Citizen tail wagging TV dog

If you’re interested in hearing political party representatives explain their party positions, stay home and tune in to Channel NewsAsia (CNA) at 10 p.m. tomorrow, Saturday 2 April 2011. This will be the second time that CNA has party representatives in a forum after the Talking Point program aired on 27 February 2011. This Saturday’s Political Forum on Singapore’s Future, pre-recorded last Tuesday (29 March), will be one hour in length compared to the 30 minutes of Talking Point. CNA has also said that it will be unedited.

There will be at least one more forum on CNA after this, but in Mandarin. Whether that will be the last, or whether there will be more to follow seems to be anyone’s guess. The way this Saturday’s one came into being gives an impression of things being organised ad hoc. It does not look as if there is any masterplan to roll out a series of forums; you could quite justifiably believe that one pops up whenever somebody high up farts.

First, a recapitulation of the events leading up to this weekend’s forum:

For the Talking Point session, CNA invited  two representatives from the People’s Action Party (PAP) and one each from the Workers’ Party (WP), the Reform Party (RP) and the National Solidarity Party (NSP). The PAP sent Michael Palmer and Indranee Rajah, WP sent Eric Tan, while Kenneth Jeyaretnam and Goh Meng Seng put in an appearance for RP and NSP respectively. Youtube videos of this event can be found inside this article.

The Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) was upset that CNA displayed bias by not inviting them. See this article on the SDP’s website entitled: Why is SDP excluded from CNA programme again? The party wrote a letter to CNA, for which they received a mumbo-jumbo of a reply. What is interesting is that CNA’s reply did not mention that there would be another forum to which the SDP would be invited.  If it did, it would go a long way to addressing the SDPs’ complaint. This silence therefore indicates that as of early March, there was no plan to hold the follow-up event.

A few weeks later, on or around 21 or 22 March, email and snail-mail invitations were received by WP and SDP for a second one — the Political Forum on Singapore’s Future. At this point, people would naturally have a burning question: If the SDP had not scolded CNA for excluding them from Talking Point, would CNA have excluded them again for this upcoming forum? Alas, I don’t have the answer and I doubt if CNA would want to reveal their internal thought processes.

Besides WP and SDP, the Singapore Democratic Alliance (SDA) and Singapore People’s Party (SPP) were also invited. However, CNA would not tell the parties who the other party representatives would be, nor did it indicate that there would be two representatives from the PAP again (though it wasn’t hard to anticipate that). [Update: See a blogpost by Vincent Wijeysingha on this issue here.]

The broadcaster also insisted that whoever a party sends, he or she must be a member of the central executive committee and an office bearer and eligible to run as a candidate. It would later turn out that Josephine Teo (PAP) did not meet these conditions, according to SDP’s website. Why this exception was made remains unexplained.

Glued together

It seems to me, as I said above, that each program is decided upon at a fairly late stage, and there is no overall plan. Given the political reality in Singapore, the decision whether to hold such a televised forum is not really for CNA to make. Yes, somebody in the media organisation can conceive of such things, but the green light is only possible if the PAP agrees to participate. That in turn means either the format has to be gingerly planned by the CNA producer acting with ultra-sensitivity to the PAP’s concerns and/or modified to suit the ruling party’s demands. More importantly, the PAP may wish to proceed one or two forums at a time, each time doing a post-mortem, and only when they decide they can risk another forum is the green light given for a future one.

You can bet that if any opposition party representative scores a debating point that puts the PAP on the backfoot, you can kiss all future televised forums goodbye.

Speaking of format, Today newspaper reported (Televised forum between PAP and Opposition to be aired unedited, 30 March 2011) that “Half the time of the forum was allotted to the Opposition and half to the ruling party”, though the last 15 minutes, as I understand it, was more free-flowing.

I also learnt during fact-checking for this story that CNA outlined four topics to be covered. However, for the Mandarin forum coming up, no topics have (yet) been specified. Once more, there is a sense that CNA is gluing the parts together on the fly.

Arbitrary invitations

As was the case with Talking Point, CNA is selectively picking which parties should be on air and which ones not — an unsatisfactory arrangement. For this Saturday’s forum, the parties you will see are the PAP, WP, SDP, SDA and SPP. You won’t see NSP, SDA, RP or the new Socialist Front. For the Chinese-language forum coming up, WP is definitely invited as is NSP, but not SDP. I believe RP will also be in.

On the one hand, it is surely unwieldy to have nine parties at the same time, but it is important to ensure that overall, all parties get equal air time — perhaps with the exception of the PAP (discussed below).  Moreover, as I suggested in an earlier article, having a series of forums focussed on a range of topics would serve voters better. It is not realistic to expect voters to get a good grasp of parties’ positions when all they have are just a few short minutes each.

The least bad solution would be to have the same topic for two forums, where each forum includes the PAP and four opposition parties (giving all eight opposition parties a chance); then move on to the next topic with two forums again. Also, the disproportionate representation and time allotment for the PAP should be scaled back, though since the opposition parties are more likely to attack the PAP’s record than each other’s proposals, it may be not entirely wrong to give PAP more time than other parties so it can reply adequately, but to give one party the same amount of time as all the other parties combined seems excessively deferential to me.

Not done before

Step back and the interesting thing to note is that this is the first time CNA is even doing anything like this before a general election, for as long as most people can remember, which also explains the trial-and-error approach. Why are they doing it at all? Why not do as they did in previous elections — that is, do nothing.

Without an inside source, I can’t say I know the reason. But perhaps these preceding events are pertinent:

1. The government itself had said in 2010 that PAP candidates and members of parliament needed to be kept on their toes; and later, in moving the amendments to the constitution and the Parliamentary Elections Act to increase the number of non-constituency members of parliament, declared that they were doing so because “there is a legitimate desire amongst Singaporeans to have more diverse views, including Opposition views, articulated in Parliament.”(Law minister K Shanmugam, in Parliament, 27 April 2010). A clear blessing had been given for more space for non-PAP voices, and the broadcaster could take it to mean they have more leeway this year than in previous years.

2. The Online Citizen organised a political parties forum in December last year. While the PAP was invited, they did not reply and so were not represented at the forum. There is a real risk that other citizen groups may organise more of them and if the PAP feels it is beneath its dignity to participate, then the ruling party only hurts itself. Someone somewhere might have seen that it was important for a government-controlled body like CNA to seize back the initiative.

3. The National University of Singapore organised a forum in which the PAP was allowed exactly the same representation and time as other parties. The PAP might not have been happy with loss of control over format. I suspect this because I’ve also heard that the Singapore Management University (SMU) wanted to organise a similar forum too, but it was stopped from doing so (Note: other than hearing the same thing from three sources, I don’t have verification for this report about the SMU’s attempt).

The overall picture is one of citizens becoming more active. What’s the PAP to do? Not show up at forums? Let relatively independent bodies dictate terms? The least bad solution may be to humble itself to debating others, but do so only when it is the government-controlled broadcaster that is in charge.

10 Responses to “Citizen tail wagging TV dog”

  1. 1 hahaha 1 April 2011 at 12:05

    So, what’s new? Josephine Teo is not a member of CEC, so shifting goalposts are norm in CNA too, not unlike their Masters, Mediacorp, and ultimately, PAP.

  2. 2 Vernon Voon 1 April 2011 at 12:29


    I agree with you illuminating analysis. I have not really thought of the reasoning process behind allow this political forum, but the reasons elucidated are entirely plausible ones.

    Actually, what I would prefer is for the forum to evolve into more the UK style political debates where parties stand behind podia and engage in a free for all debate for 30 minutes. This should be aired maybe 4 times, once a week in the 4 weeks leading up to nomination day.

    I also disagree that PAP is allowed to send 2 MPs to the forum. Why? Because they have 82 out of 84 seats in Parliament? For the forum, all parties should be treated equally and therefore, apart from maybe giving PAP slightly more time on a proportionate basis (say 1/3 of the tota alloted time) to reply to opposition comments, each party should only be allowed to send 1 representative to the forum.

    They should also be made to sit together, or even divided on both sides of the moderator, to show a semblance of impartiality by the broadcaster to all parties and to show that all parties at election time are set as equals running for seats in the new parliamentary session.

    All I can say is that this political forum is the step in the right direction and may CNA continue to give the opposition more breathing space in the old media by holding more forums and evolving them into debates and with even more time alloted to the opposition.

  3. 3 prettyplace 1 April 2011 at 13:23

    They get to know the numbers watching as well.
    Its a sort of good gauge, even though the time slots slightly bad, at 10pm.

  4. 4 chazza boags 1 April 2011 at 16:10

    excellent timely article.

    the one point you forgot to mention is how different parties were “tactically” chosen for the English and Mandarin forum. i don’t know how significant it is when the RP is slotted into the Mandarin gig and the SDA and SPP go into the English one. although the SDP gets the English gig and NSP the Mandarin one, which plays to the strengths of these parties although SDP kenna “cheated” by the bluff or inconsistent “conditions”. maybe i’m letting my imagination go wild….

    and who on earth is josephine teo????

  5. 5 anon 1 April 2011 at 18:04

    IMO, RP is slotted in the Mandarin version because of three reasons:

    1. Kenneth J is virtually on par with Tharman – there had met before at Cambridge. Tharman obviously feels DIADVANTAGED by Kenneth familiarity with him.

    2. Apart from Dr Chee, Kenneth would also be too much of a handful for the pap to competently handle. He would be at least an equal match to Tharman in the area of economics. Kenneth had a double first from Cambridge. So basically, Tharman probably feels less than adequate or unprepared to face Kenneth. No, it won’t do if the minister in charge of the finance of Singapore is out-talked by a rank outsider like an opposition candidate! The govt has too many weaknesses to defend and hide.

    3. Third point, perhaps the most crafty of pap machination in this ocurrence. By slotting RP in a Mandarin, the pap is determined to deprive Kenneth, just as it has done to Dr Chee, the opportunity to impress Singaporeans. It’s a dirty political stroke to neutralise him, as well. One hopes, that the RP would have a representative that is up to the challenge posed by this dirty play by the pap.

    Man to man, the pap is truly short in the dept of manhood! That bolt of lightning in the party’s symbol is in reality a SNAKE.

  6. 6 SV 1 April 2011 at 20:41

    It’s useful to think about why these debates are taking place now, and you’ve put forward some very credible possibilities. The most important thing, in my opinion, is that SOME debate is taking place, and one can only hope that the public is not too easily satisfied with entry level political discussions.

  7. 7 John Tan 1 April 2011 at 22:22

    It was explained on SDP’s website that RP and NSP got invited to the Chinese forum because they already had the chance of being represented in Talking Point.

  8. 8 SWK 2 April 2011 at 09:45

    You were right, YB. The CNA pre-election forum is a PAP initiative:

    “The question, Mr Goh [Chok Tong] said, is how to get Singaporeans to do more for themselves and engage them in constructive discussions.

    The Government has set up forums to do so, he said. Mr Goh cited how Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong initiated a pre-General Election television forum on Channel NewsAsia.”

    Link to source

    • 9 Soojenn 3 April 2011 at 03:33

      Engage them in more constructive discussions? Really… looks like GCT is more interested to delete unfavorable comments on his fb page, to appear to be well liked?

      This guy has absolutely no clue… engage Singaporeans.. more like using the MSM to brainwash the Singaporeans, which they have been doing for the past half a century, which is now flaking off with the information easily avilable online, and just look how pathetic they are in dealing with their public profiles online… deleting unfavorable postings and then blocked further comments from these posters.

  9. 10 Fullofnonsence 2 April 2011 at 10:31

    The point of putting Josephine Teo there could be either she could be promoted to be minister or PAP lacks good talkers that can think on their feet

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