by: Siew Kum Hong/

Viswa Sadasivan asked me if it was ok to start. It was 8.35pm, about 15 minutes ahead of the scheduled start-time for filming. The four Presidential candidates were seated, the crowd had introduced themselves, and Viswa the moderator was raring to go. All eyes turned to me.

I gave Viswa two thumbs up, and the cameras started rolling.

It was The Online Citizen’s Face to Face 2, a studio discussion with the four Presidential candidates. I was not part of TOC when it organised the first Face to Face with political parties. This time round, I helped out in the organisation – and am very glad to have been part of such a special event.

We made a special effort in selecting the audience. We wanted an audience that was consistent with TOC’s DNA, and so we had academics as well as activists like Alex Au and representatives from groups like AWARE, the Challenged People’s Alliance Network, Function 8, MARUAH and We Believe in Second Chances.

But we also wanted to make sure that the views of ordinary Singaporeans were reflected, and so we had a cross-section of Singaporeans including young adults, a retiree, a civil servant, a taxi driver, a journalist-turned-real estate agent, and a lecturer. I think we did well in terms of presenting a balanced, diverse and representative audience that also reflected TOC’s values.

The heated exchange between Mr Tan Jee Say and Dr Tony Tan has predictably grabbed headlines. The forum has also focused attention on the Internal Security Act, much in keeping with TOC’s DNA. But here are some other nuggets about the candidates that caught my attention.

I noted with interest Dr Tan Cheng Bock’s description of homosexuality as a “lifestyle choice”. I was surprised by his comment that women had to obtain their husbands’ “permission” to enter politics.

And I was taken aback by his firm “yes”, in response to Viswa’s question about whether he would resign as President if he had a strong disagreement with the Government. After all, Dr Tan Cheng Bock points to his criticisms of the Government when he was an MP as examples of his independence, and yet he did not resign then; were those disagreements not strong?

More importantly, if the people have elected you as their President, would you not be letting Singaporeans down if you resigned in the face of disagreement instead of sticking to your guns and pushing on?

As for Mr Tan Jee Say, I was struck by his passion and conviction. I particularly liked his clear and consistent positions on the death penaty and the ISA. But his outburst when interrupted by Dr Tony Tan concerns me. I want a passionate President who can inspire Singaporeans, but I also want a presidential President who can fulfil the ceremonial duties of the post.

Dr Tony Tan’s courage in agreeing to participate in the forum will be under-appreciated, but must nevertheless be acknowledged. It would not have been surprising if he had decliend our invitation; after all, the People’s Action Party did not turn up at TOC’s first Face to Face forum either. So kudos to Dr Tony Tan for wanting to engage with TOC’s audience in the first place.

I also consider myself fortunate to observe a touching moment shared by Dr Tony Tan and his wife, just before the second half of the forum began. He had just returned from the washroom, and she went up to him and put her arms around him and asked if he was all right; he answered yes.

These personal moments are an important reminder that the candidates are persons first and foremost. They have feelings and families too. Debates can and should be robust, questions can and should be tough and probing, but we can and should remain civil and respectful. And I think the Face to Face 2 forum checked all of those boxes.

But something about Dr Tony Tan’s statement that he could not discuss the 1987 ISA detentions nagged at me, and it only crystallised the morning after the forum. He cited the Official Secrets Act as the reason why he could not comment; but the OSA did not seem to prevent Dr Tony Tan from disclosing that he had disagreed with the graduate mothers scheme and that he had successfully persuaded his Cabinet colleagues to reverse the policy when he became Education Minister.

That being the case, surely Dr Tony Tan should be able to tell us whether he had disagreed with the 1987 detentions, and whether he had sought to persuade his Cabinet colleagues not to proceed with the detentions. The 1987 detentions were a Cabinet decision, just like the graduate mothers scheme; so if his personal disagreement with the decision on the graduate mothers scheme, as well as the fact that he had argued against it in Cabinet, can be shared today, then surely he could share the corresponding facts in relation to the 1987 detentions.

Finally, I was surprised when Mr Tan Kin Lian said that he was not familiar with Section 377A, and needed a brief explanation from Alex Au. Considering how it had hogged headlines leading up to the petition to Parliament and the subsequent Parliamentary debate in 2007, this is a huge surprise. Otherwise, he stayed very close to his campaign messages.

The test of a successful forum is whether it challenges one’s preconceived beliefs. I have no doubt that Face to Face 2 was definitely a success on that basis. Just speaking for myself, before the forum began, I was convinced that I could possibly vote only for one of two candidates. By the end of the forum, one of those names had been replaced by another.

Who knows? Maybe by 27 August, the names would have changed again. But one thing I know for sure: I am very proud to be part of The Online Citizen. Here’s to more such groundbreaking initiatives in future.

Kum Hong is a former Nominated Member of Parliament, and a member of the core team behind The Online Citizen.

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