From ‘Reservoir deaths and media responsibility’, 7 Nov 2011, article by Ong Dai Lin, Today
With the spate of deaths at Bedok Reservoir over the past five months, the media coverage of these incidents has come under the spotlight. Some residents living near the reservoir told Today that they were concerned about copycat behaviour arising from media reports, even as others reiterated the need for the media to report these cases because of public interest.
Both canteen stall operator Loh Ah Lian, 62, and senior technician Mano, 60, felt the media should refrain from reporting on the cases so as not to put ideas into people’s heads.
…Media consultant P N Balji, who has more than 25 years of journalism experience, felt that the media coverage of the deaths in Bedok Reservoir has been “quite sombrely”. But he noted that the reports on the prayer session held there on Saturday – which was carried on the front page of some national dailies here – was “kind of dramatised”. Mr Balji added: “The issue is that the media have to report (an incident). The big question is how you report it and not alarm the public.”
Psychiatrist Nelson Lee felt the media coverage on these incidents may have induced copycat behaviour. Said Mr Lee: “Some people may think it is a good way to do it … or some people may see it as a way to get back at someone because they think their deaths will be publicised.”
Suicide is so complicated that it requires a separate branch of psychology/psychiatry on its own, but killing yourself by wading into the deep end of a reservoir is nothing new, and people have been ‘copying’ the method since the earliest reported cases in the 50′s (Macritchie Reservoir). But note the difference in reporting; In the past, suicide was ascertained before the news gets published a few days later (e.g ‘Sick woman’s suicide‘). Today reporters rush to announce it on the day itself if possible to keep up with social media (e.g Another body found in Bedok Reservoir on Saturday morning), which though objective does raise public speculation, creating a viral, sensational whodunit (was it malign forces at work?suicide?murder?accident?). Today it’s not so much the WHY and HOW people kill themselves, it’s the WHO and WHERE.
Let’s take a brief look at history of suicide spates by drowning in reservoirs (by location and methods used to assist in the drowning, if any). Suicide was the verdict is most cases.
25 Oct 1951 (Macritchie, stone tied to waist), 24 Nov 1962 (Macritchie), 30 May 1965 (Peirce, by driving into reservoir, suicide pact between lovers), 21 March 1970 (Seletar reservoir), 15 June, 1973 (Macritchie), 8 March 1974 (Macritchie), 14 Jan 1975 (Macritchie, suicide suspected, cause uncertain), 19 December 1980 (Peirce)
Then headlining style changed. Suicide became journalistic taboo, and we encounter of series of ‘bodies’ found in reservoirs instead, and the increasing use of the jargon ‘Unnatural death’ or ‘do not suspect foul play’. Somehow, coroners just weren’t confident of stating ‘Verdict:suicide’ like they used to anymore. The same technique applied to stories of people ‘hit by trains‘ after jumping/falling onto MRT tracks. The media just didn’t seem comfortable leaking suggestions that society has failed the victims, that there MUST be some other reason, be it an invisible shove, a bout of dizziness or some form of intoxication, which has to be ruled out before confirming the obvious.
1980′s – 200o’s
17 Oct 1987 (Pandan Reservoir, ‘Woman found dead in reservoir’, ‘police do not suspect foul play‘), 22 Sept 1987 (Pandan Reservoir, ‘Bride-to-be drowned herself after abuse’), (22 November 1988 (Bedok Reservoir, ‘Body found in reservoir’, ST’), 14 April 1992 (Pandan Reservoir, ‘Woman’s body found in reservoir’, ST).
2000′s – current
29 Jan 2002 (Pandan Reservoir, ‘A body in the reservoir’, Today), 21 Sept 2005 (Bedok Reservoir, ‘Teen drowned, man found dead‘, unnatural death, Today), 6 Aug 2007 (Seletar Reservoir, ‘Missing woman found dead’, Today), 3 Jan 2008 (Seletar Reservoir, ‘Woman found dead in Seletar reservoir’, Today)
Until recently, there was no single hotspot for ‘dead bodies’ to appear, with Seletar, Bedok and Pandan all drawing the corpses. The last known case of non-Bedok drowning and suspected suicide was in Aug 17 2010 (Seletar). Could the rate of Bedok deaths in the past half year (since June) be a statistical anomaly, or if the ‘dramatised’ prayer sessions are anything to go by, the work of vengeful spirits? Could it be a part of the suicidal mind thinking ‘rationally’, based on Bedok’s ‘track record’ of ‘successful’ suicides? Or could suicide at Bedok Reservoir be the most extreme, final act of attention-seeking behaviour looking at all the buzz it’s generating, and people are banking on the hype before the potential to ‘alarm’ dies off? There is also a Catch-22 at play; the more people avoid Bedok out of an irrational belief in ‘supernatural forces’ as what the image of George Yeo endorsing religious rites perpetuates, the more likely a suicidal person, who probably doesn’t care about wailing ghosts, will want to kill himself there (less likely to be forcibly rescued by Good Samaritans). I mean, how often does one get a monk, nun, priest, rabbi, imam and a famous politician praying for your soul all at the same time?
Incidentally, safety barriers seem to be have put a stop to MRT deaths (The last known MRT death in 18 June 2011 coincides eerily with the first Bedok Reservoir death(20 June 2011) this year). Now the National Parks team may be considering ‘safety fences’ with barb wire for all reservoirs, though the MRT anti-suicide project suggests that suicides are not prevented, but merely DIVERTED. Even if all reservoirs were barricaded, I suspect leaping off landmark buildings , or inhaling charcoal fumes may be the next ‘trend’. You can’t stop people from wanting to kill themselves, or picking up suicide tricks like lemmings ‘following the leader’, from both local media, international news (especially celebrity suicides), or even film and books. Somehow, unintentionally, Bedok Reservoir has become a fashionable final destination like paracetamol has been branded the suicide drug of choice (though the failure rate is higher for the latter), with each death adding to a vicious cycle of ‘self-prophesising’ , ‘copycat’ suicides.
It remains to be seen if downplaying media, in light of the complexity of suicide, would stop people from drowning themselves in cult, snowball fashion, simply because you don’t need the state paper to ‘shout’ news anymore. Some of these victims may not even read the papers in their mental state, but chose Bedok out of pure coincidence. Unless you’re someone important, hanging isn’t the ‘thing’ anymore, and neither is pill popping, HDB-jumping or drinking insecticide, and if you want to get back at this awful world or someone who hurt you terribly be it a cheating lover or a boss who fired you from work, you’d want him/her not only to KNOW about your demise (i.e the suicide must be ‘visible’), but AS SOON AS POSSIBLE (attention-grabbing, impactful) and it must LINGER (to keep people talking about it, hence extending its ‘visibility’). Bedok Reservoir, being under tight media scrutiny and recipient of all sorts of charms and incantations, would therefore be a logical choice. Celebrities will own front page news no matter how they kill themselves. Ordinary folk only have Bedok reservoir.
Filed under: 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, 2010, 2011, Funerals/Death, Politicians, Public works, Religion, Superstitions Tagged: | Funerals/Death, Politicians, Public works, Religion, suicide, Superstitions