Talking about Viewing Public Opinions With An Investigative Mind

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Viewing Public Opinions With An Investigative Mind

Some years ago, my friend Jason who owned a fish ball manufacturing company fell prey to adverse publicity generated by newspaper and eventually lost his business and became bankrupt. Such is the power of the print (not pen). The saga began when he leased out part of this factory premises to a reputable public company dealing in food and beverage business; like any shrewd businessman he was leveraging on the monthly rental from his heavy-weight tenant to pay off his loan instalments from an Indonesian bank for the purchase of the factory.

Every thing seemed to work smoothly for him, and he was even given a sweetener – to retail fish ball related products in the supermarkets owned by them. His particular brand of fish balls began to be popular and enjoyed brisk sales at these outlets. Soon, trouble brewed when his tenant complained that the chill room in his factory premises was not cold enough, and demanded that he upgrade it. The alteration work to the chill room would cost my friend Jason a bomb, and he was trying to stall the project and negotiate with his tenant through his lawyer for an alternative solution.

Whether coincidental or otherwise, there occured an unusual incident involving a complaint from a consumer who had supposedly bought his products from one of his tenant’s supermarkets, and claimed she found fish bones in one of those balls. She was interviewed by the press with picture of her and her baby whom she alleged had eaten the fishball and nearly swallowed the bone found therein. The ensusing bad publicity dealt Jason a deadly blow – his tenant took drastic action to stop selling his fishballs at all its outlets, and ordered him to withdraw all his products immediately. They also followed up by dropping another bomb, writing officially to his banker and telling them that they would refuse to pay anymore rental unless he met with the demand to upgrade the chiller. Of course, like any prudent banks, Jason was summoned to the bank HQ and was subsequently given an ultimatum to make full payment to the loan he took to buy his factory. A series of law suits took place and to cut the story short, Jason lost his factory, his fishball business and became a bankrupt. Meanwhile, his tenant not only took over his factory but also re-hired some of his better staff. Until today, I have my doubts over the partiality of the seemingly unsubstantiated newspaper report that fishbone was found in Jason’s product; Jason himself asserted that the high ended machinery in which his workers operated to grind the fish meat to make into fish balls was” manufacturer” guaranteed to be able to grind and remove all any harden substance, including bones. I volunteered to probe further into the matter in my capacity as private investigator but the defeated self-made business man did not not take up my offer.

I remember some years ago, when Singapore played host to an Israeli high profile politician, there was sensational press coverage in Malaysia of the so-called wide spread adverse reactons. Newspapers, one followed another, played up the controversy as if the whole nation was up in arms against Singapore for being “politically insensitive” . The satire played out by the local press scaled its crecendo when a comical opposition party official from one of the more obscure opposition groups added fuel to the entire firework by reportedly throwing himself over the railway track and lying there to protest against Singapore. As if not to be outdone by one and other, normally level-headed politicians in Malaysia jumped into the bandwagon to voice their dissensions, in their “interviews” with the media. My personal observation, backed up subsequently more rational reports – the whole issue was sensationalised out of proportions by the Malaysian news media, as if there was national wide protestation, whereas the bulk of ordinary folk over there remained unconcerned and detached, as they went about minding their own business – eking out a living and tending to their families.

Now, coming back to more recent time, I read with amusement the series of reports on the affiairs of the local table tennis organisation. The woman team won the much acclaimed silver medals in the Olympic Game held in Peking, and there was supposed to be a cause for a national rejoice. In the midst of this celebrative mood, the newly appointed president of the association was reported to have made known her decision to replace the team Manager and Chief coach. Apparently, she held them responsible for the poor performance of a man single player who played against an unseeded lesser known opponent and lost terribly . After his defeat, he complained that his morale was adversely affected because none of his coaches was presence during the match. What follow up were newspaper reports of supposedly indignation from the citizenry, crying foul over lady president’s decision to sack the officials involved, and criticising that she had marred an otherwise joyful celebrative mood by her bad judgement. Towards the end, as if she was an animal trapped in a corner, the dejected looking president had to publicly apologise for her supposedly so-called error in judgement, in a press conference called upon by the Minister involved with the organised sport activities. Our respectable Straits Times editorial team gleefully took out a front page lead, which I personally feel would normally be reserved for higher valued newsworthy items, to report the public apology by the president, with screaming headlines and extravagantly large coloured photograph. It was as if the newspaper had won over a victory over the “perceived” erring president of the table tennis organisation, (she is also a member of parliament), not the ordinary Singaporean men-ine-street.

In restropection, I do not arbitralily regard all press involvement in political and social issues as undesirable (for want of a better word). To substantiate my point, I recollect that during my stint as a journalist many years ago, there were press engineered publicities over bad social habits – the proliferation of “killer litters” and “road rages”. The incidents involving culprits deliberately throwing litters from high rise buildings endangering safety of passer-bys below the buildings, and errand motorists who took law into their own hand to bash fellow drivers during road accidents and disputes were commonplace those days. (I did not rule out the possibility that some fellow aggrieved journalists were themselves victims affected by these anti-social acts and prompted to vent their anger in their writings) Through extensive press coverage, editorials, and columns, public concern and awareness level were raised, and the local authorities – the enforcement and court officials – were indeed inspired to take stern action to deal with the offenders to deter would-be wrong-doers.

By Anthony Leong

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