Education, inequality and sexual harassment: The Straits Times' best-read Opinion pieces of 2018

PHOTOS: ST FILE, ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

SINGAPORE - The Straits Times publishes many commentaries throughout the year, with many appearing in the Opinion pages or the Opinion section of our website.

I try to compile a list of some best-read commentaries at the end of the year. Here is this year's list:

Education

Reflecting Singaporeans' concern on education, the No. 1 best-read commentary was a personal column by young reporter Jose Hong in January, on how far he had moved from his 16-year-old self when he got his O-level results, to his adult 26-year-old self.

At 16, he wanted to make films. At 26, he was a journalist.

His advice to those who just got their O-level results: "This is only the beginning of a very long journey, a journey that will twist and turn in ways that you will never be able to imagine."

Sexual harassment

No. 2 was another personal column by a young reporter - Olivia Ho's vivid account of the day she was followed home by a stranger in a car.

Sexual harassment was the theme of a couple of the best-read Opinion articles of the year.

Inequality

Among the top 10 were three articles on inequality - not surprising given the depth of interest and angst over the issue throughout the year.

Sociologist Teo You Yenn has achieved near cult-like status among thousands of fans with her insightful ethnographic book, This Is What Inequality Looks Like.

We ran an excerpt from the book in February. She wrote a few more articles on inequality throughout the year, but the excerpt from her book remained the best read at No. 7.

The excerpt looks at the toll education takes on family life across the class strata.

She wrote: "In conversations with low-income parents, education comes up repeatedly as a major source of anxiety. Low-income parents - and especially mothers - tell me that an important reason why they need to quit their jobs or cut back on wage work is because their kids are struggling in school.

"My low-income respondents cannot really help their kids with homework. Many of them barely finished primary school. My friends, mostly university graduates, tell me that by Primary 3 or 4, they struggle to help their kids with homework. A few of my middle-income respondents (from an ongoing research project) told me about attending courses in order to learn how to coach their children, particularly in Mathematics.

"The reality, then, is that all parents experience deep limitations as they try to navigate their children's schooling; most of them, after all, are not teachers. Nagging, screaming, sometimes beatings, resistance, tears - these seem par for the course in parent-child interactions as parents try to help with homework."

Other commentators have argued that Singapore's approach to social welfare needs re-examination: more schemes won't be effective if they do not address underlying structural causes of poverty and inequality.

In particular, some social workers and activists have argued in the Opinion pages that criteria for social assistance is skewed and excludes some people who need help most.

Apart from You Yenn, another commentary by social worker veteran Sudha Nair responding to critics of Singapore's approach to social policy was also well-read.

The article details a long-term programme to help tenants of rental blocks work through their difficulties and improve their lives to get permanent housing. In print, it had a sober headline "Helping families find hope and courage to change".

Online, we used a catchier headline that highlighted a particular family mentioned in the article: "$500 a month on cable TV and cigarettes and this family still wants aid?"

It propelled the story to No. 5 on the Top 10 list for the year.

Apart from You Yenn and Sudha, the third article on inequality that was well-read was a piece I wrote.

I coined the term "casual snobbery" to warn of an increasing tendency among the well-heeled to assume that everyone else earned as much, or lived the same kind of lifestyle, as they did. It struck a chord with readers and was No. 3 on the list.

Politics

Two other articles of mine made it to the Top 10.

No. 4 was my piece on takeaways for Singapore from the Malaysian general election, in which I suggested that Singapore look at how ready its institutions are - such as Parliament, the elected presidency, civil service, armed forces - for regime change.

Another piece of mine on the new 4G leadership, in January 2018, was No. 9. In it, I remarked on how unusual it was for the group of the fourth generation political leaders to issue a joint statement to tell their political elders hurrying them to appoint a leader among themselves, that they would do so "in good time".

Transport

Reflecting Singaporeans' obsession with cars, a commentary by senior transport correspondent Christopher Tan on whether Singaporeans are falling out of love with the car was No. 8.

In No. 10 was another piece on transport: analysing the transformation plans of Singapore Airlines, a beloved and sometimes controversial local icon, by Karamjit Kaur.

In a year of the Trump-Kim summit, much ado over Brexit, trade wars, and the consolidation of power in China, it says much of the depth of interest among The Straits Times that the best-read articles were all on local issues. Even the one on the Malaysian election was interpreted through an entirely Singapore lens.

But the 10 best read articles represent just a fraction of the many worthwhile, thought-provoking articles we run.

We will continue to serve up worthy fare on local issues - and hope to garner many more readers for our regional and global affairs commentaries.

From the Opinion team to all our readers and contributors, our detractors and supporters - thank you for reading and engaging with us over an interesting year.

And may 2019 be even more interesting!