Teo Chee Hean avoids TOC, Michael Palmer almost gets away

by Benjamin Cheah

Today is a day of firsts. First time I visited a People’s Action Party (PAP) rally as a reporter. First time I saw my current Member of Parliament (MP) and former MPs. First time I got to ask them questions.

First time I was evaded by a Cabinet minister.

Tonight’s rally was graced by Dr Ahmad bin Mohd Magad, Teo Chee Hean, and Michael Palmer. During the rally, Palmer said in his speech that the PAP would carry out upgrading projects in the area if he were elected. After the rally, he descended from the stage to greet his supporters, shaking their hands across a security barrier. My photographer, Kirsten Han, and I went to doorstop him.

Kirsten got to him first. She asked, “Mr Palmer, we would like to ask you a question.”

A PAP volunteer swooped in, tapping Palmer on the arm. She said something the lines of “It’s time to take photos”.

Palmer nodded, and turned away. He actually turned his entire upper body away from Kirsten. In body language theory, this means that he is actively trying to avoid her.

He didn’t go to take photos. Quite the contrary. He stuck around, shaking hands with a few more residents, and pointedly avoiding Kirsten.

I walked up to him and used my trump card.

“Mr Palmer, I live here and I have a question for you.”

I live here. Three magic words. He turned his entire body to face me and smiled.

He did not walk towards me, though. He did not extend his hand. He remained an arm’s length away from me.

“Hi, what’s your name?” he asked.

“Benjamin,” I said. “I’ve a question for you.”

He continued smiling, and nodded. I leaned forward, bracing against the barricade. My voice tends to be rather soft and high-pitched, and I wanted to make sure he could hear me.

“If the opposition were elected in Punggol East, would the PAP still carry out its upgrading plans?”

He replied, “The opposition would take charge of the Town Council.” The implication was that the opposition would implement their upgrading plans instead of the PAP’s.

I nodded, and said, “Thanks.”

Kirsten stepped in. “Will the government provide funds for upgrading?”

Palmer turned to face her, still smiling. “Funds for local upgrading projects will be controlled by the Town Council.”

The questions we asked weren’t particularly controversial. They were one of the many questions the opposition had asked of the PAP. The PAP had historically linked promises of upgrading projects to votes: return the PAP to Parliament, and your constituency will be showered with upgrades. Conversely, vote for the opposition, and the government will reprioritise funds to constituencies that have supported the party. The people of Potong Pasir and Hougang have always received the lowest priority for funding of upgrading projects because they have continued to return opposition members to Parliament. In addition, Palmer’s campaign seemed to run entirely on promises of upgrading projects if he were elected. This was a sticking point raised by every single opposition party in every single rally I have covered. A clarification, or at least a comment, on this issue would help voters decide whom to vote for.

Kirsten thanked him, and the PAP volunteer led him away. I wanted to confirm if this were the PAP’s official stance, so I approached Teo Chee Hean. He was shaking hands with other supporters, and posing for photographs. I approached him and said, “Mr Teo, I live here and I have a question for you.”

He nodded, keeping his smile intact. “What’s your name?”

“I’m Benjamin Cheah, and I’m from The Online Citizen.”

“Where do you live?”

I pointed in the appropriate direction. “Over there.”

“Where are you from?”

“The Online Citizen.”

“Thank you for identifying yourself.”

He turned around and walked away.

“Mr Teo!” I shouted.

He continued walking.

This is the first time I have seen Teo Chee Hean in the flesh. The same man who was the anchor minister in my GRC from 2006 to 2011. When the electoral boundaries were redrawn earlier this year, Punggol East was separated from Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC. The flat I had lived in for the past 5 years became part of Punggol East constituency. During Palmer’s speech, Palmer said that the Pasir Ris-Punggol Town Council had been running Punggol East, and that if the people of Pasir Ris-Punggol and Punggol East return the PAP to power, this arrangement will continue. This effectively makes Teo my current and possible future Member of Parliament.

If anybody had the right to ask him a question, that would be me. A former resident of the constituency he represented, and a current resident of a constituency he had helped to run.

First impressions count. This is the first time I have seen Michael Palmer since I moved here in 2006. It seemed to me that he was avoiding Kirsten. He did not avoid me – and earlier in the rally, guest speakers praised him for listening to the residents and working hard to solve their problems. I think he addressed my question simply to preserve his reputation.

First impressions matter. This is the first time I have met Teo Chee Hean since I moved here in 2006. He avoided me the moment I said I was from TOC. Never mind that I live in the area; the words ‘The Online Citizen’ seemed to repel him like shadow fleeing from light. And the words “Thank you for identifying yourself” have very sinister overtones.

Like, “Thank you for identifying yourself. It saves us the trouble of hunting you down ourselves.”

Like, “Thank you for identifying yourself. The police will come for you shortly.”

Like, “Thank you for identifying yourself. Our lawyers will send you a letter very soon.”

This is Singapore, after all. The Internal Security Act empowers the State to detain anybody with impunity. The ISA has been used to destroy the Barisan Socialis, the most powerful opposition party in Singapore’s history, and arrest 22 Catholic socialist workers for conducting a ‘Marxist conspiracy’. The People’s Action Party is also fond of suing people who have ‘defamed’ members of the government. Words like ‘Thank you for identifying yourself’, seen against this historical backdrop, looks like a thinly-veiled threat.

Earlier today, Mr Goh Chok Tong said, “When you go to TOC, just be careful that that site is an anti-establishment site.” TOC is not an anti-establishment site. TOC has never been anti-establishment. TOC has always been pro-Singapore. TOC’s mission has always been to tell the stories of ordinary Singaporeans. These stories – homelessness, abuse of foreign workers, poverty, censorship, human rights – have been entwined with government policies. The lives of ordinary people are inextricably linked to the policies of the government in power. If policies fail, people suffer. People are suffering, so something must have gone wrong. TOC strove to uncover what had gone wrong, and did. And that is why TOC seems critical of the government.

Teo and Palmer might be under instructions not to talk to TOC. Maybe the PAP thinks we will twist everything around to make the party look bad. But that is not TOC’s job. TOC’s job is to report on the elections. Candidates and parties will rise and fall in the eyes of our readers by their strengths and weaknesses. Our job is just to make sure our readers get the complete picture. Nothing more than that.

By evading my question, Teo has made a grave insult to TOC. He has insulted TOC’s professionalism. He has insulted TOC’s ability. He has insulted TOC’s integrity.

And he has insulted me. A resident of Punggol East, formerly Pasir Ris-Punggol East.

Teo Chee Hean is no mere Member of Parliament. He is both Minister for Defence and Deputy Prime Minister. He does not merely represent the people of his constituency. He represents the interests of all Singaporeans. As Minister for Defence, he prepares the armed forces for war and peace, and directs the military to aid friends and deter enemies. As Deputy Prime Minister, he is Singapore’s second-most powerful politician. Everything he does carries the weight of the nation and the power of the State. What he did could well be seen as the government’s official position on The Online Citizen, and citizen journalism.

Is he saying the government refuses to recognise TOC? Is he saying the government refuses to engage people who criticise them? Is he saying the government will continue to snub citizen journalists, bloggers, and activists? Is he saying the government will not listen to the people? That is how his action will be seen in the eyes of our readers.

A Member of Parliament is supposed to listen to the people. He is supposed to answer queries from the people on local and national issues. He is the conduit between the people and the State.

Palmer answered TOC’s questions, but only after he had established his reputation and only after I had identified myself as a resident. Teo didn’t even wait for me to ask. Palmer listened only to a resident. Teo failed to listen to me and failed to answer my queries on local and national issues.

They have failed their jobs.

I came to the rally as a reporter. I came to report everything that happened. I did not come to destroy the PAP’s reputation. I did not come to conceal the truth. I came to tell the truth.

And I left the rally a reporter.

I am a reporter, and this is the truth.

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