Tharman Shanmugaratnam

Tharman on state media, gutter politics

by Kenneth Lin

I asked Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister, a question during NTU’s Majulah Lecture 2017. I felt it was worth drawing attention to because of some facts many people still aren’t aware of when the government continues to wax lyrical about promoting innovation and creativity in Singapore.

Me: Speaking of education, I agree completely with you, minister, that there needs to be more individualism, more thinking differently.

Mr Tharman: Individuality, not individualism.

Me: Individuality, that’s right. Having said that, don’t you think it’s also important to open up the media landscape to have the mainstream media not controlled by the government? As some of you may know, Singapore is ranked a 151st out of a 180 countries by Reporters Without Borders. And you’ve also said there is a need to return to honest politics, and have indicated that you believe political campaigns should be a healthy debate on ideas, not one muddied with mudslinging and personal attacks. Why then has the leaders of the PAP made gutter politics and character assassination central to their campaigns in recent elections, such as the Bukit Batok By-Elections last year? Is that something you personally approve of and would like to see continue in Singapore, or is that simply out of your control?

Mr Tharman:

Thanks for your willingness to ask the question. Let me put it this way. I’ll answer this in two levels. First, as someone who’s lived through some of Singapore’s history – I grew up in the 60s, I was politically very conscious and aware, and in the 70s, I was active in my own way, and I joined the ruling party in 2001 – I would say Singapore has really changed. I don’t want to minimise anything you might talk about today, but it is a vastly more open and liberal place compared to what it used to be,believe me. I was an activist. Vastly more liberal and vastly more open. And the sense of fear, the sense of constraints is far less now.

Yes, you get pushbacks. Sometimes you may not like it. And I don’t agree with every tactic of every one of my colleagues. But I have to say, that there’s something that defines the PAP. It’s the insistence on character, honesty, and being true to Singaporeans. Now I’m not saying this to besmirch anyone, but that trait of the PAP shows up almost all the time. And sometimes the PAP falls short, and action is to be taken on individuals.

So just bear in mind that that was one of the colours of the PAP, that emphasis on character, and it shows up in a variety of ways. But it is a vastly more open society than it used to be. Vastly more open politically, and people don’t have to be frightened. I don’t agree with every tactic but every political party and political campaigns have a range of tactics. I also have great faith in Singaporeans, which is my second point. Singaporeans judge. Singaporeans judge in Bukit Batok, Singaporeans judge in each general elections and they’ll judge the PAP in the next elections. I don’t think Singaporeans are fools. I don’t think they are fools at all.

And even when they read what we call the mainstream media, they don’t read it lightly. They know some things are more likely to come up on page 4 than on page 1. The headlines might be a slightly different size, but Singaporeans aren’t fools. And Singaporeans have the social media as well. People talk more openly, they exchange views more openly and they make judgement. And that, at the end of the day, is the test of how we’re progressing.


Mr Tharman talked very nicely about Singaporeans not being fools, who were able to discern for themselves what is true and false, despite his admission that the media in Singapore is controlled. If one contemplates just for a moment the notion that the control of the media has no bearing on the mindset of the populace, you’ll conclude that nothing could be further from the truth.

In fact, regimes around the world and throughout history used the media as a way to control and indoctrinate its people. Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Minister for Propaganda, once said, “A lie told once remains a lie but a lie told a thousand times becomes the truth.” Even in the US, we have authoritarian tendencies from Trump’s administration that follows this playbook exactly. The government knows this, and is using it to its advantage every step of the way. So, Mr Tharman’s response was a little disingenuous if you asked me.

I’m glad to hear that Mr Tharman has, for the first time, disavowed the gutter politics and mudslinging utilised by his colleagues during election campaigns. Before the Bukit Batok By-Elections of last year went into full swing, Dr Paul Tambyah of the Singapore Democratic Party got a promise from Mr Tharman that there would only be a healthy debate on ideas on how to bring Singapore forward, not dirty politics as the PAP has so often resorted to in the past.

One such example was how Charles Chong, the PAP candidate for Punggol East, made a still unsubstantiated claim about the Workers’ Party losing a $1 million surplus when they took over Punggol East. The accusation, and the media coverage, eventually led the PAP to win back Punggol East in 2015 with 51% of the votes, a slim margin.

However, all that talk meant nothing for the numerous ministers (as well as our current President, then Speaker of Parliament) who launched many attacks below the belt against Dr Chee of the SDP. It was heartening, therefore, to at least hear that Mr Tharman wasn’t lying and truly did not approve of it, and one can only wonder how much better the PAP would conduct itself if he was prime minister. If only, if not for his race.