CNA’s Political Forum – old monkey, new tricks?

by Howard Lee/

I was away when Channel NewsAsia ran the live telecast of the Political Forum on Singapore’s Future last Saturday, but thanks to new media, I was able to view it online.

But much as I would like to applaud it as a step forward in mediated engagement on politics, I can only attest that the programme was a total let down. If it ever really attempted to reach out to the thinking public of the post-75 generation, as P N Balji has derived in TODAY to be one of its key objectives, the programme basically lacks the essential qualities that would allow it to connect with this group.

Why? Because the thinking public, post-75 or otherwise, does not only think. The thinking public is not just a spectator, even if it exercises that as a choice at times, but also a participant. CNA’s Political Forum was pretty much a spectacle, plus a few old-fashioned dogmas thrown in for good measure.

All the more poignant and irritating, given the increasingly preference for interactivity and open participation that typifies a new generation of voters. And participate not merely by responding, but directing the conversation itself.

Here are the reasons for what went wrong exactly…

Not enough time, for all that I want (to hear) from you – Host Melissa Hyak was right on the money as task master and timekeeper. But if the idea of the quick-touch debated was based on the common perception of the quick thrust-and-parry that happens online, it is a misguided view indeed. Sure, make your point quick, Mr/Ms Politician, but I need the depth to go with it. The thinking public will not be satisfied with the icing on the cake and cursory statistics, but a genuine examination of the issues.

A war of words, written along party lines – The order of the programme was basically the stating of the current position by the ruling party, followed by the non-ruling parties stating theirs and challenging the ruling party, and then returned to the ruling party to close the debate and restate its position. The attempt was to introduce a heated argument before establishing order. It would have been more meaningful to question if such an order is justifiable to begin with. But this is typical television, played out with the dramatic highs and lows of a soap opera, with very little progress of the issues. We are left with an uneasy feeling that a lot of air has been exchanged, but nothing has really changed.

Whose line is it anyway? – At no time during the programme was the thinking public consulted for its views. The presumed views of voters-to-be were based on a survey conducted by MediaCorp, asking them about the issues they would consider important in the coming general elections. The survey was cast as the defacto position of the public. Are there more issues? If they are not of popular preference, are they still of relevance in the larger scheme of things? What was the context of MediaCorp’s survey that gives makes it representative of voter sentiment? We may never know, and watching this programme would not have enlightened us much further.

Nevertheless, there were significant points of the programme where there arose opportunities for the debate to take on another meaningful course and for new grounds to be explored – the isolated incident when Vincent Wijeysingha challenged Tharman Shanmugaratnam to the ground perspective that mismatched the rosy picture painted by the Minister for Finance, and Gerald Giam’s repeated insistence that voters are seeking an alternative voice in Parliament. These could have been explored further, but it was already apparent that it was not CNA’s perogative to do so.

Instead, it was clear that CNA’s Political Forum really has two key objectives:

1) As a follow-up to the election survey conducted by MediaCorp. Even more important but less apparent, the programme attempted to cement this position of authoritative knowledge by drawing in election candidates to debate on the results of the survey.

2) As a return of the position of better knowledge to the authoritative voice – in this case, those of the ruling party. It is no different from those done at the last election with (or should I say for) Lee Kuan Yew and Lee Hsien Loong. In fact, this round is even less inclusive, as it mainly relegates the voice of the people to the background.

In short, the Political Forum was a classic example – used since the dawn of politicised television – of an attempt to set the public agenda. It is still a far cry from the increasingly inclusive engagement that Balji painted it to be.

Once again, viewers who are looking for a political debate that is more in line with post-75 social environment will find this attempt by traditional media to be sorely lacking. If anything, the programme represented just how much more traditional media needs to do to catch up with the spirit and interest of a generation that is seeking less for an affirmation of the status quo, but a healthy and open discussion of the true issues, as they are defined and shaped by the people – in other words, true user generated content.

Can it be done by traditional media? Yes, but the mindset shift needed to accomplish this will be a far cry from this latest age-old attempt, requiring traditional media to venture into the unknown and by far an untested scope of engagement. CNA has barely begun to realise what public engagement means, but all it really takes is to see how this is done in open online discussions. Only then will it be able to truly connect with today’s thinking public, and hopefully contribute more to the current political discussion.


The writer is an exactly-75er, a sucker for UGC, and still a highly critical media student. The views expressed are his personal observations.