Twice within less than a week, Vivian Balakrishnan has resorted to slurs and innuendo to attack the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP). Last Wednesday, the Straits Times reported him saying,
I am not sure what (the Singapore Democratic Party’s) strategy is. I would like to know whether they have confirmed that they are contesting, I would like to know their line-up. I can’t help feeling that part of the reason for their reticence is they have elements of their agenda they are not prepared to disclose and subject to scrutiny. Eventually, they will have to come out of the closet.
— Vivian Balakrishnan, Straits Times, 20 Apr 2011
The expression “to come out of the closet” is normally used to mean being open about one’s homosexual orientation. It is not standard usage to apply the term to strategy, agenda or team line-ups. Balakrishnan must surely be familiar with the way the expression is used, and the above words can only be seen as an attack on the sexuality of one or more candidates of the SDP.
This is the kind of ad hominem attack that is gutter politics.
Pandering to prejudice segues very easily into championing sectarian interests. Playing up sexual orientation today gives the green light to playing up other personal markers tomorrow, and next thing we know, we’ll be talking about racial identity with slurs about half-breeds, religious affiliation with sneers about converts, marital status with snide remarks about divorce and single-parenthood.
If that’s the kind of political culture we want for Singapore, count me out.
This weekend, he was at it again. This time his remarks came after the SDP introduced, on Friday, two new candidates, Tan Jee Say and Ang Yong Guan. Balakrishnan, whose People’s Action Party (PAP) team he leads is likely to face these two in SDP’s team of candidates for the same Holland-Bukit Timah group representation constituency, must have felt rather threatened, for Tan is the seniormost establishment figure so far to step into opposition politics. He was once the Principal Private Secretary to then-Deputy Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong.
Balakrishnan must have picked up online chatter about the purported religious background of these two candidates, Tan and Ang. Words like “fundamentalists” were freely tossed up on Facebook and online forum Hardware Zone. To liberal Singaporeans, especially after the “Aware saga” when a group of church-affiliated women tried to take over a women’s organisation after accusing its executive committee of being too soft on homosexuality, the term “fundamentalist” (even just the term “Christian”) has acquired highly negative connotations of being anti-gay, anti-feminist and pro-discrimination.
As reported in Sunday’s newspaper,
Dr Vivian Balakrishnan yesterday described the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) team running against him as ‘strange bedfellows’ who do not have a shared vision or ideology.
In an interview with The Sunday Times, he said: ‘It has been brought to my attention – in fact it is the SDP which is suppressing a certain YouTube video, which raises some very awkward questions about the agenda and motivations of the SDP and its candidates.’
He declined to give more details about the clip.
‘I suspect Mr Tan had not done appropriate due diligence of his teammates and his party,’ he said.
— Sunday Times, 24 April 2011, ‘Strange bedfellows’ in SDP team
Balakrishnan must have relished the chance to launch a double innuendo, for in those remarks,
1. he once again suggested that the SDP was trying to hide something;
2. that something was contained in a video;
3. whatever it was, it would be something not aligned with some other SDP members’ views;
4. thus Tan Jee Say had been negligent, not doing due diligence before joining the party.
SDP hit back with an impromptu news conference Sunday morning,
Singapore Democratic Party candidate Vincent Wijeysingha on Sunday asked Minister Vivian Balakrishnan to state clearly what is the video that he has said will raise ‘some very awkward questions,’ and which the SDP is supposed to be ‘suppressing’.
— Straits Times GE 2011 website, 24 March 2011, Link.
I have my doubts if this is the wisest response. While it is despicable that Balakrishnan is employing slurs and innuendo, lobbing back a question at him is not going to get SDP very far. This is the internet age. The SDP is not only going to be facing questions by Balakrishnan, but will have to consider the tsunami of speculation that new media can generate.
In fact, the tsunami is already rolling in and if the SDP does not change course, I fear the worst.
* * * * *
I will not play this game, lobbing questions back and forth. I will speak plainly, describing what is already being said online.
First: the video. It is pretty obvious that what is being referred to is an amateur video recording of an event some time around August last year in which lawyer M Ravi spoke of Vincent Wijeysingha as potentially the “first gay MP in Singapore”. You can watch it here.
A few seconds later, we hear Vincent Wijeysingha (but can’t see him clearly) saying: “Can I answer that question? I don’t think it’s for Ravi by himself to rally the gay community. I think the gay community has to rally ourselves. . .”
The rallying being referred to refers to gathering support for M Ravi’s proposed constitutional challenge over Section 377A of the Penal Code, Singapore’s anti-gay law. The event had nothing to do with this election.
Secondly, Ang Yong Guan is listed as a speaker-elective at a Christian conference last year that appears closely related to City Harvest Church. On this and perhaps other bases, florid speculation bloomed over the internet about Ang — and by association, Tan — being a Christian fundamentalist, with all that the term connotes.
Between Wijeysingha’s sexuality and Ang’s religion, Balakrishnan must have found enough grist to mill out his “strange bedfellows” statement.
When I saw the speculation on Facebook. I tried to calm it down. This is what I wrote:
People, please stay sober. So Ang Yong Guan was listed as an elective speaker at a Church Growth Conference linked to City Harvest Church (http://www.asiaconference.org.sg/2010/speakers_electives.php). While we can conclude that he’s probably a member of the church, it’s a bit of a leap to say he’s a fundamentalist, firstly because while CHC is conservative in its outlook, it’s more prosperity gospel than fire-and-brimstone inerrant-bible fundamentalism. Furthermore, I’ve been told that a study currently in progress shows that CHC members are discernibly less obsessed about sexual orientation than mainline and hardcore churches. And surely among the huge numbers of CHC adherents, there must be variation in individuals’ attitudes. Until Ang himself has spoken on the matter, I’d say please be fair and do not pre-judge.
You may say that there is reason to be suspicious. OK, then call on him to declare his stand and expect him to do so and not fudge.
Secondly, just because Tan Jee Say is a close friend of Ang does not mean he too is a member of CHC, let alone a fundamentalist. Where is the evidence?
This morning, I received information that Tan is not even a member of City Harvest Church. I heard he’s a Methodist. I don’t know if what was told to me is correct, but it only goes to show how careful one needs to be with online chatter.
That said, let’s not kid ourselves. One puny statement by me on Facebook is not going to quell the speculation. But, by the same token, neither will silence on the part of the SDP. The tsunami will roll on, and in. See part 2.