating the younger generation. Time to move on, folks.
But should this be the final analysis?
Let me start with Wang's 'mistakes'. I should state up front that I am not in favour of profanity in writing. It has nothing to do with being level-headed or respect for public decorum. If anything, profanity or swearing has a long history of allowing us to express our displeasure or anger about something, tapping on some socially recognised, even if not acceptable, code to bring emotions across efficiently.
What I dislike about profanity in publishing is that it draws so much attention to the transgressing words, that the core message – why the writer is angry – is often lost or glossed over in the excitement of reading such linguistic contraband. Profanity, by virtue of the attention it draws to itself, also suggests that the writer issuing them is merely trying to draw attention to himself, even if his emotions are genuine.
I believe that was Wang's real mistake. The golden rule of any writer who pens for public eyes is never to undermine your own credibility before anyone else has the chance to do it for you.
As it is, Wang's flowery transgression has now become the focus of the news and the source of his unhappiness relegated to insignificance. News coverage has taken up the repentance story with such incredible gusto, that we are inclined to believe Wang to be a self-absorbed brat who needed perceptive re-orientation from school, friends and a ministerial-level chat; and then a fickle-minded wreck who did a complete 180-degree change of heart in barely days.
Take a look at the report by the Straits Times on this, for example. We find out that Wang “accused Mr Teo of dodging difficult questions… by turning the questions on students instead of answering them himself.” However, we learn about this eight paragraphs down the article and only after it was indicated that Wang was originally “unrepentant about his use of the expletive”, but “had a change of heart, met Mr Teo at the Ministry of Home Affairs and apologised to him”, not least because he “realised his post was 'rash' after reading his friends' comments.”
We also found out in paragraph six that Teo was satisfied Wang “recognises that what he said, as well as the way he said it, were wrong.” So not only was Wang rude, but he was misguided to begin with. Of course, Wang’s own admission to his error after his school has “counselled” him pretty much confirms the fact that he has wronged Teo.
A similar strain of reporting can also be found in Channel NewsAsia and Today. Interestingly, all made reference to Wang “accusing” Teo in paragraph eight. As if using profanity was not damning enough, Wang is also the accuser.
But if you believe as much as me about the level of truth in this yarn, it should also be a concern to you that these media reports have paid more attention to how Wang expressed himself, rather than what he was trying to express.
What was Wang trying to express? I read his blog post before it was taken down, and mentally blocking out the f**ks, I gathered he was indignant that during the Seminar, in what should have been a frank and free exchange of ideas, Teo has opted to toe his political party line, at times refusing to take questions on sensitive issues, instead throwing some questions back at the students.
In a belated attempt to clarify his position through the media, “Mr Teo said he had avoided simply giving students answers during the seminar as he wanted them to think deeply about the difficult choices they had to make.”
Teo, of course, would be well-versed with good lesson planning, after all he was our Minister for Education from 1997 to 2003.
But if there is a “teachable moment” in all of this, perhaps I can share one: Teo was not conducting a lesson at the Pre-U Seminar, much less one that requires him to provide solutions to problems. At the base, he could have taken it that the students asked him for his views on issues. He either has one or he doesn’t. If he has one, then in respecting a frank and open exchange of ideas, share it. Only by coming to a table of equals with our own ideas and a willingness to defend them, will we promote serious and innovative thought on difficult issues. It is also the only way to win the respect of others – being a minister and accepting apologies won’t.
With this, I’m not trying to justify that what Wang did was right – I do not care to, nor find myself in the right position or have sufficient contextual knowledge to make such a judgment.
But I am concerned that focusing on actions rather than the actual issues now becomes the call of the day. It is an impoverishing agenda forwarded by our media, and it will have an unhealthy effect on our students, because it only encourages them to find excuses to justify why someone is not playing it straight and clear with them.
They need to know that while being rude and offensive does not make you right, neither does avoiding questions and depending on the media to justify your position make you faultless.
TOC believes that Reuben Wang had earlier identified himself in the thread about his blog post, but that thread has since fell silent. Please contact us again, we would like to speak to you – with or without profanity.