Thinking Aloud

Top 10 Opinion articles online in 2017

From humorous columns to serious analysis of foreign policy and warnings about the education system, these are the top 10 best-read Opinion commentaries

I often try to devote the last column I write each year to readers and their responses.

In the old days, Dear Readers, you would put pen to paper and painstakingly write your comments, pop the letter into an envelope, write down the address and stick a stamp on, then mail it. Some sent hand-written cards. The letters and cards would be opened with a sense of anticipation. I still have some, as keepsakes.

Then computers and printers became commonplace and most mail came printed. When e-mail took off, it was a thrill to get direct readers' responses going straight into my digital mailbox. These days, with social media and Straits Times articles being posted and shared on countless individuals' Facebook, LinkedIn or other social media pages, many readers respond to an article directly on the page it is posted, with a Like, a Frown or a comment. The writer of the article may not even be aware of the discussion around what they've written.

Readers' responses to an article are thus disaggregated and distributed. When an article is written, it is sent out into the digital ether, where it can then develop a life of its own. I sometimes miss the immediacy and intimacy of the old days, when we got direct responses from readers, complete with pen markings of deletions, additions or amendments. But I am grateful that social media and the Internet have given journalists' writings a reach we could not have imagined in the pure print days, when you needed a physical copy of the newspaper to read an article.

These days, many of our articles in The Straits Times have a reach far beyond the print readership. Just how wide a reach, we can sometimes fathom. Thanks to data analytics powered by social media sensing tools, publishers can have a sense of the reach of an article.

So I'm using my last column of the year to highlight the top 10 best-read articles that appeared on The Straits Times Opinion pages online.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

As far as topics go, a look at the articles suggests a strong interest among ST readers for commentaries on Singapore-China ties (three of the top 10 related to that issue) and on the Lee family feud (two). Two commentaries on education (on not studying law, and killing the drill approach in schools) were in the top 10.

As sources go, the Top 10 list came from different sources. Commentaries published on The Straits Times Opinion website (www.straitstimes.com/opinion) come from different sources: ST's own writers, expert contributors from Singapore and around the world, and reprints from wire agencies or other publications.

I was happy to see that ST's own writers more than held our own. Among the top 10 are articles produced by staff reporters such as our film correspondent John Lui.

Former ST editor Han Fook Kwang, now a regular Sunday Times columnist, had two of his columns in the Top 10 - on the Lee family feud and on whether Singapore, despite being a young nation at 52, was losing its nimbleness and behaving like an old country.

Two of my articles also made it to the Top 10: one on Singapore-China ties and the other on my company Singapore Press Holdings' retrenchment exercise.

Two other Top 10 articles were reprints: one was first posted on WeChat in Chinese; and the other, by Tom Plate, was first published in the South China Morning Post.

Two of the top 10 were articles written by academics like retiring dean of the Lee Kuan Yew school of public policy Kishore Mahbubani and law dean Simon Chesterman.

Some of my takeaways on what connects with readers, looking at the list above:

1. HUMOUR WORKS

The most widely-read piece was a tongue-in-cheek article by our film correspondent John Lui. In the article titled "Guys, please stop saying 'bro', 'dude', and 'mate'", John takes a jibe at the common practice here of men calling each other by such names, employing sardonic humour and word play.

Here's an excerpt from his article:

 

"I used to be fine with 'bro' until I noticed that men only use it to add a layer of sugar over a hard nugget of compressed fertiliser. 'Bro' is the verbal equivalent of a co-worker who drops by your desk and gives you a back massage - it is an awkward move, made worse by how it is just a prelude to a metaphorical slap in the face. 'Bro' is often followed by 'can I get a discount?' after a deal is set. It is invoking the bro code at the last minute, which is strictly brohibited unless there has been a brolific and brogressive display of broactive behaviour. Get with the brogramme, guys."

The piece went viral the day it was published. A snappy Facebook blurb ("I'm not your bro, dude. I'm not your dude, mate" ) helped extend its reach.

Another piece that used humour came from law faculty dean Simon Chesterman. Written as a letter to his 18-year-old younger self, it uses irony in urging a young Simon not to study law if he wants to do so for money, to gain power or for prestige. It resonated with readers to become the No. 4 best-read article.

2. READERS ENGAGE WITH SERIOUS ISSUES AND ROBUST DISCUSSION

Singapore-China ties were volatile in 2017, and readers followed commentaries on the issue closely. Three of the Top 10 articles were on this issue.

In overall No. 2 best-read spot was a piece translated from Chinese, written by William Zheng Wei. In No. 3 spot was Kishore Mahbubani's Qatar: Big lessons from a small country. He argued provocatively that a small state like Singapore should learn to be more circumspect in its dealings with big powers, including China. The article generated strong rebuttals from other veteran diplomats, including the foreign minister.

My own article, "3 myths about Singapore-China ties", sought to debunk the views of those who think that Singapore had changed its stance on China and who want to pressure the Government to be more accommodating towards it.

3. READERS CONNECT WITH DIRECT EXPERIENCES

My third takeaway is that articles that draw on writers' personal experiences can get read widely. In the article "Let's kill the drill approach in schools", Bobby Jayaraman writes not as an investment professional which he is, but as a father of a nine-year-old who tutors his child.

It is a stinging, honest rebuke of the way schools here teach maths and English to students, using set methods to help them score well in tests.

Using the teaching of writing in English as an example, he wrote: "Children practise writing on a narrow set of topics - ones likely to appear in examinations. Essays written in pretentious, flowery language are termed 'model essays' and used to set expectations. An introductory passage could be something like 'I glanced out of my window and felt the cool breeze (yes, this is Singapore!) on my neck. The pale sunlight filtered through the majestic trees while the magnolia clouds floated freely in the sky...'

"Tuition centres, in particular, encourage pupils to memorise such drivel to score high marks. Such writing encourages plagiarism from a young age. Children don't learn to appreciate that writing an essay is supposed to convey their feelings and thoughts, rather than regurgitating memorised passages and other people's ideas."

Apart from being well-written and well-argued, the article is shot through with emotion: one can sense the frustration and sorrow of a father at the way his child is wasting hours with such teaching, as well as glean the regret he feels for a nation that is, in his view, schooling children all wrong. Whether you agree with him or not, you can sense how authentic the views in the article are.

I think that is why my article on SPH's retrenchment was also quite widely-read: because it was a first-hand, lived-through account of what it was like to be in an organisation going through a retrenchment exercise.

I often tell contributors who want to have their articles published in The Straits Times that two things matter: analysis and anecdote.

Analysis grounds an expert opinion in facts, empirical research as well as careful, meticulous reasoning. Analysis alone can make or break a piece. But anecdote energises and enlivens analysis. Analysis with good anecdote can be transformed from a piece that appeals to the head to one that grips readers by the heart or by the throat, and urges readers: Read me, Engage with me - Like me, Comment on me, Share me.

We live in a demanding and relentlessly competitive world. With so many good stories and so much good content demanding our attention, journalists and editors have to work harder, smarter and more creatively to try to get a slice of the attention from readers.

Dear Readers, to all of you who have read, liked, commented, shared, our articles, a sincere Thank You for your support. To those who disliked us, dissed us or trashed us while sharing our articles, Thank You and we will try harder next year to improve. And to the many erudite, hardworking, creative writers and contributors who have helped make The Straits Times Opinion pages a platform for interesting views, a big Thank You.

Dear Readers and Dear Contributors, together you make my job as Opinion editor a delight.

Happy New Year!

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 31, 2017, with the headline 'Top 10 Opinion articles online'. Print Edition | Subscribe