The result was to be expected, although not completely. When the Media Development Authority begun investigating the “Pappy Washing Powder” produced by the Singapore Democratic Party, we would have expected them to label it illegal, and they evidently did.
What might surprise most, however, is that MDA did not demand for SDP to remove it. Instead, it took the approach of letting it be, “as it is the first incident concerning a party political film” and “parties may not have been fully aware of the requirements under the Films Act”.
Nevertheless, MDA’s position points to a clear stand – that further such transgressions will not be tolerated. For some reason, it became MDA’s mandate to ensure that “political debate in Singapore is conducted in a responsible and dignified manner, and not by using the film medium to sensationalise serious issues in a biased or emotional manner”. The term “illegal” is used synonymously with “wrong”, and it is clear that this “light touch” is dealt with some heavy discursive ideology (but perhaps more of that another day).
Of course, whether “Pappy Washing Powder” is sensational or not is entirely subjective. What it did give me was a rollicking good laugh, It was refreshing, it was funny, and it was a video that finally put lots of murmured sentiments and muted jokes about the ruling People’s Action Party into one place. I was clearly looking forward to a part two with military fatigues going into the wash coming out white. Not to be, I guess, unless SDP takes up MDA’s dare.
Raking in more than 29,000 views – the last 2,000 only since MDA passed its verdict – “Pappy White Power” might even be SDP’s most popular video to date, or at least for this election season. The party also put a call for donations to the video – a smart move since funds are definitely of great concern every general election – although it remains to be seen if many responded to the call to action.
The reaction online, however, was a lot less homogeneous. Others like me saw the comic qualities of the satire piece, and immediately took a liking to it. But there were also others who thought SDP was doing nothing more than the mud-slinging that many felt Teo Chee Hean participated in, when he said Workers’ party’s Low Thia Kiang was shedding “crocodile tears” for retiring Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew.
“The opposition can do better than this”, “does not encourage rational discussion, but plain irrational hate”, “pro-opposition bullshit” and “what is SDP offering for people to vote for them” were some of the comments that crept up on TOC’s Facebook page. Clearly, some would have found the video distasteful, even if they are professed opposition supporters.
Perhaps the most critical, and possibly the most accurate comment was this: “Because SDP can do so much better by at least highlighting its manifesto in a video. Spend more time talking about yourself and why you’re the better party than respond to the same level of gutter politics for the PAP.”
I’m not sure if such comments were raised in support of other opposition parties (a political observer had ever remarked to me that some opposition supporters think WP good, SDP not so good), without some oversight of what the SDP has proposed, or simply lashing out at what they perceive to be mud-slinging.
I give SDP due credit as one of the few parties that have come out with a near exhaustive list of policy proposals. Not all are completely watertight, but that is precisely where public debate comes in, and secretary-general Dr Chee Soon Juan had noted at more than one press conference launching such papers that the party welcomes comments and help to make them better. No doubt, SDP could have made better use of the video, such as inserting a few links on its plans to make the Singapore government more democratic, transparent and accountable. But a fault in marketing should not be taken as a fault in intent.
And SDP is not alone in calling for transparency and accountability in the PAP. Reform Party’s secretary-general Kenneth Jeyaretnam wrote many articles criticizing the PAP’s lack of transparency when it came to our sovereign wealth funds and financial governance, and persistently called for more accountability within the system.
This lack of knowledge about what the opposition parties have to offer could also be the result of what Dr Chee sees as one-sided reporting by mainstream media, where the policy proposals and alternatives prepared by opposition parties play second fiddle to soundbites of who will be contesting where in a political circus that does nothing to enhance democratic participation. Believe me, I sat through the press conference for SDP’s strategy launch and was aghast at how one-dimensionally the posse of reporters, all intelligent people, were engaging the speakers. Without a doubt, both the editorial direction of mainstream media and MDA’s further stifling of political discourse are to blame.
At the end of the day, perhaps the best thing to do is just enjoy this little bit of political satire – Singapore is definitely badly in need of some humour in our politics, anyway. Then let us get a bit more serious, think about what it is trying to say, before we put in the effort to find out what the speaker has to offer. If we do so, we will find that our political sphere will be a lot more interesting, a lot more engaged, and a lot more meaningful than just the satisfaction and sadness of casting a ballot every few years.
As it is, the level of engagement, discussion, debate and chastisement that SDP’s video has generated is a clear sign that we are generally heading in the right direction, and for that, I am greatly heartened. The onus now is on the opposition parties and media to leverage this new-found hunger for political and policy content, and explore the best way to get their message and their intent across.
We might disagree that the “Pappy White Powder” video best represent democracy, but it will be more significant if we can use it as a cue for democratic thinking. Because doing the laundry is a lot different from clearing our minds.