on fake news

therealconse

 

Singapore recently set up a Select Committee on fake news and invited public submissions. It is encouraging to see many Singaporeans getting involved. Here is my small contribution:

Dear Committee,

There are many aspects of fake news that need addressing. I will limit my discussion here to one broad philosophical point: whether or not established media channels globally are partly responsible for creating an environment in which fake news can thrive; and what can be done about it.

Best wishes,

Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh, writer

***

The very idea of Singapore is founded on fake news. The modern zoological consensus is that lions never roamed around Malaya. So in 1299 when Sang Nila Utama, the Srivijaya prince, landed in (what was then called) Temasek and spotted a handsome beast, it was most likely a tiger. Singa-pura, lion city, could well have been named Harimau-pura, tiger city, in modern Malay, or even Vyaghrah-pura, in Sanskrit, in use then, and the roots of “Singa”.

Yes, Vyaghrahpore. Without fake news, our little red dot might have pre-empted erectile dysfunction’s saviour. [1]

Yet that was more a simple falsehood than “news” as we know it. One of the first instances of fake news in the mass media was in 1835, when the New York Sun published observations of the moon by astronomer John Herschel, detailing “giant man-bats that spent their days collecting fruit and holding animated conversations; goat-like creatures with blue skin; a temple made of polished sapphire”.[2]

The fake news had the desired effect—among a public hungry for galactic fantasies, the Sun’s circulation rose from 8,000 to over 19,000, making it the world’s bestselling daily.

All this is simply to point out that fake news has been around for over a century at least. It is not just some new-age digital poison spewed by greedy Macedonian teenagers, disenchanted trolls in Saint Petersburg, or others of their ilk.

Moreover it is not only dubious, fly-by-night media outfits that are prone to publishing fake news. Some of the industry’s most venerable brands are too.

It would be convenient for me to make this point by pointing out possible fake news by conservative stations, like Fox News, whose political views differ from mine.

So instead I will point out possible fallacies in two newspapers which I hold in the highest regard: The Economist and The Financial Times.

And I will do so by defending two politicians whose views I find ignorant at best: Sarah Palin and Donald Trump.

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Singapore’s scientific pioneers: a new book I worked on

scientific pioneers

Who built Singapore?

Politicians are oft celebrated, but there have been many others. This fabulous new (free!) book honours 25 scientific pioneers, including the person who greatly improved our IVF success rate as well as the only non-white in the Internet Hall of Fame: a Singaporean who essentially connected China, India, and many other non-English speaking populations to the Internet.

These vignettes are brilliantly written by Grace Chua, Juliana Drum, Shuzhen Sim and Rebecca Tan (who says scientists can’t write??? 🙂 )

I had the pleasure of editing their smart prose—one of the best freelance gigs I’ve ever had.

They have made the science very accessible, so I hope you can share this with young, aspiring scientists, or students wondering what to do with their lives.

You can download the book here.

I also have a few limited hard copies that I would like to give to some budding scientists. Email me (sudhir.vadaketh@gmail.com) if you’d like one for yourself or your child, niece, etc.

Image credit: Gorgeous photos taken by Cyril Ng and Bryan van der Beek.

Georgetown Literary Festival, Penang: Nov 28-30

Penang bless car

Dear friends,

I will be appearing in two events at the Georgetown Literary Festival in Penang, one of my favourite kampung-like cities in the world. It’s my first time at this festival, so quite thrilled. Friends, food and fun aside, I’m looking forward to meeting Rehman Rashid, whose classic book, A Malaysian Journey, partly inspired Sumana and my own bicycle trip around Malaysia in 2004.

For general information about the festival, click here.

The two panels I’ll be speaking on are:

A Sense of Place

Saturday 29 November, 12.30pm, Lightbox @ The Whiteways Arcade

A sense of place is one of those qualities readers look for in a book, but what exactly does it mean? A poet, a travel writer, and a novelist discuss the varying effect that spaces and places have on their writing.

Panelists: Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh (Singapore), Shivani Sivagurunathan (Malaysia), Marco Ferrarese (Malaysia)

Moderator: Bernice Chauly

(click here to visit page)

&

What Are You Hiding?

Saturday 29 November, 10.00am, Gallery 2 @ The Whiteways Arcade

1 in 6 writers have self-censored. In this age of sedition, in this era of surveillance and sousveillance, of big brother and little brother, many a scribe has chosen to not write on topics that might subject them to scrutiny – both by society and by the government. Join these authors as they explore the act of self-censorship and the effect it has on both the writer and the writing.

Panelists: Ooi Kee Beng (Singapore/Malaysia), Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh (Singapore), Leila S. Chudori (Indonesia)

Moderator: Sharaad Kuttan

(click here to visit page)

I hope to see you there. My wife and I will be in Penang for four days, so if you can’t make the panels but still want to meet, do send me a note at: sudhir.vadaketh@gmail.com

P.S. The picture above is of the Shree Muniswarar Kuil, or temple, in Penang. In a longstanding island tradition, Chinese, Malays, Indians and many others alike drive their new cars or motorbikes here to bless them. It is a quaint testament to the island’s cultural and religious heterogeneity.

Oh Roy, my heart goes out to you

royss2

At a book event at BooksActually two weeks ago, I was making a point about Roy Ngerng—that what he insinuated about Singapore’s prime minister was clearly wrong, but I still sympathised with his predicament—when Jen Wei Ting, moderator, good friend and fellow scribbler, interjected and switched topics.

I later realised why. Roy was actually there, standing in the back. Some of my former colleagues at The Economist had just been interviewing him, and decided to drag him along to the event. (Click here to read the piece they wrote, which gets to the heart of “the Roy Ngerng case”.)

Wei Ting had perhaps wanted to cut me off before I said anything too critical about Roy. She needn’t have worried. Roy and I met after the event and he told me he had enjoyed the talk. I regret not taking a photo with Singapore’s latest enfant teribble; just for the heck of it, not that he needs any further attention.

What a meek, innocuous figure he cuts. With his disarming smile and diffident touch, he looks hardly capable of harming an ant, much less the great and mighty Lee Hsien Loong. Roy’s appearance and demeanour may seem irrelevant here, but in what is quickly turning into a PR disaster for the government, they will fuel the perception of an irascible prime minister bullying a harmless, hapless citizen.

My heart goes out to you, Oh Roy, not for your defiance, but for the deep-seated informational, data and communication asymmetries and imbalances that underpin this country’s drastically unequal social power structure.

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Second book launch: Hard Choices

Hard Choices Front_Ver 2

Dear friends, I just wanted to share some thoughts from my second book launch this past Tuesday. If you want to find out more about the book’s content and cover, please see my earlier post here.

I really enjoyed the launch. As in, it was genuinely fun. Lots of banter up on stage between Donald Low, my co-author, David Skilling, the moderator, and myself before the event. Engaging conversation and audience questions throughout on a range of important and sometimes emotive subjects, from Goh Keng Swee’s doubts in 1972 about Singapore’s emerging economic model to the recent uproar over the mooted Philippines Independence Day Celebration in Singapore this June.

If you are keen to see what you missed, here is a 22min video of the session.

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Cheeky Harry cartoon from Malaysia, 1983

Dear friends, given the recent hullabaloo over the arrest of a Singaporean cartoonist, and the fact that it’s Labour Day, I thought I might share a somewhat naughty cartoon that pokes fun of Lee Kuan Yew’s handling of workers (Pekerja), the opposition (Pembangkang), minority cultures (Kaum minoriti) and Chinese education (Pendidikan Cina).

This is the front cover of the Feb 1983 issue of a now defunct Malaysian bilingual monthly publication, Nadi Insan. This hangs on the “Press Freedom Wall” in Malaysiakini‘s KL office.

No disrespect to the old man; but I always find it interesting to see depictions of Malaysia and Singapore (and our leaders) by the other side.

Nadi Insan

I have so many questions about this cartoon: Did LKY do something particularly nasty in late 1982 to provoke this cover? What exactly does the caricature represent? It seems like he’s wearing a sumo outfit, but with the face and fangs of one of those scary Indonesian monsters. Comments, thoughts much appreciated. Continue reading

Goodbye full time, Hello freelance

Though I am not given to soppy, soul-searching posts, I suppose there are times when life cries out for them. Up till a year ago, I was fairly certain I was going to spend the majority of my working life at The Economist Group, and now I find myself on the verge of leaving my job for the unpredictable world of freelancing. Easter Sunday is my last day.

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Everybody has quibbles about their job; and life is no different here. Yet I think we have it better than most. Laissez faire culture; good work-life balance; stimulating environment for a writer; flat corporate structure; and lots of interesting work. (See my other post, “Our work at The Economist Group”.) Continue reading

Amanat: The right lessons from her legacy

As 2012 draws to a close, most Singaporeans’ heartsdelhi_protests_petals_295 are filled with sadness, not joy. All the triumphs and moments of elation this year—from our country’s first individual Olympic medal in more than 50 years to the broader Asian pride we feel every time somebody horses around to the Gangnam Style—have been rightly overshadowed by the shocking, abhorrent gang-rape of Amanat, the Indian lady who passed away in Singapore after having been flown here for medical treatment from Delhi, the scene of the crime. Continue reading

Malaysia Star’s review of Floating on a Malayan Breeze

Dear friends, The Star wrote a couple of pieces about the book in today’s papers. First is a straight up book review written by Neil Khor, a friend of mine, who is a social historian and senior fellow at Think City, which manages the George Town Grants Programme. You can read Neil’s review here.

The Star also published an interview that Rouwen Lim, a reporter there, conducted. You can read that here.