Category Archives: intellectual

Catch Alvinology on Channel NewsAsia’s SG+

CNA interview in my home
CNA interview in my home

I was interviewed for an episode of SG+ which will be showing on Channel NewsAsia (CNA) on Tuesday (1 Oct 2013) at 8pm.

SG+ is described by CNA as a weekly current affairs programme that examines complex long-term issues facing Singapore as we redefine our future.

The topic I was interviewed on was whether social media affects Singaporeans’ trust in the government – in a densely connected online world, social media and networks have great potential in influencing our thoughts and actions. Does it affect our trust in the government and public institutions?

I hope I did okay as I was running a slight fever that day. I decided to go ahead with the interview as the CNA crew had specially arranged to come over my home for the shoot.

Do share your thoughts on this issue by leaving comments. 🙂


[Book Review] Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich

Book Cover
Book Cover

Singapore is a fast becoming a nation of widening wealth disparity. In the 2013 World Bank report, Singapore has the highest income inequality compared to the economically-developed OECD countries.

Such trends disturb me.

There seem to be two Singapore we live in – one where the mega-rich can live it up and enjoy life to the fullest at our two world-class integrated resorts and the exclusive yacht front residential at Sentosa Cove; the other where old folks scrap by for a living, collecting old cardboards and newspapers in HDB estates, living in rented one room flats.

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America was written from the author’s perspective as an undercover journalist, taking on the role of a minimum wage worker in capitalist United States. The events related in the book took place between 1998 and 2000, but I believe are still very much relevant in today’s context of even widening income gaps due to globalisation.

Here is a summary of the book via Wikipedia:

Ehrenreich investigates many of the difficulties low wage workers face, including the hidden costs involved in such necessities as shelter (the poor often have to spend much more on daily hotel costs than they would pay to rent an apartment if they could afford the security deposit and first-and-last month fees) and food (e.g., the poor have to buy food that is both more expensive and less healthy than they would if they had access to refrigeration and appliances needed to cook).

Foremost, she attacks the notion that low-wage jobs require unskilled labor. The author, a journalist with a Ph.D. in cell biology, found manual labor taxing, uninteresting and degrading. She says that the work required incredible feats of stamina, focus, memory, quick thinking, and fast learning. Constant and repeated movement creates a risk of repetitive stress injury; pain must often be worked through to hold a job in a market with constant turnover; and the days are filled with degrading and uninteresting tasks (e.g. toilet-cleaning and mopping). She also details several individuals in management roles who served mainly to interfere with worker productivity, to force employees to undertake pointless tasks, and to make the entire low-wage work experience even more miserable.

She decries personality tests, questionnaires designed to weed out incompatible potential employees, and urine drug tests, increasingly common in the low wage market, arguing that they deter potential applicants and violate liberties while having little tangible positive effect on work performance.

She argues that help needed signs do not necessarily indicate a job opening; more often their purpose is to sustain a pool of applicants in fields that have notorious rapid turnover of employees. She also posits that one low-wage job is often not enough to support one person (let alone a family); with inflating housing prices and stagnant wages, this practice increasingly becomes difficult to maintain. Many of the workers encountered in the book survive by living with relatives or other persons in the same position, or even in their vehicles.

She concludes with the argument that all low-wage workers, recipients of government or charitable services like welfare, food, and health care, are not simply living off the generosity of others. Instead, she suggests, we live off their generosity:

When someone works for less pay than she can live on … she has made a great sacrifice for you …. The “working poor” … are in fact the major philanthropists of our society. They neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other homes will be shiny and perfect; they endure privation so that inflation will be low and stock prices high. To be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor, to everyone. (p. 221)

The author concludes that someday, low-wage workers will rise up and demand to be treated fairly, and when that day comes everyone will be better off.

And we wonder how what triggered the Occupy Wall Street movement?

When I was reading this book, I think back about my experience doing part-time hourly wage job as a teen and all the dirty, manual grunt work I had to do as a NSF. These works were no less tedious than what I am doing now, granted that they were works with low barrier to entry, compared to my current job where specialised knowledge is needed.

Simply put, I believe a road sweeper works just as hard and contribute as much, if not more to society than a Wall Street banker, but the income disparity between the two is staggering and growing wider each day.

I find it uncomfortable and disconcerting.

Nickel Dime is a good read to discover what happens when these two worlds collide (the author has a PhD and is from a relatively affluent background, taking on menial, minimum wage jobs, typically taken by poor migrant workers).

The narrative is simple and engaging. Critics of the book deemed the author to be too pampered and believe others would have fared better than her if they went through the same experiment.

Overall, it is a good and educational read for all ages to learn more about the world we live in. I would recommend it.

Social media and the Malaysia general election

This article was first written for and published on the Social Media section of the International Newsmedia Marketing Association (INMA)’s blog on 16 May 2013:

Malaysians went to the polls on Sunday (May 5) to elect their government.

The ruling National Front coalition (or BN for Barisan Nasional) was returned to power, winning 133 of the 222 in parliamentary seats. The opposition won 89 seats, up from 82. Defeated opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim accused the ruling coalition of widespread fraud.

Najib celebrating his win (picture via my paper)
Najib celebrating his win (picture via my paper)

Quite frankly, I have not been following the election closely. But through the past weeks of campaigning to the actual voting day and result announcement, I have been getting regular updates via Facebook and Twitter from many of my patriotic Malaysian friends.

Social media brought the news of the Malaysian election to me. I did not search for it or read about it because I flipped open a newspaper or visited an online news Web site.

Think about it: For big breaking news these days, was social media your first information source?

Granted, the shared articles on Facebook or Twitter probably originated from news content sites. But it is still significant to reckon your social circle of friends might determine what news and information you consume — and not the traditional media ombudsmen.

For news publishers, if readers are increasingly getting their news from social networks, is our brand deep enough to still occupy mind-share? Are our readers sharing and tweeting our news content to their friends? This is something to think about for the future of the newspaper business.

Back to the Malaysia election. There were many learning points for me on social media. Here are five key highlights:

  • Video content viral well and very quickly. These might be even more effective in reaching out to a wired populace than TV appearances, given that online videos can be shared and re-shared repeatedly and across geography.

    An example is Bukit Bintang BN candidate Frankie Gan, who launched a series of self-starred music videos, hoping to impress voters with his karaoke talent. The video drew mixed responses, but mostly negative.

    As a foreigner, I was tickled enough by his video to re-share it on Facebook, even though I do not know where Bukit Bintang is or who Gan is competing against. He lost the election, by the way.

  • Parodies come fast and furious. Many parody videos, images, and stories on “magic blackout” surfaced online within 24 hours of the results announcement. Opposition supporters have alleged that BN-tilted ballot boxes had magically appeared at several polling stations after experiencing blackouts.
  • Online show of solidarity can be impressive and impactful. In protest of alleged election fraud by the ruling coalition, many of my Malaysian friends changed their Facebook profile pictures and header images into black boxes. As a foreigner, it is hard for me to not take notice when so many of my Facebook fans transformed into black boxes!
  • Protest to reach the world and world leaders can be done online with minimal disturbance to the public, but can be just as effective in getting the message across.

    Many Malaysians took to commenting on the Facebook walls of other government leaders like U.S. President Barack Obama and my own prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, to highlight their concerns on election frauds. The leaders might not reply to the comment, but others will still read, especially if the comments come in hundreds and thousands.

  • Politics can be divisive on social media, but cohesive at the same time. I see Malaysian friends from both ends, each posting and re-posting content that is in favour of the party he or she supports. This is divisive.

    At the same time, genuine debates sometime surface in the comments. This is cohesive.

    Two friends might not share the same political view or support the same party, but at least there is a platform for them to hash out their differences in a civilised manner. They need not agree with each other at the end of the debate, but at least they have a better understanding of the point of view from the other side.

5 quick and dirty tricks to market online content

This article was first written for and published on the Social Media section of the International Newsmedia Marketing Association (INMA)’s blog on 16 April 2013:

Recently, I was the moderator for a panel discussion on blogging for leisure versus blogging for profit.

The session featured four prominent bloggers from Singapore and was attended by more than 70 bloggers and media professionals. It was held as a prelude to the sixth-annual Singapore Blog Awards, a successful social media campaign we have been running at, billed as the biggest social media event in Singapore.

What struck me after the forum discussion and chatting with the bloggers in attendance was the fact that many bloggers were seeking the elixir to instant online traffic.

Bloggers, just like newspaper publishers, are hungry for traffic. Whether the primary motivation for blogging is profit-driven or for leisure, what everyone wants are readers and eyeballs.

I am a relatively successful blogger myself who enjoys reasonably good traffic and fame outside of my work. The current president of Singapore thinks I am influential enough to invite me for a luncheon during his presidential campaign as a candidate. I get dozens of media invites daily, addressed to my personal blog.

How did I build up my blog traffic?

I used my personal blog,, as a platform to test content and find out what attracts Singaporean readers online.

I am going to share five simple, quick and dirty tricks to get Web traffic fast, based on my observation of Singaporean readers (and I believe universally online readers should replicate the same reading pattern with globalisation):

1. Sex sells.

I am not just referring to porn, but sexy news on celebrities or ordinary folks’ leaked sex crimes or sordid stories. The Internet is where readers thrive on traditional tabloid news, but in an uninhibited frontier.

2. Lists sell.

Top 10 lists give high Web traffic. People are lazy and tend to search for terms like “Best Restaurants in London” when they are looking for a place to eat.

Building a large log of such evergreen listing content bumps up your traffic with a fixed base.

3. Images sell.

Online attention is really short. I find that peppering blog posts with photos and videos, making your content more visually arresting, helps vastly to garner readers.

4. Real “breaking news” sells.

I am not referring to “breaking news” that every single news publisher is writing about at the same time. What I am referring to is genuinely breaking news, whereby you are the first and only content provider of a piece of news for at least an hour after your story has gone viral.

Media publishers tend to use the term “breaking news” too liberally.

5. Niche content sells.

One of the most-read blog posts I have written is a simple article on how to unsubscribe from an unpopular army magazine that all conscripted Singaporean males have been “opted in” for. This is very niche content and my blog post might be one of the only sources of information about this topic.

There you go, now you know my secrets (which are not really rocket science).

I practice what I preach. In fact, I have just used item No. 2 to market this article.

To read more of my writings on social media and publishing, do visit this link to access all my posts with INMA. 

Social media needs newspaper publishers — and vice versa

This article was first written for and published on the Social Media section of the International Newsmedia Marketing Association (INMA)’s blog on 17 Mar 2013:

Doomsday social media practitioners like to predict the death of news publishers with the advent of social media, just as people used to predict the “death of radio” with television and the “death of television” with Internet.

To this day, all these different media are still very much alive, each finding its own audience and adjusting to survive.

What is social media?

From Wikipedia: “Social media refers to the means of interactions among people in which they create, share, and exchange information and ideas in virtual communities and networks.”

Fundamentally, social media is about two things: the people and the act of content sharing.

Where does shared content come from?

Sans the rare breaking news stories, images captured by citizen journalists, and updates on cute cats and dogs (you get the drift), what makes up the bulk of the content being shared on social media? Rather, where does quality content comes from?

News publishers.

Most of the content shared on social media is reposts of online newspaper or magazine articles and professionally taken photos or videos by news organisations or media personnel.

Recently, a video posted by, the bilingual news and entertainment Web portal where I work, went viral in Singapore, garnering close to 1,000 Facebook shares in a matter of days.

Heart-wrenching moment during the funeral of the two brothers (image via
Heart-wrenching moment during the funeral of the two brothers (image via

The video featured the funeral of two young Singaporean brothers who were killed on the spot in a tragic traffic accident that tugged the heartstrings of the nation. The article accompanying the video garnered another 1,000 shares.

If you combine the two, that is more than 2,000 Facebook shares.

The number might not seem large, but in Singapore’s context, it is. Singapore has a small population of just over five million, and most are not avid “news sharers” culturally. News articles seldom even reach 100 shares.

When the news first broke, many Singaporeans shed tears and shared the family’s heartache at the unfortunate demise of the two brothers. Their parents were both ordinary, working-class Singaporeans with whom many could identify.

The public was hungry for news about the funeral and how their family members and parents were coping. Many wanted to help, whether in monetary form or by providing moral support.

Where does such news and information come from then? Was citizen journalism via social media enough?

No, most of the relevant news content came from news publishers. In fact, there were some tasteless members of the public who kept re-posting leaked photos of the horrific corpses of the two boys, despite calls from the boys’ family to stop.

I am proud to say none of my newsroom colleagues published those photos. We joined in the call for others to stop circulating them. In the end, the newsrooms’ reports were the news content and photos that went viral, not the photos of the corpses.

Quality content has to come from somewhere. It has to be professionally written and produced. Social media needs newspaper publishers because, without news content, there is nothing much to share.

Nonetheless, with social media, there is a paradigm shift in power from the newsroom editors as the sole influencer to the public as influencers. The editors curate what goes to print first. But after the news content is published, it is the individuals who curate each piece of news content that comes out – deciding whether it should be shared on his or her own Facebook profile.

“The medium is the message,” wrote Canadian media scholar Marshall Mcluhan in 1964. The phrase is still relevant today. Social media shapes how we produce, consume, and engage with news content. But, fundamentally, social media is about sharing, and you need content to share.

Hence content is still king.

It is not all doom and gloom. Social media needs news publishers (and vice versa). We just have to adapt and adjust to this new medium.

Don’t you agree?

To read more of my writings on social media and publishing, do visit this link to access all my posts with INMA.