The controversial Channel NewsAsia (CNA) documentary "Regardless of Class" has been debunked by RICE Media as being rife with omissions of details that are crucial in shaping the public's perception of the students involved in the roundtable discussion.
Among the contentious omissions specifically highlighted in senior staff writer Grace Yeoh's commentary were several details that contributed to the seemingly negative and "simplistic" portrayal of Kareena, or more known among commenters on social media platforms as "the Indian IP [Integrated Programme] student" who is perceived as "elitist."
It would take more than a mixed class to solve socioeconomic inequality; peer-to-peer mentoring potentially more effective: Kareena
Kareena revealed to Ms Yeoh in an interview that "Aufa, depicted in the documentary as someone who merely hopes to pass all his subjects because he’s been failing since Secondary One, wants to be an aerospace engineer," and that "he hopes to pursue the course in ITE and eventually in polytechnic." Kareena's support of Aufa's dreams was not included in the final cut of the documentary.
She also addressed the comment regarding a mixed class solution that had gotten her flak from the public on social media.
“I answered that I didn’t think a mixed class solution was very viable, because it may even increase the gap if these students feel like they cannot cope and give up completely.
“I didn’t want less academically-inclined students to struggle just because a different class pace might be unsuitable. If a class’s pace is more suited to a specific demographic, students in the class might learn better.
"But I’m not a policymaker or educationalist, so I’m not very well read in these topics,” Kareena admitted.
She added: “I continued to say that it would take more than a mixed class to help the problem. Having programmes where students from different streams can volunteer to help each other and teach each other different things would help interaction.
“They can also teach us about subjects they learn that we hardly come across, like Design & Technology. It’s like a peer-to-peer mentoring scheme.”
Citing her peer-to-peer mentoring experience in primary school: “There was this boy I was paired up with. I felt like he understood [the subjects] better as I spent more time with him than the teacher could. Even though I was only 12 and not the best teacher, I did see some a-ha moments come to him.”
However, Kareena’s story about peer-to-peer mentoring also did not make it to the final cut of the documentary.
"Instead," wrote Ms Yeoh, "the average viewer remembers only the final edit: first Kareena’s brief, ‘elitist’ answer, then an abrupt cut to Aufa’s seemingly dejected face (that many have misconstrued as him tearing up)."
Ms Yeoh also revealed: "Kareena mentioned," during the filming of the documentary, "that she has friends from Normal streams," but "this wasn’t aired."
"Lack of opportunity" hinders IP students from meeting and making more friends from different streams, not educational or socioeconomic backgrounds: Kareena
Instead, what was aired was "her remark about how it would take a lot more effort for her to make friends from other streams."
“The reason I said it takes more effort is because in an IP school, it is generally tougher to meet students from different streams due to the lack of opportunity,” Kareena explained.
“The question was more about meeting students from different streams or educational backgrounds through school activities than personal ones. So I do have personal friends but I don’t usually encounter them through school activities. I actively go out and make friends, such as online or with my neighbours.”
Ms Yeoh questioned if the omission of the fact that Kareena has friends from Normal streams "meant to reinforce the impression that IP students have difficulty befriending Normal students".
It was also highlighted by Ms Yeoh that CNA did not air the part where Kareena and Stephanie, another IP student, said that “talking to [friends from Normal streams] wasn’t difficult,” but that "it was “just different in a good way”.
“A lot of people in my school talk about being conventionally successful a lot and having big ambitions. It’s kinda stressful. I find it refreshing to talk to [friends from different streams] because they often have a different perspective of success and what they want. So I do appreciate talking to them whenever I get the opportunity,” said Kareena.
Ms Yeoh noted: "Despite the flak she’s gotten, Kareena doesn’t blame the public for reacting the way they did. She understands that they have not seen the whole story."
Personal attacks against individuals perceived as "elitist" serve as distractions from the real causes of inequality; sympathetic portrayal of N(T) students potentially "patronising"
Ms Yeoh suggested that while Kareena was "painted as a villain," the N(T) [Normal (Technical)] students in the same scene are "inadvertently victimised" and pitied by a large segment of the public, which, she argued, is "patronising."
Ms Yeoh added that such sympathy, while "easy," does very little in influencing and creating "adequate, lasting social and policy changes," which makes what appears to be an emotional provocation by CNA inevitably futile on a larger scale.
"The villain versus victim cliché ends up implying that being privileged is a moral failing, thereby shifting the attention away from how Singapore’s policies may in fact have had a part in shaping inequality," argued Ms Yeoh, adding that "the blame of inequality was squarely placed on those like Kareena, who has conveniently become the face of elitism.
"Such personal attacks only distract us from confronting the real causes of inequality," she stressed.
Discussions surrounding inequality must directly prioritise the narrative of marginalised voices instead
Citing several well-argued critiques' opinion that it is “outright unethical” for CNA to "expect the disenfranchised to be vulnerable, all in return for clicks, shares, and views," Ms Yeoh stressed that neither are "the lives of the underprivileged are not neatly packaged lessons for the privileged to learn about inequality," and nor "are the lower income responsible for educating those who are born with a silver spoon in their mouths."
She suggested that the portrayal of the N(T) students in particular can be interpreted as a dehumanising one.
"For CNA to create a ‘safe space’ for participants to share their stories, only to turn what they shared into a caricature of their actual lives, makes a painful mockery of the issues and underprivileged individuals that the documentary hoped to raise awareness of," she argued.
"If CNA wanted to have a productive conversation about inequality, the most effective way would have been to give full airtime to the marginalised. These groups are often acutely aware of their circumstances and their place in society, and know best what works for them. Their analyses about their situations are often the most insightful and detailed."
She cautioned the media against and imposing what could be a misleading or inaccurate interpretation of marginalised communities' narratives.
"For an industry that frequently claims to give a voice to the voiceless, the media need to listen when the marginalised speak. The role of the media should be to educate and inform, and ideally, to present unadulterated versions of alternative perspectives," argued Ms Yeoh.
True source of the problem rooted in system, not individuals per se
Ms Yeoh also reiterated the stance expressed in RICE Media's previous commentary regarding the issue - that is, that the true elephant in the room wasn't addressed, and that the source of the problem with socioeconomic inequality goes beyond the individuals depicted, seeing that they are only part of the system.
She wrote: "In communication theory, framing suggests that “how something is presented to the audience (i.e. “the frame”) influences the choices people make about how to process that information”. Research has also shown that framing can cause audiences to “deflect responsibility for solving social and political problems away from elected leaders”, particularly when it comes to poverty—an issue intrinsically tied to inequality."
She further argued that if CNA was "truly serious about tackling inequality, it should have started with dismantling our internal biases," which "includes understanding the power that visual media has to shift perspectives, rather than relying on lazy stereotypes to send a message."
Illustrating her point, Ms Yeoh wrote that "it would have been more productive to see at least one Chinese N(T) student and one Malay IP student on screen" to dispel socioeconomic stereotypes linked to certain races.
Previously in its first commentary regarding the documentary, RICE Media via staff writer Pan Jie argued that the system itself is broken, highlighting how the CNA video "neglects to mention our government’s role in creating the inequality that has now become our No.1 problem."
Pan Jie elaborated:
For its entire run-time, the documentary does not say a single word about the lack of a basic minimum wage, or our government’s anti-welfare mindset. It does not address the neo-liberal, pro-business policies that have created this wealth gap, or even consider the possibility that our economic problems may be related to our economic policy.
Instead, we are treated to a crusade against snobbery. The class divide is not seen as a socioeconomic issue for CNA/Dr Puthucheary, but a question of people behaving badly by ‘judging’ others as low class and refusing to mix.
Take for example the above-mentioned segment on IP versus Normal students. I would like to know why there is such a huge gap between the IP and Normal students. I would like to know how much resources each group enjoys, and if it has contributed to the divide. I would like to know if our educational policy of streaming was perhaps misguided in the first place.
Netizens have reacted to Ms Yeoh's discovery, generally expressing shock at the misrepresentation of the scenes in the documentary:
Ms Yeoh also noted in her commentary that she has "approached both the producer and executive producer of ‘Regardless of Class’ with questions about the rationale behind CNA’s editing," and had also "questioned whether CNA was commissioned by Dr Puthucheary, OnePeople.sg, or the Ministry of Communication and Information; if participants were privy to how the final edit would portray them; whether participants had signed a consent form that allowed CNA to use their footage in any way to serve the main message."
She revealed: "To date, CNA hasn’t responded."