Sunday, May 15, 2005

Sunday afternoon essay: Observations about the AcidFlask-A*STAR incident

I've avoided posting about the recent AcidFlask-A*STAR episode until now, because (1) it had little to do with libraries & librarianship at the beginning, and (2) figuratively speaking, the whole issue was getting so murky that it was better to let the smoke clear.

But this afternoon, a serenditipious search brought me to the Singapore National Education (SNE) website that detailed the Maria Hertogh Riots (11 Dec 1950). That's when I drew parallels between the two events.

The way I see it, the Maria Hertogh case was essentially a child-custody case, albeit alleviated on a political/ religious pedestal. Back in 1950s, the environment was ripe for dissention to be created.

Fast-forward to the AcidFlask-A*STAR incident: The news first broke in the SG Blogosphere (not mainstream media) with a posting from AcidFlask that only alluded to some legal action being taken by no less than a government agency against him.

Like any community (online or physical), a perceived "attack" on one of its member is easily seen as an attack on the community as a whole. Same thing for the Maria Hertogh case, and same thing for AcidFlask-A*STAR.

In the 1950 riot, I could only guess that rumours and anger spread among the people by word-of-mouth. The masses did not have access to information to keep themselves informed. In the absence of information, emotions were easily stirred.

Same thing for the AcidFlask-A*STAR incident. The SG Blogosphere only had scanty information (from a blogger in their community), and none from A*STAR directly. It didn't help A*STAR that it's position was presented indirectly by the mainstream media, which was largely perceived (by SG bloggers) as the mainstream media not "getting it". More smoke to the fire.

In my opinion, the 1950 riot and the AcidFlask-A*STAR incidents have three commonalities:
  1. In essence, they concerned matters between private parties;
  2. There was imperfect/ indirect access to information;
  3. The results was a lose-lose situation for both sides.

You might have played this "game" before: A bunch of people standing in a straight row, one behind the other. The message is passed down the line one person at a time. End of the line, the message always gets distorted.

Frankly, I think A*STAR was the bigger loser (see this). If A*STAR had posted it's own position on its website, perhaps things might have turned out differently. The world media would have had direct access to what it has to say, rather than rely on indirect sources. AcidFlask had a direct voice to the SG Blogosphere. A*STAR didn't, and it was the mainstream media that carried the story. No surprises why there was a further "Them Vs. Us" divide.

What's my point to all this? And what has it got to do with libraries & librarianship? I refer to this statement from this webpage (last line of the page) reporting on a talk by an actual witness, Mr. George Seow (teacher, journalist, diplomat) to the 1050 riot (btw, read the whole article for the full context):
The message of his talk was clear - that we must preserve racial and religious harmony in a multiracial society. Food is a uniting factor among races.
So I wondered if information could have been a uniting factor among the parties involved -- namely the SG Blogosphere, individual bloggers, mainstream media, and foreign media. And libraries could be neutral platforms for rational public discourse and discussion.

Of course, having information and discussions might not guarantee "harmony". But we intuitively know that without either of them, misunderstandings and disunity would be a given.

Note: Here's a useful reference for a chronology of the AcidFlask-A*STAR episode (by Huichieh Loy), but by no means the only version.

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  1. I like this blog.

    One of the reasons why I like this blog is that when I read a post here, I know it will always be something about library science. Niche blogs are rare in the Singapore blogsphere.

    Have said that.. *passes Ivan sharp pin to puncture possibly inflated ego*


    I doubt the NLB will be perceived as a nonpartisan entity in a society where our (Singapore) history is perceived as being systematically rewritten in One Voice. With certain parts being selectively whitewashed or downright erased. The Singapore National Education effort reinforces that view. (Yes I am aware that the SNE program is administered by MOE, supported by the National Archives maintained by NLB.)

    [ I use the word library here in the greater sense. Not just referring to the infrastructure and organisation of the NLB, but in the sense of an indexed information-store that includes blogs on the internet. ]

    Libraries can do more than providing information and acting as a neutral platform for resolving disputes where information is restricted - as you have suggested.

    Libraries also have a very important role of recording and preserving events. Preferably in a unbiased disinterested-observer viewpoint.

    Just as we look to the Singapore library National Archives to read of what little has been preserved of the events of 11 Dec 1950 - I suspect future generations of Singaporeans (assuming Singapore continues to exists as a nation) may look back to the physical library archives for newsprint reports and search engines for caches of long-defunct blogs for what happened with the recent affairs.

    mrbrown writes of his wanting to preserve parts of his history - told through the eyes of everyday people - for his children. Using his blog as an instrument for the record of memories and events. That would fall on the side of grassroots library activism - would it not?

  2. *POP*
    Thanks for the pin, knightofpentacles :)

    Did you know that the National Library Newspaper microfilm collection has news publications that date back to the 1800s? Generally speaking, only published materials stand a chance to be preserved. But with the advent of blogs, who knows? Maybe not right now, but maybe Singapore might have it's own version of the Internet Archive -

  3. Things like Flickr etc. will end up becoming history books of the future.

    On a slightly related note from a comment i posted on

    ASTAR could have created a blog and replied to the criticism. I remember an incident in China a while back. Villagers in Gansu province created a blog to protest against the local government for taking away their farmland. Such evictions are becoming common in China - farms turned into factories. Usually, in China such protest webs or blogs are immediately blocked. But in this case, the local government created their own blog to counter some of the points raised in the villager's blog.

    More here


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