Sunday 15 January 2012

Lim Hwee Hua, believing The Onion is like believing The Noose

This is a thank-you note.

Despite the recommended paycuts, Singaporeans still expect our ministers to accomplish big things like fixing the public transport system and preventing Orchard Road from flooding again.

But the small stuff matters too.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank a former minister for a little thing she did which made the day of an old friend of mine half way around world.

Ms Lim Hwee Hua is a former Minister in the Prime Minister's Office who was a member of the People's Action Party team that was voted out of the Aljunied GRC in last year's General Election.

Last week, I found out via Facebook that Ms Lim posted on her Facebook page a link to a news story on The Onion website headlined “Obama openly asks nation why on earth he would want to serve for another term”.

Along with the link, Ms Lim commented: “Increasingly challenging everywhere, whatever Obama’s campaign strategy might be.”

Based on her comment and a series of rather earnest comments by others on her post, it’s fair to infer that Ms Lim and some of the commenters didn’t know the Obama news story was fake. It was only about 30 comments later that they realised this.

To save face, Ms Lim posted another comment: “Indeed, it is increasingly challenging everywhere - to foster a trusting relationship between government and people, and between people and people, and to differentiate between real and not-so-real news.”

But it was too late. A screen grab of Ms Lim’s original post was circulated online and she was roundly mocked for being "clueless”.

Contrary to Ms Lim’s last comment, in this case, it was actually quite easy to “differentiate between real and not-so-real news”. When the news source is The Onion, you can safely assume it’s not-so-real news.

Just because The Onion calls itself “America’s finest news source” doesn’t mean it is.

As one of the mockers pointed out, believing The Onion is like believing The Noose is Channel NewsAsia.

But it's unfair to expect everyone to know about The Onion - even a former minister.

So what if The Onion organisation received a 2008 Peabody Award for “providing ersatz news that has a worrisome ring of truth”?

I first came across The Onion in 1989, a year after it started as a satirical newspaper in the US town of Madison, Wisconsin, where I went to college.

That was also where I met one of my Facebook friends, Todd Hanson, who now lives in New York and has been writing for The Onion for 20 years.

He also used to be a cartoonist at the college paper where I worked.

He once drew a wonderful caricature of Freddie Mercury, buck teeth and all, to illustrate a tribute I wrote for the lead singer of Queen when the rock star died in 1991.

If you want to know what Todd looks and sounds like, you can see and hear him in the trailer for the 2010 documentary The People Vs George Lucas on YouTube. He's the long-haired guy who says: “People hate Jar Jar Binks. They hate him now. People are going to look at these films in 50 years, 100 years - they’re going to hate him too.”

(Speaking of which, anyone looking forward to the theatrical re-release of Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace in 3D? Now you can hate Jar Jar in three dimensions!)

Anyway, knowing that he works at The Onion, I posted on Todd’s Facebook page the screen grab of Ms Lim's post which unwittingly took The Onion article on Obama seriously.

He responded: “How funny. That seems to happen a lot with The Onion. I actually wrote the article for this headline too, so this made me feel extra good about myself. Thanks!”

You’re welcome, Todd.

But I think the person he should really be thanking is the former minister, which I shall do so now on his behalf.

Thank you, Ms Lim.

By the way, if you see Michelle Chong, the news is probably also not so real.

- Published in The New Paper, 15 January 2012