We ignore the news at our own peril

We ignore the news at our own peril

Until midnight on July 17, the troubles in Ukraine seemed like just another footnote in the foreign news pages.

Even as a journalist, I had only the faintest understanding of the crisis. All I knew was that prime ministers had been ousted, Russia was somehow involved, and everyone was fighting over Crimea.

That was all the information I thought I needed about a situation that was, after all, halfway across the world.

Then, a Malaysia Airlines passenger plane on its way home was shot out of the sky on July 17, and suddenly the crisis didn't seem so distant - or so irrelevant - any more.

No Singaporeans were on board MH17, but they could well have been. Or a Singapore Airlines flight, passing over the same area where MH17 went down, might have suffered a similar fate.

In today's globalised world, there are also people in Singapore who knew some of the 298 victims of the MH17 crash.

It was a sobering reminder that even the most seemingly remote conflicts are just one unexpected event away from hitting uncomfortably, even tragically, close to home.

We get occasional jolts of this lesson, such as when Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said in Parliament last month that a "handful" of Singaporeans have gone to fight in Syria's civil war and a few others were detained before they could leave. It was another chilling example of how a distant war between strangers can extend its violent tentacles into our comfortable society.

Yet, based on the articles that are most popular on this newspaper's website and other news outlets, it seems many of us skip the gory photographs and skim the headlines that don't concern us.

Only when a major event unfolds in a longstanding saga do readers show interest, and even then, mostly in articles with headlines such as "Five things you need to know about the situation in Ukraine/Syria/Gaza".

Maybe it's because we're too busy with our own quotidian struggles - work, family, friends - to spare a thought for larger issues, whether it's politics, religion, economics or the environment.

Maybe, frighteningly, this indifference is because we've become inured to carnage. The last world war ended 70 years ago, but smaller battles have constantly raged on in various corners of the world.

With no end in sight, the increasingly murderous conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Gaza seldom reach the front pages any more, much less our consciousness.

But even newer wars of terror, such as the one Boko Haram is waging in Nigeria, are failing to make a dent. Barely 100 days since more than 200 schoolgirls were kidnapped by the terrorist group, the news has faded out of the media and our fleeting attention span.

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