I learned many many years ago, that ultimately, all news is biased, for the simple fact that you would have to chose which news to report (otherwise you will never finish reading the newspaper and modern life would grind to a halt). And even if you did your utmost best to report it in an unbiased manner, this very fact of choosing would introduce bias in your news. But lets be honest – most of the stuff we read on a daily basis is biased. If people did write in an unbiased manner, then their piece of news wouldn’t be news – it would be an obscure report tucked away in a corner of a scientific journal and wouldn’t really make for good reading over your morning cup of coffee. This is why we have so called “scientific” magazines like ‘Popular Science’ and ‘Discover’ and ‘Scientific American’ with brazen and sensational headlines so that the rest of the world, you and me, would read them. We tell stories the way we see it through our eyes and our set of standards and values and norms, and people, hearing or reading our stories, do the same filtering.
So there, this site is biased because I choose to highlight the plight of refugees, rather than the Orang Asli, or single mothers, or the children of drug addicts, or 22 people kicking a ball in a square, opps rectangle field (biasedness is one thing, accuracy is another).
‘Sad Story’ Bias (Or Not)
But what looks like bias amazingly turns out to be attempts not to. Take the stories, for example. You would think that I will find the most horrible, heart wrenching stories out there because I would want to tug at your heartstrings. The fact was that I didn’t. Most of community leaders that I asked help from are so underfunded and understaffed that they don’t know these individual stories themselves. We just interviewed people that were in the centres, or at the places we visited. In fact, I had to go out of my way to look for happy stories to give a sense of balance, of hope. Although life goes on as usual for the vast majority of them, you only have to dig a bit deeper to find the almost universal stories of oppression, abuse, torture and slavery. This comes with the territory, because refugees are a special group quite apart from economic refugees and the illegal immigrants we are so used to here in Malaysia.
What I wrote on each person was also subject to bias, which was namely down to my nationality, and my life experiences. My writing style changed several times during the course of these interviews. I always asked them about their life back in their home country, life here in Malaysia, why they ran away from their country, and their plans for the future. I try to give the whole story, but focusing on parts that were emotionally important, either to me or to them. Of course, being a Malaysian, I can’t help but be curious as to how Malaysians – the Government and its people – treat refugees. And I can’t help myself when I feel a sense of outrage when my own people, my own government, treat them badly (not all the time, mind you, but sometimes). It strikes much closer to home. A bit like how you don’t really care if your friend’s auntie twice removed ran away with the postman, but would be appalled if your own mother did it. I can give a very broad generalisation and say that on balance life in Malaysia is better than back home, but when the choice back home was either to be a slave or pay up with money you don’t have, it’s not really saying much. Some articles, I wrote like a book, giving a commentary of what I was thinking and feeling as the story unfolded. For some, I used mostly their own words, and give you the reader full reign of your empathy and imagination to feel what it must have felt. To hear them and not me. But of course, you will ultimately still hear me, because I asked them the questions, and I choose which of their answers to write.
What seems like a gross bias on stories of people from Myanmar was inevitable for several reasons. Its representative because they actually comprise the vast majority of refugees in Malaysia (more than 80% according to UNHCR figures). The effect of their numbers is their ability to organise into groups, which also made sourcing individuals to interview that much easier. I knew most of the community leaders during my time working with MSF, an NGO which provided health services to refugees, and since we knew each other, trust was there from the beginning. Actually, we served the Acehnese as well, and they were the 2nd biggest group after the Myanmarese. After the peace agreement, however, they are no longer considered refugees, and most of them have gone back to Aceh.
Although this is not as apparent in the Myanmarese compared to the Acehnese, most of the refugees are also men within a certain age group. They, compared to the women and children, tend to flee more because they are sometimes prosecuted more. Forced conscription into the army, for instance, happens mainly to men within a certain age group. They probably tend to be accused more often of joining or helping the various ethnic armies in Myanmar, or perhaps being involved in student or political organisations. Having said that, women are on the other hand more vulnerable to sexual abuse, and like the men, they too face forced labour and portering.
‘Victim Story’ Bias
I struggled for quite some time when, after a talk with a fellow humanitarian, I realised with horror that I could be committing one of the big sins in the modern NGO world – that of portraying the refugees only as victims, utterly dependent and helpless, with not even a shred of dignity. I knew they were a highly resilient lot, recovering from horrors that I am sure would have driven me to madness or despair. So it would be grossly unfair if I were to portray them as helpless individuals. But on the other hand, I feel the overwhelming despair that some of them feel, of the mother of 5 who told me that she is going crazy, being in a foreign country, living in the jungle. The hurt of watching her 5 small children yanked from friends, family and school – a life, to now having trees as friends. The helplessness of having no control over her destiny – she truly cannot go anywhere, or do anything. In the end, I didn’t really know what to do and left my articles as they were, hoping that the readers read between the lines and know that these people, whatever they say in the interview, whatever they feel deep down in their hearts, go back to living their lives as it was. That everyday they are choosing to live, to fight, to hope for a better future.
Another side-effect of working with people who spoke a different language was the bias towards what happened, rather than of how they felt. A bias towards facts rather emotions. It was very difficult for me to gauge their emotions, knowing nothing of their language or how they used certain words or emphasised one over the other. And emotions were very much harder to translate. Most of the time I only got what they said, and lost the sense of how they said it and how it came across.
Unfortunately, some groups or ethnicities are not represented at all, due to time constraints, or the fact that after a while I got a bit complacent with the contacts I already had and didn’t push hard enough to get stories from other communities. For example, there are many ethnic groups from Myanmar, and sadly I have not at the time of writing been able to interview people of Rohingya ethnicity.
So there. With a little bit of thought, you will most probably be able to come out with more bias categories. But at least I have set you on your way. These stories are real, mind you. But what you get out of it, ultimately, will be down to bias. In you, in me, in them. Just be aware of them.