Media Failure: The Little India Riot
The most disturbing element about the Little India Riots is not that that they happened, but the lack of critical thinking in the commentary afterwards. Singapore has a problem. A big problem. It’s citizens desperately need foreign workers in order to maintain their own quality of life, however there is a growing resentment towards these very same workers. The acerbity extends towards both extremes as well: low-paid workers for jobs that Singaporeans are unwilling to do; and, highly-paid workers for jobs Singaporeans an unable or unqualified to do. This acrimony is entirely understandable. It must be galling to be deemed only fit for a mediocre middle management role in your own country. However, very few Singaporeans are willing to admit this elephant in the room. When it is broached it is within a vacuum of thoughtful process: plagued by emotion and copious self-interest. And a big contributor is Singapore’s media system.
Although never without bias, the fourth estate serves an important role. They walk between the government and corporate classes, interested in maintaining the current system; and the disenchanted underclasses, that desire only to tear the whole system down. They are the common man’s eyes, ears and voice without being beset by the emotion of the situation. But what happens when the media becomes tied too tightly to one of the interest groups?
In Singapore, nearly all the mainstream media (MSM) is filtered through a mesh of government authority. While much of the regulation is passive, there is a clear undercurrent of not discussing anything that might harm the status quo. On the other hand, perhaps deprived any voice in the mianstream media, social media has become the province of an angry populace. And it’s not pretty. Racism. Religious bigotry. Threats of violence. You might see the same from a minority in any nation, but elsewhere those fires are usually doused very quickly and often with extreme prejudice. Sadly during the Little India Riots, the expressions of hatred and rumour-mongering weren’t quelled. A few commenters asked the dissenters to calm down, but trying to reason with an angry mob is like screaming RELAX, LAH! at a hurricane just before it demolishes your house. This situation was further inflamed by the MSMs response.
In most other nations, there would have been throngs of news crews clawing over the events within minutes of a riot starting. Programs would have been interrupted to bring live coverage in Full High Definition video. There’d be swarms of helicopters competing for airspace overhead. Journalists would be salivating in the hope of breaking this potentially career defining story. But the Little India Riot was broken entirely on social media: Reddit, blogs, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook but especially YouTube. The MSM didn’t arrive until the cleanup and the only live video cross was done nearly an hour-an-a-half after the events began. This allowed the rumours and attacks to fester unabated online. So much so, that even though the riot made the front page of the newspapers, there were still people convinced that police had died during the riot (apart from the poor fellow that died during the traffic accident that incited the riots there were no deaths caused by the riot whatsoever).
Even nearly thirty-six hours after the event the MSM seems more interested in not rocking the boat than asking the hard questions: why did this happen? How can we stop it from happening again? It’s a missed opportunity for reasoned discussion. Instead the feral finger-pointing continues incessantly online.
So what needs to happen? The Singapore government needs to relax, not tighten, its stranglehold on the media. It needs to give the journalists, media and editorial staff a chance to show some moral initiative and to lead a reasoned discussion about the problem without fear. Ask questions. Have a vigorous but civilised discourse. It needs to happen through both the MSM and online. But most of all it needs to find a solution that satisfies all Singaporeans.
Social media has changed the conversation landscape. No government can just stick their fingers in their ears and hope that problems will go away by themselves. That’s especially true for Singapore because it might not be a few drunk ex-pats rioting next time. It might be the citizens themselves.
Pictures courtesy of @tnpbackstage on instagram and Bryan Choo