The continued portrayal of minorities as “worse-off” can belie the fact that other factors such as class differences contribute to the perpetuation of those same inequalities, says Assistant Professor Walid Jumblatt Abdullah in a letter published on the Straits Times Forum on Friday (25 April).
In his letter (Article paints an unfortunate picture of minorities), Asst. Prof Walid referred to an article published a week before in The Sunday Times titled “Home-based learning – a look at three homes” which shared the stories of three families in Singapore and how they are coping with the transition from traditional schooling to home-based learning (HBL) during the circuit breaker period.
The academician said of the article, “While the article intended to show how different families coped with home-based learning, its depiction was most unfortunate.
What we saw was a Chinese family seizing the opportunity to “impart life skills and values”, while minority families were relying on loaned devices and government assistance schemes.”
Asst. Prof Walid said that the portrayal is a reflection of racial stereotypes about the “successful Chinese” and “worse-off minorities”, while also contributing to it.
He noted that this isn’t the first time such a depiction is made in popular media, adding that the portrayal also aligns with what minorities experience in their daily lives.
“Racial stereotypes can be really sticky,” he wrote.
Acknowledging that race is a part of the reality of life, especially in Singapore, and that “we must not pretend that it is not”, Asst. Prof Walid contended that some things are better understood not through the prism of race.
“Inequality is one such matter. Continued portrayals of minorities as worse-off can belie the fact that other factors, including class differences, contribute to the perpetuation of these inequalities.”
“The media must do better in this regard,” he urged.
At the bottom of his letter, ST included an editor’s note in which they apologised for the offending article.
The note reads:
“Our feature was aimed at reflecting how various families were dealing with home-based learning and not intended to have any racial connotations. We thank Prof Walid, and others, who have voiced concerns about how the stories might have been perceived. We take his point, and apologise for any offence caused inadvertently.”
The article showed a well-off Chinese family next to two Malay and Indian families who are reliant on gov’t aid
A version of the Sunday Times Article in question was also published on ST’s website. In it, the author speak to three different families—Chinese, Indian, and Malay—to see how they’re getting on with HBL, and filtering the article through a lens of inequality.
Touching on the recent transition to HBL, ST notes that the Ministry of Education (MOE) has loaned about 12,500 laptops or tablets on top of 1,200 internet-enabling devices to students who don’t have enough devices at home for HBL.
Explaining that HBL involves a mix of online and offline learning, the article noted, “observers say that the rich-poor gap highlighted by Covid-19 go beyond the digital divide.
They fear inequality in Singapore may worsen as the coronavirus continues its rampage across the global economy.”
It also quoted Professor Lim Sun Sun from the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) who said that other factors such as physical environment, parental skills, and connectivity also determine the extent to which students can benefit from HBL.
The families the article follows include a Chinese family with four children aged three to 13 living in a 1,200-sq-ft, three-bedroom condominium.
The mother, Ms Zoe Chu, is quoted as saying that her husband is still “happily exercising”, and she talks about ensuring there are enough snacks for the children throughout the day.
She also drew up detailed schedules for the children which include time for exercise and “creativity” as well as play time.
Ms Chu is also quoted as saying that she tells her children that “values are the most important thing; it’s not about grades”.
The second family the article follows is a Malay family living in a sparsely-furnished rental flat with four children sharing three devises, two of which are on loan from the school for HBL.
The article highlights that while the devices are sufficient, internet connectivity is still a problem with a dongle that was donated by a charity.
The article also notes that the children’s mother, Madam Salmiah, left school after her N Levels and is finding HBL stressful. She’s quotes as saying, “”I have to teach my children. If they don’t understand the work, I have to explain it to them. But sometimes I myself don’t understand the concept. I go to YouTube to find out more.”
The article goes on to say that the family has been receiving financial aid from Beyond Social Services, a charity, as Madam Salmiah is a housewife and her husband quite his job as a cleaner in February for fear of bringing the virus home to his children.
The third family that the article highlights is an Indian family. The single-parent, Ms Cynthia Jyanthi, is caring for three children and her sickly mother.
Her 17-year-old daughter, Sheryl, is studying for her O Levels this year and was dreading HBL as she only had her smartphone at first. The article notes that the young lady skipped lunch at school to save up for a laptop.
Eventually, Ms Cynthia reach out to the school to procure a laptop for her daughter to use for HBL. Her younger son who is in Secondary 1 is already using a laptop on loan from his school.
The article went on to say that the teacher told the family about Infocomm Media Development Authority’s (IMDA) NEU PC Plus programme which offers low-income households and persons with disabilities the opportunity to own a computer at a subsidised rate.
Since she meets the criteria for the MOE Financial Assistance Scheme, Sheryl received a free laptop last which she is now using for HBL.