June 25, 2017

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television

by Brenda Tan

ON LABOUR Day, I received a WhatsApp message from a friend whose daughter takes the same school bus as my 11-year-old girl. Her daughter had told her that Ah Girl was watching a clip from the Netflix series “13 Reasons Why” – and was concerned.

“13 Reasons Why” is a television series based on a story written by Jay Asher, in which the teen protagonist who commits suicide leaves behind 13 tape recordings on why she ended her life. Each tape implicated a person whom she blamed for her choice to kill herself.

It seems an intriguing and well-constructed piece of fiction, except that when translated into a highly-publicised teen drama series, alarm bells begin ringing for parents and the international mental health community.  They understand how easily a Hollywood treatment of such a complex issue as suicide may glamorise suicide instead.

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A couple of days before receiving that WhatApp message about “13 Reasons Why”, a parent in my 9-year-old son’s class parents’ WhatsApp chat group shared a news article about the “Blue Whale Suicide Challenge”. The report, which was picked up by other major news media, linked the deaths of 130 teenagers in Russia to playing the “Blue Whale Challenge”, in which youths followed the commands of a game-master in ever-escalating acts of danger, culminating in their own suicide. Although fact-checking site Snopes.com said that the claims are unconfirmed, it’s nonetheless of concern that our young people may be susceptible to such sinister suggestions which put so little value on life.

The concerns of parents here were enough for the Education ministry to post a comprehensive advisory on schoolbag.sg regarding suicide games in the online media and how parents should handle it.

Of course, our concerns and fears for our children’s mental health is not new. No one doubts that our high-stress and exam-oriented school culture can easily create a tragic situation where failing to meet parents’ and the school’s expectations may cause yet another student to contemplate suicide. It only remains for parents and school counsellors to be vigilant when dealing with our children, to take note of their behaviour and well-being, and to create an environment where our children can feel safe enough to share their feelings of insecurity with us.

I read the news about the Blue Whale Challenge, I immediately shared the story with the kids and we had a chat about the implications of this challenge. I asked them what they thought of the challenge and how similar or different this challenge was to other internet viral challenges like the ALS ‘Ice Bucket’ Challenge and the more dangerous ‘Cinnamon’ Challenge. We talked about our responses to such challenges and dares, and what separates cowardice and bravery.

For my 18-year-old son, however, I had to be a little more subtle and a whole lot more ‘clueless’. “What’s this Blue Whale Challenge hah?” I asked him – and had him explain it to me. My “Why are they like that?” question encouraged him to give his views on the people who participated in the challenge and the game convener. It’s really good to know that he’s up-to-date with current affairs and, more importantly, to be assured that he places a high value on life.

I had to be a bit careful about talking about “13 Reasons Why” with Ah Girl though, because I didn’t want it to affect her relationship which her friend who had told her mother about her viewing the clip.

It turned out Ah Girl was watching a YouTube video on a friend’s smartphone (because her mobile doesn’t have data roaming), and the Netflix video ad for the series had to play in full before she could watch her TED-Ed video.

I asked her what she knew about “13 Reasons Why” and she shared that she knew it was an M18 show about a girl’s suicide, but she wasn’t interested to watch a show like that. Her younger Di-di, aged 9, chimed in to say that he also saw the ad for the series when he surfed YouTube, but won’t watch it “because it doesn’t have a funny part!”.

“Is there a difference between watching ’13 Reasons Why’ and ‘Star Wars’?” I asked.

“One is real, but the other is not,” the boy replied.

“Actually, both are not real,” I corrected, even though I knew what he meant. “They are both stories written by people and made into movies.”

I felt that it was important for my kids to see the difference between fact and fiction. If they mistook a fantasy for reality, it would create the basis for their behaviours and actions. This is why it is highly unlikely that playing ‘Counterstrike’ would turn Kor Kor into a terrorist, or watching ‘Star Wars’ would turn Di-di into a Sith Lord, even if we did encounter quite a number of these cosplay characters over the Star Wars Weekend at Gardens by the Bay.

However, if my kids believed that Hannah Baker’s suicide story is real, they may just simplify suicide as an option for revenge and justice from beyond the grave, and an action worth carrying out when they encounter difficult times.

Therein lies the true danger of headline news like the unverified ‘Blue Whale Challenge’ and the concerns about ’13 Reasons Why’. Both suicide-focussed stories cut too close to the divide between fact and fiction, reality and fantasy. For vulnerable youths seeking attention or help, these stories may provide an unanticipated call to action that we are not prepared for.

We can’t stop them from watching such videos and clips all the time, but we can start talking to them about the value of life and steer them into healthy pursuits. This is in the hope that the suicide option will never cross their minds as a way to overcome what problems they face. They must know that life is very much worth living whatever the fantasy or fiction might portray.

 

 

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Photo By Shawn Danker. Shared Copyright.
The household cleaning aisle at NTUC Fairprice.

So many people have been talking about the Channel 8 show 118 that I had to go and find out for myself what the fuss was about. It’s actually over a 90 second rant by a young man about the cost or standard of living. His parents were chiding him for some underhand methods he had doing business – and he just let it go. In Mandarin. This is my very loose translation.

“You think I’m the only one anxious to make money? Go ask other young people, who’s not anxious? By the time I finish serving the nation and graduate from university, I’ll be 23, 24 years old. In a blink of an eye, I’ll be 30. In these few years, I need to get married; buy a house, start a family with kids; how is that possible without money? A flat now costs at least $300,000 to $400,000. Let’s talk about basic daily expenses…For someone working in the CBD, who takes two or three train trips, sometimes when you’re in a hurry; you take a cab, just transportation fees itself will cost $6-$7. Even the cheapest lunch cost up to $5-$6, a cup of coffee cost $6-$7 at a cafe! Never mind that, the government wants us to get married and set up a family early, but I’ve to get girlfriend first right? If I don’t bring her out for meals, movies, overseas trips once in a while and buy her branded items occasionally, nobody would want me even if I look as good as a celebrity. Some people have to go to university, take loans and even give the family an allowance. A wedding banquet cost $1000 and above for a table. A wedding photo shoot is $3000 to $4000. All this costs money, money, money! Our generation don’t ask for a luxurious lifestyle. Just to maintain our basic expenses, we have to go out and earn more money. I’m sure you don’t want your son to end up asking you for money to throw a wedding banquet or to buy a flat when he is starting a family. Yes, I agree my methods may be extreme and I’m in the wrong. But the fault is not in me, it is caused by the society.”

Apparently, the video clip resounded so much with people that it went viral. It touched a chord – or is it a raw nerve? So many people weighed in, applauding MediaCorp for the script. They said it represented reality – that everything was getting too expensive. I was thinking to myself that it was very odd for MCS to be so politically incorrect. I mean, where’s the balance? I mean, you can use your CPF money with bits contributed by employer for housing – and don’t forget all the grants you can get for staying with parents or near them. I mean, do you have to have coffee at Starbucks? You can still get coffee at less than $1. You don’t have to throw a $1,000 per table wedding banquet do you? Why not ditch that expensive girlfriend? And how dare you blame society for everything!

At least, I can hear these answers from authoritative sources and old fogies which will balance out his rant. Much like Tan Pin Pin’s movie To Singapore With Love, right? No balance. I doubt that her movie will make communists out of the people or make them resort to subversive action. But, hey, this MCS clip is really, really subversive. And it’s free-to-air!

So I was interested to see what MCS has to say about the clip going viral. TODAY obliged today.

The show’s scriptwriter Ang Eng Tee (of The Little Nyonya fame) said he had written the monologue to represent the views of a certain type of young person.

“The character is focused on branded goods and flashy cars. He represents that sort of young person’s values,” Ang said. “He feels life is stressful because a cup of coffee from a popular chain costs S$6 and he needs to buy his girlfriends branded gifts.” The 54-year-old writer said when he was writing the character of Shun Shui, he spoke to many young people, including friends of his 23-year-old daughter, to get their views. “I know a lot of young people feel a lot of stress and can relate,” he said. “(But) the clip that was uploaded to Facebook probably provoked a bigger reaction because it was an isolated 90-second bit of dialogue.”

Oh dear! So this is said to be representative of a sort of young person’s values. I hope it’s a small minority. (I hope it’s not like the beautiful young people featured in Sunday Times Lifestyle pages who don’t mind splurging several thousand dollars on a designer handbag not even a year into their foray into the workplace because it is a “statement’’ about their identity. In fact, I have no clue what that article was trying to prove – that there are such young people? Sorry, I digress)

Now, the scriptwriter said that if the clip was viewed in context, the character’s parents were chiding him about his credit card debt, “but this young person didn’t care’’. “I think he represents some of the people in Singapore. I don’t think there are a lot of them.’’ He said that there were other characters in the show who are “more grounded’’, like a 30-something who would rather drink $1 coffee at the kopitiam.

So revealing. The under-30s who play free and loose with money and an above-30 who is more frugal. Maybe, the younger character will age and be landed with house and family, forcing him to drink coffee at the kopitiam.

What is interesting is how so many people saw the clip and cheered it. It’s like taking someone’s quote out of context. What has happened to living within your means? And is it so important to maintain a certain lifestyle that you would break the bank, have three months worth of credit card arrears or do something underhanded?

I know this is just a drama series, but it is worrying to me that to some, it sounds true to life – when in fact, the truth is, most spending is within our control.

 

This article was first published at berthahenson.wordpress.com.