“Live” television debate equals “entertainment’?

“We have live debate all the time in the parliament. I think that is the most appropriate place for us to conduct our debate unless you think otherwise. All discussions are recorded officially in the parliament proceedings, the Hansard. Hence we make sure of our facts before we debate.

I guess what you want is entertainment, a debate or dialogue on TV. I think all MPs should make full use of parliamentary sessions to debate on issues affecting all Singaporeans.”

– PAP MP Dr Lim Wee Kiak on the P65 blog in reply to a comment by a reader who asked for a ‘live’ tv debate between PAP MPs and opposition MPs.

Dr Lim’s comments bring up several points to ponder on. First, should debates be only confined to parliament? Second, does ‘live’ tv debates equate to “entertainment”? Three, should debating issues be left only to Members of Parliament (MPs)?

While everyone acknowledges that parliament is no doubt the best place to effect changes to laws and regulations, it does not mean that debates (on issues which affect the country and Singaporeans ) should be confined to just parliament. There are several reasons why this is so:

1. Parliamentary debates are not accessible to every or even most members of the public. One, because there are limited seats in parliament. Two, because our media does not cover the speeches in full on tv (whether “live” or delayed). Three, parliamentary debates takes place during working hours when most Singaporeans are at the office or work place and thus have no way of listening in to the debates.

2. The public does not take part in parliamentary debates

3. We have seen government ministers debating with schoolchildren, with members of the media, and with adult Singaporeans on tv. Thus, the view that debates on tv are ‘entertainment’ is not quite accurate. Else, the government ministers would be guilty of this as they debated with members of the public on tv.

4. Parliamentary debates only – albeit necessarily – involve a select and limited group of people who are elected to speak on behalf of the people.

5. And although parliamentary debates are “live” in the sense that MPs are physically there, it however does not involve the public, who aren’t “live” in parliament.

Thus, to say that we should not have “live” tv debates is to ignore all the above points.

The PAP government is well-known for disdaining such “live” events. The only “live” political events we have are the National Day Parade, The PM’s National Day Rally Speech, and a “live” swearing-in ceremony when we have a change of PM.

And that’s about it.

We do not even have shows or programmes involving opposition party members.

The recent issues of the GST hike was “debated” on television – but after it has been passed in parliament. Ministers were invited guests on these programmes to explain, rather than debate, the issue.

The point to note is that this took place after the proposal was passed in parliament. This is a critical observation as it gives the perception that the government is only interested in explaining what it has already decided – instead of trying to gather feedback and include this in its deliberations before implementation.

Now, imagine the depth of discussion that would have taken place if the issue of ministerial salary was debated “live” on tv.

I do not think that anyone would see this as “entertainment”, simply because it is an issue which every Singaporean is interested in. Thus, one would have to disagree with Dr Lim that “live” tv debates are “entertainment”.

Such debates serves an important purpose, especially when the government itself is talking about an ‘inclusive society’.

How can we be an ‘inclusive society’ when at the most important times when the government is contemplating critical issues affecting the lives of all Singaporeans, that Singaporeans are excluded from such debates?

It goes against the very idea of the government’s own philosophy of “every Singaporean counts” and “an inclusive society” – and an “open society”.

Rather than dismiss such ideas, what would be more constructive is for the government to see how such debates can be structured so that it does not become “entertainment”.

I am sure that this is not an impossible task.

And maybe, just maybe, when we have regular and engaging debates on national policies “live” on national tv (involving all points of views and including from the opposition parties as well), we will finally begin to bring national debates to a new and higher level in Singapore.

And Dr Lim and the PAP government should trust that Singaporeans are smart and intelligent enough to see through anyone who is just out there to “entertain”, whether they are from the ruling PAP or the opposition parties.

After 40 years of a first-class, first-world education, it would be rather sad if the government does not trust Singaporeans to be discerning enough to tell fluff from substance.

“My own sense of it is that Singapore is now a much more mature society and generally the vast majority of Singaporeans can be trusted to make up their own minds, exercise their choices and act responsibly.”

“If the entire population needs to be protected from their own choices, then we’ll be in a very, very sorry state in the future.”

Minister for Community, Youth and Sports Vivian Balakrishnan

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April 2007
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