(Images from Jael Koh)

How a politician responds to questions says a lot about what they really think about freedom of speech

During the Q&A session at the United Nations Association of Singapore Model UN (UNASMUN 2018) on 18th December, Speaker of Parliament Mr Tan Chuan-Jin was asked by a member of the audience, Jael Koh, whether there was systemic discrimination against Singaporean Malays.

Mr Tan diverted by asking the audience member, whether he had any experience as a volunteer. Mr Tan, according to Jael’s recollection, proceeded to obfuscate and avoided answering the question. Mr Tan’s response became a matter of debate online when a netizen on r/Singapore who witnessed the entire exchange questioned Mr Tan’s deflection of the question posed to him.

The original posted on reddit said:

“…while I do agree that it is fair to point out the hypocrisy in students, I feel like it’s also just a way for them to effectively demean their arguments and make it not seem legitimate. At the same time, while I sometimes feel that whenever students ask these questions pointing out problems without really caring about these issues and only wanting to attack the government, it doesn’t mean that their arguments don’t have any value and if they had more research, they could better defend themselves from these aggressive tactics.” – FeelinSpiffyPunk

Others agreed, pointing out the disconnect between Mr Tan’s answer to the question asked:

“Honestly, TCJ completely missed the mark with his “comeback”. I don’t see the relevance between you helping your community, and the systematic disadvantages that certain ethnic groups face in our society.” – aloy99

And noted that politicians avoiding a question and turning the heat towards the person who asked the question doesn’t foster a healthy political climate:

“I think we need to give young people a break. Especially someone who actually dared to speak up to a politician in person. Beating them down when they ask a question, even if it’s somewhat accusatory, doesn’t foster a healthy political climate [in my opinion].” – stonehallow

So we caught up with Jael to discuss his thoughts on the exchange:

Firstly, what was your rationale for asking that question?

As a neighbourhood school student, I’ve always been insecure about my academic performance. I’ve noticed that division between that streaming (NT/NA/Express) and subject banding has usually led to ethnic divisions. Within my school, Malays by and large performed poorest in most examinations and there was a stereotype of the “Lazy Malays” that was often thrown around as a demeaning joke.

I first thought nothing of it but over the holidays began reading up research papers and statistics regarding this social issue. When I asked Mr Tan this question, I made sure to cite statistics like how from 1966 to 2005, there have only been 14 non-Chinese president’ scholars, or how Malays have consistently ranked the lowest out of all races in the percentage of 5 O level passes, and the fact that we have not had a Malay president in five terms, and even then that it was a walkover (no contest). So I asked him: “Mr Tan Chuan Jin, Do you not believe that there is discrimination of some sort within the Singapore system that adversely hurts the Malay population?”

What do you think about Mr Tan’s response to your question?

At first, I was surprised that he asked for my credentials. I thought my research was sufficient and did not see how my volunteer experience mattered. However, I didn’t take offence as I believed he was just trying to get more information.

I do regret how he answered the question though. In my opinion, he obfuscated and didn’t land on a single stance. I did not hear a yes or no to my question and believe that an opportunity to discuss an important matter was wasted.

And why do you think Mr Tan was quick to be dismissive instead of attentive?

I think that as a politician, Mr Tan risked some damaging his reputation if he gave a well-thought-out, honest but controversial answer. I think it’s sad that this kind of action goes unnoticed because in the end, it’s the discriminated population that suffers in silence.

How do you think Mr Tan should have responded? Or rather, how would you have liked him to respond?

I would have loved to hear Mr Tan’s honest opinion. I understand that this issue is touchy and almost taboo. However, without discussing this issue openly, we only let racism and discrimination go on.

With regard to the reddit post, I find it disheartening that students like me who ask difficult questions are disregarded and “roasted”. I don’t mind being the butt end of a joke but treating a social issue lightly helps no one except for politicians unwilling to do social good.

What do you think Mr Tan’s ‘dismissive’ response says about how government officials view their constituents?

I think the government has too much say in deciding what issues are important to discuss and what isn’t. Despite our calls for reform on important social issues such as LGBT rights, freedom of speech and better opposition representation, too little has been done.

There is no doubt that Singapore has had a tremendous improvement for the past 50 years. To quote Mr Tan: “We used to live in Mudflats but now live in a Metropolis.” However, I believe the government has become complacent – we are too slow to tackle social issues, have too little innovation and too much competition.

How do you think this interaction between a citizen, specifically a student, and a politician affects the country’s freedom of speech?

I really hope this issue could allow for better discussion of taboo issues. I understand that not everyone feels that Malays are being discriminated against- and they may very well be right.

However, we can only improve if we discuss this issues openly and vocally. Without proper discussion, only hate and resentment will breed within our heads. It will be harder and harder for our society to progress.