The Closing Debate of the Singapore Writers Festival 2018, arguably the most popular event, lived up to its reputation for delivering local food for thought (“brain chiah”) and laughter for the belly.
This year’s topic of debate,“This house believes that Singaporeans are better off with social media” was moderated by the quick-witted and presumably nonpartisan (Malaysian) Sharmini Flint.
As the tickets to the Closing Debate were sold out 5 hours before the event and many of you missed out, here is our blow-by-blow account (giggles and gasps omitted).
Disclaimer: It’s all here, the unedited account of the Singapore Writers Festival 2018 Closing Debate! Well…almost. We left out a few episodes of microphone hijacking and some barbs that we felt were a bit mean. One could argue that panel members with public social media profiles have no right to cry foul about individual attacks. But we’re all for keeping things nice.
First Speaker of the House and for the Proposition: Daryl Qilin Yam
First up, and speaking for the Proposition, was Daryl Qilin Yam – a published writer, arts organizer, and administrator for the literary charity Sing Lit Station. Originally picked to be on the Opposition, Daryl snuck in a punchline too good to discard “Facebook is like opening the fridge when you’re not hungry”. He then developed his key point, that ‘social media plays an important role in helping all Singaporeans feel that they belong in their national community’. Daryl highlighted that social media provides a platform for underrepresented or excluded sections of the community – especially Singapore’s LBGT community and minority groups – and helps them to find ‘home’ in Singapore.
With Daryl’s impassioned speech running over his allotted 8 minutes, Sharmini asserted that her role is also one of a bouncer, and that participants should comply when she called “time”. On her second attempt to move Daryl along, Sharmini (dressed in black) conceded that she wasn’t being taken seriously, because “those in power in Singapore wear white”.
First Speaker for the Opposition: Leong Liew Geok
First up for the Opposition was Leong Liew Geok, a published poet, editor, and Associate Professor in the Department of English Language and Literature, NUS. She began her speech by defining social media, and its features and functions, as something that “enables several billions to share media…characterized by lust and excess”. While accepting that social media is “not all bad”, Liew Geok continued that “it does not necessarily make Singaporeans better off”. She then read off a list of concerns: trolling, fishing, scams, dark videos, fake news, and ‘junk news’. Liew Geok went further to say that the democratization of social media means that, dangerously, all voices are taken as having equal weight and veracity, and that social media makes us voyeurs and time wasters; also provoking anger, jealousy, and hatred. The cover of anonymity removes accountability and there is no distinction between public and private space, between good taste, bad taste, and no taste. Driven by novelty and sensationalism, we seek forbidden treasures.
Liew Geok wrapped up by suggesting that there are more links on the web to fake news than to official news channels. She asked whether, with all such fake news, videos, personas, and extreme views, insidious mischief and junk news, “we are allowing ourselves to be manipulated”.
Second Speaker for the Proposition: Oniatta Effendi
Next up for the Proposition was Oniatta Effendi, an educator, batik fashion designer, and applied drama practitioner at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts. Returning to statistics teammate Daryl used earlier, she set out to prove that Singaporeans are better off with social media because they have a positive relationship with it. She reiterated that Singapore has the second-highest penetration rate of social media in the world, with its peeps spending over 2 hours a day on social media. Oniatta saw this as a positive sign of the community’s interest in information and consensus seeking, and collective action. She also touched upon its use with respect to crisis management and encouraging citizen journalism, suggesting that social media provides Singaporeans with a platform to engage and connect, to encourage each other with positive messages, to share aspirations, and to show how ‘passion is made possible’. Oniatta finished by underscoring the importance of social media for the success of the Singapore Writers Festival.
Second Speaker for the Opposition: Suhaimi Yusof
The second speaker for the Opposition was Suhaimi Yusof, a well-known actor, comedian, entertainer, and radio host. He ‘fessed up, straight away, to using social media (Oniatta had already shared his social media pages as an example of Singaporeans’ aspiring to the success of local role models). Suhaimi explained, however, that he’d in fact really taken a leaf out of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War: “In order to defeat the enemy, you must know how they think”.
Suhaimi’s arguments against Singaporeans being better off with social media, included (1) You don’t need social media to live, you need human relationships. Social media makes us unsociable, oxymoronically; (2) In the public space of social media the code of ethics for journalism are not applied. This is dangerous. There is no obligation for truth and accuracy, independent journalism, fairness and impartiality, humanity, or accountability. He proceeded to caution that (3) Social media changes our behaviour and the way we think, because with everything being public, there is no private life; and (4) Because of what they give away for cash, social media millennial influencers are essentially “prostitutes” for the big guys (pimps), e.g. Google, Facebook, Instagram. While this last comment stirred up a few folks in the crowd, it was his cautionary remark about the lack of journalistic ethics in social media – and that money was the main reason for people/bots to create ‘clickbait’ news – that gave more power to the opposition’s argument.
Third Speaker for the Proposition: Sharul Channa
Sharmini introduced the next speaker for the Proposition, Singapore’s only full-time stand-up comedienne, Sharul Channa, by acknowledging their shared pull towards comedy and suggesting to Sharul that perhaps Indians, and minorities, used comedy as a defense mechanism. All too happy to oblige, Sharul used her sassy wordplay to defend the motion that Singaporeans are better off with social media. The crowd was ready for a laugh after Suhaimi’s cautionary remarks.
In her first argument, Sharul pointed out that social media is an essential educational tool, especially for learning the ways of the world. If it were not for YouTube, she would not have learned what was (in)appropriate behaviour. Sharul also noted that social media has made people less violent in dealing with disputes. You unfriend, unlink, ignore, or unlike rather than settling arguments with fisty-cuffs. Sharul also highlighted that social media can be used to discreetly track the wellbeing of older family members, by checking their status updates and time stamps for photo uploads of the grandkids.
Sharul provided two more strong arguments for the Proposition. One, that social media gave Singaporeans a broader view of the news, with different voices. Rather than relying on the reportage in the Straits Times only, social media provide commentary and links to other sources of news. Second, and lastly, Sharul, talked about the use of social media as an avenue to raise money through crowdsource funding (e.g. Singapore’s own re-usable straw, SWZLE), sponsorship/affiliations/advertising, monetizing content, and promoting one’s own work and services. Sharul underscored that minorities and small guys could find local and international fame and fortune through social media platforms.
Third Speaker for the Opposition: Preetipls
Next up, was local YouTuber and social media star: Preeti Nair, better known as Preetipls (pronounced pretty please), who was perversely (but in good humour) made to argue for the Opposition. Preetipls’ first argument was that Singaporeans are not better off with social media, as they have not yet learned ‘what should be kept private, and what is suitable for the public stage’. Talking about her glee in spotting public displays of stupidity, Preetipls warned the crowd that once you have said something stupid on social media, you let people know that you are stupid in ‘real life’. Everyone can judge you. And before you can take down your stupid post, it’s likely already been shared with others. Social media usage, Preetipls explains, reveals both EQ and IQ. “And why do we post?” She asks us. “For attention, for social experiments, and because of mob mentality.”
Another reason Preetipls felt that Singaporeans should lay off the social media was because it “has ruined the way we speak”. “Singlish is already butchering English”, she lamented, “and now everything is cut down to an emoticon reaction”. She dreaded this becoming normal in real life – a thumbs up upon hearing of a friend’s pregnancy or a frowning face for a job dismissal. Preetipls ended her speech by talking about the plight of the younger generation, selling their skin for content creation, ensuring that the GoPro is in place to capture a pre-planned marriage proposal (how to say no?). “Essentially”, she addresses the millennials, “social media has ruined every ounce of humanity in you.”
Questions from the Audience
At this juncture, Oniatta stealthily uploaded some statistics for Singapore Writers Festival, comparing the use of social media vs print and other media this year, as compared to previous years. Shooing her off the stage, Sharmini asked for questions from the audience, who highlighted that social media brings out both the best and the worst in us; that it works as an echo chamber for our views; and that it facilitates tribalism, leaving us at risk of believing only things articulated and ‘shared’ by those we know.
Final Speaker and Captain for the Opposition: Gwee Li Sui
Down to the team captains now…Gwee Li Sui, poet, graphic artist and literary critic, was picked to go first. He grumbled that he was rather nervous about captaining the team (with all his friends inquiring how he has prepared for the Closing Debate). With a generous peppering of local lingo and schemas, Li Sui launched into his closing speech that Singapore was not better off with social media because they just get online and “stir shit”, waste time. No wonder productivity is so low…because everyone is on Facebook and WhatsApp at work. He said “all this complaining about the income gap being so big – it’s our own fault. All of us, online talking cock, criticizing the government.”
Returning to the argument that Singaporeans don’t need social media, he stressed that social media is dysfunctional. He asked the audience to “imagine if you said the same things in real life as online”, and to consider how intrusive and inconsiderate we are with the questions we ask in the private space we enter. Li Sui also felt that social media is for those with low self-esteem who seek attention. He reminded the audience that those who go on holidays, try extreme sports, or read a book are no different than those who post themselves doing the same things. The difference is that the former don’t need a hundred strangers to endorse them to prove that they exist.
Final Speaker and Captain for the Proposition: Adrian Tan
As he concluded before his time limit, Li Sui’s team members recalled some of their earlier arguments, before the final speaker for the evening, Adrian Tan, an author and a partner at TSMP Law Corporation took the microphone.
Known for his closing arguments, Adrian put fear in the Opposition – and rightly so! Starting with the bold contention that, “social media taught us how to be Singaporean”, Adrian made the heartfelt argument that social media gave birth to the Singapore of today, as it “helped us in defining our identity” through culturally-pluralistic and multi-channeled voices, enabling people to go deeper into defining the Singapore society rather than simply building on the cry that “we are not Malaysians”.
“Before social media”, Adrian postulated, “We just had Straits Times. There was no foreign media, no foreign news at all. It was one-way communication. We were not able to discuss or debate. So this sole source of media, then, defined Singaporeans’ identity – what we thought, and what we thought we needed.”
Adrian argued that, now, because of social media, “we can discuss important matters to us, we can read each other’s jokes, we can bond over the same things, we can see what our friends are up to, we can read about good deeds done, and because of this, we like each other a bit more.” He affirmed, “We define ourselves. We are the authors of our own stories. Unfiltered, uncensored. No one is curating. We have found Singapore through social media.”
Such stirring words by Adrian Tan, leaving an entire hall of Singaporeans on a high, feeling proud of who they were and of how far they had come, secured the winning vote of the audience.
Closing of the Debate
Sharmini thanked the audience and then cheekily quipped, “In Singapore, the opposition has lost again!”
If you enjoyed this article about the 2018 Closing Debate, look out for our other post about culture and identity. You can also check out the festival’s programme of events here. If you’d like to read more of our artist interviews, look here and our blogposts here.
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