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.
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.
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.