Singapore's Opposition Needs to Step Up Now

Election talk is once again in the air. The government is keeping quiet about the exact date, but the Electoral Boundaries Review Commission was formed two months ago. The General Elections would likely follow soon; internet speculation suggests that it would be in the third or fourth quarter of the year. Regardless of what happens, the next General Elections will see the most number of opposition candidates and parties taking to the hustings in my (very short) lifetime.

I’m not going to hold my breath, though. I think the opposition has a long way to go before they can be a viable contender.

Who are we voting for?

In the elections I have seen and covered, I have always wondered why political parties keep their candidates hush-hush until the last moment. I understand it would not be prudent to reveal who is going to contest where until after the electoral boundaries are drawn up and approved, and when every party has confirmed which constituencies they will be contesting in. But after that?

In the last General Elections, new election candidates seemed to materialize out of thin air weeks or days before the elections proper, well after the boundaries are drawn up. The problem is that people will have very little time to know who these candidates are — especially if they have not had a chance to meet these candidates in a walkabout, either as formal candidates or as ‘volunteers’ and ‘activists’. This problem is exacerbated by Singapore’s strange brand of opposition politics: where in most countries opposition parties run on platforms and are represented by their candidates, in Singapore opposition parties run on candidates and then reveal their political positions during the hustings. In a country where opposition politics is defined principally by personality it makes no sense to reveal candidates at the last possible minute. Constituents need to know who they are voting for.

What are we voting for?

Singaporeans know what the ruling People’s Action Party broadly stands for. Positions and policies may shift from election to election, but they understand the core policy perspectives that compose the PAP: economic growth, political stability, multiracial society, monetary policy based on exchange rate, migrant labour, and so on. They can’t say the same for the opposition beyond being opposed to the government.

Once more, in the weeks and days leading up to the General Elections, opposition party manifestos seemed to appear out of nowhere, containing ideas never seen before the GE except as reference to existing issues and controversies in the body politic. Singapore’s opposition parties seem content with talking about issues in Parliament and then counting on social media and the regular media to push their views across, with the occasional blog post and press release for variety. But by waiting on current events to publicise their policies, the opposition will be behind the curve. Firstly, everybody else — government and opposition — will be talking about the same thing at that time, so the individual impact of any single party’s announcement would be muted in the general consciousness. Secondly, if a party does not already have a prepared policy position, it will be well behind the curve as it scrambles to catch up with everybody else — and if it does not even try, the party will risk being swept to the sidelines.

Previously, voters might have been satisfied with people who would serve as a check against the existing government. However, as society becomes increasingly educated, tech-savvy and concerned about rights and responsibilities, it is no longer enough for opposition parties to brand themselves primarily as a check against the government. With at least nine active opposition parties (not counting those that are registered but have kept a low profile), multicornered contests are inevitable. Voters need to know what, exactly, they will be voting for — even those inclined towards voting for the opposition will want to know whether they should vote for Opposition Candidate A or Opposition Candidate B and why.

What the opposition needs to do

By now it is too late in the game for the opposition to try something radical. Elections are not won during the elections proper: they are won in the intervening years, as the party lays down the foundation and the groundwork for success. At this point, the opposition should do the following to improve their chances of victory:

1. Strategising. The party needs to decide its election goals, be it to win a constituency, to gain experience and exposure, or to pass up this chance and continue to build resources. From this goal they can decide strategy: where they will contest in, who they should support, how they will communicate their positions. This stage of course depends on the actual electoral boundaries, but the party should at least have an idea of the neighbourhoods it wants to look at and prepare a communication and advertising plan. Most importantly, the party must draw up its manifesto and start communicating the essence of its ideas and positions — ideally as early as possible, before the media is saturated with other news or news of other party positions.

2. Candidate selection. Once again, this depends on the boundaries the EBRC draws up. However, voters still have to know who they are voting for and what to expect from a candidate. Parties cannot expect to unveil a candidate a week before the GE begins and count on their brand to win the day — especially if they do not even have a brand. I’m certain that the opposition parties by now have at least an inkling of who they want to send to the hustings. For unconfirmed candidates, party leaders need to get confirmation as soon as practical. Likewise, these potential candidates need to make their decision soon — especially if they are being head-hunted by multiple parties — so that they can work the ground as early as possible and get to know the people they represent.

3. Coalition-building. With one city divided between a minimum of ten political parties, there are bound to be many multi-cornered fights. Traditionally, soon after the election boundaries are determined, the opposition parties would sit down to hash out where they will contest to minimise the possibility of vote-splitting. .Also, in the last GE, members of different opposition parties sometimes help out at each other’s activities. This is of course a positive action from the opposition’s perspective. Beyond that, though, the opposition needs to think about matters like joint policy positions, media and communication strategies, and branding. If there are no back-channel or informal discussions between the parties by now I would be severely disappointed. I don’t think a united coalition of opposition parties would emerge this year — or at least a viable one — and it’s too late for the opposition to start formalising a multi-party alliance. But if they can coordinate and cooperate to minimise vote-sharing they might at least stand a fighting chance to get more members into Parliament.

Everything obviously hinges on the ERBC’s electoral boundary announcement. At this time, opposition parties that want to contest in the elections must step up their communication strategy. They need to brand themselves by reminding Singapore who they are and what they stand for, and perhaps drop hints about who will be contesting where through walkabouts and social media. They should also have a shortlist of election candidates ready to go.

When the boundaries are announced, the parties would then sit down and discuss their chosen constituencies. With so many parties around, I fully expect multi-cornered elections regardless of how the discussions turn out. That said, I suspect the smallest and newest political parties would try to contest in places no one else wants to take, so that they won’t have to compete with more big dogs than they have to, and there is little to no opportunity cost for them to target those places since they are relative unknowns.

As soon as everybody has confirmed where they will be contesting, the parties have to roll out their platforms and candidates. This is the time to reveal manifestos and personalities, to achieve buy-in before the hustings. By now the manifestos must be finalised and the candidates lined up — especially newcomers to the political scene. The parties can’t wait until the elections to discuss the merits of their policy positions; they would have their hands full with campaigning. They need to have the people discussing their ideas and candidates well before the elections to cement their party brands.

With the people are of their policies and candidates in the months and weeks leading up to the election, Singapore’s opposition might have a chance at sending more candidates to Parliament and to truly make a difference. This is not the best-case scenario, but with signs pointing to an election in the near future, this is the realistic approach any opposition party can take.

Singapore's politics of personality

Another half-year and another round of resignations among Singapore’s opposition parties. This time, four ex-Central Executive Council members of the National Solidarity Party resigned in the hopes of joining the Singapore People’s Party. This mass resignations recall the mass defection of Benjamin Pwee and several SPP members to the Democratic People’s Party, Nicole Seah leaving the NSP to focus on her work in Bangkok, and Vincent Wijeysingha returning to the civil sphere after a stint in the Singapore Democratic Party.

Whenever I see events like these in the news, I can’t hep but wonder if the reasons for resignations lie less in the political field and more in personality conflicts. 

Quoting from the article, Ms Jeanette Chong-Aruldoss said, “I wanted to introduce some innovative ways of reaching out to people, but the comfort level was not there… The opposition parties are all closely connected and it is easy to talk to one another. There are no major ideological differences among the various parties…but Mrs Chiam is someone I respect a lot. And I would like to help her in whatever areas she needs help with.”

Chong-Aruldoss’ comments are telling. Singapore’s opposition political parties are defined less by politics than they are by their personalities.

Consider: when people hear Workers’ Party they think Low Thia Khiang, the Singapore People’s Party is intricately linked with Chiam See Tong, the Singapore Democratic Party is linked to Chee Soon Juan, and so on and so forth. What they do not think of is politics.

Where does the Workers’ Party stand on LGBTQ issues? They have famously remained silent. Does the Reform Party have a concrete plan for balancing migration with the economy? How does the SDP propose to reduce National Service to one year and still maintain a sufficiently large number of well-trained soldiers beyond simply ‘expanding the professional army’ AND be able to afford it?

For the past decade I’ve been following Singapore’s politics, it seems to me that most of the time the majority of Singapore’s opposition parties either produce policy positions in response to the government after the latter has announced its position, or not at all. These alternative policy positions only come to the forefront during Parliamentary debates, periods of controversy, or the elections. In quiet periods, they sink into obscurity.

This is a shame. Elsewhere, major political parties defined by policies, not personality, are remembered even in low-key political periods. The Scottish National Party stands for secession from the United Kingdom, the Republican Party in America claims to stand for smaller government and free trade, the Liberal Democratic Party pursues a platform of free trade and cooperation with the United States, the People’s Action Party consistently stands for a strong government and economic growth.

But in Singapore? Personalities aside, there seems to be no political difference between, say, the National Solidarity Party and the Singapore People’s Party.

Chong-Aruldoss’ statement that ‘there are no major ideological differences among the various parties’ is a telling one. Singapore’s opposition parties are defined not by politics, but by personalities. Given the sheer number of political parties in Singapore, multi-cornered contests will soon the norm. In such a situation, just why will the people vote for a given opposition party over another — especially when they already know what the PAP stands for? Sure, a sparkling character with force of personality may be able to sway some votes her way, but as Hazel Poa, Vincent Wijeysingha, Chiam See Tong, Kenneth Jeyaratnam, and other politicians have learned, it is nowhere near enough to challenge the Establishment.  

These resignations seem to be the natural outcome of political parties defined by personalities. At some point different people will come to loggerheads over their visions and aspirations for the party. Without a policy framework to define a party, disputes are resolved through popularity contests instead of whether someone better fits the party’s policies and overall vision for the country. Similarly, without a policy framework, parties will have lax entry and exit guidelines, setting the stage for more such resignations and defections in the future. The People’s Action Party is famous for interviewing potential candidates before acceding them to political roles; it is also equally noteworthy that very few of its members have resigned due to personal or internal conflicts, and a PAP member defecting to the opposition is unheard of. The PAP presents a united front because it has an identity and is defined by policies; the opposition remains fragmented and is prone to resignations and defections due to their lack of policies. Perhaps the sole exception to the rule is the Workers’ Party, but the WP is still not large enough to effectively challenge the PAP all by itself.

Singapore’s opposition parties need to go beyond personalities and start thinking about policies. That, after all, is the purpose of a political party: to guide and to pass national policies. If the opposition touches politics only when Parliament is in session or when a newsworthy event occurs, they are not much better than bloggers — and have to compete with those same bloggers to get their message out. I think the opposition parties, collectively and individually, need to figure out what they really stand for and work on policies that they can hammer home at every possible moment. Including the political off-periods between each session of Parliament. 

The closest the opposition parties have come to this is conducting regular walkabouts and meet-the-people sessions. While listening to residents and understanding their needs is important, and so is taking action to take care of them, elsewhere this is the work of social workers, volunteers and advocates. While Singaporeans do tend to focus more on personal and municipal issues instead of national ones at the ground level, for a political party that aspires to compete at the national level it has to be able to address national issues as effectively as local ones. The SPP, for instance, banked on Chiam See Tong’s persona to compete in the 2011 General Elections, but personality was not enough to allow the SPP to break out of its traditional stronghold of Potong Pasir; in fact, this strategy backfired, as his wife Lina Chiam could not win enough ground support to retain the SPP’s seat. Competing on the basis of personality tends to be effective only in areas in which the party had had a long-time presence and a history of success — otherwise, the party has to focus on issues that appeal to Singaporeans across the board.

Rumour has it that the next General Elections are fast approaching. If the opposition wants to establish a greater footprint in Parliament, they need to act now. They have to start by establishing a broad policy framework and promoting the members they want to send to the hustings. They need to study the art of marketing communications and apply them now, before the campaigning begins, to spread desired memes and prepare the ground. They need to find a way to stand out, not just from the PAP, but also from potential competitors in the event of a three-way election.

In short: they need to start being political parties, not personality parties.

Media and the Maturation of Fourth Generation War

Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold;
mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere,
The ceremony of innocence is drowned…

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

W. B. Yeats, the Second Coming

2014 closed on a bloody note, and a few days into 2015 the spectre of terror rose its head again. In the space of days and weeks the world saw a hostage crisis in Australia, another in Belgium, executions of police officers in America, mass abductions in Nigeria, and yesterday the assassinations of cartoonists in France.

It’s not the end of the world, but we can see it from here.

A state is commonly (albeit not quite completely) defined as a political organisation with a centralised government that maintains a monopoly on violence in a given territory. With the advent of new information communication technologies and the growing paradigm of open source warfare, that monopoly on violence is being challenged. The logical extension is that the power of the state will fade away, and the traditional world order defined by state actors will be replaced with a multipolar world defined by the expansion and growing importance of non-state actors and empowered individuals. The method of this transition is what is known today as fourth generation warfare.

First seen in Iraq and Afghanistan, Israel and Chechnya, 4GW is defined by a blurring of lines between combatants and civilians, war and politics. Today it is mutating even further: the line between terrorism and crime is growing hazy, with one feeding into the other as seen in the case of the Mexican cartels and Palestinian smugger/terrorist groups; the deed becomes propaganda and propaganda fuels deeds; and gaining public legitimisation is as important a goal as securing territory.

War never changes. War is violence designed to compel an opponent to fulfil the actor’s will, and violence seems eternal. On the other hand, war has changed. The means and purposes of waging war has changed, as well as the temporal goals and identities of the actors. Anybody can make war with the right tools, motivation and mindset.

Today, there seem to be three prominent kinds of 4GW actors. The first are transnational terrorist groups, loosely connected over the Internet and social networks, that aim to overthrow or replace the state. These groups include Boko Haram and the Islamic State. While their goals are ideological, they borrow criminal activities and methods to keep themselves going, such as front organisations, smuggling and money laundering.

The second are transnational criminal organisations that aim to hollow out the state to secure a space to conduct criminal activities. The most prominent example are the Mexican cartels. While driven by profit, these groups use terrorist methodology to secure its goals. The cartels are loosely organised, use atrocities to terrorise the people in their territories, and challenge the state by targeting or corrupting the military and police.

The last are lone wolves who attack seemingly at random. These people have a huge array of motivations: workplace dissatisfaction, anger at the police or government, the creation of a caliph, or just plain mental illness. They adopt criminal mindsets, either obtaining weapons illegally or turning off-the-shelf products into weapons. They use terrorist methodology to gain maximum publicity, hitting soft targets and boasting on social media, relying on news cycles to gain their spot in history.

Central to all three actors is the use of media to conduct propaganda of the deed. They perform the deed, and they use media of all kinds to transform it into propaganda. They can count on the media to rapidly propagate news of their attacks across the world. This leads to three distinct media strategies.

First, 4GW actors will use the 24/7 news cycle to generate maximum terror. A sufficiently large and resourceful group will strike rapidly and retreat just as quickly, creating maximum impact for global publicity. Then they regroup and do it again, and again, and again. Think the Paris or Mumbai shooters on a larger scale. Alternatively, following a terrorist attack, fellow travellers or non-connected 4GW actors will use the increased focus on insecurity and fear to amplify press coverage of their next attack to create the perception of an unstable world. They may also conduct operations that synergize with each other, deliberately or otherwise. The chain of attacks I described above, for example, imply just that. These attacks need not be exclusive; in fact, one can happen alongside the other.

Second, 4GW actors will rely on operational pauses. When there is too much heat for the actors to operate, when competing groups have generated too much white noise and drawn too much attention away from their ideology, 4GW actors will retreat and halt operations for a time. They will wait until the news cycle clears and the local environment returns to a calmer state, and then strike again for maximum impact. This is the hallmark of the Islamic Caucuses Emirate, and it would likely be adopted by other groups in the future.

Thirdly, larger and more powerful 4GW actors will attempt to influence the news cycle. They want the media to portray them as an unstoppable force to be feared and respected, building up their credibility. They will likely make contact with media organisations that portray them favourably, or at least allow foreign correspondents a glimpse into their life. There was a reason why the Islamic State allowed a German journalist to chronicle them instead of turning him into a hostage. These actors will also target media organisations that portray them in an unfavourable light to intimidate everybody else. Think of the attack on Charlie Hebdo yesterday.

The newspaper is no longer just a newspaper; it is also a newsmaker. The mass media will become increasingly important targets, either of influence or coercion or both, in the coming days. Non-traditional media outlets and personalities will likely also be targeted: celebrities, blogs, social influencers, ordinary people with extraordinary reach. The days of traditional warfare and state protection are gone; a brave new war is coming, and anyone can take up the sword.

If, through your death or through your tweet, you can help a 4GW actor advance the cause, you will be a target. There is really only one answer to this. Stand up and be counted against the barbarians, or make your peace with the chain and the grave.

Looking Beyond Terror

If you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperilled in a hundred battles

-Sun Tzu, Art of War

This letter on the TODAY newspaper forum reflects an understandable, but naive, sentiment about terrorism. The writer argues that terrorism has no religion, and that all terrorists should simply be called terrorists without ascribing them a religion. To modern sensibilities and paradigms, terrorism must clearly fall outside the peaceful practices of conventional religion. But it is a mistake to say religiously-motivated terrorists are not religious.

If a terrorist keeps a long beard, prays five times a day, demands his friends and family live by the strictures of the Koran, enters battle chanting “Allahu Akhbar!”, fights to establish a Caliphate governed by shariah law as codified in the Koran, judges himself and others by principles laid down in the Koran, beheads innocents in the name of God, and dies believing that he will be served by 72 virgins, what motivates him? If a group of terrorists act in a similar way, what unites them and motivates them, and what do they use to recruit others to their cause?

The answer is religion. In their case, their version of Islam. If one does not, or will not, understand an enemy’s motivation, it is impossible to defeat him. The purpose of war is to break the enemy’s resistance and to force him to submit to your will; if one refuses to attack the source of the enemy’s motivation, the enemy will continue to resist, and there will be no way to end the war without shedding oceans of blood.

The author of the letter claimed that “Like all other extremists, they do not care who they kill as long as they continue to instil fear in people.”

This is a shallow interpretation of extremism. Groups like the Islamic State and Boko Haram do in fact care about whom they kill. They perpetuate genocides, target minorities, and launch attacks on soft targets to instil terror and inspire fellow travellers. They target government forces wherever they can to undermine the state, utilising unconventional warfare strategems to undermine the power of the state to resist them.

Terror is not merely a goal. Terror is a tool, and to understand it you need to look beyond terror, to its effects. Terror frightens enemies into fleeing, intimidates fence-sitters and civilians into submission, and inspires fellow believers to greater violence. By carefully picking soft targets, terrorists ensure maximum shock value for minimum cost in lives and munitions. While it is a blunt instrument, terror is a very effective tool so long as no other party is willing to perpetuate ever-greater terrors on the original actors. Witness IS’ rapid gains, or Boko Haram’s ability to command global media attention through a relatively small cost in time and effort

Terror is a tool, but it is not necessarily a motivation. While I believe there will be no end of wolves in human skin, whose greatest pleasure in life is to prey on others as sadistically as possible, such psychopaths are historically a minority of the human race. Most people require a great deal of motivation before they can inflict violence on others, even more so when talking about lethal violence against non-resisting targets.

As described in On Killing by David Grossman, this usually requires a combination of factors: a higher cause, a respected superior giving the order to kill, peer pressure, and a dehumanisation of the target. Religion offers a quick and easy means to fulfil these requirements: Islam, a mullah, the presence of fellow believers, and by viewing the victim as non-Muslim and therefore a worthy target. Participation in such an atrocity, combined with religious indoctrination, provides a heady psychological cocktail that encourages unit bonding, making it harder to sway terrorists from the cause and encouraging them to fight harder for the organisation. In this case, religion is as much a weapon as it is a motivation.

The author is afraid that ascribing terrorist violence to religion “may create wrong impressions of certain religious groups, which may then lead to rifts in our multicultural, pluralist society.”

This may be so, but the creation of rifts is exactly the kind of strategy needed to defeat religiously-motivated terrorism. The key is to be targeted, separating the terrorists from civilisation while still giving individual members a means and motivation to rejoin society.

The Islamic State calls itself that to appeal to the Muslim diaspora. Especially the disillusioned Muslims living in secular states, seeking a higher calling or spirituality in their life. By portraying themselves as part of a religion, terrorists are preying upon believers to sway them to their cause, arguing that their deeds are in line with religion and that it is the duty of fellow believers to fight for their religion — and what better way than to sign up with the group?

It is easy to say that terrorist groups like these are not religious. But this approach only works if one’s target audience is the rest of civilisation, who are already inclined to believe that or else view terrorism as beyond the pale. If the goal is to end terrorism, to neutralise their propaganda and defang their doctrine, it is nowhere near enough. It will not reach to the people who need this message the most. If anything, this approach is self-defeating.

Should the civilised world claim that groups like the Islamic State are not religious and leave it at that, terrorist propagandists will seize upon it as proof of oppression. They will cherry pick their personal practices and claim that they are in line with religious practice, and use it to circle the wagons and draw their members even tighter. People like these have decades of experience in the dark arts of propaganda, and can justify almost anything they do by referring to the holy book of choice. The rank-and-file, those who feel they are fighting for a religion, would likely feel abandoned by the civilised world, and cling ever tighter to their parent organisation. Or defect to another terrorist group that promises a truer practice of faith. Or self-radicalise and work out their frustrations in a final act of martyrdom.

This is, needless to say, counterproductive.

The better approach is to engage terrorist propaganda head-on. It is no longer enough to say ‘these are not religious people’, not if the goal is to defeat terrorism. What is necessary is to draw a distinction between civilisation and barbarism. To whit, people must be able to say, “this is what a good believer does, and this is why these terrorists are not good believers” — and they have to be convincing. This requires a propaganda campaign for the cause of civilisation, with theologians and academics able to make religious arguments based on actual studies of the holy book(s) terrorists are perverting. Since the majority of high-profile terrorist groups in the world today claim to be Muslims, it is imperative for the Muslim community to step up and police themselves, to drive a schism between civilisation and the barbarians who would pervert their faith. Nobody else has the moral ability to do this.

The ultimate question here is, what makes a religion? It is not merely a holy book or the teachings within it. A religion is not merely the name of a god or gods and their properties. A religion is a human phenomenon, and as such it is defined by how humans interpret and practice religion, not just in worship but in everyday life. There are as many ways to interpret and practice religion as there are people on Earth.

The barbarians wish to use religion to justify wanton cruelty and terror, paving the road to Hell with promises of Heaven. To defeat them, believers of the civilised world must be able to show why the barbarians’ interpretation and practice are not merely mistaken or irreligious, but goes against the spirit of their faith, and to show people a better way to live. This is the harder way, much harder than simply claiming the opposition is not religious and be done with it.

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.