Press muse – The numbers tell no story

UPDATE – 3 November, 2100hrs Singapore time

Wednesday’s (3 November) print edition of the Straits Times’ story provides some basic details on the survey that was missing from the online version published Tuesday evening.

In a infobox placed with the story (on page A8), the Straits Times reported: “This year, the Education Ministry polled 74,000 students in Primary 4 and 6, Secondary 2 and 4, and Year 2 junior college.” However, the Straits Times didn’t provide similar background for the 2008 survey of students. It also didn’t provide details for the surveys of National Servicemen. (Read full story here and here).

As of Wednesday evening, the Channel NewsAsia story “95% of students say they are proud to be Singaporean: survey” has not been updated – it still lacks any background information on the surveys.


Remember when I said the Singapore media is a tad too dependent on official sources for authority and convenience? Well, seems that they’ve been at it again.

In the wake of Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong’s pithy response last Friday (29 October) to an undergraduate’s poser on the dilution of national identity, Channel NewsAsia was kind enough to indulge me on Tuesday with this report by Sharon See.

95% of students say they are proud to be Singaporean: survey

SINGAPORE : The Education Minister and Second Minister for Defence, Ng Eng Hen said he is upbeat about Singapore youth and their sense of belonging to their country.

He said two National Education surveys on students conducted in 2008 and 2010 showed that over 95 per cent were proud to be Singaporeans.

Emphatic headline. And 95 percent sure is a nice, grandiose figure. But when nosy me wants to find out a bit more about this survey, Ms See disappointed me. Nowhere else in her 443-word piece does she say anything of note about these surveys.

Then numerate me starts to get a little bothered. Doesn’t Ms See realise Dr Ng’s claims are virtually meaningless? 95 percent of what? 100 people? 1,000? Details, Sharon, details! The devil’s in there somewhere.

By now the inquisitive me has kicked in, bolstered with some understanding of the vagaries of polling (lucidly explained here by the legendary Sir Humphrey Appleby). I wanted to know, among others: Who commissioned it and what did it seek to investigate or test? How was the survey designed? What were the methodology and sampling process? How was the data collected and who conducted the surveys on the ground – teachers, MOE officials, or pollsters? Who were surveyed – which schools, what age, what stream of education, what family backgrounds, etc.? Were the findings statistically significant?

Of course, for the sake of brevity and ease of understanding, Ms See didn’t have to explain all that to give readers an idea of the reliability of the surveys. But if nothing else, we at the very least can handle something as arithmetically basic as sample size, can’t we?

Not really. For she goes on to share this gem, woefully bereft of numbers or context:

Similar surveys on National Servicemen have also consistently shown that a majority feel they belong here and would defend Singapore should it come under threat.

Ah, yes. Now, wouldn’t we be worried if the majority of our armed servicemen hadn’t polled this way, especially if Encik was around…not that we’d know if he was or not.

It thus seems like neither Dr Ng nor Ms See thought we proles and common folk could handle the…um, ah…information (insert stale “A Few Good Men” reference) on these surveys. Sad if it’s true – a lamentable commentary on the state of our education system, something we ought to raise with the relevant minister…hang on.

Then again, maybe it’s just CNA that were so cavalier with context and dispensed with the details. So I turned to the Straits Times, which offered this report by Amelia Tan:

S’poreans will defend nation

MOST Singaporeans feel a sense of belonging to their country and will step forward to defend the nation if it is under threat.

Education Minister Ng Eng Hen said this strong sense of patriotism has been borne out in surveys of National Servicemen and the public in recent years.

More than 90 per cent of the respondents said they would defend Singapore when it comes to the crunch.

Funnily enough for a story fashioned around survey findings, there is only one figure to hand – a smashingly meaningless 90 percent. I can see the thought process behind it now: Never mind the minutiae, here’s the sexiest number (the right people will get this).

So faithfully have Channel NewsAsia and the Straits Times bought into the government’s nationalist narrative, jumping in to fight the troubling fires set last week by a Mr Lim Zi Rui and SM Goh, and perishing the scandalous thought that Singapore’s youth are less than patriotically inspired.

Or maybe Ms See and Ms Tan simply didn’t see it within their journalistic purview to examine or question Dr Ng’s claims and took him at face value. Tsk, tsk, Dr Ng wouldn’t be pleased with that. Especially with Ms Tan, who with no small amount of irony went on to quote him as follows:

Speaking to reporters on the sidelines of a National Education seminar on Tuesday, Dr Ng also said criticism and questioning are natural and essential to ensure that National Education messages are internalised.

He has told NE practitioners that criticism and negative sentiments should not be discouraged.

‘Just because you have articulated those messages, it is not the end point. In fact I would be very worried if people said I believe you straight away because this process requires you to reflect on what has been said,’ he said.

‘Examine it, question it and even test it, and then internalise it. This takes time and different experiences,’ he said.

Alas, his very interlocutors had failed at every hurdle but the last.


~ by spiegel2071 on November 2, 2010.

2 Responses to “Press muse – The numbers tell no story”

  1. So: did you manage to find out any more details about the surveys?

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