By Amelia Tan
THE letters just keep coming.
Contributors to The Straits Times' Forum pages sent in around 24,300 letters last year, more than double the number in 2000.
And more of these contributors are younger people - the group thought to prefer giving their two cents' worth in online chatrooms, blogs or social networking websites.
About 200 of these writers turned up last night for this newspaper's annual gathering of Forum letter writers, held at the Singapore Press Holdings News Centre Auditorium in Toa Payoh North.
Forum editor Yap Koon Hong gave them a roundup of the numbers and the hot topics the letters covered in the last year.
ST editor Han Fook Kwang then thanked the writers for their support before the floor was thrown open for a question-and-answer session. The panel fielding the questions comprised Mr Yap, Mr Han and straitstimes.com editor Joanne Lee.
Several writers suggested during the dialogue that ST increase the number of pages given over to the Forum section so more letters would see print.
The paper sets aside up to three pages for the Forum on Saturdays. An alternative they suggested: Ask contributors to write shorter letters.
Mr Han replied that ST already devotes more pages to letters than many other newspapers, but because of the competition for space from other sections of the paper, he has to make sure the right balance is struck.
Mr Yap said he was heartened by the support of those who submit letters to the Forum pages and the growing number of younger contributors who bring fresh perspectives to issues.
Other writers remarked that the views in online forums were often ill-considered.
Retiree Ronald Lee, 71, said even the comments posted on straitstimes.com were 'frivolous and crude' and that it annoyed him that ST allowed such comments.
Ms Lee said the paper's online team would look into managing online postings more tightly.
Some of the younger contributors interviewed said they chose ST's Forum over blogs and online discussion boards owing to its varied, sizeable audience and the quality of the letters published.
Book publisher Ow Shen Huai, 27, whose letter on Singaporeans' lack of graciousness and friendliness was published last year, said: 'ST is the biggest paper here and it is read by the Government. I feel it's an effective way to get my views heard and to make an impact.'
National serviceman Benjamin Joshua Ong, 20, who aired his views on the move to allow mixed- heritage children to adopt double-barrelled race classification, said the quality of letters in the Forum pages is higher than that of the comments found online. 'I think it's because when you write a letter, you're forced to think of how to put across your views coherently.'
Mr Han said a newspaper is 'a living, breathing, active member of the community' and not 'a passive provider' of news. 'It does this through the stories it tells of the ups and downs of society. And one of the best ways of telling these stories is through the letters it receives from its readers.'
To dialogue participants who asked what checks and balances ST exercised to address criticisms that it was a government mouthpiece, he said: 'Our circulation is 380,000 and we have a readership of 1.4 million. These are people who buy the paper every day. We're aware people say we're a government mouthpiece or that we are biased. But the test is if our readers believe in the paper and continue to buy it.'
This article was first published in The Straits Times.