Despite several cringe-worthy moments, the televised debate between political parties should prove quite enlightening about where each party stands, and the quality of gray-matter each commands. It was aired over Channel NewsAsia on 2 April 2011.
Thanks also to 154thmedia (I don’t know who he is) who uploaded the videos onto Youtube, which I have embedded below.
This forum included only five parties: The People’s Action Party (PAP), the Singapore Democratic Alliance (SDA), the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), the Singapore People’s Party (SPP) and the Workers’ Party (WP). A Chinese-language forum is scheduled for 3 April 2011, involving the PAP, WP, and a different set of other parties, but don’t expect a review from me. My Chinese is not good enough to catch all that’s said. [Update: New Asia Republic has videos and English translations. For hyperlinks, see comment below — 4 April 14:12h]
With only sixty minutes for this program on 2 April, time was very tight. At many points, the party representatives could only sketch an argument in the briefest of ways, leaving it unsubstantiated. At other points, it wasn’t even clear what exactly their point was before they had to move on to another.
However, this may not matter all that much. What may matter more in terms of impact may be the subjective: whether the party representative came across as intelligent and quick, whether in his narration he (and the masculine pronoun in my writing always includes ‘she’ unless otherwise specified) conveyed a common touch, humility and compassion, and whether he seemed trustworthy and earnest.
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Part 1 video:
The ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) did a creditable, though predictable job of defending their policies and record. Tharman Shanmugaratnam proved himself in command of the necessary facts while Josephine Teo was calm but quick in responding to her opponents’ points. They had their hands full defending the PAP on issues like the cost of living and whether the Goods and Services Tax (GST) helped or hurt the low-income group, but on the whole I think Tharman parried the SDP’s attacks well.
The PAP duo had an easier time dealing with healthcare, partly because the opposition was quite unspecific, partly too because the opposition case is best made through heartstrings-tugging anecdotes and there simply wasn’t the luxury of time for that. There was a fantastic opportunity for the PAP to score a good point when Chiam blamed medical tourism for the shortage of hospital beds, but Tharman was very gentle to merely point out that hospital beds have an 85 percent utilisation rate. It’s not clear if he was referring to public hospitals or to all hospitals, but he could have gone for the jugular over Chiam’s point by making a distinction between medical tourism in private hospitals and a quite separate issue of public-sector healthcare, showing the SPP as a muddled-headed lot.
They needlessly stayed on the defence re foreign workers when they should have gone on the offence to demolish the opposition parties’ ideas as utopian and amateurish, and in the case of the Workers’ Party’s position, they could have called them out on being copycat.
Other than defending their record, the PAP’s chief sell was to raise the threat perception: Singapore faces grave security and economic challenges (“world outside Singapore is quite turbulent” and “quite frightening moments” — Josephine Teo), thus critical to bring good leaders into government. I don’t know whether they realise this is sounding very tired, crying wolf at every election.
Gerald Giam of the Workers’ Party (WP) largely stayed on script, using his opening minute very well to state in a nutshell the party’s key talking points: that “economic growth is meaningful only if the fruits of our growth are fairly distributed”, and that we ought to have a “needs-based social safety net”. Notably through the debate, he repeated several times the party’s chief message: that it’s not safe to leave the ship of state in the hands of an over-dominant party, thus there’s a great need for significant opposition presence in Parliament.
The rest of the time, he departed from this message on only two occasions: (1) to lay out the party’s idea that the sales prices of public housing should be pegged to the median incomes of eligible buyers, which I thought was a very interesting idea, and (2) to say something remarkably bland about immigration and raising productivity, barely distinguishable from present government policies.
He stayed so much on script that when the moderator Melissa Hyak told him he had unutilised time, Giam passed up on the extra one minute instead of using it to make one more argument.
I can understand if the WP has judged that what Singaporean voters want is a moderate and safe alternative to the PAP, but at the same time, messaging this can be tricky. There’s a danger that the party will come across as too close to the PAP’s positions on many policy issues, reducing WP’s campaign to something like a plea to please vote us in, never mind that we’re not much different from the PAP. I know for a fact that the party has thought long and hard about policies and does have different ideas, but they may not be getting the balance right in their communications. Voters may also want to see some fire in the belly.
In Vincent Wijeysingha for the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), they probably saw that — quick on the uptake, cutting in to respond, often with meaty counter-ideas. However, the fast game he played came at a price — he occasionally slipped up, once saying the opposite of what he meant (at 29th second of the video below), another time mis-hearing what Tharman said. Mentioning Mas Selamat was a mistake — it may be useful at rallies but sounded like a cheap shot on TV without a live audience to respond to it.
On the other hand, he was stunningly eloquent in the first 45 seconds of Part 2, suggesting that people’s lives cannot be treated as a simple statistical measure of median income:
Part 2 video:
Overall, he did a good job staking out SDP’s positions on several fronts: hammering home the point that the cost of living was “getting impossible”; that Goods and Services Tax should be zero-rated for essential goods, and gradated upwards to luxury goods; there should be a minimum wage and a hire-Singaporeans-first policy; that public services including public housing should operate on a non-profit basis. He also undercut the government’s mantra about raising productivity by saying they have tried and failed for 27 years. His anecdotes about taxi-drivers, coffee-shop workers kept it real, but suffered from the fact that anecdotes often need more time for telling.
Time was also in the way when Tharman left a wide-open goal for SDP to score, but didn’t. After explaining that the “bulk of the GST collected” (Tharman did not define “bulk”) came from the top 40 percent of the population and foreigners, and that the lower-income earners received from the government far more than they pay in GST, Tharman asserted that Singapore had “one of the most progressive tax systems in the world, certainly amongst developed countries” (Part 2 video above, 02:30 sec) . This is almost laughable — I mean, just look at our top tier personal income tax rate, for example, or the absence of capital gains tax — and invites a robust rebuttal.
Part 3 video:
Nazem Suki, representing the Singapore Democratic Alliance (SDA) seemed to struggle, resulting in a few cringe-worthy moments. It’s strange why SDA did not choose someone more comfortable with the English language to represent them.
Nazem managed to touch on aging population and the need to put more resources into healthcare, argued against putting public services “on a commercial platform” and echoed complaints that there were too many foreigners in Singapore. His best point might have been that of long queues for rental flats. Why, he asked, were the lower-end flats, after being refurbished, privatised? Yet, he also rambled a bit on making Singapore a hub for new technologies that would free us from fossil fuels. But other than saying that the SDA has plans to give voice to Singaporeans, there was a crying lack of specifics.
Lina Chiam’s performance proved an opinion I reached some time ago: The Singapore People’s Party is a purely municipal-interest party with no national agenda. In a forum such as this one, candidates had to zoom in on a few key issues for society as a whole and sketch their proposed solutions. She did manage to allude to various issues, but these came across as a scattershot wish-list of things large and small — wet markets, more schools, more symposiums in schools, life-long learning, less immigration, “level playing field”, more hospital beds, “taking care of the aged” and a “more conducive environment for Singaporeans to think” — untethered to any overarching vision for Singapore. No economic coherence or social guiding light could be discerned.
I guess her overall position was that “government should have a more listening ear”, but I’m not sure how many would see that kind of pleading as reason enough to vote for the party. Chiam also provided the biggest cringe moment when for some thirty seconds — and that’s almost an eternity on TV — her mind went blank and she was at a loss for words.
Part 4 video:
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I was happily surprised to see that time allocation was not as biased as I had first thought (based on what Today newspaper had reported) and that only in the first segment was the PAP given the same total time as all the other parties combined. In the other segments, it was more free-flowing.
Will Singaporeans see differences among parties as a result of this TV forum? I think they will, though I’d be loathe to suggest that others will arrive at the same assessment as I did. Which parties will they judge to be “credible” and worthy of their votes? Has SDP managed to repair its public image enough to make it electable? Has Lina Chiam destroyed her own chances in Potong Pasir where she has declared her candidacy?
This forum will have impact. Some parties will be proud of their performance; maybe some parties will regret not being better prepared.