“Alternative facts” was a phrase coined by U.S. Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway during a Meet the Press interview on January 22, 2017, in which she defended White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s false statement about the attendance at Donald Trump’s inauguration as President of the United States.
Unsurprisingly, she was subsequently mocked on social media and the press. However if we apply her infamous comments to a local context, it’s not hard to see that we Singaporeans have also been fed a good deal of “Alternative Facts”.
1. Human rights is a “Liberal Western Ideal”
A common talking put forth by Singapore’s political establishment is that human rights is a “Liberal Western Ideal”. This line of argument has somehow been used to justify the lack of progress in human rights in Singapore – Singapore is a conservative Asian society and Western values of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, LGBT rights are incompatible with ours.
Proponents of so-called “Asian values”, who tend to support Asian-style authoritarian governments, claim these values are more appropriate for the region than Western democracy with its emphasis on individual freedoms.
2. Million dollar salaries are necessary to prevent corruption
Another well known alternative fact being fed to Singaporeans is the notion that we need to reward our ministers with million dollar salaries or they’ll be corrupted. A simple look at the facts will thoroughly debunk this myth. According to Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, New Zealand was ranked the least corrupt country on earth. According to the government’s logic, their leaders must be paid million-dollar salaries. But New Zealand’s Prime Minister is paid only S$450,000, a small fraction of PM Lee’s S$2.2 million.
3. Cannabis has no medical benefits
For a country which ranks no.1 in Science education rankings, we’re pretty anti-science when it comes to Cannabis research. According to the Central Narcotics Bureau’s (CNB) website, “There are no conclusive findings about the medical benefits of Cannabis.” Several authorities on science like the Scientific American, Harvard Medical School and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine have listed several medicinal benefits of Cannabis. Whether it’s curing epilepsy, acting as a natural pain killer or combating insomnia, there remains a compelling argument to expand Cannabis research.
4. We need the death penalty to deter crime
The death penalty debate is often an emotional one. It’s very mention invokes passionate responses from both sides of the fence. The Government has justified the death penalty’s use as a means of keeping our streets safe. But statistics paint a different picture. Hong Kong which doesn’t apply the death penalty has a crime and murder rate on par with Singapore. In the United States, states without the death penalty have seen consistently lower homicide rates than states that use the death penalty. Despite extensive research on the question, criminologists have been unable to assemble a strong case that capital punishment deters crime.
5. There was a Marxist Conspiracy in 1987
One of the most infamous #FakeNews headlines to appear on the front page of the Straits Times was a 1987 headline alleging a “Marxist Conspiracy” to overthrow the Government and impose a “Leftist Socialist state”. In what became known as Operation Spectrum, 16 social activists were arrested and detained without trial. Under enhanced interrogation techniques and even torture, the detainees were forced to sign false confessions acknowledging their role in a plot which never existed.
Amid the controversy, former Minister for National Development S. Dhanabalan left the Cabinet in 1992 because he was not comfortable with the way the government had dealt with the 1987 Marxist conspiracy.
6. 96.4% of the public is satisfied with our public transport
A 2016 Public Transport Council survey revealed that 96.4% of commuters in Singapore are “Satisfied with the quality of public transport in Singapore”. Seriously? The PTC couldn’t publish a survey that’s at least lower than the margin of error? One only needs to scroll through the Twitter feed every time a train disruption occurs to see what sentiment on the ground is really like.
7. Senior citizens collect cardboard for exercise
For a developed and prosperous country like Singapore, the narrative that impoverished senior citizens collect cardboard to earn a living isn’t one the Government would find favorable. While Minister Tan Chuan Jin once famously remarked that senior citizens collect cardboard for exercise, a key consideration that he likely left out is the stigma that still exists when one is living in poverty. That stigma compels many cardboard collectors to avoid speaking out about their situation for fear of “losing face”. Although there are individuals who still collect cardboard to pass the time, a considerable number see it as a means of survival.
8. Singapore was a fishing village in 1965
Perhaps the most famous Alternative fact ever to be perpetuated by the government is the myth that Singapore was a fishing village in 1965. The simple answer to that is “No”. In 1965, Singapore already had the 2nd highest GDP per capita in Asia, behind Japan. Singapore was already a global trading hub and a vital international port of commerce with a population of 1.8 million. There was a reason why the British prized Singapore as a “Crown Colony” – the colonial architecture, the office buildings of Raffles Place, the busy boulevards are a testament to the booming metropolis that Singapore already was. To suggest otherwise would be a gross distortion of historical facts.