Pritam Singh / Founder of OpinionAsia.com
The kerfuffle last week within the Singapore Malay National Organisation (PKMS), an opposition political party in Singapore must have been music to the ears of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP). After all, what better way to discredit the opposition than for the opposition to self-destruct on its own volition.
Thanks to Singapore’s self-proclaimed nation-building newspaper, The Straits Times (ST), English-newspaper reading Singaporeans came to be reminded that a party called the PKMS actually exists, owns a building and of course, is in the midst of an ostensibly self-induced leadership struggle.
On the surface, this was straightforward political reportage. But ST’s uncanny knack of picking, pitching and spinning political stories is rather more sophisticated. Sure enough, by the end of the week, on 6 Sep 2009 (on page 32, in a section aptly titled “think”), the weekly cartoon in the ST drew up a father pointing to a mass brawl outside the PKMS building telling his child, “Baby see! And remember this….don’t get into politics.” The message was a tad clearer. Don’t get into opposition politics.
Some weeks ago, ST even went so far as to gratuitously remove a remark made by Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam in Parliament on 18 Aug 2009 over Chip Goodyear’s surprising departure from Temasek Holdings. Said the Finance Minister in Parliament,
“People do want to know, there is curiosity, it is a matter of public interest. That is not sufficient reason to disclose information. It is not sufficient that there be curiosity and interest that you want to disclose information.”
The remark by Minister Tharman, “it is a matter of public interest”, was casually removed from print in ST the following day, without an apology or reason. Oddly enough, in a separate feature on Temasek Holdings on 5 Sep 2009, the same quote was reproduced in full. If any Singaporean wonders why the country is ranked so lowly in media freedoms, this sordid episode could be a case in point.
Even without the apparent advantage afforded to the PAP by the ST, the PKMS episode offers instructive lessons that reveal how opposition misdemeanours continue to be communicated in the mainstream media, lessons that are not terribly new to seasoned observers of Singapore politics.
By any stretch of the imagination, angry opposition voices and any oppositional faux pas fall squarely into the trap presented by Singapore’s mainstream media landscape. Displays of anger, frustration, violence and unbending stubbornness represent a wonderful news peg for the mainstream media. And the public, informed through the mainstream media by large, form conclusions any reasonable Singaporean would, the inductive leap notwithstanding – that the opposition in Singapore are nothing but a bunch of bumbling, frustrated and unreasonable men and women. As the logic goes, such people would probably make for poor legislators, to say nothing of those who wield hammers and screwdrivers, as the PKMS recalcitrants did last week.
This strategy of playing up oppositional shortcomings is at times, apparently self-inflicted too. Every once so often and especially online, the Worker’s Party is castigated on grounds that the party is not fighting hard enough for Singaporeans. Instead of working through channels like Parliament and door-to-door house visits to get its message out, a deliberately more cantankerous approach is urged for, akin to that of the Singapore Democratic Party’s (SDP), as the way forward for the opposition in Singapore. Without prejudicing either party’s approach, seasoned opposition politicians and their supporters are probably aware of the ease at which seeds of discord can be sown byagent provocateurs to divide the opposition.
As long as the government retains a veto over the mainstream media on political issues, PAP boo-boos will remain the domain of the grapevine or the online media, both of which pale against the overwhelming circulation of the government-managed print and broadcast media. While the quality of debate and discussion on political issues online has risen by leaps and bounds, its overall reach remains limited, especially to the non-English speaking electorate.
This media Catch-22 represents a quandary the opposition in Singapore can do nothing about, with public perception on Singapore politics in future likely to be carefully stage-managed by the mainstream media for requisite ends, as it has been for decades now.
In light of the PKMS debacle and as Singapore society matures with more voters coming around to the mainstream media’s political favouritism, opposition parties ought to simultaneously raise the bar on the discipline and conduct of its members, especially its key appointment holders. In light of the mainstream media’s dominance, a honourable silence or a respectful riposte, particularly in the face of provocation, stands out as more politically advantageous than a callous and instinctive shot from the hip. A strategy of professionalism, playing by the rules and retaining a sense of measure over criticism against government policies through policy alternatives, could serve to neutralise the advantage of the mainstream media that continues to spin local politics against the opposition at the slightest opportunity.
While no self-respecting opposition should keep silent in the face of a Mas Selamat incident or the perception of a lack of transparency and accountability in government, the uniquely Singaporean context indicates that a non-patronising, sincere and determined opposition voice that speaks for Singaporeans is more likely to succeed in winning public confidence than one that ignores the perception-altering long arm of the mainstream media.
With the shadow of an opportunistic mainstream media cast over everything the opposition says and does, displays of anger and differences of opinion within and between opposition parties, figures and supporters are best left out of the public eye. There is no denying that Singaporeans today are more educated, more politically mature and not afraid to question PAP leaders over even the most minor of policy matters. Lest opposition leaders and supporters rub their hands in delight at this burden of leadership, reality cuts both ways - the public expectation on the conduct of the opposition in between elections, is likely to rise in tandem.
Read also: Pritam's earlier article for TOC: Foreign talent policy remains contentious, and for good reasons.