March 30, 2017

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What is Super Tuesday?
Illustration by Sean Chong

by Reuben Wang

TUESDAY saw the latest milestone in the contest to be the President of the United States. So what exactly happened?

 

What is Super Tuesday?
Super Tuesday was the day with the highest number of states holding their primary elections to ask voters: “Who do you want to represent your political party in the presidential election?”
Super Tuesday

As the presidential contest is a winner-take-all event, each party must choose a single candidate to stand behind to prevent similarly minded voters of splitting their vote. The Americans solve this by holding primary elections which pit presidential wannabes from the same party against each other – and let the party’s supporters choose.

Primaries are organised by the local party branches from each state. Delegates from each state will be invited to the national party convention held in July to vote for the candidate they want to be the party’s nominee. The vast majority of these delegates are bound by law and tradition to stand behind the results of their state’s primary elections.
Super Tuesday

 

What’s so super about it?
Super Tuesday, then, is the day on which the most delegates are up for grabs – on the Republican side, a quarter of delegates will be committed by the results. This means that the predictions by pundits and statisticians about how well various candidates are performing will either be translated into actual results, or be scolded at by other pundits or statisticians. The results will force the state delegates to vote, in the national convention, for the candidate their electorate has chosen.

 

Why is it held on Tuesday?
Tradition, mainly. While no one knows for certain why American elections occur on Tuesday so often, one theory says that it is because farmers in the early 1800s required an entire day to vote. And Tuesday does not fall on market day (Wednesday) or the Biblical day of rest, the Sabbath (Sunday). Either way, Americans tend to put their elections on Tuesday.

In the modern day, states gain an advantage holding their primary elections earlier in the primary process – candidates will be forced to pander to the whims and fancies of otherwise electorally insignificant states. Google pictures of presidential candidates eating Iowa’s iconic Deep Fried Butter Stick – it is exactly what you think it is, and that’s the level of pandering involved. Pity to their waistlines.

Why? Because winning in earlier states are seen, particularly in the press, as momentum builders. It garners more coverage. So, states started gaming the system – the modern Super Tuesday has its roots in when the 1988 presidential elections, when the majority of Southern states decided to hold their election on the same day, early in the race, to make sure candidates will pander to their specific demands.

 

What do the results mean?
Mr Trump (read our profile of him here) and Ms Clinton are the clear winners of Tuesday’s events. Both of them bagged seven of the 11 elections which took place on Tuesday.

However, the results mean very different things for both candidates. For the race to be the Democratic Party’s nominee, Senator Bernie Sanders, the affable self-described socialist running an underdog campaign (read our profile of him here), has failed to gain traction in the minority communities. In the state of Texas, Mr Sanders only won 15 per cent and 29 per cent of the of African-Americans and Latino vote respectively.

For Mr Trump, in the five-man Republican Party race, the story is drastically different. While he has managed to win a majority of states, he failed to win a simple majority in any of them – only hovering around the high thirties and low forties. This is extremely significant. A number of states allow for their delegates to switch their allegiance if the candidate with the highest delegate count fail to exceed 50 per cent. And practically everyone in the traditional core of the Republican party wants. Trump. Out. of. the. Running.

Who is there to replace Trump as frontrunner? Senator Ted Cruz is in second place, but the party reviles him too, perhaps even more so than Mr Trump. Senator Marco Rubio had been the person the party have decided to support, but his performance on Super Tuesday was disappointing.

 

What now for the primary race?
The states in the contest so far gave out their delegates roughly in proportion to the candidate’s’ vote share. The next few are going to be winner-take-all. Expect do-or-drop-out moments for the weaker Republican candidates. However, the Republican nomination seems increasingly likely to be decided in the back rooms of the Party Convention.

 

Who is going to win the Presidential race?
It is still too early to tell; you can’t tell who will win a marathon when the competitors have only ran two kilometres. Mr Trump and Ms Clinton are certainly in the lead to spar as the two party’s representatives, but even Mr Trump’s road to becoming the Republican Party’s nominee is perilous. He had faced even worse odds getting to where he is, though.

 

Illustrations and infographics by Sean Chong
Featured image by Sean Chong
Picture of 2008 Democratic Party Convention in infographic Spotlight on Obama (Commentary) from Flickr user Steve Jurvetson. CC BY 2.0
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Death Of A Boy - Dealing With Officialdom
Illustration by Sean Chong

by Brenda Tan

DOES having a greater clarity over what school and police procedures are regarding student arrests now bring more comfort to me as a parent?

I had written last month when the news broke about Benjamin Lim’s suicide about how shocked, angry, and saddened I was about his death, that my grief was shared by many of my friends with pre-teen and teenagers of Benjamin Lim’s ilk – those average boys and girls who are generally good kids, but who, due to an impulsive act or a single lapse in judgement, get themselves into trouble with school authority or the law.

It is precisely this group of students who would feel intimidated when having to deal with any official authorities or adults. They are the kids who would suddenly clam up when speaking to a strange adult, or get all stiff and robotic when tasked with having to deal with authority figures.

My son had found a temporary job in January while waiting for his polytechnic course to begin in April, and he needed to open a personal bank account with an ATM and debit card so that he could access his income, which would be credited directly to the account. Technically, there was no need for me to be present when he goes to the bank to open the account, since my son was already older than the minimum required age of 16. Yet, he asked that I tag along. I could feel his nervous tension when talking to the friendly counter staff, in checking the various account forms, and in signing them. I could empathise. He was maturing. This is just the beginning of a journey for him. He had to start dealing with an official establishment, signing official documents, with his signature having a greater significance than a mere childish scribble. This was also the start of a rite of passage in taking control of his personal finances.

Funnily enough, at the next counter was another mother with her son setting up a personal bank account. While waiting to get to the counter, the boy in school uniform was talking to his mother about his Junior College orientation experience. Unlike my son, the boy left most of the interaction with the counter staff for his mother to deal with. Asked by the counter staff if he wanted to sign or use a thumbprint for his account, he opted for thumbprint, but his mother corrected him and said, “Not thumbprint! Signature lah! Sign here.”

The point of these two 17-year-olds’ experience at the bank is this: what is a simple official procedure for most adults carry greater significance for the child. What looks straightforward, clear, and efficient – imbued with no prejudice, often comes across as something daunting to an average teenager.

What more the average teenager who may have run afoul of the law?

While I do appreciate that the police procedures are transparent, and that student arrests are not uncommon (about 3 to 4 students are arrested daily), and that our law avoids criminalising our students’ conduct where possible, and give them a second chance through rehabilitation, it still doesn’t sit well with me as a parent to think of these students having to undergo an official procedure without a familiar adult present to help them understand the true severity of the situation.

For me, this is the difference between “Yes, you’ve erred. There are consequences” and “Yes, you’ve erred, but it’s not the end of the world. There are consequences, but I’m here to help you through this”.

The first message is what a child would have received if he had to go through an overwhelming and unfamiliar experience by themselves.

Procedures are now made clearer about what schools can do when the police come a-calling, but I’ve said before that while schools may have clear protocols in place with the child firmly in mind, there’s nothing in the protocols that prevents concerned teachers from asking the principal to allow them to make their own way to the police station, and have the student understand that ‘Cher is waiting for him nearby.

It was this compassion that I found missing, despite the Parliamentary questions that were answered and greater clarity over what happened the day Benjamin Lim died.

I am perturbed that even as two ministers made very clear that procedures were followed to a Tee, and all the adults involved were acting according to clear protocols within their varied roles to help Benjamin, none of the reports seem to consider that without The Online Citizen’s (TOC) first news about the circumstances surrounding his suicide, no one would have questioned if our clear procedures on student arrests could have contributed to our children losing hope of having a second chance.

Frankly, without the red flag of that first article, we would have simply swept Benjamin’s suicide aside as another student-suicide data point and not know about what could have contributed to his state of mind at that time. Benjamin’s tragic story would have been kept within the school community like most other student-suicides that were not reported in any media, and may have been simply attributed to other causes like his school results.

In reporting the story, TOC had us pausing to consider if our current student-arrest procedures could be tweaked with more compassion to our sons and daughters caught in similar situations. For all the delinquents and radicalised youths who have been arrested, there are also amongst them average kids that can’t even set up a bank account without mummy telling them it’s ok to sign on the bank account form; the average kids who acted in a moment of stupidity and landed in trouble with the police.

How are they to know about the different ways their “crime’ could be treated? That they might be let off with a warning rather than spend time behind bars? How can they grapple with the idea of having a criminal record and the consequences that come with it? Even as an adult, I did not know that 70 per cent of youths picked up have either been warned, placed on a rehabilitative programme, or had no further action taken against them. How are teenagers to know that their momentary failure to be law-abiding doesn’t translate into a hopeless future as a convicted criminal?

We have changed our policies in recent years to protect witnesses who are minors in court by providing them with a Volunteer Support Person to act as a source of information on court procedures and to help minors manage the stress which may arise from the court proceedings.

We have now both the Home Affairs and the Education Ministry reviewing their procedures regarding student arrests from school. I truly hope that this review would also consider the maturity of all our children – recalcitrants and new offenders alike. Regardless of how terrible the crime our children may be involved in, we still need them to know that they are not alone, and that there are trustworthy adults looking out for them, and that they can have a second chance to be good citizens.

Acting Education Minister Ng Chee Meng puts it well: “While I know that nothing I say today will bring Benjamin back, it is of utmost importance that we all learn from this tragedy. We must always, always do our best to reach out to those who may require attention and do whatever possible to prevent such terrible incidents from happening.”

I fully agree with him. We can do better for our children.

We can start with compassion.

 

Featured image by Sean Chong

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by Lionel Ong

“SUGAR solves lots of problems, that’s what I think”. These words were uttered by Abra Stone, a young girl with powers of the shining in Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep, a sequel to his seminal work, The Shining. In this scene, she proffers that coke can assuage a weighty heart because of its dosage of sugar.

If sugar indeed has these purported occult qualities, perhaps she should have offered up a cup of Starbucks. According to a recent report in the Guardian, which cited a survey by British organisation Action on Sugar, trendy cafe drinks might contain up to 25 teaspoons of sugar in them. “More than one-third of the drinks tested were found to contain the same – or higher – levels of sugar as a can of Coca-Cola,” the Guardian reported. That amount of sugar could potentially solve “lots of problems” – or could it really do the opposite?

Speaking of amounts, did you know you might be taking in more added sugar, with just one portion of your favourite drink, than you think?

We spoke to four baristas, two who used to work at Starbucks and two currently working at Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, to understand how these coffeehouses operate and how much sugar they add to their drinks. Due to concerns regarding their employment, they chose not to be identified. Here is what we found:

Sugar Chart

 

Starbucks

Typically, the types of popular drinks preferred by customers vary depending on demographics such as age group. Working adults tend to go for the cappuccinos and lattes whereas students generally prefer frappuccinos. In particular, the Java Chip Frappucino and the Signature Hot Chocolate were cited as two of the most popular drinks.

At Starbucks, the baristas use pumps to dispense syrups into the drinks. For frappuccinos, two pumps are used for the tall size (approximately 355ml), three pumps for the grande (approximately 473 ml), and four pumps for the venti (approximately 591 ml). For hot drinks, one pump is used for the tall, two pumps for the grande and two pumps for the venti. In terms of volume, each pump is approximately equivalent to an “espresso shot glass”, said one barista.

Here is some information on the sugar levels in some of the more popular drinks at Starbucks:

The Java Chip Frappuccino with whipped cream contains 47g, 66g and 88g of sugar in the tall, grande and venti respectively, according to the Starbucks website.

The Hot Chocolate with whipped cream contains 34g, 43g and 57g of sugar in the tall, grande and venti respectively.

The Grean Tea Creme Frappuccino Blended Creme with whipped cream contains 48g, 65g and 88g of sugar in the tall, grande and venti respectively.

Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf

In Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, the baristas we spoke to said that they do not use syrups. Instead, they use flavoured powders. All of these powders contain sugar. For the hot drinks and iced coffees, 45ml (the scoops they use to portion out the flavoured powders are labelled in ml), 60ml and 75 ml of flavoured powder is used for the small, medium and large respectively. For the ice blends, 80ml, 125ml and 155ml of powder is used for the small, medium and large respectively. The popular drinks that were mentioned by the baristas were the pure chocolate ice blend, mocha ice blend and the chai ice blend.

Here are some information on the sugar levels of the more popular drinks Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf in Singapore (sourced from the chain’s website):

The small (approximately 355ml), medium (approximately 473ml) and large (approximately 591ml) mocha ice blend contains 41g, 55g and 81g of sugar respectively.

The small, medium and large pure chocolate ice blend contains 45g, 59g, 87g of sugar respectively.

The small medium and large chai ice blend contains 51g, 67g, 98g of sugar respectively.

The barista at Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf said that for hot drinks or iced flavoured coffees, one scoop less of powder is used as compared to the ice blended coffees. Similarly in Starbucks, the hot and iced coffees require lesser pumps of syrups than in the frappuccinos. It is apparent that the ice blended drinks have more sugar than the hot drinks and flavoured iced-coffees.

Local Drinks

Following the report by Action on Sugar, Shape Magazine published an article stating that “a few local favourites also exceed the amount of sugar in a can of Coke in Singapore, which has 6.8 teaspoons (tsp) of sugar”. The key culprit was bubble tea, which contained 10.6 teaspoons of sugar. Coming right behind was Milo dinosaur, with 9.2 teaspoons of sugar. These figures were given by Ms Claudia Correia, a dietitian at the Raffles Diabetes & Endocrine Centre.

Why is sugar so bad for us?

On the Health Promotion Board food-based dietary guidelines, it says that “[e]xcessive consumption of beverages and food high in added sugar can contribute considerably to energy intake and may lead to weight gain if the excess calories are not expended”. Furthermore, “these items may displace other more nutritious food in the diet”.

Other reasons cited by an article published on the Harvard Health Letter include sugar’s established links with tooth-cavities as well as the fact that it provides us with what is commonly referred to as empty calories. This refers to calories that does not have any corollary benefits like fibre, vitamins, minerals and other nutrients. The resultant effect is that sugary food would end up crowding out healthier food from a person’s diet.

Under its guidelines, the Health Promotion Board recommends that our consumption of added sugar should not exceed 8-11 teaspoons daily. To put this into perspective, simply drink a cup of bubble tea and you are close to busting your daily limit.

According to Ms Jackie Green, lead dietitian at the Family Dietitian, “sugar contains one molecule of glucose and one molecule of fructose”. When sugar is broken down, the glucose can be converted into energy but the “fructose is transported to the liver and converted to fat”. She added that the problem with sugar is that it “tends to be stored as abdominal fat, which encases our liver, kidney and spleen”. “As a result of this, some people can have huge levels of abdominal fat and not be overweight,” she explained.

Furthermore, when asked about the kinds of diseases excess sugar can lead to, Ms Green explained that sugar raises our insulin levels, which is a normal reaction. However, when high-levels of insulin is sustained, this “raised level has an inflammatory effect”. She added that such inflammation is linked to type II diabetes, certain types of cancer and heart diseases.

High levels of excess sugar particularly contribute to the development of cancers that are related to obesity, such as breast cancer and prostate cancer. She noted that while the high inflammatory effect caused by excess sugar may not be the sole cause of such cancers, it is “one mechanism through which they might develop”.

Possibility of a sugar tax

Last month, an article in The Business Times mooted the idea of a tax on sugar. This is because about 11 per cent of people aged 18 to 69 have diabetes compared to a world average of 8.5 per cent. In a Straits Times article that came out in December last year, it was reported that Singapore has the second-highest proportion of diabetics among developed nations. Another worrying trend is the fact that more than one-third of Singaporeans run the risk of getting diabetes. This points to a growing concern that apart from facing an aging population, we might be facing an ailing one as well.

This is not the first time the idea has been raised. The World Health Organization (WHO) points out that the rationale behind a tax on sugar is to influence the purchasing behaviour of consumers. Furthermore, it added that low income groups and children, who face the greatest risk of obesity, are more responsive to the changes in price.

Over the past few years, some countries have carried forth the idea of a sugar tax and realised it in more concrete forms. For example, Mexico introduced a tax of 1 Mexican peso per litre on sugared drinks. Norway has an excise tax on refined sugar products such as soft drinks. In fact, one need not look so far across the globe for such examples. Just across the Causeway, our northern neighbours have also been mulling the possibility of imposing a sugar tax. In Malaysia’s 2014 Budget, it abolished its sugar subsidy and this took effect in April last year, causing prices of sugar to rise. Subsequently, in June last year, the Health Minister told reporters that the Health Ministry was toying with the idea of taxing sweetened drinks.

However, if the G does decide to control how much sugar we eat via a form of taxation, it might leave a bitter taste in some people’s mouths. Even if, as Abra Stone claims, sugar indeed “solves lots of problems”, one should keep in mind that everything comes with a price. That price might very well be a government imposed tax.

 

Featured image of Sugar by Flickr user Till WestermayerCC BY-SA 2.0

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by Gillian Lim

JUST how bad is littering in Singapore, such that the G wants to give everyday folk the power to issue warnings and summonses, just like National Environment Agency (NEA) officers?

That was what the Bill passed in Parliament on Tuesday entailed, alongside giving NEA officers the power to photograph or take videos of anybody breaking such laws. Now, individuals can join the NEA as community volunteers to help step up enforcement against litterbugs.

We asked this question before, when Dr Lee Bee Wah first suggested in October last year that residents be allowed to videotape litterbugs in the act – and be rewarded for it, with cash. Then, volunteers could only come from relevant non-governmental organisations, such as the Singapore Environment Council, or the Singapore Kindness Movement. And they could only take down your particulars to hand over to NEA officers for further investigations.

As to how bad the littering situation is in Singapore, an answer was given in Parliament on Tuesday. Last year, there were more than 26,000 littering fines – a six-year high, said the NEA.

To put this answer into perspective, here’s the breakdown of littering fines over the years.

YearNumber of littering fines
200941,392
201023,898
201111,131
20128,195
20139,346
2014More than 19,000
2015More than 26,000

The number of littering fines dropped quickly from 2009 to 2012: In 2009, there were 41,392 littering fines, and in 2010, this number dropped by 42 per cent to 23,898. The year after, there were 11,131 littering fines, and the year after, there were 8,195 littering fines.

But after 2012, the number of littering fines bounced back up again. In 2013, the figures went up by 14 per cent to reach 9,346 littering fines, and the year after, it doubled to around 19,000. Last year, there were over 26,000 littering fines.

So it looks like the number of littering fines have gone up since 2012 – not withstanding a huge drop from 2009 to 2010.

As much as there are a few ways to interpret the rising number of littering fines in Singapore, the most obvious interpretation may be that current enforcement is not enough. In that light, it might explain why the G is now taking stronger measures to curb the litterbug situation in Singapore.

But you have to wonder: Is what we have on the books currently really not enough? Under the revised Environmental Public Health Act amended in 2014, the maximum fine for littering offenders was doubled to $2,000 for a first conviction. Those who persist can be fined $4,000 for their second conviction, and $10,000 for their third and subsequent convictions. Corrective Work Orders (CWOs) might also be issued by the court, requiring offenders to clean up public areas for up to 12 hours.

Is giving more people the power to catch litterbugs really the way to go?

Workers’ Party (WP) didn’t think so – all nine WP Members of Parliament voted against it – though, the Bill still passed in the end. If volunteers are paid, it might promote “a toxic environment where neighbour persecute neighbour”, said MP Pritam Singh. Non-Constituency MP Daniel Goh said: “NEA volunteers should be about peer persuasion to prevent littering, not about enforcement, or possible antagonism.”

What about you? What do you think?

Featured image litter free by Flickr user Pittaya SroilongCC BY 2.0

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by Daniel Yap

A BOY is dead, a girl traumatised. In the wake of a flurry of speculation and information, Law Minister K Shanmugam stood up in Parliament to castigate news website The Online Citizen as well as Law Society President Thio Shen Yi for inaccurate remarks they published online. It took over a month for the silence to be broken and for clarifications to be made.

The untruths were largely based on initial interviews with Benjamin’s mother as an exclusive source but were then embellished by other witness testimony, both accurate and inaccurate. The police statement released on Feb 1 did not point out any of the errors reported thus far. The Middle Ground chose not to publish those representations of fact because we could not verify them. We avoided misinforming the public, but we also became an echo of the silence.

The Internet is a fountain of information and opinion (including this, my personal opinion). So much of it is unreliable at best. A whole bunch of it is untrue. Even sources like Wikipedia are susceptible to manipulation – how can those of us who are in possession of facts make them known in a responsible and timely manner?

Mistakes have been made – a better journalist could have verified the claims more thoroughly, for example asking for the exact date when police in uniform were seen at the school. A better public communicator would have simply repeated the initial factual assertion that the policemen were in plainclothes – no new information, no harm to any of the parties, no room for misinformation to fester.

What follows in the wake of mistakes is an eagerness to find someone else to blame – they did not respond to our queries; they should not have published what we refused to comment on.

How could we not publish what so-and-so said? Life would be so dull! Our baser selves crave salacious gossip. Our ignoble parts are eager for accusations. Our foolish fingers share and spread falsehoods.

Wise men have said that truth is the light that casts away darkness. That darkness is not itself a thing but the absence of a thing – truth. And those who possess the truth and refuse to let it shine must be aware of the effect that their silence has on the world.

Should those who shutter their lanterns also curse the darkness?

There are times when we withhold the facts. Protecting innocents is often one reason and journalists do it as well. Keeping vulnerable people out of the spotlight can help to keep them from harm. Yet on the other hand it can be argued that MHA’s silence on the case exposed the Police to unnecessary attack and damaged the public’s trust in our police force. Four out of the five points that were clarified yesterday in Parliament pertained to Police action on the case – who took Benjamin to the station, what they wore, whether he had food and whether he was coerced. Clarifying them would have brought little harm to the family – it may even have given them solace. The fifth, allegations that the police report was fabricated, could have been largely resolved by simply announcing that the Police were in possession of CCTV footage of the interior of the lift where the incident was alleged to have happened.

Those who have the facts must properly weigh the urgency and cost of holding back, and release enough light for others to see by in a timely manner as well. Well-managed information protects people and helps shape reasonable conversation. This should not be confused with well-guarded information.

And if we do not manage information well, and people get hurt, let us always consider our own failings first before pointing the finger at the failings of others.

 

Featured image by Natassya Diana.

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Black clock showing 8.30

DID you feel it? The slight tremors that affected parts of Sengkang and Jurong around 8.50pm after Sumatra was hit by a 7.8 magnitude earthquake last night (March 2). Residents said it lasted only a few seconds, but what a thrill/scare it must have been. No one was hurt and apparently early reports of deaths in Indonesia as a result of the earthquake were unfounded.

Did you hear it? The lone voice of Terry Xu, editor of The Online Citizen (TOC), fighting back against the Law Minister’s accusation in Parliament on Tuesday that the website had “planned, orchestrated a campaign using falsehoods” to make the police look bad in the suicide case of Benjamin Lim. Once the face of so-called alternative media in Singapore, TOC is now a one-man show. Read its statement here.

(BTW, if you’re curious about exactly what Mr K Shanmugam said about TOC, we have his notes exclusively here for you on our Facebook page.)

 

 

Did you think it was going to die down? Mr K Shanmugam’s lengthy speech in Parliament about Benjamin’s death might have been designed to set the record straight once and for all – but more questions have come up over the handling of the case. We discuss what exactly is sub judice and what it means for media coverage of ongoing court cases; if you knew that the minister was lecturing the president of the Law Society in his speech; and Bertha gives her thoughts on the rules of engagement in such situations.

Coming up today: Daniel’s take on why in silence, misinformation is king; and a column by our writer Brenda Tan, asking: More clarity, but where’s the compassion?

It’s not just us asking questions, of course. The Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) yesterday issued a press statement asking why the minister had taken five weeks to address Benjamin’s death – when he was “very quick off the mark” about the death of a four-year-old boy in his constituency who fell through a window that had no grilles installed. The opposition party said it did not “make sense” that the minister said he had refrained from commenting on the case out of respect for Benjamin’s family.

Speaking of the boy’s family, his father has come out to rebut the school’s claim that a phone call was made to Benjamin’s mother to discuss the boy’s well-being, reported TODAY. “He merely informed her that the school had a meeting, and Benjamin will be excluded from the camp. Before the mother can ask any further questions, (he hung up),” the father said.

 

 

Featured image by Chong Yew

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Death Of A Boy - Rules Of Engagement
Illustration by Sean Chong

by Bertha Henson

THREE years ago, the now-defunct Breakfast Network wrote a series of articles on the death of a prison inmate. They were titled Just how did Dinesh die? I was reminded of this when Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam lashed out at The Online Citizen for its barrage of articles surrounding the death of 14-year-old Benjamin Lim.

Could that series have been described as an “orchestrated”, “calculated”, “cynical” campaign to tarnish the reputation of, in this case, prison officers? Hand on heart, I can say that we never received an official or unofficial bollocking over our articles. I can only suppose the authorities couldn’t take issue with the points raised because we were careful with the reporting and commentary. We asked plenty of questions that we thought should be answered in the public interest.

There was also plenty of sympathy for Dinesh’s family who weren’t convinced about the circumstances of his death and the extent of culpability of the prison officers involved. The answers came in dribs and drabs, such as official statements and in Parliament. But if there was one thing Breakfast Network never had to contend with, it was that the case was not before the courts. The criminal case was over and, ironically, the call was for a coroner’s inquiry to be convened.

Journalists have always had a problem with two things: suicides and pending court cases. Suicides are not always reported (Singapore has one suicide a day by the way) because they are known to result in copycat cases. Only when the suicide is “unusual” – a double suicide, murder-suicide – do they make the news. There is probably a “good” story behind every suicide, but this has to be balanced against resulting in yet another suicide. Instead, journalists report suicide trends, rather than specific suicide cases. This is a responsible thing to do. It was no surprise to me therefore that traditional medium kept somewhat mum on Benjamin’s case.

As for cases that are before the court, trained journalists are aware of sub judice rules and, frankly, most times, we want to wish them away. All reporting stops when a person has been charged – no more digging around for interviews and plenty of circumspection is exercised even when people offer to talk. Only parts that do not affect the court case are published and, of course, they are always the less interesting parts.

In my past life, I remember being warned about sub judice at least once, when a reporter ran an interview with a witness in a case while the case was ongoing. There was no agenda, no malice, no personal interest involved. It was just plain carelessness. A profuse apology later, all were told to toe the line on sub judice.

When The Online Citizen went full tilt on the Benjamin’s suicide with interviews with parents and commentaries, I had wondered if TMG should do the same, given that the police had said that a coroner’s inquiry will be held. Then police released a statement which gave me an entry point without going into the circumstances of the death.

So I wrote Death of a boy and a dearth of info, trying carefully to steer clear of the suicide itself. The key question, to my mind, was not whether Benjamin had been bullied to death but whether minors need an adult with them at police interviews and whether the system of “appropriate adults” should apply to them. Even so, there were a few people who asked me if I had committed contempt of court.

That is the problem when people are faced with an emotional matter involving children and distraught parents. Our hearts go out to them and it is quite likely that the bereaved will say things that they would not have said in calmer moments. Journalists who interview victims and their families know this. They are extremely “quotable” but a line should be drawn between capitalising on their emotional distress and publicising their emotional state. Even if this was done, the TOC did wrong to break the rules of sub judice, a subject that it did not touch on when it put out its response to Mr Shanmugam’s accusations.

What about its assertions that it had tried to get responses and received no reply, something which it had made public. Mr Shanmugam characterised them as a “tactic” to get him or the police to talk on something that should not be talked about. My sympathies are with TOC on this point. As I said earlier, too many newsmakers think that there is no story when they say nothing. The least the authorities could do was to give a courteous reply saying that they cannot comment because of a coroner’s inquiry which, in case TOC forgot, would put them in contempt of court. Or, they could have gone to the Attorney-General to issue a public warning against commenting on the suicide before the coroner has ruled. That should have stopped things in its track.

Instead, talk continued unabated. The matter did not die down simply because the police had denied the issue “oxygen”.

What I take issue with are these statements from TOC:

“TOC prides itself on being an open platform. We welcome contributions and have very little control over what the public choose to write about. In Benjamin’s case, questions were raised, and people wanted answers. Their reactions were spontaneous. It was hardly an ‘orchestrated campaign'”.

Hmmm. Of course, the editors have control over publication. These are not just posts on a comment thread but whole articles. There will be spontaneous reactions to everything but it does not mean everything passes by journalistic standards – stories will always have to be checked and verified. For example, the police said they were in plain clothes and Mrs Mary Anne Pereira claimed her son who is in the same school as Benjamin said they wore police tee-shirts. This means that either one must be lying or got things mixed up. Even if Mrs Pereira maintained her position and the police refused to speak, there is the option of going to the school to ask for confirmation. Now if the principal didn’t want to talk, then the next thing to do is stand outside the school and waylay teachers and students. Nobody said journalism is easy.

“Given the dearth of information available to us, it is natural that some of our reports were not fully accurate. It would have been clear from our articles that the story was still developing as we were yet to be in possession of the full facts, and we were doing our best to do so with the information we had.” 

The journalistic phrase is this: when in doubt, leave out. There is no such thing as fully accurate. They are accurate or not. Correcting bad/false/inaccurate information is a very difficult thing to do. You have to apologise, which reflects on journalistic standards or lack of, and you have the duty to correct the misimpression that people who have read earlier stories – and not the later stories – have. I can bet you anything that people will still talk about how five policemen went to the school to pick up Benjamin and won’t make a distinction over whether it was all five, or just one, who actually spoke with him.

So TOC broke the rules and the G said it didn’t want to talk earlier because of the rules. What a mess. In the middle of this tussle are Benjamin’s parents whom, according to TOC, do not trust the reporting of other media and which, according to the G, felt pressured by all the spotlight.

TOC said that it spoke to Benjamin’s father after the parliamentary session. He said: “The confidentiality that I want is for our family, for our identity to be kept confidential to better protect my two school going children. Whether the media report on the case, we have no question except that we urge the reports must reflect the truth.”

Now, what does this mean? The father had asked for a private coroner’s inquiry – and now it is okay for it to be open so long as media get their reporting right? I have changed my mind about how the parents should say something publicly. I think they should talk to everyone – or NOT talk at all.

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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by Felix Cheong

SPOTLIGHT – about The Boston Globe’s investigation into paedophilic priests – was named the Best Picture on Monday (Feb 29). It made history as the first film about reporters to have won the coveted Oscar.

Journalism, of course, is seldom as exciting and glamorous as Hollywood portrays it. Most of the time, it’s grunt work. But when it all comes together, it’s strangely satisfying and sometimes, just sometimes, worth making a film about.

If you’re sniffing out more films about newshounds, you might like to check out my top five picks (they’re all available at library@esplanade):

 

All the President’s Men (1976)
Director: Alan J. Pakula
Number of Oscars: 4

This is the granddaddy of Spotlight, the one responsible for mythologising investigative reporters as detectives who pound the streets to right a wrong. Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford turn in mesmerising performances as the Washington Post’s Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward respectively. Their dogged investigation into the Watergate break-in eventually brings down President Richard “I’m not a crook” Nixon in 1972.

Investigative journalism into political scandals is, of course, practically unheard of in Singapore, given the tight leash the MDA has over the media. That’s not saying it doesn’t exist.

For instance, The New Paper’s Zaihan Mohamed Yusof has dug spadefuls and written extensively about the international football kelong business. He’s since published a fascinating book titled Foul! The Inside Story of Singapore Match Fixers (2014).

 

Network (1977)
Director: Sidney Lumet
Number of Oscars: 4

“I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!”

So rants TV anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch, winning a posthumous Best Actor Oscar) on air after learning he’s about to be fired. He announces he’ll commit suicide, on live TV. (In 1974, there was a curious case of TV reporter Christine Chubbuck, who shot herself during a broadcast in one of the most shocking incidents in live TV.) Lo and behold, ratings shoot through the roof.

It’s a testimony to the incisiveness of this satire that 40 years later, it still doesn’t feel dated, more so with the drivel that passes off as reality TV these days.

 

The Paper (1994)
Director: Ron Howard
Number of Oscars: 0

An all-star cast (including Glenn Close and Robert Duvall) depicting 24 hours in the tick-tock workings of a newsroom. Michael Keaton (he’s also in Spotlight) plays Henry Hackett, a tabloid editor who, for once, wants to get to the bottom of an incident (two black teens accused of gunning down two white men) instead of sensationalising it.

The film, though lighthearted, shows you the tug-and-pull of ethical issues inside a newsroom. How far should a paper pander to readers to keep up circulation? How do you balance the public’s right to know with an individual’s right to privacy?

 

Wag the Dog (1997)
Director: Barry Levinson
Number of Oscars: 0

Talk about life imitating art. This film – about a spin doctor (Robert de Niro) who collaborates with a TV producer (Dustin Hoffman) to fake a war with Albania just to distract the public from a Presidential sex scandal – proved prophetic. The Clinton-Lewinsky scandal broke just a month after its release and subsequently, the Clinton administration ordered the bombing of a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan. Coincidental?

A dark and satirical take on the cozy, uneasy relationship between journalism and public relations, and how the lines have become blurred in our media-choked age.

 

Nothing but the Truth (2008)
Director: Rod Lurie
Number of Oscars: 0

For reporter Rachel Armstrong (Kate Beckinsale), protecting her source is paramount to her integrity and she’s prepared to put even her life on the line. The film examines the emotional and psychological trauma she goes through in sticking to this time-honoured principle. Inspired by the real-life story of The New York Times’ reporter Judith Miller, who was jailed for contempt of court in 2005 when she refused to reveal her source in outing a CIA operative, Valerie Plame.

A similarly curious case took place in Singapore in 2013 when an Nanyang Technological University academic, James Dorsey, was ordered by the High Court to reveal sources he had mentioned in a blog post. He had made references to a rights agreement between the Asian Football Confederation and the World Sport Group. The latter claimed his post was defamatory.

Mr Dorsey, formerly a journalist, was ordered by the High Court to reveal his sources but the decision was eventually overturned by the Court Of Appeal.

 

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Wah Piang

by Gwee Li Sui

HELLO everyboz, Uncle is back! Sorry my toilet break took a bit too long – was away for four months! But nemmind, now I is back, and we can have fun talking Singlish cock again! Today’s Singlish term is “Wah piang!” or sometimes said with an “eh” to lengthen the experience: “Wah piang eh!” Or you can also shorten it to just “Piang!” Regardless, “Wah piang!” has to be said with an exclamation mark. This is true even if you’re whispering or muttering it to yourself – because the phrase is an expression of intense negative surprise.

The “wah” of “Wah piang!” is the same “wah” as the one in “Walao!”, “Wah say!”, and, errr, “Wah lan!” This means I or me in Hokkien. Contrary to familiar generalisations made in the West and by jiak kentang kay angmos, Asian culture isn’t clearly pro-authority and anti-individual. The I of Singlish proves this. “Wah” isn’t just used in normal sentence constructions to signal who is speaking or doing or being referred to or acted on. In moments when deep emotional impression is made and one is reduced to near-speechlessness, it’s what tumbles out of the mouth as a self-checking statement.

“Wah” contracts to the only certainty and measure of reality the Singaporean can have: himself or herself. This truth seems to be understood by Singlish speakers unconsciously. Compare it to how the West has learnt the same: it needed the French philosopher René Descartes to make the famous discovery Cogito ergo sum, “I think therefore I am”. But then, when shocked to the core, Westerners turn to cry “Oh my God!” or “Oh my goodness!”, in different languages. But what do Singaporeans cry? “Walao!” “Wah lan!” “Wah piang!”

“Wah lan!” is the earliest of the three cries and, in fact, the horrific core which the other two seek to conceal or suppress. You see, “Wah lan!” translates as “Oh my penis!” – which sounds scary especially when you hear Ah Lians and Ah Huays shout it. But, since Singaporeans are an intrinsically polite people, we misspoke it often enough that it became “Walao!”, this “lao” meaning old. “Oh my old!” is meaningless but safe – although many have gone on retroactively to interpret it as swearing by one’s ancestors. That’s OK with me.

Then “Wah piang!” – the sweetest and most G-rated of the three – came along. While a focus on the self is still there, nobody can actually say what “piang” means. If you do have some idea, let me know? It has this sound of something shattering – like when you drop a porcelain plate, and it goes “Piang!” The notion of shattering does add to the sense of reality being smashed, which is what the self has just experienced. It works in a way… but I dunno lah.

I haven’t explained “Wah say!” yet since that’s quite a different kind of exclamation, being positive. Some say that “Wah say!” came from the England “I say!”, but “say” is Hokkien for style or cool too. When you have say, you are very sut-sut. So “Wah say!” may mean “My, what style!” or “I’m impressed!” Yet, in all honesty, Singaporeans aren’t an easily impressed bunch, and so we like to walao and wah-piang much more. If you need practice with these, just get a copy of The Straits Times and read the forum page. In no time, you’ll be referring to yourself like a true-blue Singaporean too.

 

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Illustration of human anatomy showing stomach. Image modified from Flickr user:

by Brenda Tan

Hi friends,

I just came back from my doctor’s office this afternoon, and I was diagnosed with stomach cancer.

I’ll be heading into surgery tomorrow to remove my stomach and will be hospitalised at Mt Alvernia until next Saturday.

I know that this posting will cause many of you a lot of concern about my well-being, so please know that I appreciate you for it.

I’m grateful to God that the cancer was detected early, so it hasn’t spread beyond my stomach. Therefore, with surgery and subsequent chemotherapy, I’ll still be around doing whatever it is I’m doing.

I’d appreciate your prayers that I will undergo this journey with good cheer, and that my kids, Noel and I will have God’s grace and strength to undergo this journey together.

I’ll be releasing much of the work that I’m juggling to the various friends that I work with… and I’m looking forward to much time watching k-dramas… so please send me some of your current favourites, so that I can start bingeing on them.

I won’t have a stomach for anything else.

(Yes, I from tomorrow onwards, I can make literal “no stomach” jokes.)

Much love,
Brenda

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On the eve of Chinese New Year Eve, I always have my reunion dinner with my side of the family, so that the New Year Eve reunion could be held with my husband’s side of the family. However, that evening, my on-again-off-again acid reflux acted up, and I wasn’t able to enjoy the feast my brother prepared as I normally would.

This got my family worried, but since I’ve seen the family GP about the acid reflux issue since last October, and apart from the occasional discomfort from it, I have never felt ill and therefore always felt that my hubby’s suggestion of getting an endoscopy done for the acid reflux a bit of an overkill.  After all, I am in my early 40s, living an active lifestyle, cycling an average of 30km to 50km a week with my cycling-mad hubby, and had signed up for a 40km charity cycling ride for Habitat for Humanity in mid-February, a 633km South Korean Incheon to Busan cycling trip in March, and an 810km cycling challenge for the first quarter of 2016!

Nonetheless, at their combined nagging urging, I relented. Of course, my brother helpfully reminded me that I was able to use my Medisave to offset the cost of the endoscopy procedure.

Therefore, the very day after the CNY holidays, I got a referral and made an immediate appointment to see a specialist, which apparently is a good time to make such an appointment: I was able to schedule the endoscopy the very next day.

Long story short, my doctor found a tumour in my stomach and the biopsy report the next day showed that the tumour was cancerous.

 

An “adventure”

I must say that when my doctor told me that I had stomach cancer, I did not break down in tears, nor did I feel fearful.  As a Christian, I do not fear death and I really felt a great sense of curiosity at what the next steps were ahead for me.

“We would have to remove your entire stomach,” was the doctor’s advice.

But how will I eat? Will I still be able to eat?

The doctor told me that in a total gastrectomy, he would attach my oesophagus to my small intestine, and in time, the small intestine would form a pouch to act as a “mini-stomach”. Of course, I’d need to have a change in the way I eat – smaller portions, well-chewed and eating six to eight times a day (like Hobbits, as my hubby would later describe it).

When would we do the surgery?

“If you want, we could do this tomorrow.”

That’s okay, I thought, but there were two boxes of my favourite buah keluak in the fridge! Aww, man…

And I had a very important piece of work on Monday…

And my hubby wasn’t with me at the time – he was facilitating a workshop!

So there and then, at the doctor’s office, I called up my client and arranged the work to be taken over by a friend and freed up as much of my immediate time for the operation as possible.

Decisions to be made came fast and furious: Pre-admission to the hospital for a week’s stay; how many bedder? Wait – do I have insurance cover? Better choose the cheaper option first and then upgrade when I can get to talk to hubby or my insurance agent – who also happens to be my brother, but he was visiting his in-laws in Malaysia for CNY! 

I was thankful that it was still the CNY period and that it was a Friday. The operation would be on Saturday, so the children would have some time to get used to granny coming to over to stay – the standard routines for my kids for when I have to travel for work. It was important for me that their routines were kept as normal as possible.

And yet while making all these preparations at the doctor’s office, I was still dealing with the pronouncement of cancer in a cheerful calm, almost akin to that of preparing for a long adventure into a little-known country.

I had to forgo the buah keluak in the fridge and be thankful for the fabulous feasting with all my closest relatives over the CNY period. Then, I crafted the above message on my Facebook wall, so that most of my relatives and friends would know what was happening to me.

 

The “new normal”

Then, I had to break the news to my children.

My eldest son, at 17, was mature enough to understand the implications of mummy having stomach cancer, without feeling fearful of the immediate outcome. My younger kids – my 10-year-old daughter and my 8-year-old son – needed more comforting, for they had an idea of cancer as mummy going immediately bald and lying on her deathbed.

In fact, that evening before my operation, I had to tell my daughter, who had red-rimmed eyes, that mummy was not only going to survive the operation, she would be at home 24/7 to monitor her homework and piano practice daily (as I won’t be able to travel for a year). Her eyes grew wide at the implication of a 24/7-eagled-eyed-nagging-mum and all dramatic thoughts of ‘dying mummy’ went out the window.

The operation went smoothly and I had the best of care by the most angelic nurses anyone could ask for.

I have really much to be thankful for.

The doctor told me that my acid reflux was caused by an ulcer that was aggravated by the tumour. If there were no ulcer, I’d not have done the endoscopy and the cancer would not have been detected until much later.

The medical report after the operation revealed that what we thought was an early stage cancer was in fact Stage 3 – many of the surrounding lymph nodes showed the presence of cancer too.

At this present moment, I’m recuperating from the gastrectomy very well at home, with a steady stream of encouraging messages from friends and family around the world via Facebook and WhatsApp, and sunshine visitors blessing me with their hugs and smiles.

My children have readjusted quickly to the “new normal” at home – mummy’s strange diet of porridge and many cups of enriched beverages and our home looking like a florist’s shop.

I’ve a first date scheduled with my oncologist in March, and that would mark the next phase of this new adventure I’ve embarked on.

I’ve still not had the pleasure of watching any K-drama yet though… and that’s something that I intend to remedy soon.

 

Grateful

I had asked my editors at The Middle Ground if I could share my story with TMG readers, because most of my friends and I typify the usual TMG readers – in the sandwich generation, having to look after their aging parents and their young children, interested in health, having to integrate work life and family life…

I’m thankful that I have health insurance that helped with the medical costs, and I’m hoping that readers would take time this year not only to review their current health insurance, but also to go for regular health screenings. Ironically, the day I found out I had stomach cancer, the Straits Times ran a news article about how stomach cancer can now be tested with a simple blood test instead of having to undergo an endoscopy.

Frankly, the ST article won’t have driven me to go for a stomach cancer screening simply because it’s the very last thing on my mind in my busy schedule as wife, mother, and global businesswoman… but I never knew then how cancer can disguise itself so easily as some other mild complaint, nor how despite my active and healthy lifestyle, I can still be diagnosed with stomach cancer.

Nonetheless, I’m grateful for discovering the cancer early enough for me to deal with it. My family has embraced this new facet of family life with cheerful positivity. I joke that I’m in confinement after “birthing” my stomach, but I’m the baby having to eat baby food and drink formula milk.

And although I make “I have no stomach for this” jokes frequently, I do look forward to the adventure of what lies ahead – one step of faith at a time.

I know that this adventure of mine will certainly temper me.

 

 

Brenda is a columnist, and a friend, of The Middle Ground. This is a first in a series of occasional columns on her journey with stomach cancer.

Featured image by Najeer Yusof.

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