Friday, March 13, 2009

Dying to make a point

I realise I might be the seagull following the trawler, waiting for the sardines to be ditched. That's what Eric Cantona said about the media. But I'm just following the affairs here.

There is some serious eyebrow-raising situation happening here. Maybe it is blown out of proportion by internet users, maybe it isn't. They are mainly directed at the credibility and agenda-setting of our local newspapers. And most of these analyses and speculation are done by folks not trained in media studies, yet they raise enough questions for us to doubt the 'truths' that are spun by mainstream press.

The case of NTU student David Widjaja. There have been facts, no doubt. But people have pointed out the manner in which these facts have been pieced together. The manner in which a news medium stitches a story is called an angle. It is a particular spin put on the information.

The case of Dr Allan Ooi also prompted some netizens to point out certain media blackouts on some details. The official reason for a 'blackout' is usually the news organisation's reluctance to engage/report speculation until they confirm it with credible sources. That is textbook journalism and journalistic integrity. But what if these "credible sources" are dubious themselves.

The media, as many local media scholars and scholars of local media would claim, is expected by the government to play a role in nation-building. Perhaps it is a single political party's definition and discourse of nation-building. You have internet users creating a counter-discourse by providing other "facts" and speculation, other "spins" and angles.

We live in and are part of a very fragile system. A system that is reactive. A reactive system is one that listens to the dead. Someone has to disappear to make a point. Given the intelligence and leadership we have, it is a shame that martyrdom (to stretch the definition) has a larger voice in (possibly) effecting changes in the system.

Even if the mainstream press may do their customary blackout, spins and agenda-setting, there will be netizens who will provide alternative "truths" and make us question the system. It appears that few are moved and are rallied around causes championed by the living. The symbolism of death appears stronger, more moving and influential in creating newer (counter)discourses.

I find it ridiculous that we continue to individualise and medicalise such cases. Blame it on depression, blame it on gaming, blame it on gambling. This is how we attempt to rationalise and neutralise death and disaster. We check not the foundations upon which we stand and on which our system also sits. At the same time, it may seem a little far-fetched for most of us to continually politicise everything we experience, resulting in an over-rational and bordering-on-speculative externalisation of our problems.

I read Dr Allan Ooi's email prior to his suicide. Strangely, I identify with it. You don't need to be depressed to think of such things. Frustration and hopelessness should not be conflated into depression. We can medicalise all we want to rid the system of its responsibility and complicity. It is still very unfortunate we see such individuals as not being able to cope, and never consider that it might be the system/establishment itself that is the one that isn't coping well.

In the information age now, death creates large reverberations than before. Death is what all of us mortals, some lesser mortals, can identify with. Other than bringing us together, the knowledge of death makes us question more.

Although we are firmly entrenched in the capitalist system, there are a number of us who are beyond materialism and high wages. Such things can no longer provide the appeasement nor the happy (and false) consciousness. These are the people who are problematic to the capitalist state. In such a context, these guys have nothing to lose because they are not as tightly bound (and blackmailed) like the rest. And when you have nothing to lose, you do not conform to the rationality of the system; you become unpredictable. Unpredictability is uncertainty, and uncertainty is always a challenge to any one, never mind a leadership or a system.

We can now no longer individualise suicide and rationlise it as "cowardly", because there are sufficient counter-discourses that validate "purposeful" death. They link death to social and political phenomena. They link death to oppression. People see suicide as not the result of individual sickness, but also the sickness of the system. (but of course, given the economic downturn, more care less)

Sometimes I see terrorism or terrorist martyrdom as a reaction to the illness of the system. We may be able to neutralise threats to the system by labelling them as terrorism, but they do not go away. Death is not (and should not be seen and rationalised as) only independent, in the sense we link it to nature and the gods. Death should be seen, among other perspectives, as dependent. (Premature) deaths (by societal standards) tell us something about people.

Hypothetically, if I were to take my life, I will write a long note too. But I haven't reached a critical level of frustration and hopelessness yet. Furthermore, suicide is highly disincentivised in society today. It is firstly against the law. It doesn't conform to social norms, and when you break it, society will neutralise it and make sense of it in a pathological or religious way. Various institutional boundaries are erected to forge more bonds and networks, such that the stakes (and obstacles) are raised should one attempt suicide. There is too great, too complex and too far-reaching a social, economic and emotional bond created, so suicide now requires more deliberation (econometrics, any one?). Conversely, the message becomes even stronger in the event of suicide.

We live in a world where we over-romanticise and nostalgia-lise living. It also does not help that the media help perpetuate this discourse that "life is fragile and precious". Politically, it diverts attention away from the fragility of the system, the establishment, the rules and so on. Furthermore, the uncertainty of death roots us into the discourse. Imagine if we knew when our death will come (other than planned suicide), we will become empowered and our decision-making will change. The system that thrives on the uncertainty of death (and other related dominant discourses) cannot deal with this kind of situation.

We are bound to a culture of political correctness, such that large-scale self-censorship (superego... away!) prevails. So the advocacy of suicide and (interpretive forms of) martyrdom is socially unacceptable. But does it make it morally wrong?

Suicide sends a message, and sometimes it might be a message independent of the "author"'s intention. Nevertheless, it reminds us not about life, but about the conditions of life, and to an extent, how people and institutions (media, medical, political, economic, etc.) create and/or deal with these conditions.

14 comments:

Weiye said...

Death and life to me are very much the same. The separation is false. But to commit suicide because of social/ structural barriers seems a little over the top.

Certainly, these people cannot claim to be the most oppressed for if they are, they wouldn't be able to speak (figuratively).

And we'll probably not hear (figuratively again) about the suicides of the most oppressed anyway. Some deaths are more equal than others.

Take care of yourself. =) Don't even think about reaching the critical level of frustration and hopelessness! Oh. And send me the youtube video you said you'll send. ;)

daft.punk said...

how did you read the letter before his suicide?

it was after his suicide then it was sent.

Sam Ho said...

the email is available online, but the family had requested it to be taken off some websites.

thanks weiye. i'm sorry, but i can't recall what it's all about. can you help me jog my memory about the video?

Weiye said...

some video created by ACSI? i think. that you said was very well made. hope that helps hahaha.

Sam Ho said...

http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=3477108537208786893&ei=Th-9Sf76OorOwgPKifX4BA&q=countdown+blt+productions

i remember now.. haha. i've such a bad memory.

it's a good effort put in by the students

Sam Ho said...

sorry daft.punk, didn't answer your question.

i meant to say "email prior to his suicide", rather than "read ... prior to his suicide". poor sentence construction.

soojenn said...

A passing tribute to Dr Allan Ooi and an article well articulated and lucid. I don't usually read such long articles but each paragraph is so well sritten, I have finished reading the entire article. Some of my comments are.

"And most of these analyses and speculation are done by folks not trained in media studies, yet they raise enough questions for us to doubt the 'truths' that are spun by mainstream press."

- I don't believe one need to be trained in media studies to be able to analyze the "truths" more like half truth that the MSM sprouts in the past decade and more. With the availability of alternative information from the new media, the picture is evidently much glaring.

"The case of NTU student David Widjaja. There have been facts, no doubt. But people have pointed out the manner in which these facts have been pieced together. The manner in which a news medium stitches a story is called an angle. It is a particular spin put on the information."

- I do not think that people are only disputing the manner in which the facts have been pierced together.. some concotion of the story is baseless and without facts, and do not do justice to the the deceased.

"The case of Dr Allan Ooi also prompted some netizens to point out certain media blackouts on some details. The official reason for a 'blackout' is usually the news organisation's reluctance to engage/report speculation until they confirm it with credible sources. That is textbook journalism and journalistic integrity. But what if these "credible sources" are dubious themselves."

- reluctance of news organisation to engage/report speculation until they confirm it with credible sources? The MSM was already prnting speculation but on Dr Ooi's personal life and possibly unrelated reasons. It is difficult to understand what journalistic integrity there is to blackout , in Dr Ooi's case the work related issues. I will be surpised if the MSM like the ST or the Chinese papers have an ounce of journalistic integrity.

The dead will definately have a more profound impact on the society at large, especially if this is someone who appears to have it all, a SAF scholar, a mediacal officer, a well heeled family. If this is someone from the lower rungs of society, it will just be dismissed as an mental person, or more with economic problems, etc.. There are already examples..

"I find it ridiculous that we continue to individualise and medicalise such cases. Blame it on depression, blame it on gaming, blame it on gambling. This is how we attempt to rationalise and neutralise death and disaster. We check not the foundations upon which we stand and on which our system also sits. At the same time, it may seem a little far-fetched for most of us to continually politicise everything we experience, resulting in an over-rational and bordering-on-speculative externalisation of our problems."

- this is how the MSM seem to work, blaming it on depression, etc.. and not attempt to take a reflection and "check on the foundations upon which we stand and ..." and not the netizens. Do you think that in the current situation with Dr Ooi, that this has been over-rationalized? I don't think so. It is usually with cases that affect the system, government, that news, information are "blackout" by the MSM - in this case his work issues with SAF, which I am sure that there are many reliable sources to cofnirm this. At the leas,t they should make the effort to investigate the deceased's claims and not just white wash over it.

".....It is still very unfortunate we see such individuals as not being able to cope, and never consider that it might be the system/establishment itself that is the one that isn't coping well."

To me, it is clear from the note from Dr Ooi that he knows and understands clearly why he is doing it. It is the system/establishment itself that cannot reconcile this, and will not accept it failures or even a mention of any possiblity during the current ruling party's reign and will probably continue in the next decade if they are still in power.

".....Unpredictability is uncertainty, and uncertainty is always a challenge to any one, never mind a leadership or a system."

- you have it the nail on the spot.. isn't it evident with the current system trying to crush any possible dissent, uncertainty at the slightest notice of this.

I do not condone suicide but as you put it succintly, I do not rationalize it as cowardly.. In Dr Ooi's case, I believe he had thought through this thorougly in months, to even be able to write his thoughts so luidly.

"We are bound to a culture of political correctness, such that large-scale self-censorship (superego... away!) prevails. So the advocacy of suicide and (interpretive forms of) martyrdom is socially unacceptable. But does it make it morally wrong?"

- why do you think we should be bound to a culture of political correctness? this is the brainwashing when you start your education in a PAP kindergarden and educational systems of the governement. Good question on if it makes it morally wrong. Well in this society in Singapore, governed by the current ruling party, it is morally wrong and needs to be blacked out in areas were it will leave a black mark on the system or the government.

Malcolm said...

Another very moving and well articulated article. I have always enjoyed your writing and Singapore certainly needs more people like you.

Sam Ho said...

thanks guys.

i feel a bit honoured and intimidated at the same time when you dissect what i write like that haha.

i think singapore needs people who can give solutions, not point out problems. because that's the discourse being perpetuated by the ruling party. that's the dilemma, but i don't know what are the possible and viable counter-discourses we could create and adopt.

Agagooga said...

If it is the system (instead of individual circumstances) that is primarily responsible for most suicides, then shouldn't most people have killed themselves by now?

Sam Ho said...

people aren't killing themselves because we're intricately intertwined with various social/economic networks. there will be legal and social sanctions to prevent suicide. it's also stigmatised. so suicide becomes more and seemingly irrational, so to speak.

i mean, if it weren't for these networks. i'm sure there'll be lots of school-related and singapore pools-related suicides.

Agagooga said...

So basically everyone wants to kill themselves, it's just that they're not allowed to.

Hello what legal sanctions against *suicide*? It's not like the court will burn paper manacles to send to Hell to clap you in.

That said I take a very serious view of suicide, which is why I support the death penalty for the crime of attempted suicide.

Sam Ho said...

haha.

strangely, i see it in a philosophical manner. basically, the state is the only party that has the legitimacy to kill/murder.

let's say a murder takes place, there are legal sanctions in place to punish it.

but suicide on the other hand is a bit different. i think suicide, to an extent, challenges the authority of the state. the person who commits suicide commits the act of killing and gets away with it.

well, according to haw par villa's levels of hell gallery, you'll probably be sawed into half or have your intestines ripped out if you committed suicide.

http://pictureswithoutpermission.blogspot.com/2009/02/haw-par-villa-ten-courts-of-hell.html

Agagooga said...

That still doesn't support the corollary of your basic contention: that everyone wants to kill themselves, it's just that they're not allowed to.