By Howard Lee

Something does not read quite right in the report by the Straits Times and the commentary by Yahoo! Singapore on the debate in Parliament between Vivian Balakrishnan and Sylvia Lim regarding the misunderstanding over the cleaning works to be done at hawker centres in Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council.

It starts with the headlines. “WP MPs ‘untruthful’, says Vivian Balakrishnan” shouts the Straits Times’ Elgin Toh, who then went on to report that “Dr Balakrishnan noted that their denials did not square with “incontrovertible” evidence in [a 22-page dossier he used to support his charge]. “These two public denials were therefore false and untruthful,” he told the House. Explaining why he would not let the matter rest, he framed the issue as one of integrity and clean politics, and not the cleanliness of hawker centres.”

Same with Yahoo!’s commentary – “PAP deals body blow to Workers’ Party”, exclaims Satish Cheney in the headlines, who then went on to verify that “The point is how ill-prepared the WP seemed to be on the topic of Tai Vie Shun, property manager of AHPETC, who allegedly asked hawkers for extra money for cleaning the high areas of the hawker centres… The WP seemed totally taken by surprise by that ‘Matlock’ moment when the minister distributed a dossier containing evidence contradicting Lim, who had said the manager of AHPETC had not asked hawkers for extra money to be paid to the town council for cleaning of the high-areas.”

WP took a beating in Parliament and are licking their wounds, Minister Vivian went home triumphant and basking in his cleverness. End of story, hawker are now satisfied that their case has been vindicated. Let’s break for kopi, maybe after the cleaning is done.

Really? Watching the half-hour exchange, I saw the Minister of Environment and Water Resources question the integrity of WP’s Members of Parliament, that they have not prevented the town council’s property manager from demanding non-standard additional charges from hawkers. WP categorically denied his claims, and called on Dr Vivian to explain the misunderstanding between annual cleaning and spring cleaning, which they claimed was the cause of the confusion.

These were two very clear positions, placed clearly at two ends of the spectrum. If anything can be said about this debate in Parliament, it might be our politicians’ adamant refusal to talk on the same wavelength.

Of course, both reports reflected the questions Ms Lim posed to Dr Vivian (annual vs spring cleaning), but these remarks were buried deep in the articles and did minimal part in highlighting the cause of the “lively debate”.

Indeed, the resulting impression that both reports gave – that WP was beaten, speechless, unprepared and retreated in haste – was far from complete. Essentially, WP stood their ground, rightly or wrongly, and sought clarification at least twice in Parliament from the Minister on the context of the dossier about the understanding by all parties on the scope of work required in cleaning the hawker centres. To which the Minister gave none, brushed it off as irrelevant and continued his charge.

Was there something amiss? Is there something important in having to ask the Minister twice to clarify a point, to which he flatly refused? Why did our traditional media not pick it up? I cannot be that WP MPs are worth less airtime than a full Minister – this is Parliament, and any question asked by an MP surely deserves an appropriate response.

The comment that “The WP seemed totally taken by surprise by that ‘Matlock’ moment when the minister distributed a dossier containing evidence contradicting Lim” was spurious. The Minister produced his “dossier of evidence” only two-thirds down the debate. If anyone was caught off-guard, it was the whole of Parliament. There were also many other barbs traded, why focus on this “Matlock moment”?

Also, none of the reports indicated the apparent telling point, when other MPs were able to reference highlighted components of the dossier. Why were specific instances of correspondences with AHPETC’s property manager highlighted before hand? Was Dr Vivian’s role in Parliament that day to clarify on the workings between town councils and the government on cleaning hawker centres, or to launch a substantiated attack on the integrity on AHPETC? If the Minister has indeed took pains to assure that he did not want to belabour Parliament on such nitty-gritty details, why then the interest to highlight these comments beforehand?

Was Parliament satisfied that the interest of the hawkers was served through this debate? The entire exchange seems to be more about politics than public service, which even the Minister did not deny – “he framed the issue as one of integrity and clean politics, and not the cleanliness of hawker centres”, reported the Straits Times. Would Parliament not be better satisfied to know that any misunderstanding has been cleared up, and cleaning works are under way, rather than hear MPs slug it out over a case of you-say-I-say-who-confirm? Why dredge it up again? Who dredged it up to begin with?

All these and more are far more pertinent in the debate, hidden in the details. Why did our media choose to pick on the Minister’s chastisement of WP, and ignore all these other issues? Is it because it makes for sensational news?

I have personally maintained that the entire hawker centre cleaning saga was a massive misunderstanding blown out of proportion, of which arose many heated accusations. Out of it also came questions on whether WP needs to be more diligent in reaching out to their constituents. (TOC’s report) But even so, it was totally unnecessary for this matter to be surfaced again in Parliament. It was also totally inexcusable for our media focus on the sensational muck-a-ruckus thrown up by the debate, forgetting some other core issues like the role of Parliament, and blindly stirring the fire under an issue that benefits no one, much less their readers.

Dr Yaacob Ibrahim, Minister for Communications and Information, indicated to the Singapore Press Club in 2012 that “The relevance and growth of the mainstream media will be determined by their credibility.  Competition from the various alternatives brings forth expectations of higher standards – that the traditional media will help audience separate the wheat from the chaff.” At this point in time, I’m still not very clear what is the wheat and the chaff in Tuesday’s Parliament debate.

Minister Yaacob also indicated in his Parliamentary speech on Monday, when defending the new regulations for online media, that there was a need to maintain content standards online. Tessa Wong from the Straits Times also reported that “Online sites have responsibility to give accurate info”. Perhaps the Media Development Authority should take a good look at these reports from Elgin Toh and Satish Cheney on the Vivian-Sylvia Parliamentary stand-off for “content standards”, if Dr Yaacob is to be taken seriously.

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