If there is one lesson we can all learn from 2015, as far as political debate is concerned, it is that we need more engagement of the kind from Tharman Shanmugaratnam, and less (in fact, none) of that from Calvin Cheng.
To this writer, Mr Cheng – who is the executive director of lifestyle magazine, Juice, and a sitting member of the Media Literacy Council (MLC) – epitomises everything that is wrong and undesirable about how one should conduct oneself in debate.
The latest in a string of recent incidents involving the former Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) who, incidentally, did not serve his full term, was a posting he made calling for the children of terrorists to also be killed – “in case they grow up to take revenge”, he said.
There are many things wrong with such a suggestion, and indeed many castigated Mr Cheng for it. Even the chairman of the MLC, Professor Tan Cheng Han, described Mr Cheng’s suggestion as “insensitive and inappropriate”.
In his response, Mr Cheng lobbed accusations at The Online Citizen (TOC), which had reported his remarks. Mr Cheng attacked in particular its editors, claiming that the editors “would gang up with Western forces to do Singapore in.”
This writer, who is also an editor with TOC, then wrote to Mr Tan to complain about Mr Cheng’s allegation.
“It is a serious allegation made to mislead, misinform and tarnish the names of the editors of TOC. Indeed, the allegations borders on one of potential seditious and criminal behaviour on the part of the editors of TOC,” this writer wrote in his email.
Mr Tan, in turn, responded by dismissing Mr Cheng’s allegations against TOC.
“As far as I am concerned, while I do not always agree with the positions taken by the TOC editorial team or its contributors, I respect what TOC has done,” Mr Tan said. “In no way do I think that TOC has engaged in ‘traitorous’ acts.”
It is regrettable that a former participant of Parliament, who swore to uphold the highest of standards, found the need to resort to smears and defamatory remarks in order to win an argument.
Indeed, this is exactly what the government has spoken against, when engaging in debates which at times, and expectedly, would descend into heated exchanges.
In the latest update on the incident, a police report has been filed against Mr Cheng for his posting. (See here: “Police report filed over ex-NMP Calvin Cheng’s ‘killing children’ remarks”)
It is the mature ones who would exercise restraint in order for the debate to be meaningful and productive.
And this maturity is shown by Mr Tharman, deputy prime minister and coordinating minister for economic and social policies.
The DPM, who has until recently kept a rather lower profile than perhaps his colleagues in Cabinet, came to the fore during the general elections in September, and after.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that Mr Tharman’s election speeches, which were widely shared online, had contributed in no small measure to the eventual landslide victory of his party.
Mr Tharman’s clear and precise elucidation of policies and issues on the election stage was appreciated by many, judging by the reaction to the speeches online.
His delivery was calm, devoid of the emotional opera of those such as Mr Cheng, with its poisonous vitriol baked in ill-thought out rhetoric.
And even after the elections, Mr Tharman’s participation in various forums here and overseas, showed the measure of the man.
It has indeed been a long time since Singapore has seen someone who could transcend the political divide to unite a people behind the nation’s goal.
In whispered tones, some have also said he is more inspiring than the incumbent prime minister. Others quietly wish he would step into the lead role in government, even as Singapore awaits its next anointed prime minister.
How popular exactly is Mr Tharman?
Well, if you look at the election results, he even beats the Prime Minister who himself is rather popular.
Mr Tharman’s Jurong GRC team had better results – 79.28 per cent of the votes – than Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s team in Ang Mo Kio GRC which garnered 78.63 per cent.
But leaving that aside, the point I am trying to make is this – when you are in position of influence, especially when you have walked the hallowed grounds of the highest lawmaking institution in the land, it is beholden upon you to uphold that standard, and use your position to unite rather than tear apart those who may look up to you.
Mr Cheng’s antics, whether borne out of a true desire to want to preserve the status quo or whether they are the childish whinging of a bruised ego, serve no one any good – especially for one who is part of an organisation set up to promote the best in online and public engagement.
Mr Tharman, on the other hand, has displayed the opposite of what Mr Cheng has done – he has not name-called his critics, or launched baseless personal attacks against those he disagrees with; neither has he sought to score cheap political points like some of his own colleagues have done.
Singapore would be a much better place if we had leaders who would emulate Mr Tharman’s example, and engage sincerely, openly, calmly, and maturely in discussion, and in the process unite a nation which faces and will continue to face challenges, going forward.
So, for 2016, as far as government and public engagements go, it is hoped that we will see more bridges being built, rather than poison darts being thrown.
And for this, we hope to see more of the likes of Mr Tharman, and none that of Mr Cheng.