Sliming Alvin Tan: Non-news and moral guardianship

You know it’s a slow news day when the newspapers are jumping on a man for posting about sex. Not because he did anything explicitly illegal. Just because he posted photographs and videos on his blog. I expected this from The New Paper, maybe even Lianhewanbao. But Yahoo! and The Straits Times jumped on the bandwagon too. This isn’t news. It’s a slime job.

The newspapers call it news — but for something to be newsworthy, it needs to be news worthy. It needs to have news values. Alvin Tan is an ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) scholar — making him an elite person. He and Vivian Lee posted sexually explicit content on Facebook and their blog, and faced pressure to take them down — unambiguous conflict. Both of them are Malaysians, and Alvin studied in Singapore — therefore, proximity. It is out of the ordinary — making it a surprising event.

Beyond news values is framing. Here, Alvin’s story is framed in the light of Singapore’s perceived societal values and expectations. Implicit in the narrative is the expectation that an ASEAN scholar and law student must be squeaky-clean and desire-free, that regular or elite people in society find his behaviour immoral or illegal. Therefore, the narrative continues, what Alvin did is wrong. This story is a story only in reference to Singapore and a perceived set of moral values.

Admittedly, objectively covering a story like this requires a delicate touch. But instead of upholding the journalistic tenant of objectivity, the news is quietly disapproving of his actions.

In its online report, The Straits Times’ third and fourth paragraphs included a lawyer’s opinion. Underlying that is the subtle accusation that Alvin broke the law and violated school rules. To non-ST online subscribers, that is all they see of the issue. The notion that a non-Singaporean who committed a deed outside of Singapore may be subject to Singaporean law is more shocking than the story, but the journalist — or at least the paper — did not bother to expand on this. That this came from a lawyer, supposedly trained in law, is even more interesting: Does the lawyer know what he’s talking about? Did he know the full story? Did he even explain why he said that? The real question is whether he violated Malaysian law — the content, as far as I can tell, was produced in Malaysia — and on that, the papers are silent.

(In brief: It is illegal to sell or possess pornography in Malaysia, but viewing of pornography online is not restricted. But comparing Alvin’s deeds to Malaysian law doesn’t produce as much controversy.)

Yahoo! Singapore’s online report tried to paint a more complete picture. But the headline says it all. The phrase ‘shockingly erotic, gross’ is not objective. There is no objective means to decide ‘shocking’, ‘erotic’ and ‘gross’. These are personal reactions, influenced by personal preferences and societal norms. For a news organisation to use those terms in a news report is unacceptable. It is favouring one set of values over another without cause, and it is not respecting Alvin’s and Vivian’s preferences — or those of people with similar tastes. Nobody is hurt by what Alvin and Vivian did, and anybody offended by the blog is free to go somewhere else.

This isn’t news. This is a slime job masquerading as moral guardianship pretending to be news.

The New Paper doesn’t even pretend to be objective. The front page says it all. The words ‘SO GROSS!’ will tend to have a negative influence on most readers. Because it is not stated as a quote, it appears as though the paper itself is saying that to the audience, not someone else. That is not the job of any newspaper, even if it’s a tabloid.

What really irks me is that the newspapers didn’t even check the facts.

Let’s start with the basics. The media I’ve mentioned above consistently described Vivian Lee as his ‘girlfriend’. She is NOT his girlfriend. She is a very close friend with benefits, but they are not in a relationship. It seems that the journalists who wrote that on 15 October didn’t bother to verify with him before submitting the article. He told me he wasn’t interviewed on the 15th. He also said he told Yahoo! that Vivian was his girlfriend to keep things consistent with the other papers, figuring that setting the record straight wouldn’t change much.

Maybe it wouldn’t, but if the other journalists couldn’t be bothered to verify this most basic of facts, can they be trusted to verify others?

Not for The New Paper, apparently. They called him an ‘ex-NUS law scholar’. He’s not. He took a leave of absence from the National University of Singapore to run his business. Whether or not NUS will expel him has yet to be determined — but as of time of writing, as far as I know, he is still part of the NUS student body, and his scholarship has not been revoked.

The New Paper also called in a ‘psychologist’, who according to the front page said his behaviour is ‘narcissistic’. Bringing in an expert is generally a good idea when faced with situations out of your league. Generally. This is the exception.

When TNP quotes a psychologist saying that, TNP is subtly implying that he’s mentally unsound — that Alvin has narcissistic personality disorder. But as far as I know Alvin is sane.

DSM-IV, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, lays out many key criteria for narcissism. According to Wikipedia, the symptoms of narcissism as laid out by DSM-IV include:

  • Reacting to criticism with anger, shame, or humiliation
  • Taking advantage of others to reach their own goals
  • Exaggerating their own importance, achievements, and talents
  • Imagining unrealistic fantasies of success, beauty, power, intelligence, or romance
  • Requiring constant attention and positive reinforcement from others
  • Becoming jealous easily
  • Lacking empathy and disregarding the feelings of others
  • Being obsessed with oneself
  • Pursuing mainly selfish goals
  • Trouble keeping healthy relationships
  • Becoming easily hurt and rejected
  • Setting goals that are unrealistic
  • Wanting “the best” of everything
  • Appearing unemotional

How did the psychologist come to the conclusion of narcissism? You can’t make a diagnosis by reading a blog alone. One data point, one encounter, is insufficient for any kind of diagnosis. What you see from one source of information does not give you the whole picture. You need a cluster of data points, which means interviewing him, his friends and his family. So, either the psychologist made a snap judgment based on one data point — which is clearly unprofessional — or the psychologist breached patient confidentiality — which is even more unprofessional. Or maybe the psychologist meant ‘narcissist’ in the pop-psychological (i.e. personal opinion, not professional one) sense, which means that psychologist’s opinion is about as valid — and useless — as that of the man on the street. No matter what, the psychologist’s opinion clearly cannot be trusted, and that person’s words are just being used for a slime job.

Also, I happen to know Alvin Tan personally. We were in secondary school together, and I used to drop by his class often during recess and after school. I didn’t interact much with him, but I did observe him. Later he would be on my Facebook friends list, and he would post about his life and exploits on Facebook. Unlike the psychologist, I’ve observed Alvin’s behaviour for years. His observed behaviour does not fit at all the diagnostic criteria laid down by DSM-IV. I believe he’s an unabashed hedonist out to enjoy life (and sex) as much as he can, but is emotionally and mentally sound. I haven’t seen him demanding positive attention, manipulating people, being easily jealous or unemotional, or setting unrealistic goals. He does talk about himself a lot, he does have a lot more confidence than the average Asian male, and he is open about his sexuality and his desires. But that does not make him a narcissist, or mentally ill. He may not live like you or me, he may not have the same values as you and me, but it does not make him immoral, insane or a criminal unless otherwise proven. This ‘news’ narrative is  character assassination with the stilettos of assumptions and implications.

The media is supposed to be objective. It’s supposed to get the facts right and report objectively. Instead, the newspapers are sliming Alvin and Vivian overtly and covertly. They’re not reporting news; they’re playing moral guardians while pretending to report the news. They didn’t even get all the facts right, especially The New Paper. TNP, Yahoo, The Straits Times and maybe others have reached a new low in news reporting.

And people wonder why I don’t read the news or want to be a journalist.

Sliming Alvin Tan: Non-news and moral guardianship

25 thoughts on “Sliming Alvin Tan: Non-news and moral guardianship

    1. I don’t know. Way back then I didn’t care enough about his personal life to ask. I still don’t.

  1. People are so quick to slut shame and critique people who are more open to share. Good article though.

  2. It isn’t news that the mainstream media in Singapore is losing credibility as the years go by. With the advent of social media, newspapers are losing relevance as they post the news a day (or worse, two) later than social media does. I believe that posting this sort of scandalous news is one of their last desperate resorts to gain back readership, which unfortunately is a very unprofessional method.

  3. It does hurt Benjamin. It hurts because the girl has become a bitch, the society is sick with sex corruption, the post arose more sex desire to insane people to commit crimes… Is this the level of community/social responsible we are cultivating in our next generation? I feel hurt because a smart boy like Alvin didn’t make a smart choice, was he guided at all about responsibility not only to himself, family and friends but also the society, the innocent children…. Was he misguided by Vivian who apparently wants to be a porn star? If I am his parent I would be deeply hurt. I hope Alvin would apologise to the public as this does hurt. Thank you Benjamin for sharing.

    1. Nope. It’s not about how you FEEL. It’s about what they DID. They did not harm nobody. There is no proof that what they did incite people to crime. Asking about ‘level of community/social’ doesn’t mean anything to a guy like Alvin, because he doesn’t actually care (I know that much about him). Everything you said is what YOU think and feel, but not about how he has made quality of life worse for others. You assume that there is something wrong here, but you have not explained it and by your post it looks like an emotional reaction, not an actual analysis of consequences. It’s not going to convince me, and it sure isn’t going to convince him. (Not that he or Vivian would actually care about what you just said — they’re that kind of people.)

    2. “I feel hurt because a smart boy like Alvin didn’t make a smart choice”

      I guess many tend to assume that, just because I didn’t arrive at the same decision that they themselves would’ve made, I didn’t think through my actions. I did. It’s all cautiously-calculated, more than you think, since I’m the one who’s on the receiving end of any and all negative consequences. To you, a good life may be one of peace and stability and obscurity. To me, a good life may be one of excitement, extreme daringness, and unpredictability. To each his own.

    3. I have to say i agree with Benjamin’s comment. Insofar as the deed was done, no actual person is harm in whatsoever manner. What YOU think as right or wrong is pretty much subjective.

    4. @ You Care. You’re hurt? Gee. That’s too bad. Alvin and Vivian don’t even know you, so what do they owe you? You and I belong to “society-at-large”, we’re just bystanders watching a show go on. We may not like it, but hell, we’re watching (reading about it) aren’t we? We do have a choice. Flip the page, just like we do with advertisements and articles that don’t interest us. To ask that they apologise to the public, now that’s way too absurd. What’s there to apologise? Like I said earlier, you CHOSE to read about (watch) them where you could have just ignored them. There’re hundreds of thousands of such blogs out there. A&V didn’t point a gun at you. Be responsible for YOUR own actions.

  4. so you trust what alvin has told you? alvin spoke to ST for sure. so is he lying to you or are you lying?

    1. Funny how you point the finger of suspicion, k. If you’re going to cast aspersions, then here’s a question for you: what’s your motive? Why accuse either of us of lying?

      I wrote this article based on an interview with him. He verified that what I wrote is essentially true. I don’thave access to the ST article. Was he quoted in there? If so, what did he reportedly say?

      And, by the way, it seems Lianhewanbao twisted his words. He posted on Facebook that he said he can’t do anything about any follow-up action from NUS. LHWB changed the tone, making it sound as if he were challenging NUS. If LHWB did this, would other papers have too?

  5. Reblogged this on The Surfing Butterfly and commented:
    There are great journalists, like Nicholas Kristoff, who do their best to expose buried issues that threaten human rights, and there are those who belong to the opposite spectrum.

    Seems like the year 2012 is really a year of social media chaos for Singapore and the National University of Singapore (NUS). Right from the beginning of the year, there were the matters of the careless posters pasted by one of the campus’ Christian organisations, the thoughtless remarks posted by a Chinese student towards the Singaporean population, and a few other incidents. This is another one. I’m disappointed, actually. What happened to the university, which from the moment I entered it in 2007, heard rumours of the administration containing news from the general public that could disrepute the university?

    It’s no denying that people are putting strange and sometimes, insensitive, content online. Different people have different ideas on the boundaries of what should be accepted and not. We cannot control that.
    What irks me most, though, is after reading articles like this one by Benjamin Cheah. That some journalists can be so irresponsible, and so oblivious of the repercussions of their words. They are the authors of words written for the general public; most of whom would gobble these words (and spread them virally) without thought.

    I have a fervent belief that whatever gets posted online that is acknowledged as facts should be fact-checked, and cross-checked again and again before publishing online. Or else, they should not be called facts or quotes, but just as opinions. I’ve seen many such unprofessional behaviour online, and it frustrates me to no end. This even happened in a university website’s media room that I’ve come across just yesterday. What happened to the ethics of disseminating true information to the public?

  6. Fact-checking or no, this just teaches us to think before we act. With all the previous sex scandals, videos or no, and the subsequent fallout, you’d think that anyone would know that explicit materiel would be sensationalised. The New Paper is a tabloid. That’s what tabloids do.

    Don’t spill your own milk on purpose then cry about it.

    1. Sure, TNP is a tabloid. But the Straits Times and Yahoo! jumped on the bandwagon too. They’re not branded as tabloids, but they’re engaging in tabloid behaviour. That irks me.

      Still. Alvin and Vivian did what they did, and now they will have to face the consequences of it.

    2. @@Mel> TNP is a tabloid. But the Straits Times? PM Lee Hsien Loong, no less, declared it a newspaper of credibility recently. Sitting on the Board are a prominent S’pore government minister, ex-ministers and “elite” folks who frequently walk and chat in the corridors of power. It’s a national newspaper.

  7. It is not true to say that their actions did not hurt others. You don’t think their parents were hurt? They were not physically harmed to be sure but do you think all other harms don’t matter — like reputational harms? As long as you live in a community with meaningful relationships, including family reationships, your actions will matter to others.

    1. ‘harm’ is not ‘hurt’. Hurt feelings do not count as harm. Feelings come from a combination of mood, worldview, hormonal balance, diet, amount of sleep, and literally a hundred other minor factors that are out of a person’s control. There is no objective measure for hurt feelings, and there is no way to fully prevent hurt feelings except to do absolutely nothing at all. Physical harm, not hurt, should be the benchmark for deciding the morality of something.

      I’m not saying the two shouldn’t accept the consequences of what they’ve done or that they haven’t offended anybody. I’m saying here that it’s not newsworthy because they haven’t harmed others.

  8. I really wouldn’t have given a damn about this STUPID news story if Alvin Tan was just some Tom, Dick or Harry. But he WASN’T. And he needs to REALIZE THAT. He was given the privilege of getting a SCHOLARSHIP to study in a respected field in an esteemed university in Singapore. If he wanted to live freely, openly, promiscuously, liberally and what have you or even be the most famous porn star in the whole world, bloody hell, go ahead. Nobody would care. It’s YOUR prerogative, Alvin. Jolly well, go ahead. BUT he should have made the decision to become such a person BEFORE accepting the scholarship. If he made the decision AFTER, then jolly well. Please withdraw YOURSELF from the university/scholarship. It just sickens me when someone does NOT REALIZE THE PRIVILEGES he/she was given. Needless to say value/treasure or hold it in high regard. At the very least, RECOGNIZE that it IS a PRIVILEGE that you are GETTING – a scholarship to study a good field in a good university in an expensive foreign country with HIGH COST OF LIVING. I’m sure there are plenty of students (perhaps not as academically skilled as he is) but would have valued THAT SCHOLARSHIP that he has more greatly, to not forsake it and do what he did. NUS as an academic institution surely is in a privileged position to receive donation and money from the public. And Alvin Tan, being bright, is in a privileged position to be given a scholarship. It is again just sad to know that someone does not recognize that he is in a privileged position and feels no responsibility whatsoever towards public opinion (as demonstrated by his lack of regret and nonchalance towards what people think). Yes, be whatever/whoever you want to be. But recognize that you were blessed with a privilege to study on a scholarship (cos not everyone can have that). And with great privilege, comes great responsibility (to adapt a quote from Spiderman). I’m sorry, I just have to vent this. Don’t mean to hurt or flame anyone. The guy is an intelligent human being. I’m sure he will understand the public outrage/media coverage eventually. *By the way, I don’t think the outrage happens because this is Singapore, a conservative, closed-minded, bigotted society. I reckon that if something like this happens in the US, the outrage would have just been the same.

    1. You’re talking to me like you’re talking to Alvin. I don’t appreciate that. You also flamed him, when you said you didn’t mean to flame anyone. Finally, your opinions are just that: opinions. I’m dealing with what he did, and the fact remains: he harmed nobody. He didn’t decrease quality of life for anyone, and the only thing he hurt were feelings, not out of malice but because people with certain morals won’t condone his behaviour. This does not qualify as ‘harm’. As far as I’m concerned, it’s his and Vivian’s business and nobody else’s.

  9. whoah this weblog is fantastic i like reading your posts.
    Stay up the great work! You understand, lots of persons are searching round
    for this info, you can help them greatly.

Comments are closed.

Scroll to top