Sunday, 15 July 2018

Press Gang review: I heard a rumour

So I went to see to the Saturday matinee performance of Press Gang at Lasalle College of the Arts yesterday. I saw Lim Kay Siu (Frankie Foo) sitting in a row in front of me.

It wasn't cheap — $144.50 to book two tickets for my wife and me from Sistic and that's after a 10 per cent discount with my POSB debit card.

But I wanted to support the playwright, Tan Tarn How, whom I consider a friend, though we haven't seen each other for maybe 20 years. I knew him at Mediacorp in the 90s when he was the head writer of Growing Up and, of course, VR Man.

I had never seen any of his plays before, but I wanted to see the Ivan Heng-directed Press Gang because it's about working in a Singapore newspaper, something I have been doing for the past 10 years.

The play is set mostly in the newsroom of Singapore Times, a sort of fictionalised version of The Straits Times where Tarn How used to work.

At the start of the play, I grinned in recognition when I heard the word "offstone" and the line about subs screwing up headlines and captions, although actor Shane Mardjuki said "offstone" with an odd emphasis like the word was alien to him.

Actually, I found that the whole cast spoke with a mishmash of distracting accents like in a Channel 5 drama. I don't know. Maybe local English plays are supposed to be like this, but the often stilted dialogue didn't help.

I was also distracted by how much actor Benjamin Chow resembled US actor John Cho (Sulu in the new Star Trek movies) without sounding anything like John Cho. But that could just be me.

The thing that really took me out of the play was the central dilemma that drove the plot: Should the paper report the rumour that the prime minister's son slapped the deputy PM?

The problem is, there's no dilemma at all. Newspapers, in Singapore or anywhere else, aren't supposed to report rumours, regardless of who the rumours are about.

And it's not because we're afraid of the big bad Government. It's because we know rumours may not be true. That’s why they’re called rumours.

And despite lapses, journalists generally still care about stuff like that. Don’t wanna be accused of fake news. Or sued for libel.

If the paper wanted to pursue the story, it would just try to get someone to confirm on record that the incident happened and report that. Otherwise, no story.

But is the slapping story even worth pursuing in the first place? This was where the play felt a little outdated despite references to Facebook and Hardware Zone.

We're living in a time where our real-life Prime Minister's sister has outright accused the PM of abuse of power on Facebook for all to see. The play’s slapping rumour seems rather quaint in comparison.

I should explain here that in the alternate universe of the play, even though Facebook and Hardware Zone exist, Lee Hsien Loong doesn't. The PM in Press Gang is an unseen fictional character who may or may not have a resentful fictional sister.

So it's weird that in this alternate universe, there's also mention of an earlier fictional slapping incident similar to the one brought up by real-life then PM Goh Chok Tong in his 2003 National Day Rally speech:
"You may also have heard this old story about Loong. In case you have not, I'll tell you now. Back in 1990, Loong had a quarrel with Richard Hu. S. Dhanabalan sided with Richard. Loong lost his temper. He reached across the table and gave Dhanabalan a tight slap. The whole Cabinet was thrown into commotion. I then forced Loong to apologise. I must be suffering from amnesia. I just cannot remember this incident. Now you know how creative Singaporeans are."
It can get a bit confusing trying to distinguish what in the play is real, based on something real or totally made-up. But that's part of the fun.

For instance, the columnist played by Amanda Tee is obviously based on Sumiko Tan in a surprisingly self-aware portrayal.

My wife believes that the Malay character played by Oniatta Effendi is based on Zuraidah Ibrahim, an ex-Straits Times editor who moved to Hong Kong with her husband, Cherian George, who also got (half) name-checked in the play.

The veteran reporter played by T. Sasitharan, who got the best lines, reminded me of former New Paper (now back at Straits Times) editor Dominic Nathan physically if not character-wise.

I have never worked at The Straits Times, so I can't comment on how accurate the office politics or politics politics depicted in the play are.

From my perspective at The New Paper, which is at best Straits Times-adjacent literally, figuratively and organisationally, parts of Press Gang rang true, but much of it sounded like Tarn How straining too hard to make a point, however valid that point may be.

But the whole "Should we print a rumour?" thing just didn't work for me.

In an early scene, there was mention of the paper previously reporting someone having an affair (safe to say, based on real life).

I might have enjoyed the play more if it were about that instead.

Press Gang ends its run tonight.

Monday, 9 July 2018

Thum's down: What do you do when your stupid friend shares fake news on WhatsApp?

So I have this stupid friend.

He is in my WhatsApp group of former secondary school classmates. He has also sold me insurance. You know the type.

Last week, he posted in the WhatsApp group a link to a news article with the headline “Taiwan: MH370 pilot mysteriously resurfaces almost two years after his flight vanished over China Sea”.

There was even a picture of a man in a hospital bed.

Right away, I suspected this was fake news.

In the first place, if the news were true, I would have seen it all over the place and not just in my WhatsApp group of former secondary school classmates.

In the second place, the Malaysian Airlines flight disappeared more than four years ago, not two years ago. So it wasn’t just fake news — it was two-year-old fake news.

In the third place, the source of the story is a website called World News Daily Report. I went to its homepage and the top news story was “Allergic man rushed to hospital after girlfriend spread peanut butter on her vagina”.

Other so-called news included “Elderly woman accused of training her 65 cats to steal from neighbours” and “Boston: Members of midget crime gang suspected of 55 break-ins”.

Just by glancing at those headlines, anyone should be able to tell that the website is not exactly the most credible.

But like many people tend to do, my stupid friend couldn’t be bothered to check the news source and impulsively shared the fake news in the WhatsApp group because he felt it was so urgent that his former secondary school classmates know that the MH370 pilot had been found.

I wanted to reply: “You’re an idiot! It’s stupid people like you who are causing the spread of fake news around the world.”

But I didn’t because I value the few friends I have despite this one’s stupidity.

And it was a good thing I didn’t. The next day I learnt that you don’t have to be as stupid as my friend to unintentionally spread fake news.

Remember Dr Thum Ping Tjin? He’s the guy who was questioned by Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam for six hours during the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods hearing earlier this year.

Last Monday, he shared on social media a very old editorial cartoon contrasting how the reception to Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s speech to the US Congress in 1985 was reported differently by The Straits Times (“standing ovation”) and International Herald Tribune (“polite applause”).

Dr Thum commented:
Hmmm... now I’m wondering just how much of what Singaporeans believed to be LKY’s vaunted global reputation was actually manufactured by the government-controlled media, in the days when there were no alternative news sources?
Sounds to me like Dr Thum was implying that The Straits Times made up the standing ovation to mislead the sheeple of Singapore about Mr Lee’s “vaunted global reputation”.

Then someone posted a YouTube video of Mr Lee getting a standing O from the US Congress in 1985.

Just as ST reported.

So like Inception but with fake news, Dr Thum was spreading fake news about the spreading of fake news.

He quickly backtracked:
Thank you for the comments, everyone! Lots of misunderstandings here so I'll do my best to explain. This isn't an example of "fake news", it's an illustration of subjectivity. Thanks to two intrepid commenters, we have all the sources at hand and it's clear that both articles were accurate but what the reporters chose to highlight leads readers to different impressions. In my original post, I was not implying that either newspaper was reporting "fake news" but asking a question about how different perspectives (or lack thereof) have affected our understanding of the past. The ST and WaPo reported the event accurately, but the reporters drew very different conclusions, due to subjective experience. The WaPo reporter had likely seen many addresses with far greater attendance and applause, while the ST reporter undoubtedly wished to emphasise LKY's reception and standing, reflecting Singapore's stature in the world. This leads one to wonder, as I stated above, just how much of what Singaporeans believed to be LKY's vaunted global reputation was actually manufactured by the government-controlled media, which is incentivised to report news positively (not inaccurately, but positively) in the days when there were few or no alternative news sources. If we get all our news from only one source, then the inherent subjectivity of that source would inevitably affect our understanding of events. This does not ascribe malicious intent but merely raises the danger of reliance upon a single set of sources that reflects a single set of perspectives. Every event has as many different perspectives as the people who witness it, and the truth is subjective. As I've said before, reasonable people can experience the same event and draw very different (even opposing) conclusions. That's what makes history so much fun!
Cool story, bro.

And this guy is a legit academic. I mean, he has a Dr in front of his name and everything.

So I shouldn’t be too hard on my stupid friend for falling prey to fake news if a PhD holder could also be a victim.

Any of us could be, too.

Anyway, another less stupid friend in the WhatsApp group replied to the post about the MH370 pilot: “Fake news. 2 yrs ago reported already.”

My stupid friend’s response: “Alamak.”

At least he didn’t bring up the “illusion of subjectivity”.

I bought insurance from this guy.

- Published in The New Paper, 9 July 2018

Saturday, 7 July 2018

Force of Nature Ultra 12km race: Return to Dairy Farm and MacRitchie Reservoir

The last time I ran at MacRitchie was about a year ago, commuting by foot from my Choa Chu Kang home to my workplace in Toa Payoh.

This morning, I was back at the reservoir for the Force of Nature Ultra 12km trail race. (The other categories were 64km and 23km.)

By the way, I gotta say the event T-shirt is rather ugly because of the random yellow streaks and circles.

The start line was at Dairy Farm, exact same place as the On The Hills 10k race a month earlier. But unlike that race, it didn't rain this morning.

First flag-off was at 7am.

I started out surprisingly stronger than at the On The Hills 10k race, but would finish much more poorly.

This was where my shoes got muddy:

Taking the Rifle Range Flyover over the BKE:

Right after the sign that says "Stop feeding the monkeys", there was a guy feeding the runners.

Another guy feeding the monkeys, I mean runners:

Nearby, the first and, as I discovered later, the only water point on the 12km route:

Crossing the brook:

I saw a woman running the wrong way and wanted to go after her to tell her, but I wasn't sure if she was part of the race. She later overtook me, so I guess she was part of the race and must have realised she missed the turn. (And she's faster than me.) There seriously needed to be more course marshals.

Damn the uphill climb:

I used to run at MacRitchie on weekday afternoons when there was hardly people, so I was surprised to see so many trail runners (who weren't part of the race), running groups, hikers and students this morning. It got a little squeezy on the narrower parts of the route.

Out of the woods at last:

It was another long kilomtre to the finish line.

Water, bananas, apples and more at the finish line:

Having used to run this route on my own once a week only a couple of years ago, I hadn't expect it to be so hard for me this time.

It appears those days of me running to work are truly over.

EARLIER: On The Hils 10k: The umbrella run

Thursday, 28 June 2018

Remembering Errol Pang: The man who brought Miss Universe here also produced 'Singapore's first full-length English film'

Former Miss Singapore Universe organiser Errol Pang died Monday morning at age 76. He was diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer in April.

He was one of the first people I interviewed as a journalist in Singapore after returning from America in 1993.

I was working on my first major magazine feature on the state of the republic's (non-existent) movie industry back then and Pang had produced what was touted as “Singapore’s first full-length English film”, Medium Rare, in 1991.

Margaret Chan was in it.

The movie was poorly received, but Pang was surprisingly open and good-natured about it. He seemed like someone who was always happy to talk to the press for some publicity.

Since then, I’ve bumped into him once or twice over the decades, although I doubt he remembered me.

But I will always be grateful for his generosity with his time and humour with a youngish magazine writer 25 years ago.

Below are clips of the article from Man Life & Style magazine:

While Medium Rare is mostly forgotten now, its place in Singapore's cinematic history is undeniable, alongside Mee Pok Man and Money No Enough.

And Pang was its progenitor.

Monday, 25 June 2018

Undistinguished: Why I would refrain from making fun of anyone's English

English is hard.

Sometimes you write “extinguished” when you mean “distinguished”, or “it’s” when you mean “its”.

Or “South Korean leader Kim Jong Un” when you mean “North Korean leader Kim Jong Un”.

Or you imply that the travel photos on your Instagram are taken by you when they’re not.

Even I make mistakes in this column.

Recently, I received an e-mail from a reader regarding an article where I spoofed the letter US President Donald Trump wrote to North (not South) Korean leader Kim Jong Un cancelling the June 12 summit.

Remember that? Those were the days.

In the article, I also described how I almost ordered the summit commemorative coin from the White House Gift Shop website.

The reader wrote:
You mentioned that the cost of the coin was US$19.95 and the shipping charge was US$60.50. You further mentioned that the latter was three times more than the former.

Let’s see if that is correct.

If the shipping charge is one time MORE THAN the cost of the coin, it would be $19.95x2=$39.90.

If it is two times MORE, it would be $19.95x3=$59.85.

If it is three times MORE, it would be $19.95x4=$79.80.

The correct way to state the shipping charge as compared to the cost of the coin is as follows: The shipping charge is slightly more than three times the cost of the coin.

So basically, I put the words “more than” in the wrong place.

Just my luck I have a maths and English geek reading my column.

I wrote back to him: “You’re right, of course. In my defence, I was trying to write like Trump.”

The sad thing is that my column is checked by at least four other people before it goes to print, but bloopers still slip through, of course.

Like I said, English is hard.

So I sympathise with the Chinese food court worker who was berated by a self-proclaimed Singaporean for not being able to speak English in the viral video.

Ironically, the day before I saw the video, I sort of had the opposite problem with a non-Chinese food court worker.

This was in the Tangs Market food court in the basement of Tangs in Orchard Road.

My wife wanted me to order for her fishball noodles with the fat yellow noodle, but I didn’t know what to call the fat yellow noodle in English.

In Mandarin, it’s “shou mian”. In Hokkien, it’s “sek mee”.

The only samples the woman taking my order had in front of her were mee pok and mee kia. So I couldn’t even point.

When I said “fat yellow noodle”, she thought I meant mee pok, which is a flat yellow noodle. One letter makes all the difference.

If the noodles were for me, I would’ve accepted the mee pok, having once made a cameo appearance in Eric Khoo's Mee Pok Man, but I was ordering for somebody else.

Eventually, I spoke to the Chinese cook in Mandarin and he immediately understood what I wanted.

But I felt bad that my English wasn’t good enough to communicate with the non-Chinese food court worker.

And I’m a writer!

Despite not knowing how to use “more than” in a sentence.

Which is why I would refrain from mocking anyone making a mistake like not being able to distinguish “distinguished” from “extinguished”.

Let he who is without grammatical sin and does not live in a linguistic glass house cast the the first stone.

Or something like that.

English is hard.

- Published in The New Paper, 25 June 2018

Wednesday, 13 June 2018

Hair peace: How I got my commemorative summit Kim Jong Un cut

The last time I cut my hair was in North Korea to look like Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un.

Because the haircut was so special, I promised myself never cut to my hair again.

That was on 10 April 2016.

In two years, my hair grew so long that I started wearing a bandana to manage it.

My family and co-workers had gotten sick of seeing my long hair and bandana, and told me so.

Even I became so annoyed with my own hair that I wanted to cut it, but a promise is a promise. I am nothing if not a man of my word.

Then the summit happened. One of the unlikeliest events in history and it took place in Singapore.

It was fate giving me an excuse to get a haircut.

I told myself it was okay to break my promise as long as I’m in the same country as the Supreme Leader when I cut my hair.

I mean, what are the odds me being in the same country as Kim without going to North Korea?

And so yesterday, as Rocket Man and the dotard were having their summit on Sentosa, I went to nearby VivoCity to get a haircut at LA Barbershop.

Of course, I asked to look like Supreme Leader Kim again.

I would say that was worth $20 million.

Though the haircut (including wash) cost me personally more than $40.

Now the question is, when will I get another haircut?

I guess I have to wait for the next Singapore summit.

Or go back to North Korea.

If they let me.

EARLIER: I went to North Korea & asked for the Kim Jong Un haircut (and lived)


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