Press muse – Boilerplate nationalism

Staying or quitting? Somehow then-prime minister Goh Chok Tong’s hypocritical comments in 2002 has endured as a dialectical signpost of Singapore’s fledging nationhood. Immigration may claim the lion’s share of headlines in an election year, but the question of emigration cuts right to the bone – do the people still believe in their national narrative?

The Straits Times on Monday (April 4) offered an answer on the front of its Home section:

‘Only 1 in 5 of Gen Y wants to emigrate’

The headline is strong, and offers a good hook for the story, which details a study by the Institute of Policy Studies. But funnily enough, you couldn’t find in the piece any newsmaker or analyst framing the referenced data with the qualifier ‘only’. It was reporter Rachel Chang (or maybe her editors) who inserted the prejudicial adverb, and in the story too (emphases mine):

Only 20 per cent want to emigrate or spend an extended period of time abroad, and more than half, the survey shows, have no intention of leaving the country.”

‘Only’? What’s with this ‘only’? I’d like to see more context for these figures before they are dismissed offhand. But Chang cares not for analysis, instead adding this operative word to spin a yarn of local youth expressing a strong sense of rootedness. In journalism speak , this is ‘editorialisation’ – defined by dictionary.com as: “to insert one’s personal opinions into an otherwise objective account“.

It gets better. Chang neither made clear in her story what she means by “no intention of leaving the country,” and nor did she provide a definitive figure. The closest she comes to doing so is as follows:

“When asked if they agree they would prefer to be a citizen of Singapore than any other country, 57.2 per cent agree.”

You’d appreciate that emigration doesn’t necessarily mean giving up citizenship – the researchers had defined it as “relocating to another country permanently or for an extended period of time” (emphasis mine). Perhaps Chang and her editors didn’t count on nosey Google search-fu exponents to track down the study’s executive summary, detailed findings and collated data, which can be read here and here.

Compare Chang’s claims to what Dr Leong Chan Hoong, who led the study, actually said in his presentation:

More than 50% of the sample had a low intention to emigrate, were strongly rooted by their social ties and were positive about the country and their prospects here. These were the Cosmopolitan and the Heartland Stayers.”

Who would have thought the Straits Times, Singapore Press Holdings’ flagship English-language broadsheet, can’t tell the difference between “no” and “low”?

The poverty of Chang’s story is made even more apparent by the Today newspaper’s more nuanced report. The headline and an excerpt follows (emphases mine):

Youths’ intention to emigrate ‘not linked to threat from foreign talent

The study found four different profiles of young Singaporeans emerging with regards to emigration. Just over half, or 53.2 per cent, of the youths interviewed had a low intention to emigrate. These youths were classified as “Cosmopolitan Stayer” and “Heartland Stayer” (see box).

But about two in 10 of youths surveyed – classified as “Explorers” – are not as optimistic about their life in Singapore and feel threatened by the presence of foreign talent.

Sociologist Tan Ern Ser expressed surprise at the 20-per-cent figure. He co-authored a study in 1989, which found that 15 per cent of Singaporeans then considered emigration. “The ’80s must have been the golden age of emigration, given that the popular destinations of choice were perceived as allowing access to a more affordable, quality lifestyle, which includes the material things that matter to many Singaporeans: Houses and cars,” said Associate Professor Tan. “But … the world has become far more globalised during the last two decades, perhaps the 5-per-cent increase is plausible.”

As you may well know, statistics are not always merry bedfellows with truth and truthtelling. But with a little context, insight can emerge from beneath the barely-scratched surface. Like how Today’s Leong Wee Keat compared the latest IPS findings with Assoc Prof Tan’s comments on a similar study in 1989, and found that the proportion of youth inclined to emigrate may have increased.

Now that probably should have been the real story.

Or even this: the fact that 46.7%, or ‘nearly half’ as some journalists may say, of the respondents felt disconnected with their country – those classified as the “disengaged” (26.5 per cent, who “reported weakest family bonding and sense of national pride”) and the “explorer” (20.2 per cent, who “did not feel proud of Singapore”).

But try telling Chang and her bosses. They didn’t even think the (inconvenient) findings on Singaporean youth’s national pride and sense of connection to the country (or lack thereof) deserved mention on their infographic.

Channel NewsAsia too tried to put on a brave face, but could only come up with this:

One in two young Singaporeans strongly rooted, says survey

Which kind of makes you wonder…what about the other half? But at least they aren’t as confused between “no” and “low”.

The Straits Times and Channel NewsAsia might seek shelter under the discourse of developmental journalism and argue their approach serves a larger national interest. But Leong too took on the subject from a so-called pro-nation angle, but instead of framing the study with an prescriptive, even disingenuous boilerplate premise, he offered a more sobering take on the state of play and some comments on the policy challenges in fostering “rootedness”.

Clearly, there’re more journalistically sound ways to tell this story. But perhaps we expect too much. After all, we are talking about a paper that splashes their pages with half-page profiles of individual ruling party candidates (see: “new faces”) while squeezing multiple opposition candidates (see: “rookies”) into a quarter-page slot. We are talking about a news station that prematurely declared Lim Swee Say and Dr Maliki Osman as East Coast GRC MPs and not realised it for days. We are talking about senior editorial staff who have the gall to declare their borderline propagandist spiel as quality journalism.

Staying or quitting? The Straits Times has apparently made our minds up for us. So perhaps the question is better posed to their journalists who might care about their professional bona fides.

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~ by spiegel2071 on April 5, 2011.

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