As it has apparently turned out, the Ministry of Education’s director-general did not in fact make any comments disparaging the performance of our students as ranked by Pisa scores.
The purported remarks by the director-general, Wong Siew Hoong, had been reported by Walter Barbieri in an article for the August edition of the Australian publication, Australian Teacher Magazine.
Barbieri had attributed the following comments to Wong which the reporter said were made at the National Institute of Education’s Redesigning Pedagogy conference in May (2017).
“Before over 1500 delegates, Director General of the Ministry of Education, Mr Wong Siew Hoong, projected graphs depicting Singapore’s stellar PISA results. He then juxtaposed these to OECD data on student wellbeing, and also of innovation in the economy, revealing Singapore in the lowest quartile. His conclusion was stark: “we’ve been winning the wrong race”.
“Wong Siew attributed Singapore’s PISA success to standardised test drilling and a culture of compliance, only to retort: “we’re building compliant students just as the jobs that value compliance are beginning to disappear”.”
Website Mothership.sg reported, on the same day, what Barbieri had said and similarly attributed the purported remarks to Wong. Soon, the Mothership article was shared online, with many criticising the Singapore education system.
However, the Ministry of Education (MOE) later posted on Mothership’s Facebook page to clarify that Wong never made those remarks.
“This is fake news,” said MOE. “We are disappointed that your website would circulate such false comments. We would appreciate it if you could remove the article immediately or at least print a correction.”
Later that same night (28 August), Mothership provided an update on its site with MOE’s clarification.
However, the website also said, referring to Barbieri’s article, that “the article published online edited out Education Minister Ng Chee Meng’s name and replaced it with Director-General of Education, Wong Siew Hoong.”
It is unclear what Mothership here is implying, although it also said, “An MOE spokesperson has clarified that Minister Ng Chee Meng was on an overseas work trip and was not present at the NIE conference.”
This is the second time in 3 weeks that the Mothership website has reported false or fake news.
On 9 August, it published a report claiming that presidential hopeful, Salleh Marican, had raised the hijab (Islamic veil) issue. Its article was titled, “Presidential hopeful Salleh Marican makes his first move, brings up the hijab issue”.
“The piece wrongly attributed to Mr Salleh comments on the Facebook page, on how the hijab was not part of the Malay dress code before the 1970s and increasing religiosity in the Middle East and around the region has eroded Malay culture in Singapore,” the Straits Times later reported, referring to the Mothership article.
As it turned out, however, Marican did not do such a thing, and promptly informed Mothership of this. The website then removed the article and apologised to Marican.
Mothership later explained that it had taken the story from a fake Salleh Marican Facebook fan page.
With the government on the war path against fake news, Mothership’s seemingly careless attitude towards verifying facts will see it run into trouble with the authorities when new legislation to rein in fake news come into force later. (The government is in the process of framing how such legislation will be.)
But Mothership is not the only website which have either sensationalised or deliberately put out fake news to, among other things, attract eyeballs.
Home Affairs minister K Shanmugam had been talking about this for some time now, and is seeking to prevent “nasty people” from profiting financially from publishing such fake and unverified stories.
“They can cause harm to Singaporeans, alarm to the public, emergency resources will have to be diverted and the reputation of businesses and people can be completely, unreasonably, unfairly damaged,” he said in April.
“In some way, (the legislation has) got to achieve working with technological platforms to de-legitimise fake news, to help people identify what is fake news. And then where it is done with malice or for-profit, or deliberately spreading fake news, we have to find ways in which it is dealt with and the people who spread such fake news are also dealt with,” said Mr Shanmugam again said in June.
To be sure, the government-controlled mainstream media have also been guilty of putting out fake news, such as reports about MRT doors opening while moving, or how North Korean leader Kim Jong-un had fed his uncle to 120 dogs, or that Malay food – unlike Chinese food – cannot be cooked in a healthier way.
Will new legislations to combat fake news be enforced equally and fairly among all news sites and online portals? It is left to be seen.
Incidentally, the Mothership website was reported to be backed by former PAP Minister, George Yeo, and former EDB chairman, Philip Yeo, when it was first established.
The Straits Times reported in 2014 that it had “former foreign minister George Yeo as a contributor and is backed by a social enterprise chaired by civil service veteran Philip Yeo.”