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Here’s How We Got the Straits Times Forum to Publish Our Nonsense Letters

Here’s How We Got the Straits Times Forum to Publish Our Nonsense Letters

  • Culture
  • Life
Top image credit: Ali Yahya / Unsplash

The Gifted Education Programme may have produced top leaders, but it has nothing on the Straits Times Forum, a platform for some of our nation’s most brilliant minds.

For example, there is Ms Tan Lay Hoon who once expressed concern for the safety of other commuters after she saw someone sewing on a train, Mr Joe Teo Kok Seah who wanted to stem the rise of tattooing, and Ms Amy Loh Chee Seen who recently called for fried rice to be removed from cooked food stalls.

Typical netizens, like Jason on ST’s Facebook page, have no idea what genius looks like. Ignore this fool.
Of course, not every forum letter writer is equally successful at riling up typically apathetic netizens.

The truth is, getting published in the forum is hard enough, but I notice it takes a specific combination of banality, absurdity, and earnestness in a letter to also make it go viral. All within 400 words.

In other words, challenge accepted.

To see if I could count myself among the nation’s elite, I decided to put my theory to the test. For 14 consecutive days, I submitted one letter daily to the ST Forum. (Click here to read the full compilation of letters sent.)

With the help of two colleagues, I created new email accounts and pseudonyms for this experiment: Yang Wen Yi, Michelle Lee Wei Yit, and Jacob Lau Wei Jun.

My objectives were straightforward: first, get published; second, go viral.

On 1 May, I commenced letter writing. It takes six tedious days before one finally gets published—and it’s not even a letter by me.

Instead, it’s meticulously penned by Pan Jie, our staff writer.

7 May 2018: “Keep Birds Away From Food”

I have noticed that hawker centres and other open-air eateries are frequented by birds of all kinds.

The other day, my colleagues and I were having lunch at an Indian-Muslim eatery when a pigeon flew into the kitchen. The little fella landed on the cutting board and began pecking away at the half-cut cucumbers lying about. After availing himself of vegetables, he then went on to make a buffet of the other rojak ingredients.

We tried to inform the establishment, but the culprit flew away before we could get the staff’s attention.

Don’t get me wrong, I like birds. I have nothing against them. However, I think that they should be kept away from food for the sake of hygiene.

Although bird flu hasn’t been in the news for quite a while, it remains a clear and present danger that deserves caution. Furthermore, stray birds have parasites and their dirty feet may carry all sorts of disease-causing microbes.

I do not want to hurt the establishment by revealing their name, but more needs to be done in order to protect our food from flying pests. This is not the first time I’ve seen birds invading kitchens. Perhaps NEA can work with Jurong Bird Park to deploy more strident anti-bird measures in our kopitiams.

Nets and shiny objects come to mind.

Yang Wen Yi (Ms)

Published: Yes.

Possible reasons for success: Topic discusses hygiene, one of Singapore’s obsessions, in a novel way. Humour in the last line is so subtle that it may be taken as a serious suggestion, depending on who reads it.

After the first letter gets published, I am 70% more confident in my ability to bypass ST Forum’s ‘stringent’ vetting process. Let’s put it this way: we are lucky that the same people who moderate the forum do not handle our national security.

Instead of taking the humourous route for the next letter, I choose to go with an earnest tone. It is the most politically correct and boring thing I’ve written.

It gets published.

8 May 2018: “Discussing Cultural Appropriation Can Teach Us Empathy”

I commend the recent analysis on the issue of cultural appropriation surrounding the US teen who wore a qipao to her prom (Why some are offended over qipao prom dress; May 5).

Interestingly, netizens from China support the girl’s decision to wear their cultural costume to prom, while Chinese Americans took issue with it.

Following the hoo-ha, I remember reading a Facebook comment from a Singaporean Chinese friend: “The way China reacted is the way it should be. We must prevent ourselves from being victims of the political correctness that has plagued the US.”

As a fellow Singaporean Chinese person, I am unsurprised at this reaction. We regard the teenager’s use of the qipao as culture appreciation instead of appropriation, because it’s easy for us to take this perspective when we make up the majority race in our country. We are not discriminated against, and so we find it difficult to empathise with those who have been and still are.

On the other hand, Asian Americans were offended by the girl’s dress because their culture was always mocked while they were growing up in America as a minority. As someone who has no idea how it feels to be a minority, it’s not my place to tell them that their feelings don’t matter or that they’re being too sensitive.

Instead, this entire issue has taught me to empathise with minorities in Singapore. They go through experiences unique to their position in society. If we aspire to be a better society, it is imperative that we listen when they speak.

I hope that teachers and parents will also use this instance to educate the younger generation on racial harmony and its nuances.

Michelle Lee Wei Yit

Published: Yes.

Possible reasons for success: Sincerity: Check. Progressive but predictable perspective on current affairs: Check. Absence of enough personality so this seems to have been extracted from a model composition book: Check, Check, Check.

I am on a freaking roll and nothing can stop me. Well, except for a poorly written letter. My letter on 9 May does not get published.

Thankfully, on 10 May, I taste success again. Sort of.

This was also written by Pan Jie.

10 May 2018: “Toilet Rolls Should be Placed Inside Cubicles”

I often visit hawker centres with my family for meals.

Sometimes, nature calls while I’m having dinner and there is no choice but to use the toilets there.

It is not a good experience. Hawker centre toilets are often quite dirty and it is rather distressing to poop outside the comfortable environs of one’s home.

Thus, one can imagine the distress caused by toilet paper dispensers that are positioned outside of the toilet rather than beside the toilet bowl. It is truly anxiety-inducing.

Not only does it force you to declare your intentions to the whole world, it also causes further anxiety as you wonder if you’ve taken inadequate toilet paper, or perhaps a little too much.

In any case, it does not make for a nice experience.

As a first world nation, we should trust our citizens not to abuse free toilet paper. If this basic level of civic-minded behaviour cannot be expected in our fellow man, then we do not deserve to be called a first world nation, and should probably go back to pooping on trees.

Jacob Lau Wei Jun

An abridged version of our letter, but still, a win.
Published: Yes.

Possible reasons for success: ST has developed a sense of humour. Writing a public letter about one’s toilet business when one precisely does not want anyone else to know about said nature calls is irony at its finest—and ST knows it. I think.

At the end of two weeks, I have flexed my creative writing skills, possibly pissed off the ST Forum moderators, and gotten published a grand total of one glorious time. I also discover, much to my chagrin, that Pan Jie is a better forum letter writer than I am.

That said, none of our published letters go viral. The ones that get published aren’t even that fantastic.

Yet in the midst of this experiment, another letter goes viral (Mrs A Staveley-Taylor says that cabbies should not inflict their music on passengers), and I realise the key ingredient I’ve overlooked all along: an astounding sense of self-entitlement usually reserved for Singaporean stereotypes.

This particular level of entitlement insists on lodging a police report over trivial disagreements, instead of actual crimes.

It is essentially an almost blind and resolute belief that no one else matters.

Furthermore, given the fact that ST Forum’s rules and regulations page states that the writer’s full name (as per NRIC), address, and phone number are required, I am slightly disappointed that ST never asks for proof of my NRIC.

Unfortunately, being gullible enough to believe everything written on ST, I give them my real address and telephone number when I submit under the pseudonym Yang Wen Yi.

On the other hand, for the subsequent letters written under Michelle Lee Wei Yit and Jacob Lau Wei Jun, I don’t provide any address or phone number.

ST does not bother to ask for these details either.

And so I can’t help but wonder how legitimate these letters really are. Is Ms Tan Lay Hoon who thought it was unsafe to sew on the train, and who measured the length of the embroidery floss with sociopathic specificity, actually a bored copywriter with time to kill?

After the last 14 days, I am now convinced that ST Forum moderators deliberately select clearly dumb and banal letters that reflect quintessential Singaporean aggressive stupidity to liven up their otherwise dull job.

If that were truly the case, mission accomplished.

All I know is that the next time I am given fish porridge when I order pork porridge, miss an exit on the PIE because of a tree that is blocking my view, or have someone’s wet hair flicked in my face in the MRT, I know exactly where to air my grievances.

Click here to read the full list of ST Forum letters that we sent.

Yang Wen Yi is, in fact, my Chinese name in hanyu pinyin. But if you are unfortunately named Michelle Lee Wei Yit or Jacob Lau Wei Jun, I apologise for the fun I had at your expense.

If you are from ST, specifically ST Forum, feel free to give us a taste of our own medicine at community@ricemedia.co.

Author

Grace Yeoh Senior staff writer