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.

It's not just ordinary people who have become desensitised - financial markets have been getting complacent too.

In the last month alone, apart from the rampant bloodshed in the Middle East, three planes crashed and a Portuguese bank flirted with disaster. These incidents were alarming in themselves, but they also revealed economic and geopolitical fragilities that could erupt into large- scale crises given the right circumstances and trigger.

Yet, stock markets continued their relentless climb, with many hitting multi-year highs last month. It wasn't until the end of last week, when Argentina officially defaulted on its debt for the eighth time, that markets finally swooned.

Perhaps, it is because these crises, still relatively isolated geographically, are out of sight and, therefore, out of mind. Surely, something closer to home would also be closer to our hearts?

Not necessarily. When the National Library Board (NLB) withdrew three books from its children's section last month, because they depicted family structures not in line with "community norms", the ensuing outcry exploded across Singapore's mass media. Passionate outpourings flooded newspapers, social media and conversations.

Yet, a survey by government feedback unit Reachfound that four in 10 of 843 Singaporeans polled knew nothing of the issue. This despite the fact that 3.2 million residents - six in 10 - are active Facebook users, and seven in 10 are estimated to use social media regularly.

On average, Singaporeans spend more than five hours a day on the Internet using a computer. Clearly, not all of them are reading the news.

Of course, it's not fair to tar everyone with the same brush. Many Singaporeans know more about global affairs than citizens of big countries like Japan or the United States, some of whom don't seem aware of a world beyond their own national borders. Indeed, it was heartening to see more than 300 people gather at Hong Lim Park last weekend to show their support for the beleaguered people of Gaza.

But, for those who still think that other people's quarrels are none of their business, it's time to think again.

A few days after MH17 was downed, Malaysia Airlines was in the news once more, this time for diverting flights away from Ukraine - to fly over war-torn Syria instead.

As one article put it: There are few conflict-free routes left between Asia and Europe. Like it or not, there is a high chance that some of us will eventually have to take our chances in the sky.

Similarly, the dispute over the NLB's actions is not just a localised fight between conservative parents and a liberal minority, nor is it relevant only to people who borrow library books or have children.

It is a national issue that matters to all of us who care about fair processes in our state institutions, and who want a say in the country we call home.

There's also a more self-interested reason not to carry on with our news blinkers. If we don't pay attention to or take a stand on what goes on around us, how can we expect support from others when it's our turn in the hot seat?

On this tiny island, Singaporeans cannot afford wilful ignorance or blithe nonchalance about current affairs.

Our economy is too dependent on external events to shut an eye to foreign wars. And as a local community, we co-exist too closely together for us to ignore potential rifts in our social fabric.

That's why we all need to pay attention to the news at home and abroad. To become more empathetic global citizens, to create a better Singapore, and to foster a more enlightened world.


This article was first published on August 3, 2014.
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