On the Rajahs of Ridout: we’re trying to get a commentary out by tomorrow morning, ahead of the parliamentary debate on Monday. If that happens, I’ll share it on my own social media channels, including Telegram. (Not ideal. We’d rather share it on Jom’s, but that may be delayed given that we’re at low capacity this week.)
This week we have two essays that are at the intersection of body, health, identity and ability. They are different in that one is about a young person’s lifelong quest to cope and live happily with an intrinsic disability, to be “normal” for society; whereas the other is about a middle-aged person who, faced with a health crisis, seeks to regain some semblance of his youthful body and fitness.
“Performing normativities” by Xie Yihui, a university graduate with a hearing disability, is a fascinating blend of first-person narrative—she helps us feel what it’s like not to hear fully—and philosophical inquiry into the nature of being for people with disabilities.
“Only when a disabled person proves themselves to be productive can they gain admission to the consumerist society—a phenomenon termed ‘ablenationalism’. Against this, Mitchell and Snyder argue that the inclusion of disabled people becomes meaningful only if disability is seen as providing another mode of living, contrary to the predominant norms of independence and productivity.”
Yihui’s piece was first published in Not Without Us: Perspectives on Disability and Inclusion in Singapore, released by Ethos Books this year. Thanks to both for allowing Jom to republish it.
Alongside that we have an original piece, “How I nudged myself into losing 10kg in 10 months, as my doctor advised” by Donald Low, a senior lecturer and professor of practice at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. The title reveals the approach: Donald, a behavioural economist, applies five insights from his discipline to help himself achieve a defined outcome after he realised his body fat levels were unhealthy—his doctor said he was “morbidly obese”.
“I have always had a self-image as a fit and healthy person. In school, I was a competitive runner; in my 20s and 30s, I took part in road races and triathlons…What I hadn’t realised was that my body’s metabolism had slowed and I was eating and drinking too much for my age (I turn 50 this year).”
Aside: as part of this important year for him, Donald is organising an 800m race on August 11th with friends and others to raise funds for the Resilience Collective (RC), a lesser-known mental health charity. Do donate. S$10 will help RC produce its mental resilience workshops. S$100 or more gets you a chance to run against the 50-year-old reliving his 30s.
There’s no “Singapore This Week” this week, as Jom is partly off. Early subscribers may recall our intention to have three weeks off a year: the last two weeks of the year, and one week in the middle. This is to give everybody a coordinated break. Once we’re bigger, we’ll have backup. Thanks for your patience and support as Jom grows. “Singapore This Week” will return on July 7th.
Instead, I’ll write a longer newsletter to talk about language sensitivities and how we handle them at Jom. As you may know, part of the objective with these newsletters is to engage in what some call “build in public”: offering you, the reader, behind-the-scenes insights into what it’s like building a media biz in Singapore. (In earlier ones we’ve explored issues like diversity at Jom, how we choose our political stories, and how we write about legal issues.)
For this anecdote, first think about Donald’s original title for his piece: “How I nudged myself into losing 10kg in 10 months.”
I thought it’s great. It alludes to behavioural economics; it includes defined, quantifiable outcomes that are important to many; and is catchy enough for other middle-aged people, like Donald, who need to lose weight for their health. It would inspire, I thought.
But three of my younger colleagues objected over Slack. Before we discuss their objection, you should know that at Jom anybody in the entire editorial team can have input on anything. And to control any potential autocracy, my co-founders Charmaine and Waye can together overrule me on anything, even word choice, as they’ve done before. Put another way, even as the “editor-in-chief” I can’t unilaterally decide on anything, not even an article title.
For my three colleagues, the title “How I nudged myself into losing 10kg in 10 months” could be perceived as “anti-fat/body shaming rhetoric”. They said that by highlighting the number of kilos lost in the title, we run the risk of reinforcing a weight-focused diet culture and a strict binary of thin = healthy, fat = unhealthy. Somebody who reads the title without context may interpret it, even subconsciously, as another “fatphobic” signal. As an editor in the digital world, I must pay extra attention to the risk of decontextualised nuggets flying through the web and perpetuating stereotypes, or just landing on a single individual the wrong way. (This kind of decontextualisation wasn’t a concern in the bygone, purely print era.)
There is a two-fold risk here for Jom. More important is the risk of our words causing harm to a vulnerable person—say, somebody suffering from bulimia. But there’s also optics for us to consider. Even if no individual is actually harmed there is the risk that Jom is perceived by our readers to be insensitive or even callous.
To be sure, even as I worry about all this, I think these linguistic objections can sometimes be taken to an extreme, as we’ve seen occasionally in California and other places. I’m also a bit sceptical of innocuous words and intentions being ascribed completely different meanings by others—which is often a projection of an individual’s own sensibilities. (One of the best recent pieces I’ve read about pejorative terms is The Economist’s “If stigma is the problem, using different words may not help”.)
So there is a tension here to manage. In many ways, through living this tension we can become better writers. Of course, we’re never going to completely eliminate the risk of somebody taking offence or being hurt by our words—but how do we minimise it? How can we be smarter and more sensitive about our use of language?
I think with Donald’s title, age certainly influences one’s reading of it. People around Donald and my age have heard countless stories of friends who’ve had to shed weight for health reasons. By contrast, with my Gen Z and Millennial colleagues, that kind of radical weight loss is probably more associated with individuals suffering under the oppression of a society that prizes thinness.
I suggested a compromise: “How I nudged myself into losing 10kg in 10 months, as my doctor advised” [emphasis mine]. The qualifier, in my view, would completely remove any chance that Donald’s weight loss would be perceived as for non-health reasons.
My colleagues disagreed. While acknowledging an improvement on the original, they still felt that it’s possibly “anti-fat/body shaming rhetoric”. That’s fine. We agreed to disagree. My co-founders didn’t feel the need to push back anymore.
And that’s the story of the title for Donald Low’s piece. Do we overthink things at Jom? Possibly. But slow journalism, mah….that’s why you like us.
p.s. Shout-out to YiZhong Zhuang, a Singaporean in Adelaide, for a letter on Singapore’s climate karma; and to a person I know who has chosen to remain anonymous in a letter on queer politics in Singapore. Check them out on Jom’s letters page.
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